A war on history

by Benoît Bréville

Anyone who learned about the second world war through how it has been commemorated in 2023 would come away with some very strange ideas. On 27 January the director of the Auschwitz museum celebrated the anniversary of the camp’s liberation but didn’t invite any representatives of its liberators. Russia got a mention in the official speech, but only to compare the camp to the war in Ukraine: ‘Once again, innocent people are being killed en masse in Europe.’ On 25 April the Italian senate’s neofascist president, Ignazio La Russa, also celebrated his country’s liberation and condemned Moscow. Visiting Prague, he paid his respects at the Jan Palach Memorial (1) and then went on to a Nazi concentration camp. Philosopher and journalist Cinzia Sciuto commented, ‘A petty attempt to treat “all 20th-century totalitarianisms” alike; in the dark, all cows are black, so ultimately no cows are visible at all’ (2).

Who could possibly grasp, from these ceremonies, that the Wehrmacht suffered its most devastating defeat at Stalingrad? That 11 million Soviet soldiers fell in battle against Germany, not to mention the 15 million civilians who were also killed? Sixty years ago, US president John F Kennedy freely acknowledged that ‘no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union suffered in the course of the Second World War’ (3). No Western leader would dare say that today. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means any positive mention of the Soviet Union or Russia is now off-limits.

In the past year, a revisionist wave has swept Europe. In the East, hundreds of streets whose names had remained unchanged since the fall of the Berlin Wall are being renamed, statues toppled and buildings demolished. In addition to destroying an 80-metre column in Riga commemorating the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis, Latvia has identified 69 other similar monuments that it plans to demolish. Estonia’s list includes over 400 sites, while in Lithuania, the purge extends to works created by Lithuanian artists suspected of communist sympathies (4). The past is among the victims of the war in Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries with swastika tattoos claim they’re carrying out a ‘denazification operation’. Manipulation takes many forms…

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In the West, the battle over memory is being waged in parliaments. Following their German and European counterparts’ lead, French parliamentarians passed a resolution on 28 March, at Kyiv’s behest, recognising the ‘genocidal’ nature of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33. Its proponents justify this as ‘important for maintaining public support in the West, which is crucial to the outcome of the armed conflict [in Ukraine].’ Yet there’s no consensus on this issue among specialists, who debate whether the famine was targeted and ethnic in nature, as well as its scale and whether it was aggravated intentionally. When it comes to condemning Moscow, history is just another weapon.

(1Named after a student who killed himself in January 1969 in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

(2Cinzia Sciuto, ‘La destra che ha paura del 25 aprile’ (The right that fears 25 April), MicroMega, 24 April 2023.

(3Address at the American University in Washington DC, 10 June 1963.

(4Adam J Sacks, ‘Equating the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany is terrible history’, Jacobin, New York, 27 January 2023.

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