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History And The Politics Of Blame

In some post-Soviet states, current interpretations understate Russia's sacrifices in defeating fascism.
In some post-Soviet states, current interpretations understate Russia's sacrifices in defeating fascism.
The past is never really in the past as long as it pervades our present. And recent history is very much with us.

This is why Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has established a commission to protect against "falsification of historical facts and events aimed at damaging Russia's international prestige." This move has sparked considerable controversy both in Russia and in Western mainstream media. This is as it should be; history matters.

Medvedev's history commission is a reaction to the way history, particularly events before, during, and after World War II, is being reinterpreted and even rewritten in a number of post-Soviet and Eastern European states. This approach often undermines, or even denies, the role the Soviet Union played in the defeat of Nazi Germany. In some Baltic republics and Ukraine, Nazi collaborators are even honored as war veterans, while Soviet war memorials are moved or dismantled. Many in Russia consider this not only insulting, but also a dangerous rehabilitation of ideas that their countrymen paid such a high price to eliminate.

The hitherto accepted history of World War II (or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia) is undergoing revision. This should not surprise anyone; that traditional narrative was a product of the Cold War. The ideological conflict that pitted Soviet developed socialism against Western capitalism resulted in diverging, ideologically couched explanations for the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Western take was that the Allies, specifically the United States, "saved the world from tyranny in the name of democracy and other liberal values." Soviet ideologists, by contrast, stressed "the defeat of a murderous and very aggressive ideology: fascism."

As long as the Cold War continued, these two renditions could coexist, although the West consistently understated the Soviet contribution to Hitler's defeat. All of this started to change with the self-collapse of the Soviet Union.

Every country and every society needs a common history. National narratives bind a nation together and create a sense of community. All the new sovereign states that came into being with the end of the Soviet Union are very keen to establish new national histories. But in doing so, most of them have to address specific episodes related to World War II.

Warring Histories

As the successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia adheres steadfastly to the belief that it liberated a great swathe of Europe from fascism. To craft what they believe are coherent, if not self-satisfying, national histories, many in the Baltics, Ukraine, and some Eastern European states are challenging Russia's historical rendition. They claim that not only did the Soviet Union not liberate them from fascism, but that it replaced Nazi Germany as the occupying power.

Embedded in this claim is a double-edged sword. First, those who argue that the Soviets should not be credited with defeating fascism implicitly also deny the role of those in the Baltic republics, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe who sacrificed their lives to end Nazi rule. Second, there is also denial about how many Soviet republics, and even Eastern European countries, bowed to Soviet domination, but also benefited from it.

To be sure, there were those who didn't, and their grievances are legitimate and should be heard. However, history is not as black and white as nationalist historians and governments would like us to believe. For example, I lived in Poland during much of the 1980s when the free trade union Solidarity was enjoying its greatest popularity. At the time, Polish society was polarized; one-third of the population strongly supported Solidarity, and one-third the pro-Moscow regime, while the remaining third waited on the sidelines to see how the standoff between those two would end. And to this day, some Poles still have many good things to say about communist Poland.

What is very disturbing about historical revisionism when it comes to World War II is the attempt to airbrush from the record fascist ideas, groups, and individuals that infested Europe in the 1930s and '40s. The Cold War-era interpretation of World War II was a convenient opportunity to overlook nasty homegrown fascism all over Europe, particularly in the east.

After the war ended, few wanted to dwell on how fascism and gross right-wing nationalism -- very often anti-Semitic -- captured the imagination of the European body politic. Political imperatives were far more important, and so confronting the Soviet Union took precedence. It became acceptable to ignore unpleasant episodes.

This is still happening today. Instead of facing up to the sins of the past, it is all too easy to blame contemporary Russia for the real or imagined sins of the Soviet Union. Using this line of argument, Russia can and should claim it, too, was a victim of the Soviet Union.

It is unfortunate that a new discursive pathology has come into vogue. Many feel that the sole way to prove their historical legitimacy and virtue is by casting themselves in the role of victim. This is history gone wrong. All too often a person's national identity is defined by how someone else wronged him or her.

Today states blame other states for their own problems in the present because of a very specific, and again self-serving, interpretation of what happened in the past. Equally unfortunate is the knee-jerk tendency to blame "undemocratic" Russia for the woes of its neighbors. This is politics on the cheap and a contemptible attitude to what history should really be all about.

Denying the Holocaust is a legal offense in Germany. This is the case in many countries in the world, and is morally right. Consigning to oblivion the murder of millions of people is simply wrong. Russia wants the same to hold true for the 27 million Soviet citizens (at the very least) who gave their lives to defeat Hitler's murderous regime.

It is a real shame that Russia feels it needs a commission to monitor how others interpret history. History should not be used as a political tool to divide people and countries. In fact, just the opposite should be happening.

Germany and France embarked upon an open and honest discussion to reconcile their long-standing historical differences. What we see now is the opposite: history is being used to divide countries and peoples. These divisions in turn open the door for the worst possibility: the slow but very real rehabilitation of a new form of fascism.

Peter Lavelle is a political commentator for Russia Today television (RT) and is the host of the weekend program "In Context." The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RT or RFE/RL