On Wednesday and Thursday in Jerusalem, one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in the history of Israel marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Russian and French presidents Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and Prince Charles spoke at Yad Vashem, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Monday will mark the entry to Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army. The Jerusalem commemoration is the first of many this year marking the end of the Second World War.
The liberation of Auschwitz invites us to consider how Russia looks back at those 75 years. It is not an invitation to agree with but to understand the Russian view of recent history as the country plays an increasingly prominent role in global affairs, whether in Ukraine or Syria or Venezuela.
Only visitors to Auschwitz who have been there many times tend to visit the secondary exhibitions, the national pavilions that are housed on the site. The primary exhibitions, detailing the Shoah, are overwhelming in their own right, and so very few visit the pavilions showing how what ended at Auschwitz played out in other countries. The pavilions are curated by the various countries in consultation with the Auschwitz museum authorities, so they reflect how different countries view their own role in the war and in the Holocaust.
For example, the Polish pavilion is organized around the theme “The Struggle and Martyrdom of the Polish Nation 1939-1945.” The idea is clear; Poland was the first victim of the Nazi war machine and struggled mightily against it. The rebuke to those who consider occupied Poland an ally of Nazi Germany is intended and explicit.
Among all the national pavilions, the Russian is an exception. Its theme: “Tragedy. Valour. Liberation.” The first gets less attention than the latter two. The Russian pavilion commemorates the Russian Jews who perished in the Holocaust, but the focus really is on two other aspects of Auschwitz: the beginning and the end. Auschwitz began, before it became an extermination camp for Jews, as a prison for Russian prisoners of war captured by Germany. And it ended with its liberation by the Soviet Red Army in January 1945, as it drove the Nazis westward out of eastern Europe.
The pavilion is a reminder that the Second World War looked very different through Soviet eyes. The communist deal with the devil, to carve up Poland between Berlin and Moscow, is of course overlooked. The focus instead is on how the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the war after Hitler turned on Stalin. The Soviets took the heaviest casualties by far, and while Canadians might look to Juno Beach and D-Day as the turning point in the war, the Soviet view is that Nazis were truly defeated on the “Eastern Front” in what Stalin called “The Great Patriotic War.”
The Russian pavilion at Auschwitz therefore salutes the “valour” of the Red Army, and the visitor finds it oddly celebratory upon entering. The heavy focus is on the Soviet liberation and those first on the scene are given pride of place. The emphasis is not on the tragedy but the liberation.
It’s a reminder that the 75 years since the Second World War look very different from Moscow. Stalin’s “Great Patriotic War” was a slaughterhouse far greater than any other Allied country faced. One in four citizens were killed or wounded. The Soviet military dead alone are estimated to range from eight to 10 million, to say nothing of civilians.
Russia, swollen under Lenin to become the Soviet Union, paid the heaviest price. After the war it become an adversary of its former allies in the Cold War, which it lost so thoroughly that the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Russia is still the largest country by area in the world, but the lands controlled by Moscow are now at a historic low. Seventy-five years later, Moscow’s American and Chinese allies are world superpowers. Russia’s Putin is striving to keep up, hence the mischief in Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela.
History is of great importance to Putin, who is not shy about presenting himself as the heir to the tsarist period of Russia’s purported glory. That explains his efforts to remember the Second World War as a time of Russian sacrifice and triumph — including at Auschwitz.
That view needs to be understood — and contested. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, was invited to Jerusalem but boycotted because of the prominence given to Putin. Duda accuses of Putin of rewriting history, portraying the Soviets as having defeated Nazism, and implying that Poland was more a perpetrator than a victim of the Holocaust. The former claim has some merit, the latter does not.
“Putin is knowingly spreading historical lies,” Duda told Israeli television this week, arguing instead that it was the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact of 1939 that prepared the way for war.
In Jerusalem this week and at Auschwitz next, the world will gather to remember, albeit with different memories. For Putin’s Russia, the memories, selectively chosen, will serve today’s agenda.