The 80th Anniversary of World War II: Mixing Victims in With Perpetrators

Now 80 years after the start of the war, Europe nations grapple with their past, turning Nazi collaborators into national heroes

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and and wife Sara,visit the Menorah monument in Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops machine-gunned many thousands of Jews during WWII, in Kiev, Ukraine, August 19, 2019.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and and wife Sara,visit the Menorah monument in Babi Yar ravine where Nazi troops machine-gunned many thousands of JewCredit: Efrem Lukatsky,AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

At a memorial ceremony held in Ukraine in August for the Jews murdered at Babi Yar during World War II, participants including a Jewish prime minister (Benjamin Netanyahu) and a Jewish president (Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine). Nevertheless, no mention was made of the central role played by Ukrainians in that valley of death in which tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered and that became a symbol of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union.

The two Jewish leaders laid wreaths at the memorial. Netanyahu said, “It is hard to believe that this beautiful forest saw the horror that happened here, and even repeated the well-known claim that “it is our constant duty to stand against murderous ideologies in order to ensure that there will never be another Babi Yar.” But his only reference to the involvement of the victims’ Ukrainian neighbors in the massacre was a vague statement that it was carried out by “the Nazis and their collaborators,” without identifying their nationality.

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Anyone seeking to learn more about what happened at Babi Yar can go to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and read the testimony of one of the highest-ranking Nazi officers at the site, who related that “Loads of denunciations [revealing the location] of hidden Jews by the Ukrainian population hostilely disposed toward the Jews arrived at the office of the commander of the Security Police [of Kiev]. The number of denunciations was so large that the office was unable to process them all due to the lack of personnel.”

“One might have expected an Israeli prime minister visiting Babi Yar to mention that the massacre was carried out not only by the Nazis but also by the Ukrainians,” the Israeli political scientist and former director general of the Foreign Ministry, Prof. Shlomo Avineri, said this week. Eighty years after the start of World War II, on September 1, 1939, Avineri calls on European states and peoples “to take moral accountability and to look in the mirror” regarding their role in the war, “particularly in light of the rise in racism, ultranationalism and authoritarianism today.”

Avineri remembers what many European countries try to forget and to cause to be forgotten. Some of those who today denounce the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews are the nations that took part in them, sometimes despite themselves being victims of the Nazis. “Because of the atrocities of the Nazis, it’s been forgotten somewhat that there were racist and fascist tendencies in every state in Europe, including those that were victims of Nazi Germany,” Avineri says.

Ukraine is just one of many examples of the struggle over the memory of World War II and against forgetting and the twisting of facts taking place today throughout Europe. The American-born Israeli historian and Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff points an accusing finger at Ukrainian politicians. He argues that they are responsible for Ukraine’s being “one of the worst offenders in terms of distorting the history of the Holocaust and glorifying individuals who collaborated with the Nazis in implementing the Final Solution.”

While Poland has been highly criticized in recent months over the “Holocaust Law,” which threatened a possible prison sentence for anyone who claimed that the Polish nation cooperated with the Nazis, Ukraine’s passage a similar law largely slipped under the radar.

In 2015, the parliament in Kiev approved a number of laws prohibiting criticism of those who fought for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century, despite the fact that militias established by “one of the most important movements that sought to achieve statehood were active participants in the wave of anti-Jewish violence which swept Western Ukraine during the weeks following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941,” Zuroff says. He does not hide his criticism of Netanyahu for thanking Zelensky and his government, in his remarks at Babi Yar, “for your efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.”

The struggle over history has not remained only on paper. Throughout Ukraine are sculptures and monuments commemorating Ukrainian who collaborated with the Nazis. The birthday of one of the most famous of them — Stepan Bandera, who headed a militant wing of the Ukrainian independence movement, was recently declared a national holiday.

In Lithuania a very charged public debate has raged for a number of months over the commemoration of two national heroes, who in addition to their heroic actions also persecuted Lithuanian Jews. In July, Vilna removed a memorial plaque in the city center to Jonas Noreika, who is commemorated in monuments and street names throughout the country. Noreika, who is remembered in his homeland for courageously fighting the Communists, has a few dark stains in his biography that his admirers tried to remove. They include signing the order that sent thousands of Jews to ghettos and “willingly played a role in cleansing Lithuania of Jews,” as his own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, has claimed.

A few days before the plaque was removed, the city council decided to rename a street named in honor of the anti-Semitic Lithuanian military officer Kazys Skirpa. “If we want to be glad and proud to have a city that is open and respectful to all people, we can’t display extraordinary signs of respect to someone who said, ‘Let’s take the opportunity to get rid of all Jews and create an oppressive atmosphere so that they wouldn’t even think they could have rights in Lithuania’,” the mayor said after the council meeting.

So how is it that 80 years after the start of the war, there are still conflicting stories regarding the roles played in it by various nations, so that the victims are mixed with perpetrators and Nazi collaborators turn into national heroes? Robert Rozett, a senior historian in Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, explains that since the fall of the Communist regime, the former Communist states in Eastern Europe have experienced an identity crisis, and they seek to reinvent their past “in order to serve the identity they want to build today.” Often, he says, “in order to glorify certain elements of the past, they gloss over other chapters, among other things at the expense of their part in what happened to Jews.”

Rozett understands the rationale behind this, even if he criticizes it fiercely. “If you want to build a national identity, you cannot address the bad things that happened within your society, so you twist it slightly, to minimize and to emphasize the positive, not the negative,” he says.

“Every national group needs a useful past, the kind that can be used to reinforce self-identity and the feeling that “We’re OK,” adds Prof. Yehuda Bauer, one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars. “There are no actual lies here, but rather a distortion that does not always come from bad intentions,” he explains. As an example, he points to the collective American memory according to which the U.S. “joined World War II in order to protect democracy.” That’s not a lie, Bauer says: “It’s a complete distortion. The Americans didn’t join the war, they were dragged in after they were attacked by the Japanese, and they didn’t beat the Germans, rather they contributed to the Soviet victory against them.”

Nor did Russia line up on the side of historical truth. “The Russian conversation on the topic of the war is very shallow and one-dimensional,” says Vera Michlin-Shapir, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It serves only [President Vladimir] Putin’s goal of glorifying the victory of the Soviet Union and its positive role in saving humanity from the Nazis. Any attempt to show other sides of the war is immediately presented as heresy.”

The list includes avoiding discussion of sensitive topics such as the extent of the sacrifices made by Soviet soldiers and civilians under the Stalin regime during the war. One particularly charged subject in this respect is the German siege of Leningrad, which lasted nearly 900 days and claimed the lives of some 750,000 civilians. An attempt by a Russian TV channel a few years ago to ask whether this sacrifice could have been avoided were it not for Stalin’s stubbornness led to what Michlin-Shapir calls a “witch hunt” and nearly caused the station’s closure.

But it isn’t only divisive questions that are at the center of the Russian culture of memory. There is also actual historical invention, when it serves the narrative that the current regime holds sacred. In this regard Michlin-Shapir mentions the legend of Panfilov’s guardsmen, a mythical story of heroism based on a journalist’s falsification. At its center is a battle that was supposedly waged by 28 soldiers against a German tank assault on the outskirts of Moscow in late 1941. “Even after it became clear that it was a baseless myth, there were politicians who said it had to be left alone due to the sacredness of the memory,” she says.

Countries that suffered under the Communist regime are not rushing to adopt the idea that Russia liberated Europe from the Nazi occupation. In recent years Polish monuments exalting the heroism of the Soviet Union have been pulled down to the dismay of the Russians, who say this constitutes the physical erasure of historical memory.

“The presence of the destruction caused by World War II in Poland is part of the identity and the self-image of Poland today,” says Prof. Havi Dreifuss, a scholar of the Polish Holocaust at Tel Aviv University and Yad Vashem. “Poland remembers itself as having defended Eastern Europe against Nazism and Western Europe against Communism, and as having been — as it indeed was — a victim of both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia,” she says.

“It’s appropriate and necessary to speak about the Polish victims, but” — and it’s a big “but,” she says — later in the war, additional aspects are added to the stories of Polish heroism and victimization.” She means, in part, recent research by Polish historians “about the very great involvement of Polish civilians, throughout Poland, in the Holocaust.”

Alongside Poland’s thousands of Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews, were also many Nazi collaborators, whose exact numbers are a subject of fierce debate today.

“The situation is complicated: Sometimes the same person who fought against the Nazi invasion of Poland went on to help the Nazis to hurt Jews,” Dreifuss says. She says she is sorry that the Polish government, which “is justifiably proud of the heroism of its citizens during the war, at the same time engages in whitewashing instead of exposing the truth about the hard reality of those days.”

Under President Viktor Orban, Hungary is experiencing a similar tension between memory and forgetting. Much of the debate revolves around the figure of Miklos Horthy, the country’s leader during the Holocaust. He is revered as a national hero despite the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the death camps during his time in office. After Germany conquered Hungary, in March 1944, Horthy appointed a government that did the Nazis’ bidding, paving the way for the deportation of half a million Hungarian Jews who were later murdered in the camps. A few months later, however, Horthy ordered an end to the deportations, under international pressure.

There are hundreds of monuments and plaques commemorating Horthy throughout Hungary, and last year a plan to hold a memorial for him on International Holocaust Remembrance Day was scuttled by the government. The deputy speaker of the parliament was to have praised Horthy for his “bravery in defending the Jews of Budapest with arms and opposing Hitler to the best of his ability.”

The picture in Western Europe is different. Countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands, and recently Finland as well, have addressed the less heroic parts of their past, after decades during which they saw themselves as heroic rescuers of Jews or portrayed the Germans as the only war criminals. Expressions of this new reckoning can be seen in the compensation funds established by railway companies and various private and government committees of inquiry that are courageously contending with the problematic past.

What about Germany itself, which exactly 80 years ago invaded Poland? “Thanks to their very good work over the years, Germans today are the least involved with remembering September 1, 1939,” says Prof. Moshe Zimmermann of Hebrew University. “They have already dealt with the past, expressed remorse and become world champions at it,” he adds.

But even in Germany one can hear other voices, far from the mainstream led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, voices that call for a reexamination of the country’s policy regarding its memory of the war. “In the German right there are those who are trying to free themselves of the pressure of memory by making a 180-degree turnaround in historical consciousness,” Zimmermann says. He brings up in this regard the far-right nationalist Alternative for Germany party, whose co-leader dismissed the 12 years of the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop” in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.

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