Recently, I got the chance to discuss the European Parliament resolution that basically equates Nazi Germany with Soviet Russia with a prominent German politician who is sympathetic to Russia and hates Nazism. This intelligent man said that if it continues this way, then, in five years, by the 80th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, they will have managed to make the public believe that Russia was the sole instigator of the Second World War, and Germany, and therefore also Nazism, will be exonerated. They will marginalise anyone with a different point of view, organise the mainstream media in such a way that no other viewpoints will be publicly expressed, and rewrite the history textbooks once and for all.
The surface rationale behind such actions by the dominant Western elite is clear: to prevent Russia from getting stronger by portraying it to the public as an eternal aggressor and representing it as an enemy of democracy and the West. These are not merely short-sighted actions that complicate relations between Russia and Europe, however. They are playing a very dangerous game and are clearly unaware of the possible consequences. They do not realise the monsters that may be awakened or the colossal energy bubbling up from the depths of history that may engulf them.
One of the reasons for this ease of ideological revision is that the generation of wartime and post-war politicians is no longer with us. It is unlikely that European deputies would have tried to pass the kind of untruthful resolutions being passed these days when the president of France was François Mitterrand, for example, who fought against the Germans, was injured in June 1940 and taken prisoner. He was a prisoner of war for eighteen months and tried to escape twice before finally succeeding on his third attempt. He was in Moscow in 1995 for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Russia’s victory.
Or the younger French president Jacques Chirac, who also saw military action, took part in the Algerian War, and was injured.
There are almost no politicians like these in Europe now; the entire field has been taken over by career politicians with soulless eyes.
It should be said, however, that, judging from his statements, it is clear that the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, not only understands the importance of relations between Europe and Russia, but also seems to appreciate the perversity and political harm of revising the nature of the Second World War for his own country. No wonder he is planning on attending the victory parade in Moscow.
Why are we Russians so sensitive to these Western manoeuvres? Why are we so concerned about them? Are we offended that the heroism of the Soviet people is being overshadowed? That it is being wiped from history? Well, there is probably some resentment there, yes – primarily for our ancestors who won the war. Are we worried about political pressure on our country or about sanctions, perhaps? Yes, but not overly. They are par for the course for Russia.
There is something more important than resentment and sanctions.
Today, the world is at a crossroads. I am not referring to the coronavirus pandemic, although it clearly shows the weakness of the political and economic institutions almost everywhere in the world, even in the most developed countries. The crisis to which I am referring began almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The illusion of the “end of history” in the form of the ultimate victory of Western-style liberalism was naive and short-lived. In its latest version, liberalism itself has turned out to be far removed from the values proclaimed by liberals centuries ago. What kind of world will come out of the crisis? Will the new world be a world of inequality, social apartheid and languishing democracy, or a world of greater justice and new opportunities for everyone, not just the few? It only seems as if dark times, like those under Nazism and fascism, will never come to Europe again. In fact, history shows that they come with depressing regularly.
There are moments in a crisis when the usual set-up stops working, when it becomes impossible to make rational, logically sound decisions, and it is at these moments that the moral foundations of society and politicians play a decisive role. These are what will inform strategic decisions. They can be disastrous, as in Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, or life-affirming, as in the Russian people’s fierce resistance to invading troops.
We in Russia can sense – maybe only intuitively, but we can sense a great danger in revising the history of the Second World War. Any such revision is a betrayal of the victory won in 1945 and a betrayal of those who won this victory, not just of Soviet soldiers and officers, but of the Allied soldiers and officers too, since it was a joint victory. As epic and colossal as the struggle against Nazism was, a betrayal of this sacred struggle would be just as momentous, because it would destroy the sound moral foundations that are so needed right now.
The ideological and even moral cornerstone of German Nazism was racism, but racism was not invented by Hitler and his collaborators. During the centuries of colonial conquests around much of the world, the indigenous populations were considered second-class citizens. That’s if they were considered citizens at all, and not just a species of monkey. Many people have read the stories of Englishman Rudyard Kipling, and almost everyone has seen the animated film about Mowgli. The name Mowgli itself became associated with children who had grown up outside of normal human society. Here is the opening of Kipling’s celebrated poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Kipling was not a Nazi, of course, and he did not call for second-class peoples to be wiped out. On the contrary, he glorified the need for hard labour to control these ‘sullen peoples’. But does that stop ‘The White Man’s Burden’ from being racist? For the sake of fairness, it should be said that, after its publication in 1910, there were many critical reviews accusing the author of racism. Public opinion was mixed.
By this time, the theory of “scientific racism” was also fully formed. The measurement of skulls, which can be seen in the newsreels of Nazi Germany, was actually invented much earlier. It was done by European anthropologists. Scientific racism argued that there were different human races and that these were unequal: they differed in intelligence and in their ability to control their emotions and instincts. It is from this that the hierarchy of races was constructed. At the top, of course, was the white race, but the whites were subdivided into several “sub-races”. (In truth, both large and small races were referred to as “races”, which is confusing.) The highest race among the whites is the Aryans – Germans and other northern peoples. Since the whites, and especially the Aryans, possess the greatest intellectual and creative capacities, they are the ones who should rule the world – so goes the theory of scientific racism.
These ideas were in no way marginal or condemned; they were commonplace in public opinion, part of everyday life.
One of the main theorists of the social part of scientific racism was the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain, although he actually moved to Germany during the First World War and preferred it to England. Chamberlain’s most important work is The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. The book quickly gained popularity, was translated into all the main European languages, and dozens of issues were published. Chamberlain examined the history of Europe from the standpoint of racism. He believed, for example, that the “true Aryans”, the ancient Greeks and Romans, held onto their greatness – cultural, political, military – until they started mixing with the barbarians (members of lower races). Europe began to rise again with the advent of a new Aryan spirit, now Germanic. All of Europe’s subsequent history is the struggle between the Aryans and the non-Aryans, primarily the Jews. German romanticism and the composer Wagner, of course, stand at the pinnacle of Aryan culture.
Interestingly, the Italian fascists didn’t take the race theory as a foundation for their own ideology. Not because they considered all people to be equal, however, but because the German version of racism did not put Italians on a par with Germans. Although the Italians were regarded as high quality, they were not first rate. This “rejection” of racism did not stop them from committing horrific war crimes against the local population in Ethiopia, however.
Not all of Europe was infected with the bacillus of fascism and Nazism, of course. For a while, the UK faced Hitler alone. The situation changed, however, after Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
The UK prime minister was Winston Churchill. He hated communism, he fought new “communist” Russia before the war and he continued fighting the country after the war, declaring a new phase of the battle in his Fulton speech. As a representative of the English elite, he obviously wasn’t just fighting communism. Russia itself had been England’s geopolitical adversary for the whole of the 19th century. Preventing Russia from getting stronger has long been one of the UK’s main foreign policy objectives.
But on 22 June 1941, the day that Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Churchill made an important speech. Here are a few excerpts:
“I see the ten thousand villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play. I see advancing upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its clanking, heel-clicking, dandified Prussian officers, its crafty expert agents fresh from the cowing and tying-down of a dozen countries. I see also the dull, drilled, docile, brutish masses of the Hun soldiery plodding on like a swarm of crawling locusts. […]
We have but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose. We are resolved to destroy Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime. […] Any man or state who fights on against Nazidom will have our aid. Any man or state who marches with Hitler is our foe. […]
It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it, as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end.”
May I remind you that this speech was given on 22 June. Churchill does not hesitate or take time to think what the UK should do in this new situation. He gives his unequivocal support to Russia, despite his hatred of the communist regime. Anyone who fights Nazism is his ally and anyone who marches with Hitler is his foe.
There can be no compromises with the Nazi regime; this evil must be destroyed. The very existence of the normal lives enjoyed by peasants or workers or whoever else, the very joy of life is under threat of annihilation. Against this imminent cataclysm, ideological disputes fade far into the background. Churchill had none of the intellectual hesitations that emerged after the war and now simply dominate Europe – that two “totalitarian” regimes had come head to head in battle, wanting to divide up the world. Yes, Churchill regarded communism as evil, but Nazism was evil on a scale incomparable to anything else; it was an enemy of the entire human race. Equating the two regimes would have meant plunging his own country and the whole world into catastrophe.
It was probably the brightest point in the history of relations between Russia and the United Kingdom – not victory in the war four years later, which, although a long time coming, was expected and probably inevitable from around 1943 onwards, but this almost spontaneous declaration of support for Soviet Russia, a declaration made when it was still impossible to predict what would happen, when there were only moral grounds on which to base decisions, and Churchill made this one.
Let us now jump from the start of the Great Patriotic War to victory. Many have heard Stalin’s toast to the Russian people that he gave at a Kremlin reception on 24 June 1945:
“I would like to propose a toast to the health of our Soviet people and, first of all, to the Russian people. […] I propose a toast to the health of the Russian people because it has won in this war universal recognition as the leading force of the Soviet Union among all the peoples of our country.”
Historians interpret this toast in different ways: as a departure from Marxist internationalism; as preparation for the struggle against cosmopolitanism; or as preparation for an attack on the other nations of the USSR. There is also the interpretation that Stalin was trying to absolve himself of responsibility for failures at the start of the war by shifting this responsibility onto a “government”. Here is the next part of the toast, of which few people are aware:
“Our government made a number of errors; we experienced moments of despair in 1941 and 1942, when our Army was retreating, abandoning our villages and towns. […] A different people would have said to its government: ‘You have not lived up to our expectations. Go away. We will install another government that will make peace with Germany and assure us a quiet life.’ The Russian people did not do that, however, because it believed in the government’s policies and made sacrifices to ensure Germany’s defeat. This confidence of the Russian people in the Soviet government proved to be the decisive force that ensured a historic victory over the enemy of humanity – over fascism. Thank you to the Russian people for this confidence!”
It is impossible to agree that Stalin was trying to shift responsibility for his mistakes onto a “government”. This is just a generic name for state institutions. Moreover, he himself is the “government”. But it is important that he sets aside the Communist Party; he sets aside the nature of the political regime – socialism or communism – completely. He talks about the Russian people as a historical entity, rather than an ethnic component of the Soviet people. The Russian people, together with the other peoples of the country, were not defending socialism or public ownership. All this fades into the background when compared with the struggle against universal evil that had befallen the country. The social system is unimportant. Only the struggle for the very existence of the people matters. And, in this regard, Stalin’s toast on 24 June 1945 echoes the speech Churchill made on 22 June 1941.
The victory in the war against Hitler’s Germany that destroyed Nazism, a war in which the Soviet “communists” and Anglo-American “democrats” fought side by side against a common foe, could have been a prologue to new relations between Russia and the West, but it didn’t work out that way. It didn’t even work out the way it had following the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, when peaceful relations were established in Europe for a while. (Although the Crimean War can hardly be called a local conflict.) The stand-off between two social systems defined global politics for decades. Soviet Russia and the West were enemies once again.
Yet socialism in Russia collapsed almost three decades ago. For a long time now, there has been no communist party as the directing force, no public ownership of the means of production – the borders are open and information is accessible. But, once again, relations are hostile, Russia is being hounded, and Russians are outsiders.
There is an important speech in Russian history that was given by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky at the opening of a monument to Pushkin in 1880. It is the well-known monument in Pushkin Square (historically known as Strastnaya Square).
Aware of the complex, contradictory, and often hostile relations between Russia and Europe, Dostoevsky takes it upon himself to call for a brotherhood of nations. He is sure that it is the Russian people who can pave the way to this brotherhood.
Russia had absorbed the culture of Europe, but had also made a huge contribution to it. The two started becoming much closer with Peter the Great, of course. Here is part of Dostoevsky’s speech:
“What is Peter the Great’s reform to us? […] Surely it was not only the adoption of European clothes, customs, inventions and science. […] Peter undoubtedly obeyed some hidden instinct that drew him and his work to future purposes undoubtedly more vast than narrow utilitarianism. Just as the Russian people did not accept the reform in the utilitarian spirit alone. […] We turned at once to the most vital reunion, to the unity of all mankind! Not in a spirit of enmity, but in friendliness and perfect love, we received into our soul the geniuses of foreign nations, all alike without preference of race. […] Yes, the destiny of the Russian people is undoubtedly pan-European and universal.
To become a true Russian, to become fully Russian, perhaps only means to become a brother to all, to become a universal human being, if you will. […]
For what has Russian policy been doing for these two centuries if not serving Europe, perhaps far more than she has served herself? […] The peoples of Europe do not know how dear they are to us!
And later on […] future generations of Russians will all, without exception, understand that to be a true Russian […] [means] to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!”
Some might say that this is a very romantic view of things, that the world is harsher, more cynical, and they might be right. Chances are Dostoevsky would never have imagined that, in just sixty years, one Christian nation would be incinerating the Jewish people in ovens and slaughtering a few other Christian nations. But it should be remembered that Dostoevsky was not just one of Russia’s most powerful thinkers, but one of the world’s – he was a visionary. He shows the way that is both desired and possible. Whether people will follow it is not a matter for Dostoevsky, but for those of us living now.
Dostoevsky’s speech contains the key to understanding why we Russians are so troubled by the West’s rewriting of the Second World War. We wanted to be together, as Dostoevsky dreamed, “in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ”, and it didn’t work out, but we were together in the fight against Nazism. We again served Europe, as Dostoevsky put it, and our country made a huge sacrifice to wipe out Nazism, which was of Europe’s own making. Our people saved Europe from itself…
And now we are being told that two totalitarian regimes wanted to divide up the world: one is Hitler’s Nazism and the other is Stalin’s socialism. This is called betrayal. They are betraying both us and themselves. Are they really going to accept Nazism because it was a product of Europe? We feel ashamed for them. We are hurt at the betrayal of our mighty joint endeavour, an endeavour of truly biblical proportions.
There is an analogy in the Bible.
Eve’s first-born son, Cain, turned out to be a traitor and murderer. Cain was a farmer and his brother, Abel, Eve’s second-born son, was a shepherd. One day, they made sacrifices to God – Cain from his crops and Abel from his herd. God accepted Abel’s sacrifice, but rejected Cain’s. Cain was angry.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Cain did not heed God’s warning, but took Abel into the fields and murdered him.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’” (Genesis 4:9-12)
Cain betrayed his brother, he betrayed God, and he trampled on the moral foundations that God gave us.
Introducing a false history of the Second World War into the public consciousness is a betrayal of the sacred struggle against Nazism. It is a betrayal of biblical proportions and the retribution will be commensurate.