The documentary Night will Fall tells the story of German Concentration Camps Factual Survey, a film made by the Allied forces who filmed the scenes of the Nazi concentration camps as they liberated them.
The film was intended to be shown to the German public immediately after World War II, but could not be finished. The part that was not completed depicted the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz, liberated by the Soviet Red Army and filmed by Soviet camera crews. The Soviets’ role in liberating those camps, and the newsreels they made about them, became problematic for the British team making the documentary as the Soviet Union moved from being seen as a wartime ally to a Cold War adversary.
Only now has the film been restored. But even today, the Soviet section posed the Imperial War Museum team in the UK a challenge. They had to overcome the proliferation of confusion and myths about the Soviets’ liberation of the Nazi camps, because the footage contradicted the dominant Western view of the war and the Holocaust.
This confusion is evident in a recent article by Anthony Beevor, the popular British historian. In it he claims that the reports the Soviets published about Majdanek did not mention Jewish victims. But they did. Beevor also erroneously claims that the Soviets released no details about the liberation of Auschwitz until after the war. In fact, the Communist Party daily newspaper Pravda published an article about Auschwitz shortly after its capture by the Red Army in January 1945.
These kinds of distortions are often simply due to careless scholarship. But in some cases they are indicative of the difficulty in assimilating the place of the Soviet Union, and of Russia, with our Western understanding of the Holocaust – as history’s warning of extremism and the need for democracy. The Soviets’ role in the war and in the liberation of the camps is distorted and even ignored because it is an inconvenience to this Western understanding.
It is in this context that we should view the row about Russian representation at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Vladimir Putin will not go – and it appeared he had deliberately snubbed the event (although now Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov will attend the ceremony).
The controversy was further stoked by Polish and Ukrainian politicians claiming that it was not Russians but Ukrainians who liberated the camp. Wrong again. The Red Army was organised into fronts with geographical designations (such as the 1st Ukrainian front, the troops that liberated Auschwitz). These names, however, do not refer to the ethnic composition of the units, which were dominated, as was the Red Army as a whole, by Russians.
The political purpose of arguing that it was not Russians, but Ukrainians who liberated the camp is evidently coloured by the conflict in eastern Ukraine. For the Poles and Ukrainians, Russia’s role in defeating Nazism and liberating the camps undermines the narrative of Russia as the aggressor. It’s therefore desirable to write this aspect out of history and forget it.
A different perspective
The problem is that it’s quite easy to whitewash this particular history, because Russia doesn’t actually seem to be that concerned with remembering its role. Despite the fact that it was the Red Army, and largely Russians, who liberated the Auschwitz camp on January 27, 1945 – this date is internationally accepted by the UN as Holocaust Remembrance Day – the occasion plays a very marginal role in Russian public life. And despite the efforts of organisations such as the Russian Research and Educational Holocaust Center, the date also barely figures in commemorations of the war.
The Holocaust and January 27 is dwarfed by May 9 in Russia, when Victory Day is celebrated with an enormous military parade in Red Square that serves to reinforce pride in the Russian Armed forces, rather than invite people to reflect about the price paid for victory. In Russia, the war is widely understood as an attempt to exterminate above all the Russian people, rather than Jews. Victory is therefore proof of the nation’s greatness, its moral rectitude, which grants it an open licence to define anything it opposes as fascism. It teaches no universal lesson, only a specifically Russian one.
This stance is similar in some respects to that in Israel, where the Holocaust (or Shoah) is understood as an attack specifically on Jews, and the practical answer to the slogan “Never Again!” is to preserve Israel as a strong state dedicated to protecting the Jewish people from those who wish to harm them, whenever and wherever that may be.
As mentioned, for Western societies the Holocaust is history’s warning as to the dangers of extremism and the need for democracy. The fact that Jews were the primary victims is acknowledged. But for Europeans, its lessons are universal inter-ethnic tolerance, and opposition to racist or xenophobic hate crimes.
Commemorating the Holocaust, western European societies project and reaffirm their own liberal values and commitment to human rights, vowing never again to permit genocide to take place. Although a number of acts of genocide have been committed since 1945, commemorating the Holocaust serves as a call to strive to prevent such acts.
This perspective may be irreconcilable with the Russian view of the war. But ignoring or distorting the Russian role in World War II because it is inconvenient only serves to weaken the message of tolerance taught by Holocaust Remembrance and undermine the West’s liberal values.