Putin’s new history of Europe and the rehabilitation of Stalin

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to argue that World War II, and much of the suffering wrought by it, was the responsibility not just of Nazi Germany but of governments that went against it. He has made this argument before, but the most recent version delivered during Russia’s annual Victory Day celebration was the most comprehensive yet. He shifted the responsibility for Germany’s invasions and atrocities to other countries, and used that to minimize the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the war.

Previously, Putin had charged that the British and French agreement at Munich for German occupation of part of Czechoslovakia laid the groundwork for World War II, that U.S. trade with Germany before the war strengthened Germany, and that the Polish government caused the mass slaughter in Poland after its occupation by fleeing. All of this is designed to reduce the importance of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the Soviet invasion of Poland. It is in his telling no more consequential than many other events.

To be polemical for a moment, let me take each charge one at a time. The government did flee Poland as did governments of other countries after German occupation. Trying to create a government in exile was what many did. The idea that by leaving the country they were responsible for what happened is absurd. Poland was occupied by German and Soviet troops. The Germans rapidly began rounding up and executing any possible resistance, and the Soviets carried out the murder of thousands of Polish army officers they captured. The idea that the presence of Polish government officials in country would have stopped Hitler and Stalin in their tracks is self-evidently wrong…

n all of Putin’s claims, he appears to be trying to share moral responsibility. What he is really trying to do, I think, is rehabilitate Stalin. Stalin laid the groundwork for Hitler’s war plan. He was oblivious to military reality. When we look at Stalin, and if we think that one man is responsible for history, then Stalin was incompetent beyond belief. But if we turn the discussion away from Stalin’s miscalculations to fantasies about Poland, moral equivalencies with Munich, or U.S. pre-war trade with Germany, then Stalin is no worse than any other, and his failures can be hidden.

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