The War Against the Nazis: A Source of Cold War Antagonism and Current Superpower Conflicttags: World War II, Russia, Putin, Nazi, Ukraine
WWII Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2014
In the conflict in Ukraine, information is a major weapon. Those vying for power in both east and west not only make it a priority to control the media, especially the television broadcasts, in their respective sectors, but also show little hesitation about distorting or even inventing breaking news in order to play for the sympathies of a wider audience outside the country. History is part of this information war, and this weekend, the anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe, promises to be a particularly tense time – with the four-day holiday providing space and alcohol-inflamed opportunity for chauvinistic displays among the poor and underemployed men who make up the most “committed” cadres of extreme nationalists on either side of the political struggle. In addition, the commemoration of what both Ukrainians and Russians call “Victory Day” (and what we, in the U.S., denote as V-E Day and honor with far less fanfare than August 15, 1945, which marked the end of war against Japan) provides a key symbolic moment for each group to advertise its own alleged moral superiority – with both supporters of the Kiev government in the west and separatists in the east casting themselves as the true descendants of those who heroically did battle against a cruel and repressive dictatorship.
For the U.S. and Russia, the two superpowers who have taken such an “interest” in Ukraine’s political turmoil, V-E Day could be upheld as a past example of successful diplomacy and as a model for future collaboration in resolving today’s crisis. After all, it stands for a moment when East and West worked together – as part of the “Big Three” coalition of the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR – to bring down Adolf Hitler. Yet even the initial V-E Day in May of 1945 was an imperfect joint triumph, one marred by troubling indications of just how quickly a U.S.-Russian alliance could dissolve and one global cataclysm spill into another.
The sad fact is that the Big Three allies do not even commemorate the same Victory Day – with the U.S. and Great Britain celebrating on May 8, and Russia and the other former Soviet republics on May 9. As the war in Europe wound down, Wehrmacht commanders preferred to yield to the Americans – as noted in New York Times headlines reading “Pattern of Reich’s End: Surrender in West with Resistance in East Appears to be German Plan.” On May 7, 1945, military leaders capitulated unconditionally in France, at a red schoolhouse in Reims that served as the headquarters for U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s sensibilities were not completely ignored: journalists present were banned from reporting the event for 36 hours and told that Allied leaders wished to make a synchronized victory announcement. But when the Associated Press broke the story without authorization, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman both declared an end to the European war on May 8, in proud speeches to their respective nations. The Russians, however, remained silent. Red Army troops were still fighting in Prague and, as one journalist noted, “When Mr. Churchill was addressing the British people, the Moscow radio was imperturbably broadcasting its usual ‘children’s music hour.’” Stalin proclaimed victory only on May 9, after the terms of surrender were ratified in Berlin and signed by the legendary Soviet war hero Marshal Gennady Zhukov, who had engineered the successful defenses of Moscow and Stalingrad, then led the Red Army westward into Germany.
Thus one can argue that the Cold War began even before the Second World War came to an end. Certainly in Soviet popular culture, the two different victory days indicated Western determination to take undue credit for “liberating Europe” after the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 7, 1944. Many years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it a priority to remind the western world both of the extent of Red Army heroism in fighting the Nazis virtually alone on the European continent for more than three years, and of the degree to which Russia’s contribution to the defeat of Hitler had been minimized in western histories during the Cold War era. In 2005, Putin invited over 50 national leaders to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, prompting a flood of positive press around the world, with U.S. President George Bush, for example, lauding “the great bravery and sacrifice of the Russian people.”
U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin wave to the press, following a ride in Putin’s 1956 Volga on the eve of Victory Day celebrations in Moscow in 2005.
Initially allied with Nazi Germany in a “marriage of convenience” from 1939-1941, the Soviet Union was notoriously taken unawares when on June 22, 1941 the Wehrmacht launched the largest invasion the world had ever seen, unleashing four million men, 3300 tanks, and 5000 airplanes in a surprise attack against their purported “partner.” During the first four months of combat, the Germans captured territory twice the size of France, containing half of Soviet industry, 40% of the country’s grain production, and 60% of its livestock. They also took some three million Soviet soldiers prisoner, most of whom were left to starve in vast barbed-wire pens under open air. Moscow came so close to falling that first winter of 1941 that NKVD operatives secretly smuggled the corpse of Vladimir Lenin out of the mausoleum built alongside Kremlin walls and shipped it, in the dead of night, to the small Siberian town of Omsk for safekeeping. On November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Soviet troops paraded through Red Square in front of Stalin – then continued to march directly to frontline barracks, just a few miles away. The fate of Europe hung in the balance. At the time, citizens in England and the U.S., even those with staunch anti-Communist credentials, began to lavish praise on Red Army military accomplishments. Ultimately, many came to hope that the Soviets might, somehow, manage to hold out against the Nazis until the western Allies could open a second European front – something that leaders cautioned would take time. Newspaper articles in Britain mournfully noted the vast amount of work needed to transform their nation's "power to hold the line" into the “power to strike with deadly force."
Nevertheless, and whether justified or no, many Soviet citizens came to resent the Western Allies for failing to launch a full-scale European invasion more quickly. From 1941 to 1944, Red Army troops sarcastically referred to SPAM, cans of bright-pink lunch meat flown in from the United States through the Lend-Lease program, as “the Western Front.” And when the invasion of Normandy finally began, although Soviet forces joined the U.S. and Great Britain in jubilant thanksgiving, many also believed the operation had come only after the Red Army – following bloody but decisive triumphs at Stalingrad and Kursk – had already insured Nazi defeat. One cartoon printed in Soviet newspapers during the week after D-Day showed Hitler as a rat, with his head caught in a Russian trap and a British-American sword belatedly descending upon its defenseless backside.
Soviet media also drew public attention to the way Western coverage of the war changed in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. In part, this shift was driven not by anti-Soviet sentiment as much as by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic political concerns. Afraid of losing popular support for a military operation which he feared could involve significant U.S. casualties (with American troops still locked in horrific combat against the Japanese and many U.S. citizens still ambivalent about the merits of a direct attack on Germany), Roosevelt was determined to have the D-Day invasion generate positive headlines and a wave of patriotism. Thus he oversaw the launching of a tremendous public-relations campaign (similar to that practiced by the U.S. during the Second Gulf War), in which a handful of reporters such as a young Walter Cronkite sailed or flew across the English Channel with U.S. troops, under fire, and a larger press corps followed behind a day later, to march with Eisenhower through France along what they came to term a “highway of liberty.” Red Army exploits in the East disappeared from U.S. headlines, and, instead, D-Day was almost immediately mythologized as “the climactic battle of World War Two” and the turning point of the war. (Time Magazine’s 60th anniversary tribute to WWII called D-Day the “24 Hours that Saved the World.”) Western papers, both at the time and then later, failed to report that at the moment of the Normandy invasion, Germany had only 15 divisions stationed in the West and fewer than 15 in Northern Africa, but a whopping 228 engaged along the Eastern Front. However, Soviet citizens were keenly aware of such disparities.
Nazis worked to exploit such tensions among the Allies during the final months of war.
As two armies marched on Berlin, one from the West and one from the East, Nazi propaganda markedly shifted from advertising Aryan racial superiority to emphasizing the threat that a Red Army victory would pose for all of Europe and urging the world to stand together with Germany in facing down Soviet Communism. Posters such as the one below ignored the Reich’s five-year occupation of western Europe (much less the extermination of Europe’s Jews), choosing, instead, to portray Nazi Germany as but a single, albeit courageous, member of a team of independent European nations, locked in a ferocious war pitting all of Christian civilization on the continent against an approaching godless, barbaric, Russo-Soviet, Goliath-like monster.
Nazi war poster from early 1945, reading, in Dutch, “Europe is Under Attack” and urging volunteers from all countries “to join in the fight against Bolshevism.”
Such propaganda obviously did not succeed in breaking up the Big Three. But during the decades of superpower hostility and global competition that followed on the heels of Hitler’s defeat, the idea that the Nazis had almost succeeded in persuading the U.S. to join forces with the Reich in fighting off the Red Army grew to become a powerful part of Soviet popular imagination. In 1973, the country’s most successful television series in history, “17 Moments of Spring,” was organized around this single plotline. The show revolves around one Max Otto von Stierlitz, the USSR’s most famous fictional double agent, who, when the series opens in February of 1945, has been working undercover as a Nazi for many years. His courageous acts of espionage throughout the war have, we are told, saved trainloads of Jews from Auschwitz, kept the Polish city of Krakow from being razed, and foiled German development of the atomic bomb. Such events, however, cannot compare with “the most important mission of Stierlitz’s career” and the subject of the entire 14-hour saga – namely, his assignment to disrupt secret peace negotiations taking place in Switzerland between representatives for Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler and then-intelligence officer (later CIA director) Allen Dulles. This story was a work of fiction, but it resonated deeply with Soviet audiences, deriving some of its believability from a record the U.S. had by then acquired of supporting proto-fascist leaders in order to defeat Communist ones in countries ranging from Greece to Nicaragua during the Cold War – and even of protecting upper-level Nazis like Klaus Barbie during the post-WWII years in exchange for information against Communist agitators in France and Italy or would-be revolutionaries further afield like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Understanding such historical background is not to excuse either Soviet actions in eastern Europe after WWII or those of Russia in Ukraine today. Yet such details perhaps help explain why Russia’s way of framing the Ukraine conflict plays so well to its domestic audience and continues to sustain Putin’s 80% approval ratings even in the face of European sanctions. In March, Kremlin-sponsored referendum posters in the Crimea portrayed the choice citizens on the peninsula were facing as one between Nazi fascism or Russian unity.
Crimean referendum poster, in Russian, reading: “On March 16, we will chose one or the other.”
Russian news broadcasts today are similarly designed to reawaken viewers’ memories of the Soviet struggle during World War Two, as well as of the atrocities perpetrated during the late 1940s by Ukrainian nationalists who embraced many of Hitler’s racist ideals and continued to fight guerilla-style for liberation from Soviet rule in the years following the Third Reich’s surrender. Current coverage of acknowledged horrors such as the death of over 40 pro-Russian demonstrators in an Odessa fire is marred by exaggerations designed to fuel viewer outrage by linking, ever more tightly, the present to the past. The story is peppered with grotesque, fictionalized details deliberately intended to evoke Nazi-era barbarity – such as reports that everyone who tried to escape from the burning Trade Union building by jumping from windows was either strangled or shot, and that pro-Ukrainian fascists rifled through the charred corpses for valuables with impunity.
Moreover, the imagery of Russians fighting Nazis is also intended to conjure up popular Soviet ideas (absorbed from 1970s television, if nothing else) of alleged Western willingness to collaborate with fascists against those who would champion the rights of the world's working poor. Russian media coverage of Ukraine plays up this second angle, as well, focusing on purported Western conspiracies to install an anti-Russian government in the neighboring country. (News stories make repeated reference, for instance, to diplomat Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone call discussing U.S. “preferences” for a new Ukraine President, a recent visit to Kiev by CIA director John Brennan, and alleged “crowds” of U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground in Ukraine, said to be providing assistance to the interim regime). Just as Putin came to power very aware of Western failure to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s full contribution to the war against Hitler, so, too, is he similarly conscious of and insulted by current Western unwillingness to admit that Russia is essential to any stable solution in Ukraine – and he seems determined to mobilize historical memory to convince at least his own citizens otherwise, to justify his annexation of Crimea and his mobilization of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, and to highlight the purported strength of pro-Russian sentiment inside eastern Ukraine (sentiment that the Kremlin seems to be at least indirectly encouraging).
The Ukrainians, for their part, are playing a similarly calculated game of selective history, presenting their country as victim of both Hitler and Stalin and as a land, post-1945, not of Soviet partnership but of unwilling occupation. Anxious to hold on to western sympathies (and thereby to secure giant amounts of financial aid), Kiev’s interim leaders are quick not only to associate Putin with Hitler, but also to present themselves as “true democrats” – in power thanks to a Maidan liberation movement of a piece with earlier Eastern Europe struggles against Soviet domination, like the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the Czech-led Prague Spring of 1968, or the Polish formation of Solidarity in 1980. Ironically, while the Ukrainian parliamentarians celebrate their own ties to such moments of heroic resistance, they make sure never to cast eastern separatists as resistance fighters (however misguided), but instead refer to them, far less sympathetically, as despicable traitors. In a P.R. move that rivals the Russians’ invocation of fighting Nazis, the new Ukrainian leadership claims it is fighting terrorists, in terms designed to play on the emotions of a U.S. television audience. And in what also feels like a highly suspect effort to inflame popular U.S. fears of the role of radical Islam in terrorist activities, Ukrainian groups are also suddenly emphasizing the number of Chechens allegedly working with Russians in leading separatist insurgencies.
The U.S., with much of its own political leadership apparently unable to see outside of tired Cold-War tropes, has uncritically replicated much of this Kiev-disseminated language and symbolism. In a CNN interview, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski went so far as to suggest that the U.S. should provide western Ukrainians with weapons in order to encourage them to put up as much of a fight as possible against Russian intervention. He even argued that such a strategy would draw on lessons learned from the Vietnam War, when, he said, Russians had repeatedly supplied armaments to the North Vietnamese, allowing them to kill “thousands and thousands” of Americans. This time around, he argued, the Americans could be the ones supplying the weapons – his implication presumably being that, bolstered by such U.S. "support," Ukrainians could go on to gun down thousands and thousands of their Russian foes.
While politicians invested in the Ukraine story manipulate history to awaken public memory, to play for sympathy, or to fuel easy fears, the realities on the ground defy such neat moral packaging. Ukraine is not full of Nazis, and Russia is not bent on reconstructing the Soviet Union. Leaders on all sides are playing dirty pool (with even U.S. claims that “the fate of Ukraine should be left up to Ukraine’s citizens” ringing as something more than just a tad insincere). Meanwhile, most ordinary people in Ukraine remain ambivalent about all forms of politics. They want to avoid war, and they want a future with brighter economic prospects for themselves and their children. Their decisions to vote “pro-West” or “pro-East” have little to do with either personal safety or political ideals and much more to do with which side seems to offer more prosperity. They are skeptical that any leadership change will be able to bring about significant reform, and they are disillusioned by the superpower struggle that rages around them. For these people – neither the young, admirable, internet-savvy liberals in cities such as Kiev and Lvov, nor the hardline, trigger-happy militants in East and West, but the more ordinary, less-visible middle-aged working poor – Victory Day is a sad moment, commemorating a time of triumph and unity that seems increasingly distant today.
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