27 Jan 2015

Still fighting over Auschwitz, 70 years on

Vladimir Putin’s absence from events marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp shows how Europe is still bitterly divided over the legacy of the Holocaust.

Auschwitz (Reuters)

The Kremlin has confirmed Mr Putin will not attend Tuesday’s ceremony at the camp in Poland on Tuesday, unlike many world leaders, including the presidents of France, Germany and Poland.

The official reason is that the Russian president did not receive a formal invitation.

The organisers of the ceremonies said no personal invitations were sent to any leader, but the Kremlin evidently feels snubbed, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the letter was “not something that should be responded to”.

Commentators have been quick to interpret the spat as a sign of tension between Russia and the west over the de facto annexation of Crimea and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine.

‘Blasphemous and obscene’

Moscow, which says it will send a delegation to the event, has also responded angrily to comments by the Polish foreign minister that Auschwitz had been liberated by “the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians”.

The Russian government was quick to point out that the Red Army forces that opened the gates to the camp were a multi-ethnic force. They were called the First Ukrainian Front because that was the place they had been sent to fight in, not their country of origin.

Mr Lavrov said: “Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. There were Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Georgians, Tatars, and to try to play some nationalist feelings in this situation absolutely blasphemous and obscene.”

Mr Schetyna later clarified that he meant that the first Soviet soldiers to reach the camp were Ukrainians. Ukrainian Jew Anatoly Shapiro is often credited as the first Red Army officer to enter the camp in 1945 and witness the scenes of horror.

Historical row

The row over the historical detail is the latest scuffle in a long-running war of words between Russia and her western neighbours over the significance of the Holocaust and the end of world war two – celebrated by many Russians as their country’s finest hour, but seen by others as the beginning of the Soviet occupation of much of eastern Europe.

In 2008 dozens of European politicans including Vaclav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia, signed the Prague Declaration, which called for “recognition that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity serving as a warning for future generations, in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg tribunal”.

The idea that the crimes of the Soviet occupiers of eastern Europe were similar to those of Hitler quickly gained traction in countries emerging from the long shadow of Soviet rule – but it repulsed some Holocaust survivors and politicians.

The Labour MP John Mann called the declaration “a sinister document” drafted against the background of growing far-right nationalist movements in the Baltic states and other former Warsaw Pact countries.

Some Jewish groups have warned about the growing popularity of “double genocide” – the idea that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were equivalent – and suggested that it is a sophisticated attempt to play down the scale of suffering experienced by European Jews.

Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Mistrust of Russia

Russian officials have repeatedly taken a strong line against Holocaust revisionism – but critics say the Kremlin’s interest is self-serving.

In 2013 the country passed a law making it a criminal offence to deny the extermination of Jews took place or to glorify the crimes of the Nazis.

And Mr Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, created a commission of historians to “defend Russia against falsifiers of history and those who would deny the Soviet contribution to the victory in world war two”.

Last year, Russia expressed regret after Canada, the US and Ukraine voted against its UN General Assembly resolution calling for governments to combat the “glorification of Nazism” and neo-Nazism. Most EU states abstained.

The Kremlin said Ukraine’s position was “particularly dispiriting and alarming”.

The vote had an obvious contemporary political significance: it came exactly a year after the Maidan coup that brought in a Ukrainian government Russia has repeatedly accused of being ridden with neo-nazis and antisemites.

Svoboda members at the Maidan protests in Kiev (Reuters)

Ukraine’s UN spokesman said his government was “against this cynical attempt of the Russian Federation to present itself as a champion of combating Nazism and neo-Nazism while repeating those same crimes against my nation”.

Last year, leading members of the Ukrainian Jewish community signed an open letter to Mr Putin rejecting Russian claims that the Ukrainian nationalists who ousted Viktor Yanukovych were fascists who planned to attack Jews.

Many historians of the Holocaust advocate caution over Russia’s motives, while often agreeing that the Holocaust should be seen as a historical crime apart from others.

The US historian Timothy Snyder has written: “The current Russian attempt to manipulate the memory of the Holocaust is so blatant and cynical that those who are so foolish to fall for it will one day have to ask themselves just how, and in the service of what, they have been taken in.”

British historian Antony Beevor said this week that, while Russia’s record is “full of contradictions”, Mr Putin should attend the event.

Jewish reaction

Professor Dovid Katz, who specialises in the history of Jews in Lithuania, says: “The horrendous crimes of Stalinism need to be exposed, and the contemptible policies of today’s Putinism need to be countered, but not by downgrading the Holocaust at the whim of ultra-nationalist elites and their often anti-semitic supporters.”

Efraim Zuroff from the Simon Wiesenthal Center calls Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a serious problem” but says Mr Putin should attend the ceremony in recognition of the “enormous contribution and sacrifices” of the Soviet armed forces.

On the other hand, the Federation of Jewish Groups in the Czech Republic has come out against plans to invite the Russian leader to a Holocaust memorial event in Prague, saying: “The regime Putin established and embodies doesn’t respect international treaties, is aggressive abroad and uses its power to occupy the territory of a neighbouring state.”

Piotr Kadlcik, former president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, said: “I think that politics should not be more important than the anniversary itself. Auschwitz should be a place of memory, prayer and reconciliation.”