Political Scientist Alexander Vedrussov on the historical debate that defines the modern world.
World War II and the Great Patriotic War ended long ago in 1945.* Yet, the clash of interpretations of the events that took place 75 years ago and the battle for collective memory about the victory are becoming more ruthless every year. Interestingly, conflicts between the winners of the war which had the largest scale in human history have become antagonistic over time. Let’s try as objectively as possible (if at all possible) to figure out which side has the right to claim victory based on the evidence.
Nowadays, it’s difficult to analyze even the most seemingly well-known facts and figures. Since the war ended, politically motivated interpretations of the events that took place in the 1940s have been so widespread that younger generations are unable to look at them objectively. Western countries are a case in point. Thus, it wouldn’t hurt to recall the most basic and incontrovertible facts of World War II history. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany front was between 3,000 and 6,200 kilometers long (approximately 1,864 to 3,852 miles), the Western front about 800 kilometers long (approximately 497 miles) and the North African and Italian fronts between 300 and 350 kilometers long (approximately 186 to 217 miles). The Soviet Union demolished more than 70% of the German army, 75% of its aircraft, 74% of its artillery and 75% of its tanks and assault weapons.
Many United States public officials and members of the military seem to side with the facts. In 1945, Douglas MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender and noted that the efforts of the Red Army were “the greatest military achievement in all history.” Army general, secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner George Catlett Marshall Jr. expressed his admiration of the “bravery and the spirit of Russian soldiers.”** Secretary of the Navy Franklin Knox talked about the “everlasting debt of gratitude to the armies and people of the Soviet Union.”
Apparently, the United States not only has its own way of measurement, but also quite a unique perception of time since Marshall’s “everlasting debt of gratitude” seems to have expired a long time ago. On April 25, 2020, the presidents of the United States and Russia talked about the possibility of making a joint statement in “the Spirit of the Elbe,” which, according to Donald Trump, “is an example of how our countries can put aside differences, build trust, and cooperate in pursuit of a greater cause.” And on May 8, the White House posted a scandalous message on its official Twitter account, that read: “On May 8, 1945, America and Great Britain had victory over the Nazis!”
That same day, Trump briefly commemorated the memory of the war casualties of “the former Soviet Union” and Poland without recognizing Russia as a winner of the war. By twisting the historical facts so overtly, the United States is not only trying to attribute the victory of World War II to the Western allies, but promote a dangerous idea of American exceptionalism.
It’s hard to ignore how U.S. political figures go back and forth between friendly and hateful comments about Russia, inheriting the contradictory behavior of their predecessors.
Yes, on one hand, U.S. World War II military officers assessed the Soviet Union’s contribution to defeating Nazi Germany quite objectively, treating the Soviet Union as an ally in defeating a common enemy.
Yes, one could consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt a friend of the Soviet Union who, in his own words, “got along fine with Marshall Stalin.” Roosevelt, the only American president in U.S. history to be elected four times, unequivocally acknowledged the Soviet Union’s pivotal role in winning the war together. In April 1942, Roosevelt welcomed the Soviet counteroffensive by “the great Russian army” and justly noted that “the Russian army has destroyed, and continues to destroy, more manpower, planes, tanks and artillery than all the other allied forces combined.”**
However, there was another position that existed during World War II and throughout the postwar period that eventually prevailed in American political discourse. Then U.S. Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman was first to express this view saying, “If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia; and if that Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.” And those were not just words. The U.S. government knew and even approved of major companies like General Motors, Ford, and Standard Oil doing business with the Third Reich and contributed significantly to its technological development.
One could dive deep into historical records and present our former allies with a full historical account. Of separate negotiations with Nazi politicians. Of joint military plans to launch a treacherous attack against the Red Army (“Operation Unthinkable”). Of appointing Adolf Heusinger, a military officer in Nazi Germany, as chairman of the NATO Military Committee in Washington, D.C., in April 1962 and coopting many other Nazi officials into U.S. military and political institutions.
However, there’s no need to list these countless examples when the United States continues, even today, to demonstrate its true attitude toward national exceptionalism and its supporters. The American and Ukrainian delegations remain the only ones to vote against the United Nations resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism.
Isn’t that the difference between those who fought selflessly against the misanthropic ideology of the Third Reich and those who profited from it by cynically fighting for one’s own interests at the expense of the victims’ lives?
And isn’t the responsible attitude toward collective memory and the events of World War II the only thing that could help us identify the true heir of the victory and who just happened to be on the right side of history?
*Editor’s note: The Great Patriotic War is a term used in Russia and other former Soviet republics to describe the conflict fought during period from June 22, 1941 to May 9, 1945 along the Eastern Front of World War II.
**Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the quoted remark could not be independently sourced.