World War II in European Memory
No. 3 2015 July/September
Ivan Kurilla

Doctor of History, Professor at the European Institute in St. Petersburg.

The Risks of Deriving Current Policies from History

The past decade has seen a dramatic change in the assessment of World War II in Europe. European discourse on this issue increasingly resembles a well-orchestrated attack against Russia, launched with the aim of either humiliating the Russian people or providing an excuse to oust the country from the group of leading global powers. A closer look at this shift reveals that it is largely caused by internal political developments that underlie the process of building a new identity. An insight into these processes, which gained momentum with the breakup of the global socialist system and the Soviet Union, will enable Russia to devise an adequate policy towards this issue of great concern in the country.


The world order that took shape after the end of World War II was tailored to suit the expectations of the victor nations. Five countries gained permanent seats in the UN Security Council. Those nations set the tone in regional security organizations and in the two confronting blocs of the Cold War era: NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization. The winners had the prerogative of describing the history and essence of World War II. Sir Winston Churchill was awarded a Nobel Prize for his Second World War book series. High school students around the world were taught that WWII was a clash between good and evil (Nazism). Although Soviet and U.S. history textbooks would emphasize different things, the fundamental idea was the same – the military alliance of victor nations provided the basis for a common vision of that history. The same version of history was taught in schools of the looser nations and also in the smaller countries of Europe, whose historical policies followed those of the major powers. It is not accidental that all allusions to the historic Elbe River handshake were important arguments in the search for a common language that could be well heard on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Two important presumptions determined that vision of history. First, the outcome of WWII had an unmistakable moral aspect: an aggressive regime that had exterminated huge numbers of people based solely on their ethnicity or race was defeated by a coalition of Western democracies and the Soviet Union, which in that picture of the world was part of the “good forces.”  Second, Europe was unanimous in declaring that the chapter of world wars was closed and there would be no appeals to historical injustices in the new world beyond those exposed in Nuremberg and confirmed by Germany’s commitments. Thirty years after the war, the borders were declared inviolable, however unfair they might look to the descendants of those Europeans who had been through ethnic cleansing and displacement. Western Europe started building a new European identity that eased tensions over the jurisdiction of once disputed border regions. The past stopped to be an argument in global politics.

It seemed that World War II had laid the basis for a common understanding of where the borders of European civilization must lie. Although the European continent was separated by the Iron Curtain into two confronting sides throughout the postwar years, the Soviet Union not only controlled political processes in Eastern Europe, but also was part of it; nobody questioned to which civilization it belonged. General Charles de Gaulle, who was one of the victors, even talked about a natural dream of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals.”


That order started crumbling apart towards the end of last century. The children and grandchildren of the victorious generation called into question the black-and-white picture of World War II. In doing so they pointed to the participation of many of their compatriots in the Holocaust and other war crimes. In Germany, which adheres to the postwar narrative more closely than any other country, a debate erupted among historians (and promptly died down following a public outcry) who attempted to re-interpret the first half of the 20th century as a pan-European “civil war.” After the collapse of the Communist system and the Soviet Union, the practice of revising the past received a powerful boost from former Eastern European countries (which the local elites promptly renamed Central European nations).

As soon as Soviet ideological pressure and control ended, intellectuals and politicians in Central European countries and the Baltic States started revising their own national identities, while many post-Soviet countries faced the problem of nation-building “from scratch.”

Formulating a separate attitude to World War II was central to those endeavors. Indeed, the narrative of that war as a struggle between good and evil did not fit with the historical memory of those nations. In fact, in many of them the population was split. A considerable number of people had collaborated with the Nazis and with the pro-Soviet leaders of their respective countries in the postwar years. People were divided between two hostile camps and many of them had been involved in war crimes: some as victims, and others as their oppressors. The deep scars of that war still hurt. So reconciling a nation’s historical memory with the tragic past remained a problem. In some European countries World War II looked like an “imposed civil war.” For example, many Estonians served in the Red Army, while other Estonians fought in the German and Finnish armies, as well as against each other. Nation building meant reconciling the memory of those groups of people and a solution was found in declaring their countries as the victims of two external enemies, of two totalitarian regimes equally alien to local traditions and interests. That kind of interpretation made it possible to exempt national communities from responsibility for the regimes’ actions – even those committed in the territories of countries with local civilians taking part.

The Baltic countries have rehabilitated Waffen-SS veterans. While Western Europe has not seen marches by veterans of pro-Nazi forces on its streets, they do take place in Eastern Europe. Wartime memories have blended with the experience of the postwar decades. Many Central European and Baltic countries have created museums of “two occupations” or totalitarianism, which equate Nazi rule in the 1940s and the Socialist period of the late 1940s through 1989.

It was the program of nation building that demanded the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany be recognized as “two totalitarian regimes” equally responsible for World War II.

Obviously, this interpretation calls into question the moral basis of the postwar order, presenting it as the result of a temporary balance of power between superpowers. For that reason both Germany and the victor nations are very cautious about such revisions of history. Russia is unable to agree with this interpretation for obvious reasons: 27 million Soviet people died in the war against Nazi Germany. The sole reason why those deaths were not in vain is the ultimate victory over absolute evil. No other understanding of World War II will be accepted in Russia in the foreseeable future.

Even in post-Soviet countries, such as Armenia and Ukraine, whose history books describe the war as struggle for a right cause, many believe that collaboration by some national leaders with the Nazis can be excused. On the contrary, Russia is not prepared to consider World War II even partially as a civil conflict. In fact, the Russian narrative leaves no room for integrating Russian collaborationists with general history. Although there have been some attempts in Russia to do so, no one will ever include such facts in history books or the official narrative. Those visions of history are so different that reconciling the irreconcilable descriptions of World War II seems improbable.

In other words, attitudes towards the past stem from the current aims each European state pursues in its policies. Modern science maintains as normal the differences in the historical narrative offered by various historical actors, but it leaves the question of their coexistence to politicians. More important is the question: What picture of the past does the European community need today?


In the first post-Soviet years Russian political leaders proceeded from the assumption that they were building a common European home. Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1996 was a step in that direction. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Russian leaders repeatedly raised the issue of joining various integration projects in Europe, such as abolishing visas and even admission to NATO. However, the doors to European organizations were opened primarily to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, for whom their own European identity was largely determined through alienation from their eastern neighbor.

It is common knowledge that the easiest way to shape an identity is to choose an “Other” – a country or people with which to compare in order to define one’s self. Naturally, it was Russia, which for a long time enjoyed hegemony over a vast space that easily took the place of that Other in the eyes of most countries in the region. For several centuries Russia was an ideal Other for its neighbors: large, unpredictable, and with a very complicated history of relations with the peoples that had once been part of its empire or bordered on it. The national identity of today’s young people in these countries is often determined in terms of alienation and historical enmity. Reconsidering World War II and its results has become the most important argument in re-defining Russia as an external Other in relation to Europe.

In 1998, Poland established the state-run Institute of National Remembrance (INR), which has since become the leading institution in the region for formulating historical policies. That event heralded the launch of  “historical policy” (a term coined by Russian historian Alexei Miller). In the following decade INR approaches became widespread in many Central European countries. In 2008-2009, the European parliament (in response to a proposal from the Czech Republic) and, subsequently, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (following a request by Slovenia and Lithuania) voted to declare August 23 as European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. It is noteworthy that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s resolution was called “Divided Europe Reunited: Promoting Human Rights and Civil Liberties in the OSCE Region in the 21st Century.” The resolution was adopted despite objections from Russia, whose representatives argued it was very wrong to equate Stalinism and Nazism and place equal responsibility for starting World War II on Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Clear evidence of the latter was the decision to celebrate Remembrance Day on the date the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was signed (23 August 1939).

Remarkably, the idea of the “two totalitarian regimes’ similarity” by no means removes Russia from the list of European powers. If Germany is part of Europe, why should Russia not be considered part of Europe as well? However, in the context of identity revision by Central European countries, for which they are keen to compare themselves with their eastern neighbor, this approach draws a borderline between Russia and “European” states.

Russia ventured into the “historical policy” space much later than its neighbors, but it has made rapid headway over the past few years. The Russian authorities focus attention on the history of the Great Patriotic War. Potentially “risky” research attempts were first described as “falsifications of history to the detriment of Russia’s interests” and “denial of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II.” Starting from 2014, the vocabulary was complemented with “rehabilitation of Nazism,” a term borrowed from the Criminal Code. Scholars regard attempts by the state to dictate “proper” interpretations of World War II as intervention in their realm of competence, while in reality the government pursues foreign policy aims in its struggle with “the revision of history” to protect its place in Europe.

When it lost control over Central Europe, Russia was faced with the possibility that it might drop out of European space altogether. There is no place for Russia in the united Europe emerging on its Western borders. The border lies between Russia and its neighbors. Symbolic gestures, such as a turn towards China, by no means resolve the problem of Russia’s expulsion from Europe.


It is wrong to assume that only Russians find the new interpretations of World War II history worrisome. The new reassessment of the past also questions the postulate of the world community’s struggle with absolute evil as the cornerstone of the postwar consensus. Israel is alarmed over the possible relativization of the Holocaust and downgrading it from a unique crime of the 20th century to just one of many. The reconsideration of World War II history puts Western societies in front of a precarious dilemma. Britain, France, and the United States especially would like to retain the image of victors over absolute evil, but the very revision of the Soviet Union’s role makes that evil “not quite absolute” and the alliance with the Soviet Union less reasonable. Moreover, any shift in emphasis results in the loss of the moral aspect of that war. If it is to be assumed that the root cause of that war was a clash of dictatorships, then the role of democracies was confined to choosing the more dangerous one as an enemy, and not waging a crusade in a bid to do away with evil as such.

Besides, this interpretation is tantamount to shifting responsibility for the war onto “two totalitarian regimes,” while the West, as it seemed at a certain point, was unanimous about the common responsibility of European politicians for allowing the war to happen. The Munich Pact remains a dark stain on the reputation of Western European diplomacy, but the proposal to forget it altogether and focus on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact does not suit many Europeans who are scrupulous about gauging their own historical guilt. Whatever the case, it is the former Socialist bloc countries that have set the tone for determining the European stance on the issue, and this inevitably has a certain impact on the international climate.

The shadows of World War II are a cause of concern not only for former Soviet bloc countries. For instance, in the new Europe the economic and political role of Germany has grown noticeably, which gave Euro-integration opponents a pretext for using World War II history as a symbolic argument to compare Nazi aggression and today’s expansion of the European Union, the way it happened during the recent Greek protests against EU demands.


Russian society responded to the historical policies of Central European countries in different ways.

One response is represented, although not always consistently, by the Foreign Ministry, which insists on separating the question about what the Soviet Union was under Stalin (including its responsibility for international crimes, such as Katyn) and responsibility for starting World War II, including the role of the Red Army in liberating Europe from Nazism. That stance oversimplifies the problem, presenting it only as a “distortion of history.”

Russia reacted to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Declaration of 2009 not just as an attempt to equate Stalin to Hitler, but also to declare that the Red Army’s liberation of Europe was in no way different from the Nazi occupation. Both houses of the Russian parliament adopted a statement slamming the Vilnius Declaration as an insult to the memory of the millions who had given their lives for the liberation of Europe. That statement also pointed out that apart from 23 August 1939 (the day the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was signed) there were other such agreements, including the Munich Deal of 1938 and the policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. At the time, the Western powers in fact presented Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The resolution also mentioned the attempt to replace the results of World War II with the outcome of the Cold War and to reconsider the rulings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg.

Arguing that the Russian legislators misinterpreted the Vilnius Declaration, the Russian public association Memorial criticized the Russian parliamentary resolution. Memorial contended that the Vilnius Declaration in no way insulted the memory of those who perished in World War II because they were not part or property of the Stalinist regime. It was Memorial that addressed the countries of post-Soviet Eurasia in March 2008 with a message concerning the conflicting “national images of the past” and “memory wars.” Memorial suggested convening an International Historical Forum to exchange ideas about 20th-century history in Eastern and Central Europe. Regrettably, that initiative went nowhere.

Treating any revision of historical narrative as a “distortion of history” is tantamount to taking a disadvantageous position, as it presupposes the existence of some “canonical” understanding of past events. A diversity of views on history is inevitable, falsifications of historical sources excluded of course. Establishing a canonical understanding of World War II – and the Russian government appears to be moving in this direction – will be impossible by orders from above or by decree. In the modern information space a common attitude to war can take shape only through public dialogue. In the meantime, in the context of current international relations this does not seem likely. Apparently, one should expect different stories of World War II to coexist with the current generation of Europeans, varying from country to country. The task of politicians should not be to pressure for their own interpretations, but take World War II debates out of the sphere of current politics. Germans, Russians, Poles, and Italians today are not the people who displayed heroism or committed crimes 70 years ago. We may take pride in acts of bravery or grieve over crimes, but the new Europe should be built on the basis of what we have in common.

Two other responses to the pressure of the new narrative proceed from recognizing the similarity of the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Opinions vary only in who was good and who was bad. Some excuse Germany and Hitler for their actions before they attacked the Soviet Union (or at least before the beginning of World War II). In 2008, Russia’s Military Historical Magazine published an article by military historian Colonel Sergei Kovalyov, who in fact blamed the beginning of World War II on Poland, which ostensibly refused to accept Germany’s “fair demands” in 1939. A high profile row followed and the article was removed from the magazine’s website, but the incident showed that the logic of debate with the “new narrative” might go too far. In an article published in Izvestia in April 2014, Russian political scientist Andranik Migranian tried to whitewash pre-1939 Hitler, who in that period was a “collector of German lands” and did not deserve the condemnation his later policies entailed. In that case, too, public outcry forced the author to present more detailed explanations and partially disavow his earlier remarks.

Another argument why the two totalitarian regimes should be recognized as identical twins comes from the liberal public, which claims that in this way Russian society can be cleared of the consequences of Stalinism, including the low level of protection the individual has from arbitrariness by the authorities. This includes the wide powers granted to secret services and restrictions on rights and freedoms.

At this point in our discussion we come to the most important problem. Inside Russia the debate over World War II has acquired a special nature: the old-time split between the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists has been projected onto the international agenda. The Stalinists position themselves as allies of the state in the struggle against the “new narrative,” which claims that Stalin and Hitler were very much alike. Their critics insist that although such a comparison may have some reasonable grounds, Stalinism and the Soviet people’s heroism and victory in the war should be regarded separately.

Conversely, whereas in domestic policies the anti-Stalinists try to place people’s wartime heroism and the Stalinist regime far apart, while the Stalinists argue that without Stalin victory would have been impossible, those politicians in neighboring countries who use the theory of two totalitarian regimes in fact team up with the Russian Stalinists. Indeed, by refusing to agree that the Red Army’s victory meant Europe’s liberation from Nazism and by describing World War II as a clash of two totalitarian regimes, they contribute to associating the Soviet people’s heroism with the regime’s repressive policies.


In response to “the revision of the history of WWII” Russian propaganda and society to a rather large extent have displayed confrontational attitudes. On the one hand, at Victory Day celebrations in the past several years Russians increasingly referred to the victory over Nazi Germany exclusively as past events. The “privatization” of the victory and its re-definition as “a victory over Europe” in works by some Russian historical policy activists in fact revive a mirror image of the myth of Nazi Germany’s “civilizing mission,” which allegedly spread European values among the peoples of Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, in this context the heightened international tensions that Russia agreed to permit in 2014 may be explained as an attempt to “remain European” at least as a source of Europe’s headache. Meanwhile, such aggravation has accelerated the symbolic unification of Europeans in the face of a “threat from the East.” Russia played precisely the kind of game Central Europeans had accused it of playing in previous decades. In addition, Russian propaganda in 2014 was careless enough to employ World War II vocabulary, including such terms as “Nazis” and “punitive squads” in Ukraine and to describe the outcome of World War II not as victory over Nazi Germany, but as the defeat of Europe, “whose values are alien to the Russian people.” Thus, the division today falls back into the past. Evaluations of the Soviet Union’s policies in the 1930s-1940s and those of Russia in the 2010s influence each other.

It is essential that we understand that the problem of European identity and WWII memory will still exist even if Russia’s domestic and foreign policies undergo fundamental changes. The current conflict is pouring oil onto the fire of the division, but it is not the root cause.

The memory of World War II helped create Europe’s common history. As it fades, other “places of memory” should be created. Deriving current policies from history is wrong. Instead, political goals for a safe future should be formulated without looking back on the past. Only then will it be possible to find a historical basis for building a common European home where Russia will take a suitable place.