There is an insidious story about WWII that concerns the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian identities. The story has a few moving pieces, but basically goes like this: (1) the USSR did so badly in when Hitler invaded the USSR because traitors in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus collaborated with the invading Nazis. (2) Those same anti-Soviet, Nazi collaborators were also primarily responsible for physically carrying out the Holocaust in those countries—they were the camp guards, the paramilitary units. (3) There is something essentially reactionary and anti-semitic about these three places and peoples.
The conclusion one is intended to draw from the narrative, depending on how it’s employed, is either that this area and these peoples are best avoided and distrusted because they’re inherently immoral, or that they are in need of a brutal central authority who can rule these “barbarians” —an authority such as Moscow.
Not an Excuse, an Explanation
Much has been made of this narrative over the years, by apologists/propagandists from two countries (Russia and Germany), and also a little by those from other European countries and Great Britain. Because the way these people use the narrative is simple, it’s useful to address the European side of things first. In Germany, they use this story to let themselves off the hook for the Holocaust, pinning it instead on some “bad Nazis” who planned and supervised it – instead of “ordinary” Germans. The “ordinary” collaborators with the Nazis were the Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian citizens who enthusiastically carried it out in Eastern Europe. It is a comforting fiction, one that allows individuals to take some responsibility for WWII, for somehow permitting the Nazis to come to power and for enabling them to wage war – but the very worst of the war’s consequences are displaced onto the shoulders of others—the local residents of the countries, who had to be held back in their indiscriminate fury against Jews. Perhaps, the implication sometimes goes when anti-Semites tell the tale, locals held a deserved resentment against their Jewish neighbors.
Ask most Germans about the Holocaust, and they—alone among residents of countries who have performed outrages against others—will start out by pointing the finger at themselves, at Germany. This is the painful lesson that defeat taught them. They will still, however (and few will contest it) add that there were other assistants, willing and excited to pitch in—and this expansion of the world of responsibility makes it a little easier to bear the burden of guilt. The place where their assistance invariably comes from is the land of the savage, lawless Slav.
The European narratives of WWII vary by who tells it (obviously the Italian version is different from the French version, or from the Yugoslavian version), but most resemble the German version with an important twist. As Germany was responsible for WWII, the Germans are primarily to blame, with individual local collaborators (criminals, bullies, the scum of society) assisting in secondarily as German soldiers and foreign SS conscripts carried out the Holocaust. Furthermore, these European versions essentially validate (or do not question) the German addendum that it was the Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians who did much of the physical butchery on the ground, in the camps, and in person in the forests. This tacit admission stems, no doubt, from the facts that Germany is a neighbor, in Europe, and to think that one’s neighbor systematically constructed and carried out genocide would make it difficult to live with them peacefully. Also, anecdotal accounts of Holocaust survivors do single out vindictive guards and paramilitaries from those countries. Finally, when most of these stories were being told, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the USSR was an enemy of the states of Western Europe, and so there was an added incentive to assign a large portion of the blame to Soviet Republics.
Along with the German narrative, the broader European narratives invariably end up exonerating the country that the story is about—the real enemies are the bad Nazis / Germans, and those slavs on the other side of the train tracks. Let’s put it this way: the guards at Auschwitz didn’t always speak German, but they never spoke French.
A variation on this theme can be seen recently in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Previously unable to formulate or interrogate a coherent national or individual narrative about their experiences in WWII as both victims and perpetrators, these European countries have begun to ask uncomfortable questions about the role they played. Their versions of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” tend to take (as the German narrative) limited responsibility for events such as Baba Yar in Ukraine, while displacing responsibility to Germany and neighboring countries—but are still remarkable in their efforts to grapple with what some of their citizens did, and why. It takes a kind of confidence in one’s culture, a belief in civilization’s capacity to heal and move forward even to attempt what Polish, Ukrainian, and Belarusian playwrights, documentarians, and filmmakers have done, and it speaks highly of those countries’ capacity for arts and culture.
Nevertheless, most Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians, while aware of the “Nazi Collaborator Narrative” in basic terms, have no idea how important it is to Westerners’ understanding of their countries and culture. They understand their countries’ past primarily through the lens of the USSR, and are usually shocked to learn that their countries are viewed in the West as allies and executors of the Nazis’ villainous plans—the less-intelligent thugs who did what refined, Germans could not. It is inconceivable to them that the people whose countries were invaded twice or three times over by the Nazis and USSR could possibly be “the bad guy” in the WWII movie. How could the victim be at fault?
And yet, the victim is often at fault, when one reads stories about how Belarusian independence is a Nazi plot, or that Ukraine’s government and military are full of neo-Nazis and fascists. These stories depend on half-truths and exaggerations, and are often created and spread by Russian nationalists and the Russian government.
Russia’s Nazi Collaborator Narrative
Germans and Europeans benefit from perpetuating the Nazi Collaborator Narrative indirectly, and emotionally—as a way of helping them cope with the embarrassment and shame of having attempted to erase Jewry from the earth or not tried sufficiently hard to stop that erasure from happening.
Russia benefits far more directly from the narrative. As the inheritor of the USSR’s legacy, Russia gets to view Nazi Collaborators as enemies, and replay a version of history in which the USSR is the protagonist (for who are Nazis and Nazi collaborators but antagonists). Countries and peoples who were Nazis and Nazi Collaborators have no right to self-defense, no right to external assistance, no right to sympathy.
Another way in which Russia benefits from the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is similar to the way in which European countries conquered by the Nazis benefit—which is to say, it takes them off the hook for hard questions that are better left unasked. So long as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland are no more and no less than Nazi Collaborators, and don’t have any right to ask for understanding or empathy, have no right to their own history, Russia doesn’t have to answer questions like: why did many Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarusians (and Russians, in fact!) actively help the Nazis? One will have trouble occupying a country for months, let alone years, if the population is hostile—and in spite of active ethnic cleansing and initiatives that bordered on slavery, many people were, in fact, still willing to help the Nazis even in 1944. What had been so bad about the USSR in Ukraine and Belarus that anything, even a monster like the Nazis, was preferable to returning to the Soviet fold?
The history of Nazi collaboration has distinct anti-semitic elements that reach back to the pogroms of the early 20th century and earlier, the 19th, 18th, and 17th centuries. The specific context of these pogroms taking place overwhelmingly in these countries and few other places involves the anti-semitic settlement policies of Imperial Russia—who was allowed to settle where, and for how long. Those policies laid a firm groundwork for what happened when the Nazis invaded, and help explain why things unfolded the way they did in those areas.
To reckon with the consequences of the USSR’s actions before WWII, or, further back, its immediate loss of Finland, Poland, the Baltic States, and near-loss of Belarus and Ukraine after WWI, is beyond Russia’s abilities at the present moment. It does not suit its government to dwell on past failures, even when to avoid doing so means future defeats, and further territorial losses.
On top of that, the Nazi Collaborator Narrative sets Poland, Belarus, the Baltic States and Ukraine out as distinct from polite, civilized Europe—it pits them against one another as nations and isolates them from each other and from European assistance. In other words, it’s the perfect mechanism by which to keep them under Moscow’s thumb.
For these reasons and more, Russia goes out of its way to deliberately perpetuate the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, in Europe as a way of undermining the national credibility of countries, in the US as a way of turning different groups against one another (Ukrainian-Americans versus Jews, in one recent example), and against the countries themselves as a way of isolating them from each other and from the West. So long as the Nazi Collaborator Narrative is dominant, there will always be a group of people who are disincentivized from rendering assistance to Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. There will always be fewer people on the front lines fighting and demonstrating for freedom.
A Bad Tactic Taken Too Far
Since the fall of the USSR, Russia’s dined out well on this arrangement. Russia isn’t the USSR, but inherited its legacy, so it can selectively embrace components of history that it wants or feels are relevant. The parts of the USSR that are inconvenient, such as its alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939, or its post-war anti-Zionism, are quietly retired from active discussion. The parts that are convenient—dignity, victory over the Germans, scientific and technological advances—are retained. Russia has wielded Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus’ unfortunate proximity to Germany and Europe like a cudgel, painting them as fascistic relics, anti-semites, and traitors. Rather than taking a leadership role in the region and attempting to guide the post-Soviet space into a new détente with itself and with Europe, Russia has hectored and hassled its neighbors—in the case of Ukraine, it has invaded and annexed a piece of its territory. The Nazi Collaborator Narrative is what partially justifies this behavior to Russians internally, and to some small and disaffected groups in Europe and the United States who have a tenuous grasp on history.
This cynical employment of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative also creates tensions and plays havoc on good-faith educational efforts of Holocaust memorial initiatives. Impoverished Ukrainians and Poles migrate to places like London and Milan for employment while Belarusians protest for democratic representation and Ukraine continues to fight a war of defense against Russia—dragging them into conflict with well-funded Western institutions helps divide people, and also undermines the anti-authoritarian, humanistic goal of Holocaust education by putting it to service on behalf of an authoritarian power.
But Russia has been overplaying their hand. If the goal is to bring Ukraine, Belarus, and perhaps one day Poland back into Russia’s orbit, and maybe reclaim some or all of their former Imperial territory, Russia’s continued dependence on the narrative to isolate the countries also ensures that the countries see themselves as separate and distinct from Russia. If they are separated from Russia by their experience of WWII, and Russia sees itself as the protagonist in the conflict, on a certain level that must mean there is no “joining” the Russian project. If one is not Russian, or part of Russia, one cannot be a protagonist—furthermore, by the logic of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative, the Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Baltic citizens are essentially and definitionally not Russian, nor can they be Russian. And they can be ruled by Russia—as evidenced by history—wisely and unremarkably, or unwisely. The latter has been more the rule than the former.
This logical problem for Russia was less important when memories of what former Soviets call The Great Patriotic War were still fresh, and when there was an ideologically inspiring story (communism) to replace the shame of having picked the wrong side. To be part of the USSR was not to be Russian (although Russian language and nationalism did become parts of the heart of the project, as the project failed), it was to be anti-fascist; a worker, a comrade, part of a trans-national movement in which anyone could participate.
That is not the case that is being made to Russians now by their president, nor is it the argument being used to forward Russian interests and thwart the interests of Eastern European countries. The argument is that Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland are fascistic Nazi Collaborators, and Russians aren’t (although of course, many were, and Putin’s Russia is the most openly authoritarian and fascistic major country today).
There is another threat in Russia forwarding a simplistic version of events that excuses them for responsibility—it encourages Polish, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Baltic citizens to view negative but true information about what their people did in WWII as just more Russian disinformation. The long term effect of this campaign will be to actually help foster anti-semitism in those communities, and reduce the incentive of Eastern Europeans to reconcile with their past. And this type of lie, left unaddressed for decades or centuries can lead to—what else? Pogroms and violence in the future.
As memory fades of WWII, it is replaced by one’s lived experience of the present. The war becomes just another titanic struggle between East and West, and the emotional power that it held over participants and victims slowly vanishes. Russia’s attempts to keep their memory of it fixed in the present, for diplomatic advantage, is doomed, because most people don’t care about what doesn’t affect them directly. Some people don’t even care about things that do affect them. And the events of 75 years ago, while important and relevant to today’s world, don’t hold the same personal urgency they once did as means of coercing behavior.
Russia’s use of the Nazi Collaborator Narrative to explain events that are negative from their perspective has been very useful for them up until the present moment, and it’s a narrative that still holds power for some people. Because it is used by Russia to separate and bludgeon Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, however, there is an increasing backlash against it—to view it as a kind of Russian lie, a malicious distortion of the truth. Russia’s reliance on it may satisfy its own government, and some of its more nationalistic citizens, but it will only serve to further alienate neighboring, implicated countries from Russia; to set them off as different, essentially apart from Russia, essentially independent. This cannot be what Russia wants—but it may be too difficult for Russia to see another path forward.