In a speech delivered at an informal CIS meeting in St. Petersburg in December 2019, remarks made by Russian President Vladimir Putin manoeuvred Poland into a position of complicity in the outbreak of the Second World War. The ensuing international outcry went beyond a contained discord in Russian-Polish relations. Claudia Weber, expert in Eastern European History, spoke with Bernd Vogenbeck, Körber-Stiftung, about the fallout of this attempt to rewrite history.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Poland directly with statements concerning the lead-up to the Second World War, and Polish President Andrzej Duda recently cancelled his participation in the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem. What happened?
President Putin has been very aggressive on this issue of late. The subject of the history of the World War, as we can see very clearly, has been driving him more and more since the resolution of the EU Parliament last September to mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. The extent to which the tone has become more acute since then has surprised me, and also the fact that some rather unusual, even rude language is being heard in the process. Anger and rage can be made out, but also the clear political aim of asserting his own interpretations.
Does President Putin need this in order to distract from other Russian foreign policy challenges?
In the course of the International Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, where he was treated quite differently from, say, the Poles, partly because of the strategic alliance between Israel and Russia in the Syrian conflict, but also in his speech there, it can be seen clearly that Putin is in a politically comfortable and advantageous situation. Due of his global increase in power, he is currently in a position to place and assert his interpretation of history on the international stage. And that is precisely what he is doing.
Is this aimed primarily at a Russian audience?
Putin's politics of memory, besides the fact that he also wants to influence the European World War narrative, is of course motivated by domestic politics and directed at his own people. For the majority, any questioning of the central integration myth of the Great Patriotic War and the victory over Hitler's Germany is practically impossible. The resolution of the European Parliament and the policies of the Polish government then constitute an affront, because they link the beginning of the Second World War directly and openly to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the war alliance between National Socialist Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.
Which must be considered a sore point in the shiny narrative of the Great Patriotic War.
Yes, it is a sore point and one whose world war-triggering significance cannot be denied. Putin is not retelling the story and he does not deny the existence of the pact and its undisclosed additional protocols. But he does apply a different emphasis: The "shamefaced" way of dealing with the pact in the 1990s, which certainly included an acknowledgement of this dark chapter of Russia's own history, is over. Now the pact is seen as a clever move by Stalin's foreign policy, through which the Soviet Union was able to buy time and create a territorial buffer to Nazi Germany. This is an important reassessment, because now "we no longer have to be ashamed of the Hitler-Stalin Pact". Vladimir Putin's Petersburg speech at the end of December, however, shows that after the September resolution of the European Parliament, this reinterpretation is being taken a step further.
What has changed?
Now, it is asserted that even if the outbreak of the Second World War was made possible by the alliance of the Third Reich with the Soviet Union, the Hitler-Stalin Pact must be placed in the context of the actions of all the European players. In Saint Petersburg, Putin referred to treaties such as the German-British Fleet Agreement, the German-Polish Non-Aggression Treaty and the Munich Agreement. In this reading, the Hitler-Stalin Pact stands at the end of a pan-European development whose events and significance for the outbreak of the Second World War I would not want to dispute. On the contrary, I would argue in favour of taking a closer look at the European power game of the 1930s. In the new Russian interpretation, however, this power game is directly linked to the question of historical and political guilt. If Putin reframes the question of war guilt as one of “joint responsibility”, as it were, it is not a matter of historical-scientific reconsideration and change of perspective.
What should we then make of the promised opening of archives, through which Putin wants to counter historical falsification?
It will be selective and not provide any new insights, for example into German-Soviet cooperation at the beginning of the war. Documents, such as those regarding the joint handling of Jewish refugees by both occupying powers, reveal contradictions which the politics of memory generally seek to smooth out. They will probably be documents concerning the prehistory of the war.
In recent years, political dealing with history and memory has also led to Poland being confronted with international criticism –the so-called "Holocaust Law" or the treatment of prominent museum directors are cases in point. In what light are these actions to be seen?
Similarly to Russia, the aim is to dispel the contradictions and ambivalences of World War history in a revamped narrative that needs to be consolidated in public memory. At the centre of this problem-free narrative are glorified hero or victim accounts. The shades of grey of war, which were discussed much more strongly and openly in the 1990s and 2000s, are more difficult to communicate today. The problem with this development – both in Russia and Poland – is that both make themselves vulnerable through these simplistic, mythical narratives. As a point of fact: from a historiographical point of view you will be hard-pressed to argue away the close ties between the Third Reich and Poland in the mid-1930s.
Are we currently seeing a Europe-wide quest for new approaches to telling the story of the Second World War? Particularly in Germany, voices from the right-wing political spectrum are becoming louder that reject the current consensus on the memory of Nazi crimes. When national interests come to the fore, will appeals for common values and humanistic lessons from the Second World War become a thing of the past?
I do not believe that narratives that are based on drawing a humanistic lesson from the Second World War have reached their end. Yes, history is in motion and interpretations change. We must deal with this soberly and call certainties into question – also in Germany. If we cement narratives, we lose the ability to speak openly about history. We become weak in the face of downplaying violence and war crimes. Openly addressing historical contradictions is the best protection and ultimately indispensable, also in order to keep alive the awareness of Germany's responsibility for the Second World War and its crimes.
Claudia Weber is Professor of Contemporary European History at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. An expert on Eastern European history and 20th century histories of violence and dictatorship, notable work of hers includes a seminal study of the massacres perpetrated by the Soviet Secret Service in Katyń, showing the entanglement of both totalitarian systems during the wartime occupation of Poland. Her current book, titled “The pact: Hitler, Stalin and the story of a murderous alliance”, focusses on the early phase of World War Two, between its outbreak and the German attack on the Soviet Union.
In our Podcast “History & Politics”, Claudia Weber elaborates on her research into the Hitler-Stalin Pact and its current relevance (in German).