The politics of history: how the perception of WW II shapes political debates on Eastern Europe

Peace in Europe can be based only on equal rights to social, political, and economic development for all.

History – and perceptions of it – are always prone to politicisation. In Germany, history is a particularly sensitive issue: its dark Nazi past demands that whatever government is in power pay close attention to the lessons of history. However, like any other country, Germany has specific readings of history that usually undergird particular policies. The politicisation of the Soviet victory in World War II by the current Russian government – and the debates it has triggered in Germany – illustrates the divergence of historical narratives in Germany and Russia which coincides with their increasing political estrangement from one another.

Like any other country, Germany has specific readings of history that usually undergird particular policies.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, West Germans paid no attention to the crimes and horrors of the war in the east. Many Germans perceived the fight against the Soviets as legitimate (Nazi propaganda depicted it as a defensive war and, with the Wehrmacht on the defensive after 1943, the depiction seemed to match reality for ordinary Germans). This narrative went unchallenged until the 1970s, because it fitted the Western orientation of the young Federal Republic. Hitler’s imperialist policies towards Eastern Europe, and German-Soviet complicity in them, were not at the heart of German Vergangenheitsbewältigung (its “struggle to come to terms with the past”) either, because the primary victims – Poland and the Czech Republic – were Warsaw Pact “enemies” locked away behind the Iron Curtain, and Germans displaced from those countries who resettled in West Germany had a rather revanchist attitude.

In East Germany, Germans were exposed to the Soviet version of history: they credited only the Soviet Union with victory over Nazi Germany, they portrayed the Allied countries as complicit with Nazi Germany, and ignored the pre-1941 cooperation between the Soviet Union and Germany in dividing and conquering Europe. Soviet propaganda also discredited all but communist resistance to the Nazis: the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) was either discredited as anti-Semitic and complicit with the Germans or simply forgotten, as was Ukrainian nationalist resistance.

The end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany brought about the reunification of historical narratives too. The German narrative of the 1990s was a mix of both legacies: the Soviet role in World War II was acknowledged, Operation Barbarossa was (rightfully) denounced and delegitimised as a war of aggression, and German guilt and the extent of Nazi war crimes in the east was admitted. But previous blind spots of German history were filled with the Soviet view of history. German-Soviet cooperation from 1922 to 1941 was whitewashed or ignored, non-Russian resistance to Nazi Germany was treated with great suspicion, and the non-Russian victims of Germany’s war of annihilation in the east were forgotten. The controversial Wehrmachtsausstellung (“German army exhibition”), which exposed the German war of annihilation to a broader audience and helped shape the historical debate in the 1990s, pretended that Germany’s war of annihilation started in 1941 – as if the German campaign against Poland wasn’t part of that war or as if Hitler’s Germany hadn’t committed genocide against the Poles. This Russia-centric view of history was reinforced by a one-sided view of the German unification process: the role of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was overemphasised, while the role of the Polish Solidarity movement in defeating communism was almost ignored.

This Russia-centric view of history was reinforced by a one-sided view of the German unification process: the role of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was overemphasised.

This distorted view of history underlay the intellectual attitude of the Gerhard Schröder-led “Russia first” policy practised in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then, Germany’s ability to come to terms with its past was often directly linked to the nature of the German-Russian political relationship. With Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine, that era of fraternisation is over. The events commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II on 8–9 May might well have marked the end of Germany’s Russia-centric view on history.

Among scholars and historians, the abuse of history by both the Soviets and the Putin regime is well known and widely illustrated. German historians have paid more attention recently to the fate of the non-Russian states during World War II: the European victims of National Socialism such as Poland and the Czech Republic, and the successor states of the Soviet Union such as Ukraine and Belarus. By creating ever greater restrictions on and political obstacles to historical research and debate within Russia, Putin himself has contributed to the diversification of the German academic debate. Ordinary Germans are disgusted by the degree of nationalism, militarism, and chauvinism on display during Russia’s Victory Day commemorations, the blunt abuse of World War II history, and the use of symbols to justify military aggression in Ukraine and to legitimise repression at home. Meanwhile, German newspapers and television stations have picked up the academic discussion about Putin’s distortion of Soviet history and expanded the audience for this debate. Berlin’s much-improved relations with Warsaw, as well as the recent conflict in Ukraine, have cast new light on the history, tragedy, and atrocity of World War II beyond Russia.

Still, the practical lessons for contemporary politics remain disputed. Leftist forces as well as German nationalists want to stick to the Russia-centric memory of Germany’s role in World War II – otherwise they would at once have to respect Germany’s eastern neighbours. No wonder that on 9 May Putinversteher (“Putin-emphasisers”) such as Social Democratic Party politician Matthias Platzeck spoke at rallies that united hardcore communists, Germanic nationalists, and plenty of Russian “tourists” flown in for the memorial events. The “historic guilt” of Germany over Russia remains one of the most influential arguments for calling for détente with, or an “understanding” of, the Russian position within the German policy debate.

This makes handling the memorial events in Russia a difficult task. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier avoided the official celebrations in Moscow on 9 May, but travelled on different dates to different places. Yet both were confronted with Russia’s abuse of history – most notably when Putin once again justified the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in front of Merkel. Russia’s view of history is not about reconciliation nor about learning from the past in particular. It is a political tool to mobilise society for a new era of Russian imperialism. In Germany, on the other hand, “never again” is the central tenet of all reflections on the Second World War – even the flawed ones. Hence the paths and purposes of commemorating the past in Germany and Russia have diverged beyond repair. For the German debate, there is an opportunity to draw lessons from chapters that have been underrepresented in previous historical narratives. Namely, that enduring peace in Europe can be based only on equal rights to security and on social, political, and economic development for all Europeans. And that imposing spheres of influence is the first step on the bloody road to disaster.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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