After all, runs the argument, neither the Hundred Years’ War nor the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth century involved constant fighting for all the 114 and 30 years in question; there were periods of relative peace; there were fighting sides dropping out or changing allegiance; there were localized wars that can be described as civil wars.
There is, in my opinion, a good deal to be said for that theory and it may well be that historians of the future will not be blinded by our obsessions. However, the period of vicious fighting and civilian destruction we call World War II needs to be examined and remembered separately. We are too close to it to be able to see it as part of any wider picture.
September 1, 1939, seventy years ago, the war started officially with the German invasion of Poland. Parliament hastily passed the National Service Bill and on September 3, 1939 Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. Canada, whose contribution was as great as that of the other Dominions and of the Empire, declared war on September 10. Let us never forget that when Britain was supposedly standing alone, it had the support of the Empire and of the Dominions. The Indian Army alone increased to 2.5 million during the war and they were all volunteers. 30 Victoria Crosses were won by Indian soldiers.
But I digress. There will be many seventieth anniversaries in the next few months and years. Let us look at the beginning. Let us note that there is at least one country that is once again refusing even to look at what happened in that fateful year.
Yesterday’s Guardian carried a piece by Luke Harding that discussed the reasonably well known news item of President Medvedev announcing that neither the Soviet Union nor Stalin were responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War and to suggest otherwise would be to deny the Soviet achievements in liberating Europe that have somehow become Russian achievements.
At this point it is worth having a look at the curious way in which Putin’s and Medvedev’s Russia has become the descendants of the Soviet Union, according to official propaganda analysis.
The Soviet Union was more than just a multinational state in which several members felt that they were being oppressed. Various members of those nationalities became part of the Soviet elite or just of the Soviet experiment and it is fair to say that many of the horrors were Soviet in nature, put into place by people of differing nationalities.
On the other hand, the same is true for the courage displayed by the Soviet army and for the suffering experienced by that army and the people of the country. Much of that suffering was imposed by Stalin’s government; much of the courage was displayed despite Stalin’s leadership.
Then, of course there are various problems: the behaviour of the Red Army and of the GRU and NKVD that followed it in the “liberated” parts of the Soviet Union itself and in other countries; the fate of many returning Soviet soldiers, particularly the Chechens, Tatars and Ingushi but others, too; the fate of returning POWS, often handed back by the Western allies despite their clear reluctance to go home. It is a dizzyingly complicated pattern and countries that were involved do not necessarily draw rational conclusions. Least of all, I am sorry to say, Russia or, at least, its leadership that is intent on whipping up fear and loathing towards all western countries among the Russian people. Sometimes I think they are succeeding, sometimes I am not so sure. The Russians are well experienced in double-think.
To sum up briefly, the official Russian view is that the bad aspects of the Soviet Union – mass murder, labour camps, torture chambers, destruction of the economy, invasion of other countries – probably did not happen but if they did, they were most definitely not Russia’s fault, because it was all done by the Soviet Union and many non-Russians were involved. Very true. I frequently make that point myself to people who ignorantly substitute Russia for the USSR.
However, runs the version, even if some of those accusations are true and even if there were many non-Russians involved in the horrors, it is wrong for anybody else to mention them because that casts aspersions on the heroism of the Russian army that liberated Europe or some part of it, anyway.
This rather odd collection of attitudes prevents any kind of understanding of the Second World War (the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia, and it did not begin till 1941 so what is everybody going on about) in the country. It also lies behind President Medvedev’s odd comments.
Stalin, he maintained, had no choice but to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact or, at any rate, instruct Molotov to do so. The West had let him down; the West had let everyone down; Poland was the Nazis’ ally in dismembering Czechoslovakia, so what are they complaining about.
This conveniently ignores that the Nazi-Soviet Pact had those pesky secret protocols that divided Eastern Europe between the two giants, the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, the treatment of Polish and Baltic civilians by the Soviet authorities and the help the USSR gave Germany right up to June 22, 1941. Without that help it is unlikely that Germany could have fought the Battle of Britain or harassed British shipping to the extent it did.
In fact, if we consider World War II a separate event from all the other bits and pieces that had been going on in Europe and the rest of the world since 1918, the start of it was on August 23, 1939, when Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed a pact that guaranteed Hitler’s rear and divided up the countries between the two totalitarians.
The rest followed from that inexorably.
UPDATE: Der Spiegel gives an account of the commemoration of the beginning of World War II in Gdansk, adding quotes from other newspapers. Chancellor Merkel spoke well and movingly; President Kaczynski wanted more from the Russians and