When I think about the moment we are in, my thoughts return to a book bound in green linen. It was the only thing my grandfather, a Nazi and SS officer stationed in eastern Europe throughout WWII, left to his son.
Entitled "Unternehmen Barbarossa," it was a post-war account of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 written by Paul Karl Schmidt, once the Third Reich’s chief press spokesperson and one of its most important propagandists, who after the war adopted the pen name, Paul Carell.
My grandfather feverishly annotated and underlined in red the sections that explained the principal tactical and strategic mistakes that deprived the Reich of a victory. He’d read the book at least 15 times while in exile in Brazil, my uncle said, scouring it for explanations as to why the vast estate he’d dreamt of owning as a future member of the Reich’s SS aristocracy in Ukraine, a promised land to avid Nazis for its black earth, had remained out of his reach.
To be sure, it is a curious thing to leave to your son, but in my own experience of being a member of this family, it was an effort to cleanse one's legacy by turning attention to military strategy and the land, rather than the human cost of war.
Carell revised history by whitewashing the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, portraying his comrades as regular soldiers fighting a just war rather than radicalized troops drugged by propaganda and pervitin, sent out to exterminate the “degenerate races” of the East using indiscriminate methods comparable to Russia’s current dirty war in Ukraine. Certainly, as the conflict wore on, increasing numbers sent to the front were innocent youth unprepared for the sort of war they had been tasked with fighting. But the inconvenient fact remains: Between them, the SS and the Wehrmacht perpetrated history’s most extensive systematic state-sponsored genocide.
Among people like Carell and my grandfather, it was precisely this truth that was to be relegated to a memory void. If most Germans omitted the Holocaust from their remembrance of WWII today, Germany would be a very different place than it is. It would be a country of festering grievances for “all that was lost,” as my grandmother put it, and a society that by its self-victimization would be a democracy in danger, a destabilizing force in Europe and the world.
From this point of view, Vladimir Putin is Russia’s master revisionist, who, by all accounts, sat in grand isolation during the pandemic underlining and annotating texts to construct arguments designed to stoke a sense of grievance and self-victimization among the Russian people. Thus, Nazis in Ukraine must be stopped from persecuting Russian speakers and threatening Russia itself, and the Ukrainian state is an artificial entity that deprives Russians of what is historically theirs.
The fact that Ukraine has a Jewish president, that Russian missiles desecrated Babyn Yar, a memorial commemorating a site where 33,000 Jews were murdered, and that Ukraine has a complex but distinctly unique history dating back more than 1,000 years, is immaterial in a Putinesque world view. Instead, these facts must also be relegated to a memory void for the sake of a narrative that justifies war.
The introduction of memory laws in Russia over the years has paved the way for this moment. In 2014, it became a criminal offense to suggest that the Stalin regime collaborated with the Nazis, as it brazenly did until the Reich turned on it by launching Operation Barbarossa. This particular historical whitewashing echoes the former Dresden-based KGB agent’s experience in East Germany which stamped everything western as fascist and absolved its own population of any responsibility for the Third Reich.
At the outset of the 21st century, Russia has certainly not been alone in introducing such laws concerning how WWII is remembered in order to cultivate hyper-nationalism. Ukraine itself introduced laws in 2015 forbidding any insinuation that “fighters for Ukrainian independence” were also involved in crimes against humanity during WWII, which unquestionably they were. The grandmother of a Jewish colleague of mine who was driven from her home in Lviv and survived the Holocaust by wits and luck alone did not have positive memories of Ukrainians who were prepared to trade her with the Nazis for a kilo of sugar. In Poland, various laws since 1998 have attempted to prevent the casting of Poles as anything but victims of the Holocaust, and defamation suits have been brought against reputable historians.
“Legitimate political discourse” has never sounded so dangerously akin to “a special military operation.”
If regulation of historical memory is a sign of emergent hyper-nationalism, then current developments in the United States are of deep concern. When this March a brave teacher in Moscow resigned and left Russia, refusing to tow the official line on the Ukrainian “operation” in his classroom, I thought of the 137 bills introduced in 35 U.S. states intended to restrict how the history of slavery in America, among other subjects, is taught.
Will American teachers find the strength to resist? Among these bills, the same self-victimization dynamic as in the illiberal democracies is at work. In this case, white people need to be protected from the psychological distress of learning about America’s history of mass human rights violations, thus unifying them by their potential victimhood. All this is seen as necessary to fulfill a political objective, a clear warning signal of a democracy in trouble.
The United States’ hasty and disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 signaled to Putin that his expansionism would not be resisted, but this alone was insufficient. After all, he had been invading neighboring countries since 2008. The rise of the politics of grievance and self-victimization in the U.S., a country in which millions of voters believe falsely that the last election was stolen by the current administration, suggested to Putin years ago that America was going his way. While it is possible that the full extent of his hopes have not been borne out so far, the problem remains with Republican members of Congress unwilling to acknowledge the events of January 6, 2021 as an attempt to overthrow American democracy, and the Kafkaesque treatment of any nominee to public office whom they do not regard as their own, such as Ketanji Brown Jackson for her nomination to the Supreme Court. Sometimes, it all seems so un-American that it is tempting to explain it all away by Russian meddling. “Legitimate political discourse” has never sounded so dangerously akin to “a special military operation.”
The arguments in grandfather’s green book were the crutches of an embittered old Nazi unable to come to terms with his own crime and folly. In the annals of the early 21st century, there will most certainly be accounts for old Trump and Putin diehards to lean on, but history will never allow its more sinister truths to be left behind.