“Putin is playing the Stalin game” – this sharp polemics from the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 2 July 2020 against a recent substantial article of the Russian President Vladimir Putin on history and current implications of World War II give reason to thoroughly read the Russian President’s contribution. The article appeared in English language1 on 18 June 2020 in the US American journal The National Interest, the following day also on the Russian President’s homepage2, after the Russian original article3 appeared the same day. On 19 June the Russian Federation’s embassy published the text in German translation.4
The National Interest chose the headline “Vladimir Putin: The real lessons of the 75th anniversary of World War II“; on the Russian President’s homepage we read: “75th anniversary of the Great Victory: Shared responsibility to history and our future“, very similar the official German translation.
We cannot reproduce all information and the text’s complete argumentation here, but reading the whole text is highly recommended.
What moved and still moves people in Russia
In a first part, the Russian President is addressing the question of what the Second World War and the victory of the Red Army over the German Wehrmacht and its allies meant for the Soviet Union, but above all for the people living in the country. In this, he includes the history of his own family who, like all inhabitants of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), has suffered from the siege of the city and whose memory the Russian President cherishes carefully. But he also addresses the question of what was essential for the people in the Soviet Union to be able to resist the attack on their country: they had been united by love of their homeland, their motherland. It was “one of the characteristic features of the peoples of Russia to fulfil their duty without feeling sorry for themselves when the circumstances so demand.” Vladimir Putin adds: “selflessness, patriotism, love for their home, their family and Fatherland remain fundamental and integral to the Russian society to this day.” The first part of the article ends with a declaration: “We have a responsibility to our past and our future to do our utmost to prevent those horrible tragedies from happening ever again.” Hence, as Putin says, “he was compelled to come out with an article about World War II and the Great Patriotic War.”
Historical storytelling, history politics and historical science
Starting point for the second, historical part of the article is the criticism of the role of the Soviet Union regarding the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939, a criticism that, in September 2019, made the European Parliament adopt a resolution making the Soviet Union, just like Nazi Germany, responsible for the outbreak of the war, declaring the Non-Aggression Pact between the countries of 23/24 August 1939 as pivotal for the outbreak of war.5
The Russian President is contradicting this verdict with extensive explanations on the developments of the time. He sees “a need to further examine the reasons that caused the world war and reflect on its complicated events, tragedies and victories, as well as its lessons, both for our country and the entire world.” He emphasises that it was “crucial to rely exclusively on archive documents and contemporary evidence while avoiding any ideological or politicised speculations.”
The Versailles Treaty and the rise of the Nazis
According to Putin, “the root causes of World War II mainly stem from the decisions made after World War I. The Treaty of Versailles became a symbol of grave injustice for Germany.” Putin writes the victorious powers of World War I had been concerned about “robbing” the country by “enormous reparations”, citing the French Marshall Foch’s verdict on the Treaty of Versailles: “This is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” The “national humiliation of Germany” had become “a fertile ground for radical and revenge-seeking sentiments in Germany”. The Nazis “skilfully played on people’s emotions and built their propaganda promising to deliver Germany from the ‘legacy of Versailles’ and restore the country to its former power.” The Nazis, according to Putin, were “essentially pushing German people into war”.
The politics of the victorious powers of World War I
Putin adds: “Paradoxically, the Western states, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, directly or indirectly contributed to this. Their financial and industrial enterprises actively invested in German factories and plants manufacturing military products.” “Besides, many people in the aristocracy and political establishment supported radical, far-right and nationalist movements”.
The Treaty of Versailles had changed the map of Europe with “borders of new European states randomly set […]. That boundary delimitation was almost immediately followed by territorial disputes and mutual claims that turned into ‘time bombs”. Putin also criticises the League of Nations which had contributed little to preserving the peace and even gave its consent to the “Munich Agreement” of September 1938.
The “Munich Agreement”
Putin goes into the “Munich Agreement“ in detail [the English translation calls it “Munich Betrayal”]. The agreement, which was concluded in Munich by the government representatives of Germany, Italy, Great Britain and France, separated the territories of the German-speaking Sudeten from Czechoslovakia, which was founded in 1918, and assigned them to National Socialist Germany. The government of Czechoslovakia had no say in this. The Polish government of the time participated in this agreement from the background, as it also claimed territories in Czechoslovakia. Putin presents a number of documents to show how close the German-Polish alliance was on this issue. And not only for Poland, but also for Great Britain and France, the “Munich Agreement“ had not been a contribution to peace in Europe and the world, but a very important piece in the mosaic for directing the aggression of National Socialist Germany towards the Soviet Union. Thus he writes: “It was the Munich Betrayal that served as the ‘trigger’ and made a great war in Europe inevitable.” And: “Britain, as well as France, which was at the time the main ally of the Czechs and Slovaks, chose to withdraw their guarantees and abandon this Eastern European country to its fate. In so doing, they sought to direct the attention of the Nazis eastward so that Germany and the Soviet Union would inevitably clash and bleed each other white.” The Soviet government alone, he said, had endeavoured at the time to forge a European alliance against Nazi Germany and to secure the existence of Czechoslovakia. In vain. Even more: “The Munich Betrayal demonstrated the Soviet Union that the Western countries would deal with security issues without taking its interests into account. In fact, they could even create an anti-Soviet front, if needed.” But even after the “Munich Agreement“, the government of the Soviet Union tried to forge a European alliance against Germany until August 1939. That too was in vain.
The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 23/24 August 1939
Only then had the government of the Soviet Union made the decision to conclude a treaty with Germany. Putin writes “In these circumstances, the Soviet Union signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany. It was practically the last among the European countries to do so. Besides, it was done in the face of a real threat of war on two fronts – with Germany in the west and with Japan in the east, where intense fighting on the Khalkhin Gol River was already underway.”
Putin also answers the question of how the “Secret Protocol” to the Non-Aggression Pact on the division of spheres of influence between Germany and the Soviet Union has to be assessed. He gives a quite precise explanation of the Soviet position and policy at that time, but also refers to a resolution of the Supreme Soviet of 24 December 1989, which officially denounced the Secret Protocols as an “act of personal power”. These secret protocols, it was said in 1989, “in no way reflected ‘the will of the Soviet people, who bear no responsibility for this collusion’”.
The German-Polish war 1939
Putin goes into detail about the background and the course of the German-Polish war and the behaviour of the Soviet Union. For example, he shows that the Soviet Union hesitated for a long time to invade Poland and also refrained from drawing the new border agreed with Germany in the secret protocol, but limited itself to an area further east that had belonged to the Soviet Union before Poland’s war of aggression against the Soviet Union in the 1920s and had been conquered and occupied by Poland. The Soviet government had only decided to attack Poland in September 1939 when Poland’s defeat was obvious and the Polish government had fled abroad and Germany threatened to occupy all of Poland.
Putin’s historical conclusion
Once again, not all information and arguments of the text can be presented here, but the historical conclusion of the Russian President shall be quoted: “World War II did not happen overnight, nor did it start unexpectedly or all of a sudden. And German aggression against Poland was not out of nowhere. It was the result of a number of tendencies and factors in the world politics of that time. All pre-war events fell into place to form one fatal chain. But, undoubtedly, the main factors that predetermined the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind were state egoism, cowardice, appeasement of the aggressor who was gaining strength, and unwillingness of political elites to search for compromise. Therefore, it is unfair to claim that the two-day visit to Moscow of Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop [in August 1939] was the main reason for the start of World War II. All the leading countries are to a certain extent responsible for its outbreak. Each of them made fatal mistakes, arrogantly believing that they could outsmart others, secure unilateral advantages for themselves or stay away from the impending global catastrophe.”
And he adds: “Saying this, I by no means intend to take on the role of a judge, to accuse or acquit anyone, let alone initiate a new round of international information confrontation in the historical field that could set countries and peoples at loggerheads. I believe that it is academics with a wide representation of respected scholars from different countries of the world who should search for a balanced assessment of what happened. We all need the truth and objectivity. On my part, I have always encouraged my colleagues to build a calm, open and trust-based dialogue, to look at the common past in a self-critical and unbiased manner. Such an approach will make it possible not to repeat the mistakes committed back then and to ensure peaceful and successful development for years to come.”
How to continue in the world community?
A very important way to achieve this - and this brings us to the third part of the contribution - is the commitment of the Russian President to maintain the international order after the end of the war, as established under international law and institutionally in the Charter of the United Nations. Putin refuses to question the construction of the Security Council. He emphasises the great importance of the veto right of the five victorious powers in preventing another great, new world war. “The victorious powers”, Putin says, “left us a system that has become the quintessence of the intellectual and political quest of several centuries.” And: “What is the power of veto in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries. It is a statement by one of the five powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, take this position as a given, abandoning any attempts to realise their unilateral efforts. It means that in one way or another it is necessary to seek compromises. [...] The calls that have been made quite often in recent years to abolish the power of veto, to deny special opportunities to permanent members of the Security Council are actually irresponsible. After all, if that happens, the United Nations would in essence become the League of Nations – a meeting for empty talk without any leverage on the world processes.”
The responsibility of the victorious
powers for the world of the future
Putin’s conclusion for present and future: “Today the world is going through quite a turbulent time. Everything is changing, from the global balance of power and influence to the social, economic and technological foundations of societies, nations and even continents. In the past epochs, shifts of such magnitude have almost never happened without major military conflicts. Without a power struggle to build a new global hierarchy. Thanks to the wisdom and farsightedness of the political figures of the Allied Powers, it was possible to create a system that has restrained from extreme manifestations of such objective competition, historically inherent in the world development.”
The Russian President suggests a summit meeting of the five veto and nuclear powers. It would “be useful to discuss steps to develop collective principles in world affairs. To speak frankly about the issues of preserving peace, strengthening global and regional security, strategic arms control, about joint efforts in countering terrorism, extremism and other major challenges and threats.”
* * *
“Putin is playing the Stalin game” is, as quoted above, one of the responses in our countries to the contribution of the Russian president, This is no exception in the mainstream Western media. This is no proper way to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s concerns. Presumably, it is not easy to abandon Cold War positions and politico-strategically generated historical narratives that have been held for decades – especially within the context of a new Cold War policy. If confrontation and more tension are the goal, that is hardly to be hoped for. But if peace is the goal, such insinuations are disturbing. They disrupt the dialogue, which is urgently needed. Why not quote what the text says? For example the differentiating statement: “Stalin and his entourage, indeed, deserve many legitimate accusations. We remember the crimes committed by the regime against its own people and the horror of mass repressions. In other words, there are many things the Sovjet leaders can be reproached for, but poor understanding of the nature of external threats is not one of them.” Or: “Of course, fear, confusion and desperation were taking over some people during this terrible and bloody war. There were betrayal and desertion. The harsh splits caused by the revolution and the Civil War, nihilism, mockery of national history, traditions and faith that the Bolsheviks tried to impose, especially in the first years after coming to power – all of this had its impact.”
The Russian president does not rely on any “leaders”, but on the people of the country. So, the above quotation is followed by these sentences: “But the general attitude of the Soviet citizens and our compatriots who found themselves abroad was different – to save and protect the Motherland. It was a real and irrepressible impulse. People were looking for support in true patriotic values.”
Is that what’s so “annoying” about the Russian president? Is that why there is practically no appropriate coverage in our media about Russia, and even less about the country’s current president?
You don’t have to consent to everything the Russian president has written. But thinking about it would be appropriate. But you can only do that if you also take note of what he has really written. •
5 European Parliament resolution of 19 September 2019 “Importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe”, www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2019-0021_EN.pdf
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