Geoffrey Roberts: 75 years on let's hope the Covid-19 crisis re-energises global efforts to avoid war

Geoffrey Roberts: 75 years on let's hope the Covid-19 crisis re-energises global efforts to avoid war
Fireworks explode over Poklonnaya Gora War Memorial Park during celebrations of the Victory Day, marking the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Seventy-five years on from its most patriotic hour, Russia remains wary of alliances and those who might rewrite its history, writes Geoffrey Roberts.

Victory Day in Russia is a massive popular celebration of the anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Most of the country closes down for several days holiday. 

On the day itself, 9 May, an impressive military parade through Moscow’s Red Square precedes the March of the Immortal Regiment in which millions of ordinary people commemorate the courage of those who fought to save the world from Hitler and Nazi fascism.

Although the Immortal Regiment is now an official event, people marching and holding aloft photographs of wartime relatives began as a spontaneous, grassroots initiative.

Such parades now take place in towns and cities across Russia and among Russian communities throughout the world. A regular participant in the Moscow march is Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

A native of Leningrad -St. Petersburg-, an older brother of his died of diphtheria during the German siege of city from 1941-1944 while his mother worked in a factory and his father served in the Soviet armed forces.

Russians have a lot to commemorate. By the time the guns fell silent in 1945, the Red Army had suffered eight million deaths, most of them Russians, as were the majority of the 16-17 million dead Soviet civilians. 

The war resulted in the Soviet Union, of which Russia was a constituent republic, losing 15% of its population and suffering a 30% decline in its wealth. It was the gigantic battles fought on the Soviet-German front – at Leningrad, Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk – that determined the course and outcome of the Second World War. 

And it was the Red Army’s April 1945 assault on Berlin that precipitated Hitler’s suicide and the final collapse of the Third Reich – an empire the Nazis had bragged would last a thousand years.

Victory Day is a hallowed event in Russia since the moral legitimacy of the revolutionary Soviet state was re-founded in 1945, based on that costly but glorious defeat of Hitler. 

The tradition was continued by Russia after the 1991 collapse of the USSR when nationalism replaced socialism as the political basis of post-Soviet governance. In recent years commemorations of the Great Patriotic (or Fatherland) War - as it is known in Russia - have become ever-more assertive and extravagant.

Like his Soviet and Russian predecessors as leader, Putin’s main claim to power and authority is that he will protect his citizens from foreign enemies. Harking back to the war is a constant reminder of the need for the country to remain strong, vigilant and prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to defend itself. 

Putin had planned the biggest ever celebrations to mark the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany but he has been thwarted by the coronavirus crisis. With Russia in lockdown, all parades have been postponed until the autumn.

Geoffrey Roberts: 75 years on let's hope the Covid-19 crisis re-energises global efforts to avoid war
An elderly man dressed in a military uniform of the WWII Red Army cries at the Red Square in Moscow, 09 May 2007, during the annual celebration of the end of World War II. Pic: AFP/Maxim Marmur
Other events, however, are continuing. Russia’s archive authorities, for example, have launched an online exhibition entitled ‘Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt – Together in the Struggle Against Nazism’. 

Its theme is how the friendship and co-operation of political leaders in the grand alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union was central to the success of that anti-Hitler coalition.

Putin’s personal introduction to the exhibition notes that, despite their divergent politics, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin devised a common approach to winning the war and subsequently to safeguarding the peace by creating a global security system based on collective action and the United Nations. 

“We highly appreciate”, says Putin, “the invaluable contribution of our comrades-in-arms to the destruction of Nazism. 

"In the face of new global threats and challenges, we must utilise to the hilt the invaluable experience of international cooperation and the close alliance of our countries during the Second World War.” 

When he wrote those lines, Putin must have been hoping to avert any repeat of the western boycott of the 70th anniversary celebrations in protest at Russia’s meddling in the 2014 Ukrainian crisis. 

Pre-pandemic, the signs were good. France’s President Macron was committed to attending the Red Square parade while Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and even Donald Trump were definite maybes.

Yet political and ideological divisions about the history of the war have continued to fester. In September 2019, on the 80th anniversary of the war’s outbreak, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 as the trigger for hostilities. 

It pointed to Nazi-Soviet collaboration after the outbreak of war, including a joint invasion of Poland in September 1939. That compact lasted until Hitler attacked the USSR in June 1941. 

The Nazi and Soviet regimes were equally barbarous, claimed the resolution, and Hitler’s totalitarian rule was followed by Stalin’s when a number of countries occupied by the USSR at the end of the war were taken over by the communists.

Putin replied to those accusations in December 2019, pointing out that in the 1930s many nations had done business with the Nazis. The non-aggression treaty Stalin and Hitler had signed was one of many such agreements made with Germany by a multitude of states. 

Rather than dwell on the Nazi-Soviet pact, Putin instead focused on the September 1938 Munich agreement to carve up Czechoslovakia. That treaty with Hitler was signed by both Britain and France, while Poland was among the states snatching Czechoslovak territory alongside Germany.

Geoffrey Roberts: 75 years on let's hope the Covid-19 crisis re-energises global efforts to avoid war
Russian servicewomen march through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in downtown Moscow on May 9, 2019. Pic: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

The Soviet Union tried to form a grand coalition against Hitler, argued Putin, but had failed due to Anglo-French appeasement of Nazi Germany. The Nazi-Soviet pact may have triggered war but it was the British and French who loaded the gun. 

The history of the war, said Putin, was being distorted for present-day political purposes, most notably to make people scared of Russia.

Perhaps the most heartfelt point Putin made in his polemic was that whoever or whatever was responsible for the outbreak of war, there could be no doubt about who had won it – the Soviet Union. 

It was the Red Army that, together with its allies, liberated Europe from Nazi occupation. It was the Red Army that curtailed the Nazi massacre of Europe’s Jews. It was the Red Army that lost a million soldiers fighting the Germans in Poland. 

Those seeking to besmirch Russia’s war record were, Putin averred, the same people desecrating Red Army graves and monuments across central and eastern Europe.

When the war ended in 1945 the narrative of its history was more simple. Fifty million people had perished but the Nazis racist imperium had been resoundingly defeated. Germany was occupied by the victors and leaders of the allied nations declared their commitment to continued collaboration in peacetime. 

An anti-fascist war had been fought successfully under the banner of democracy so post-war Europe could be reconstructed as a continent of free and independent sovereign states. Out of the ashes of war a united and peaceful Europe would arise.

Yet within two years this optimistic vision of the future was shattered, destroyed by the outbreak of a dangerous cold war between the Soviet Union and its erstwhile British and American allies. 

By the end of the 1940s Europe was split into competing political, ideological, and military blocs with the spectre of a new world war looming as the Soviet Union and the United States confronted each other across what Churchill famously called the ‘iron curtain’.

In the cold war years, Soviet-Western collaboration to defeat Hitler was overlooked rather than celebrated. Stalin’s fulsome praise of his western allies was forgotten as was Churchill’s admission that the guts had been torn out of the Nazi war machine by the Red Army. 

The Soviets downplayed the west’s enormous material aid to the USSR while the western narrative massively exaggerated the importance of its military contribution to Hitler’s defeat.

In the 1990s and early 2000s – after the first cold war ended - there was a return to a more balanced appraisal of each ally’s role during the war, summed up by the old adage that to beat the Nazis, the Soviets gave their blood, the Americans their money, and the British the time they bought by refusing to capitulate to Hitler after the fall of France in summer 1940.

In contemporary Russia, the strong and understandable belief that the Soviet Union’s role predominated in winning the war is balanced by recognition that the USSR did not win the war on its own but as a member of a grand anti-fascist alliance.

Geoffrey Roberts: 75 years on let's hope the Covid-19 crisis re-energises global efforts to avoid war
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the annual military parade at Red Square May 9, 2006 in Moscow, Russia. Pic: Mikhail Klimentiev/Pressphotos/Getty Images
When Putin came to power 20 years ago, he was a pro-western leader who, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, sought to recreate a contemporary version of the wartime grand alliance. 

Putin’s vision of renewed great power collaboration has been undermined but not yet obliterated by a succession of Russian-Western crises and disputes over Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, as well as NATO expansionism, the Skripal poisoning affair and Donald Trump’s election as American president.

Critics often accuse Putin of being opposed to a rules-based world order. Rather, it is that he rejects the self-serving rules some western states are seeking to impose on Russia under the guise of improving global security. 

As recently as January this year, Putin called for a five-power summit of the UN Security Council’s permanent members - Russia, China, the US, France and Britain - to discuss common economic, security and environmental issues. 

Maybe we can hope the current emergency will re-energise efforts to achieve a multi-lateral approach to global challenges without the necessity for war.

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork.

His latest book (with Martin Folly and Oleg Rzheshevsky) is Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms during the Second World War.

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