Season 2 Episode 6 – “Life and Death Between Hitler and Stalin: Mass Murder and Memory in Eastern Europe with Dr. Omer Bartov and Dr. Alexandra Richie"

World War II On Topic Podcast Series

About the Episode

This episode is brought to you by the Museum’s Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War & Democracy and the WWII Media & Education Center.

Today we are taking a listen to a discussion we hosted during our Memory Wars: World War II at 75 and Beyond virtual conference, held in March 2022. 

It was chaired by our own Research Historian, Dr. Jason Dawsey, and featured guests Dr. Omer Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University, and Dr. Alexandra Richie, Professor at Collegium Civitas.

This discussion goes into how the war ravaged the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The latter then suffered Soviet occupation for the next 50 years. The panel compares and contrasts the complex, often irreconcilable ways in which Eastern Europe and Russia remember the war.

This conversation has extra weight because it took place about one month after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Catch up on all episodes of World War II On Topic and be sure to leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Europe
  • Ukraine
  • Soviet Union
  • Stalin

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Featured Historians

Dr. Jason Dawsey

Jason Dawsey, PhD, is Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, where he researches the service records of WWII veterans and writes their biographies for family members.

Dr. Omer Bartov

Omer Bartov, PhD, is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University. He is also the author of several other well-respected scholarly works on the Holocaust and genocide, including Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories and Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine. He has written for The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review.

Dr. Alexandra Richie

Alexandra Richie, DPhil, is a historian of Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, with a specialization in defense and security issues. She is the author of Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin, which was named one of the top 10 books of the year by American Publisher’s Weekly, and Warsaw 1944, which won the Newsweek Teresa Torańska Prize for best non-fiction book of 2014 and the Kazimierz Moczarski Prize for Best History Book 2015. She has contributed to many articles, documentaries, radio, and television programs. She is also a member of the Senate at the Collegium Civitas University in Warsaw, Poland, and the Władysław Bartoszewski co-chair of History and International Studies at the Collegium Civitas.

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"World War II On Topic" is made possible by The Herzstein Foundation.




Jeremy Collins 

Hello, I'm Jeremy Collins, the director of conferences and symposia at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Welcome to World War II on Topic, a podcast series where we revisit some of our most engaging and enlightening discussions on the war. This episode is brought to you by the museum's Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy and the Media and Education Center.

Today, we are taking a listen to a discussion we hosted during our Memory Wars: World War II at 75 and Beyond Virtual Conference, held in March of 2022. It was chaired by our own research historian, Dr. Jason Dawsey, and featured guests Dr. Omer Bartov, the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History at Brown University, and Dr. Alexandra Richie, professor at Collegium Civitas. This discussion goes into how the war ravaged the former Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The latter then suffered Soviet occupation for the next 50 years. The panel compares and contrasts the complex, often irreconcilable ways in which Eastern Europe and Russia remember the war. This conversation has extra weight because it took place about one month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


Dr. Mike Bell

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I'm Dr. Mike Bell, the executive director of the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum. We're delighted to continue bringing you this amazing content as part of our conference Memory Wars: World War II at 75 and Beyond. This program is possible due to the generous support of our sponsors, the American Battle Monuments Commission and EA Respawn Entertainment, and Oculus by Meta. Thank you for joining us for this important and extremely timely session looking at Life and Death Between Hitler and Stalin: Mass Murder and Memory in Eastern Europe. When putting this program together, we wanted to stress the importance and relevance of the Second World War to today. And anyone paying attention to the news, certainly over the last month, knows that the memory war is alive.

For this session, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce one of our comrades in the Jenny Craig Institute, chair Dr. Jason Dawsey. Jason received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2013 and has taught world history and European history at Pearl River Community College, the University of Chicago, and the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Jason joined the National World War II Museum in September, 2017 as our Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency's Special Projects Historian and he investigated what happened to hundreds of American POWs in German captivity whose remains were never recovered. Since January, 2019, Jason's worked in the Jenny Craig Institute as a research historian in the Institute, he examines the service records of World War II veterans, authors the biographies for family members, and regularly contributes to the museum's website and public programming on subjects such as the anti-Nazi resistance, the Holocaust, and the lives and careers of scholars who shaped our understanding of World War II. Jason co-edited a work on the life and work of Gunter Anders and is the author of several articles and book chapters on the philosophical and political thought of Gunter Anders. So it's my distinct pleasure to turn it over to our chair for this session, Dr. Jason Dawsey. Jason, the floor is yours.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Mike, thanks very much. Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to extend my welcome as well. Thanks for joining us on this third and concluding day of our Memory Wars conference. I have the distinct pleasure of chairing this very important, and as Mike said, timely session on Life and Death between Hitler and Stalin: Mass Murder and Memory in Eastern Europe and have two outstanding scholars, experts, on this area. Both have spent considerable time there and will have a lot to say to us today about the memory of World War II in Eastern Europe coming right up to the present time. I'm going to introduce them in the order they'll be presenting. And what we'll do is each one will have 10 to 12 minutes to present and then I will come back and have roughly 20, 25 minutes of discussion with them and then we'll open it up and hear from you with your questions.

First, professor Alex Richie is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski chair at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, Poland. She specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe in World War II and defense and security issues. She's the author of Faust's Metropolis: A History of Berlin and an award-winning Warsaw 1944: Hitler, Hemler, and the Warsaw Uprising. I think many in our audience, Professor Richie, are very familiar with your book and, obviously, your appearances here at our international conferences. She is currently working on a book about the occupation of Poland by Hitler and Stalin and she is a presidential counselor at the museum and frequently leads tours of European World War II historic sites with the museum, a long friendship with professor Richie.

Our second panelist is professor Omer Bartov, who is the John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History and professor of German studies at Brown University. He's a graduate of Tel Aviv University and St Anthony's College, University of Oxford. He specializes in the indoctrination of the Nazi Wehrmacht and the crimes committed during World War II, the links between war and genocide and cultural representation. I'm just going to mention just a selection of his publications, including Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, The Jew in Cinema, Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, An Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz. He has just completed a new monograph, tentatively titled Tales from the Borderlands: Making and Unmaking the Past, and has edited several volumes, including Voices on War and Genocide: Three Accounts of the World Wars in a Galician Town, and reflecting his new interest, the forthcoming Israel-Palestine: Lands and Peoples. So Alex and Omer, welcome. It's great to see you both.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Thank you.


Dr. Jason Dawsey

And Alex, we will obviously begin with you so you will begin 10 to 12 minutes and then we'll hear from Omer and then come back for Q & A.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

The area between Hitler and Stalin was the most vicious theater of warfare in Europe in World War II, an area that Tim Snyder refers to as the bloodlands. In the west, there's a tendency to look at this history as a clash of huge armies, Titanic and Barbarossa, 2 million troops, Stalingrad, Kursk, Barbarazione and so on. But what really makes this theater such a terrible theater of war was the involvement of the civilian population. We see it even now in Ukraine. From the beginning, Hitler's war was a war of annihilation. The Einsatzgruppen were first sent in into Poland to decapitate the Polish Intelligentsia and, of course, they carried their murderous work on into Barbarossa, the Holocaust by bullets. And then, of course, additionally, there were things like the creation of extermination camps like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, which were specifically to do with the mass murder of civilians and particularly of the Jews of the region.

So why is this history so little known? One of the reasons, I think, is the complexity of the fighting, mixed loyalties, the sheer scale of the brutality, the criminality, the plethora of languages, and this all led to a quagmire for historians trying to understand what happened in the region. And this was complicated even more by the fact that it fell behind the Iron Curtain. The Cold War came, it was very difficult to do research. And of course, Stalin had an official version of history, which for example, did not include the Holocaust. And we see in, for example, Omer's incredible book, An Anatomy of a Genocide, about the town of Buczacz, how many different layers and how complex this area was and it's very, very difficult to unpick this. Now, we're talking generally today about the region between Hitler and Stalin and so I'm just going to race through quickly, two examples.

First Germany, how was German historiography seen and how does it see the war? I'm going to be talking about this later on in the afternoon with regard to the Holocaust so I'm going to really skip over this. But the only thing I'll say is that at least West Germany, the Federal Republic, had the good grace to plant itself in the West. And although there was reluctance to talk about the war immediately afterwards, the questions of the 1968 generation, the Historikerstreit, things like the exhibition about the crimes against the Wehrmacht, the increasing interest in the Holocaust have led to quite an extraordinary burst of interest in history in Germany. Poland fell, of course, behind the Iron Curtain. It kept also was some sort of subjected to this official Soviet history written, where so many things were written out. There was no Katyn massacre, for example, the Arkau were semi-criminals. The Holocaust, they were victims of fascism.

There was a persistent underground historiography in Poland, both in the emigre community and within Poland itself and so people did keep this history alive, but there were some things very much left out, which have only come to light more recently, things like Polish collaboration and so on. And the collapse of communism did lead to a wave of interest in history from all sorts of different perspectives. And also a lot of courage at examining the past, at least for a time, for example, exemplified by Jan Gross's book Neighbors, which examined pogrom against Jews in July, 1941, perpetrated by Poles against their Jewish neighbors.

But after this, there was, again, an immense amount of interest in research, two huge volumes that were published by the government and the encouragement of scholarship and inquiry until the 2015 electoral victory of the law and justice party piece, which has been very, very interested in the recreation of Poland as the modern nation version of history and is rather less inclined to finance historians who are interested in the slightly murkier and more difficult aspects of Polish history, to the extent that they've published a law prosecuting, possibly, historians who go against their self-imposed regulations so there's a lot of complexity and Poland is representative of a number of countries in the region that are going in that direction.

What about the Soviet union? One has to remember that although Russia has rather co-opted the history of the Red Army, there were Ukrainians, Belarusians and many, many others who fought in the Red Army as well and this history has rather been taken over by them and so it's something that's very, very important to remember. And I know that we're going to talk in much more depth about Ukraine and about the role of Ukraine in Russian identity and I'm just going to talk very, very briefly about history and memory in World War II before passing over to Omer.

World War II in Russia has been weaponized. It's part of our memory war, and there are many, many examples of this. In August, 2016, a new education minister Olga Vasilieva, who was a huge Stalin fan, took office and history textbooks started changing very much because of this. So for example, World War II, according to the Russian textbooks, did not agree with beginning with the invasion of Poland on the 1st of September, 1939, followed by the Soviet invasion on the 17th of September, 1939, but began with Barbarossa in 1941. And in most books, the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact is not mentioned at all or if it is, it's called a Non-Aggression Pact, an agreement which, as Putin [inaudible 00:13:08] in 2013, by saying that it makes sense for ensuring the security of the Soviet Union. Starting the war in 1941 is quite convenient because the Russians don't have to teach how Stalin attacked Finland or annexed the Baltic states or took half of Poland, murdering Polish officers at Katyn. Instead, the invasion of Eastern Europe by Soviet troops is portrayed as a liberation. The portrayal of Stalin is equally one-sided. He's nothing less than the greatest war leader ever to have lived and his crimes are really airbrushed out of history.

And we know that we, as scholars, know that one reason that the Red Army was unprepared for Barbaross was that he purged the army on the eve of the war, but this does not appear in history books. History is used to bolster national pride and it is political. And now under Putin, anybody who disagrees with the official line is quite literally in mortal danger. Independent institutions which questioned are labeled as foreign agents, undesirables. One example which I find particularly sad, having lived in Moscow for some time, is the demise of the great Institution Memorial, which was a group which investigated Stalin's crimes, that had a huge collection of archive information and so on.

Well, Putin's natural home is the KGB, whose legacy included the suppression of dissent. He's also been heavily influenced by Nikolai Patrushev, the Russian secretary security council, who promotes this besieged fortress idea, which is so beloved of Putin, and Patrushev refers to the former KGB and successor, FSB, as the Russia's new nobility. So as I said, this is all part of the memory war and no more is World War II history is more visible than on Victory Day when all of Moscow turns out and celebrates and glorifies the pride that Russians feel in their World War II experience, but Putin uses this in his efforts to rebuild Russian national pride following the shame and humiliation of the end of the Cold War. And there are other historical facts that are left out of bounds as well. Stalin's manmade famine, the Holodomor, which claimed 3 million lives in Ukraine, is still not recognized. And as I mentioned earlier, even the Katyn crimes, which were recognized by both Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as having been perpetrated by the Soviets, are now being blamed, once again, on the Nazis.

So of course, the history of the region is enormously complex. And I'm sure we'll talk about Ukraine and what Putin is actually trying to do and how he's using a Ukrainian history for his own ends. Of course, the area is very complex in places like Ukraine nationalist insurgent groups did rise against during World War II and were caught between two genocidal totalitarian regimes and some did welcome the Germans in 1941. Some Ukrainians committed horrific acts of violence, particularly against the Jewish population. And since the fall of the USSR, some of these insurgent fighters are indeed recognized as heroes and have inspired things like the Azov battalion in Ukraine.

But in reality, the ultra right is a tiny percentage of the population and Putin still latches onto them, calling them fascists, he says he wants to de-Nazify Ukraine, and he says that the purpose of this operation, as he calls it, is to protect people who for eight years have been facing humiliation and genocide, perpetrated by the Kyiv regime, so he wants to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine. The West, in particular the United States, he says, have supported this neo-Nazism and Russo-phobia and Putin has since accused the [inaudible 00:17:14] rights and Neo-Nazis of putting out heavy weapons and using human shields and Ukrainian cities and this sort of rhetoric didn't stop, even when the Russians shelled the Memorial to Babyn Yar, the site where Nazis killed tens of thousands of Jews during the war. So Putin has weaponized this history of the second World War, and indeed, even on the day that he invaded Ukraine, the television in Russia was just full of World War II movies and rhetoric and so on. So Putin longs to go into the history books as Vladimir the Great, emulating, perhaps, Peter the Great, but certainly we had a tinge of Stalin and he's using World War II, at least in part, to help make this happen.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Alex, thanks very much, there was so much there and really look forward to talking with you a bit about some of these threads that you identified for us about Eastern Europe, about the present, about Russian nationalism, about Ukraine. Before that though, we'd like to now to hear from professor Omer Bartov. Omer, please.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Thank you. What I will try to do is raise a few questions regarding the manner in which history seems to be very present in contemporary politics, and particularly in the case of Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. And I'll talk a little bit, very briefly, some memory wars, and then move from there to other kinds of wars, that is the war we are watching right now. And I think there is some interesting connections between them, this struggle over competing historical narratives, the status of victims and perpetrators of national heroes and internal or foreign villains has actually become an increasingly prominent feature of the last few decades in Europe and elsewhere, but here we'll focus only on the case of Eastern Europe.

It's often related to events that occurred in World War II, but in some cases it moves much further back, not least in Ukraine, the case of the Holodomor in Ukraine, the mass famine in 1931, 32, of course in the case of Turkey, it goes back to World War I and the genocide of the Armenians, not yet acknowledged by the Turkish government.

I'll start with the visit that the former president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, made to Israel in 2007. In 2006, the year before, Yushchenko proposed a law that would recognize the Holodomor, this mass famine, as a genocide, as a Soviet genocide against the Ukrainian people. And during his visit to Israel the following year, he obviously hoped to have the state of Israel recognize the Holodmor as genocide, and it's interesting. Why was it important to Yushchenko that Israel recognized it as genocide? It was not recognized as such, partly because politicians in Israel, to quote one of them, said that many Ukrainians are among the righteous of the nations who risked their lives to save Jews, as we recently heard from Zelensky, the current president of Ukraine, Zelensky, but this spokesperson said, "We cannot accept the commemoration of the actions of Ukrainian individuals who, in the course of the national struggle for Ukrainian independence, took part in mass murder of Jews." So this is part of a problem of who are the heroes, the freedom fighters, and the glorious national heroes, and who are those who were engaged in genocide and other crimes? This goes back to a back and forth between Poland and Ukraine and Poland and its own path.

So already in 1998, Poland legislated, in fact, the first memory law in Eastern Europe, which stipulated that anyone who publicly contradicts the crimes mentioned in another article of that law would be subject to a fine or to a penalty. And those crimes were crimes against people of Polish nationality and other Polish citizens, including Nazi crimes, Communist crimes, and other crimes against the peace, humanity, war crimes. The law did not specifically speak about what occurred, of course, also on Polish soil during World War II, which was the genocide of the Jews. There's no direct reference to that and in that, there's an interesting echo of Soviet ways of speaking about the great patriotic war, which talked about innocent Soviet citizens murdered by the Nazis or by the fascists of the record, without any particular reference to the Holocaust.

But in 2018, the Polish parliament passed an amendment to this act of 1998 and what's interesting, in this new version, it had two parts. One of them had to do, and that was the one that was better known publicly in the international debate over it, had to do with trying to criminalize anyone who spoke about Polish complicity in the Holocaust. That was eventually not criminalized, but rather became a civil crime. But the idea was that such allegations of Polish complicity in the Holocaust would besmirch the good name of Poland. But there was another part to it, which referred to Ukraine and here, this law spoke about crimes committed by Ukrainian.

This law spoke about crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists and members of Ukrainian units collaborating with the Third Reich, and those constituted acts by Ukrainian nationalists between 1925 and 1950. So it went way back in time before World War II.

Now, the interesting is that this section of the [?] law actually referred to laws passed in Ukraine in 2015, just three years earlier. Part of the law on the legal status in honoring the memory of the fighters for Ukraine's independence in the 20th century, which criminalized, although again, eventually this was not criminalized, but only made into a civil offense. Anyone who besmirches Ukrainian nationals, sorry, anyone who expresses disrespect for those such as fighters for Ukrainian independence, and that public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine's independence in the 20th century is deemed desecration of the memory of the fight for Ukraine's independence in the 20th century.

It's interesting because the point of contention between Poland and Ukraine, what used to be eastern Poland and those areas had a majority Ukrainian population. The Ukrainian population there did not want to be under Polish rule as occurred in the inter-war period. And during World War II, Ukrainian, the organization of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian insurgent army for to liberate themselves from Polish rule and, in the course of that, conducted ethnic cleansing of the Polish population, as well as working together with the Germans to murder the Jews. So, each side sees the same event from a very, very different perspective and has tried actually to legislate about that.

Now, all of this has now receded very quickly into the past again because of the current events. And I want to say a few words about the current events and how they relate to that. I think I have another five minutes left. So the current conflict is also in many ways a conflict over history. And as Alex said, quite rightly, of course, already from Soviet times, from the very end of World War II, the Soviet Union and then Russia had a different chronology for World War II. On all Soviet memorials, World War II began in 1941 or 1939, because between 1939 and 1941, the Soviet Union was, in fact, an ally of Nazi Germany, not something that anyone in the Soviet Union or now in Russia wants to remember.

Now, as this war, the current war began on February 26th, a Russian document came up on the internet and was quickly thereafter withdrawn because the war wasn't going too well. And what it spoke about was that the return to Russia, of the great Russia, that is, what the war was about was to recreate historical Russia, which is made of great Russia, white Russia, Belarus, and little Russia, Ukraine. Now, that is, in fact, the major central goal of this war, as I understand it by Putin. It's not to return to the Soviet Union; it's to return to Imperial Russia and to its natural areas of rule and expansion. Now, in order to legitimize this attempt to take over an independent country, Putin referred to its denotification. And by that he evoked many of the memories that I was just speaking about and managed to trigger a conversation, which was based really on turning everything on its head. The tale was related to, the tale itself, goes back to German history. It's really the attempt to de-Nazify Germany during its occupation in the immediate aftermath of World War II. But in the minds of many Russians, it links to a long-term view of the great patriotic war, World War II, as holding Russian society together under a myth of unity and of enemies. And it evokes memories of that World War II collaboration with the Nazis.

So Ukraine, as Alex has said, of course, has been going through a difficult process of coming to terms with its past, not only of modernizing itself as a society and becoming increasingly democratic, but also of trying to face up to that past. This is not an easy process, and it has not been easy for any country, including France, Germany, Austria, many others that we can talk about. But of course, in Ukraine, this began only in 1991. That is when Ukraine became independent and therefore could divorce itself from the Soviet narrative of things that was not at all interested in evoking memories of collaboration. And it obscures, of course, also the role of Ukraine as an example of possible democracy right on Russia's doorstep. And in fact, in a part of this world that in Putin's consciousness is really a natural part of Russia, and therefore shows that Russia can actually become democratic.

Now, I'll just say one last word, and that is about the Ukrainian view of this. We can talk much more about it. But within the Ukrainian national narrative, the war that is occurring now is part of a long struggle for Ukrainian independence. It goes back to the mid-17th century to the Kazakh uprising, and then to the creation of what is seen historically, it's not exactly correct, but in the historical memory as the first independent Ukrainian state that is the Kazakh state, that was by the end of the 17th century taken over by what became the Russian empire. At the time it was not even Russia; it was [inaudible 00:31:16] became the Russian empire in the 18th century. And so for Ukraine, what is happening now is really part of a 300-year-long struggle to divorce itself from Russia on the one hand and from Poland, and we can talk about it later, on the other.

And I'll stop here, and I hope we'll have an interesting discussion. Thank you.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Omer, thank you very much for that excellent commentary. What I'd like to do now is just pose some general questions and kind of follow up on some things that both of you have mentioned. And where I'd like to begin, this is really one for both of you, and I'll just kind of rotate order of who can go first. So, Omer, we'll hear from you first and then from Alex. But both of you really talked about political pressure on the teaching of history and the way that politics is shaping narratives of the past, not least of which World War II in Eastern Europe. Obviously Russia has been getting most of the attention, but Alex also talked about the law and justice party in Poland. We could mention Viktor Orban in Hungary. There could be other cases we could bring up.

I guess what I wanted to hear from both of you about here is for our audience to not think that this was simply an inevitable onslaught in terms of how narratives are being consciously reshaped by politicians; that people have fought back against these trends; that people have really contested these pressures. So, could each of you say something about how that has happened in Eastern Europe in the last two decades or so, where whether individuals or organizations, whether universities or institutions have really pushed for a more open, critical approach to their own history in the history of that region? Omer first and then Alex.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Sure. This is a major question. I would say that we can really, when we speak about this, we have to go back to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is the starting point because between the end of World War II and the fall of Communism, all the countries that we are talking about, including, of course, Hungary and Poland and Ukraine, have to conform to a particular narrative of the past. And that narrative of the past is, at least in the sense of World War II, that there was an anti-Fascist struggle and that Communism won over Fascism. And the heroes of that were the anti-Fascists and those who sacrificed themselves to rid the world of Hitler.

What one could not talk about was about the national histories of those countries and the fact that for many of those countries, and that includes parts of Ukraine, certainly west Ukraine, certainly Poland, the liberation of those countries from German Nazi rule was followed by what they saw as a reoccupation by the Soviets and the installation of Communist dictatorship. So, once that is over, one can start talking again about the past, and there are two narratives of that past. One is that now we can go back to democracy. We can liberalize our countries. There is a strong urge, of course, to join the EU, to install democracies. The other is that now we can resurrect also our own national heroes, precisely those who did indeed often either collaborate with the Nazis or at least support nationalist causes. And nationalist causes often talk not only about one's own nation, but also about that nation's enemies.

And so, as I tried to indicate, say in the Polish memory laws, they were both about crimes against the Polish nation under the Soviets, under Communist rule, and crimes against the Polish nation by the Nazis. And there was often a tension between the two. Poland was the first to institute, to create an institute for national memory that was followed also by Ukraine and other countries. And those institutes had to sort of rewrite and/or clean up these two narratives.

And so, in that sense, what we see today and what we were talking about before, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was also that there was a trend back to the right, both in Hungary, in Poland, in some Baltic states, and that is an internal struggle. And then you had Russia move into that and change, at least temporarily, change the narrative.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Yeah, I think it's fascinating what is going to happen because of this war, because everything we might have said a month ago might be completely different, or as you say, it may go back. In two years time, it's the same sort of struggles between the Pols and the Ukrainians or whatever. But at the moment we just don't know how it's going to change this narrative.

I would say that generally speaking, having spent that time, so from 1989 and spending the mid-nineties in Russia, going back and forth between Oxford in Russia and in Ukraine and in Poland, there was this tremendous sort of burst of optimism, openness, an attempt to get into the archives to really examine history, a lot of young scholars who felt sort of liberated. In places like Poland, there had always been this kind of underground history that Pols never took the Soviet line too seriously. They had to officially if they were publishing under the official publishing houses and so on. But I remember the difference between east Germany, which was so tightly constricted in the 1980s, and Poland, where people just wrote and said pretty well what they wanted, as long as it wasn't official. But there was this sort of outpouring of optimism and looking at history.

And again, having spent those nineties years in Yeltsin's Russia, it was amazing because Yeltsin had lots of problems, and he was an alcoholic, and he made huge mistakes with the economy and created the oligarchs and everything. But one thing he was, was a Democrat. He believed in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and all of those things. And he threw open the archives, and it was amazing, amazing time to be able to go in and just pretty well look at anything you wanted to. That, of course, ended with Putin.

So I think one of the things was that sort of pendulum swing to this optimistic openness about the past with, of course, caveats. And then it's come back, and as Omer was saying, this sort of right-wing kind of tendencies of nationalism, this attempt to make the past fit your box of your national vision of your history, which usually means being nasty about your neighbors one way or another. And particularly in this part of the world where borders have crossed populations are mixed. I mean, there's no line between Ukraine and Poland historically. They're all mixed. One of the problems with [inaudible 00:38:53] is it's mixed populations, and that's just the reality of the post WorldWwar I settlements after the disillusion of the empires.

So I think, yes, there was a sort of huge period of optimism and then a much more sort of cynical manipulation of history, Poland being a prime example.


Dr. Jason Dawsey

Thank you very much. I wanted just to follow that up with Omer mentioned that in Ukrainian narratives about independence and the striving for autonomy, that these go back, these reach back to the 17th century. And obviously here we've been foregrounding the second world war, and understandably so given how transformative and devastating that war was for Eastern Europe. I wanted to ask though, just maybe to play devil's advocate here, if we are looking at Eastern Europe and these narratives, nationalist or otherwise, should we go back prior to World War II? And how far back should we go if we want to understand something about, for example, desires for independence in Ukraine or Poland? I think for a lot of Americans, this is a history that's deeply unfamiliar and feel very insecure about who to believe and where to go to.

So just one example I would note is that when Putin gave a speech last month where he glorified Stalin along the lines that Alex was mentioning, but he talked about Lenin as the father of Ukrainian independence. And it was a statement I think that caused a lot of consternation about what is he really getting at here? And it was obviously raising issues about World War I and the Bolshevik revolution and the Russian civil war, et cetera, a history that is very complicated to say the least.

So I guess what I wanted to ask here, if we're really trying to make sense of this history, obviously World War II will be central to that. How far back do you think we should go if we're really wanting to understand it? Alex, we'll start with you and then Omer on this one.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Well, unfortunately, if you really want to sort of understand what's going on between Ukraine and Russia, you have to go back to the 900s, if not before, when the Vikings were trying to create trade routes going through what is now Ukraine and created a Kiev in route, which is this sort of kernel of what became actually in the early middle ages one of, if not the most important, powerful sort of areas in Europe. It was hugely influential and powerful and important until it was sacked in the 13th century.

But this is the sort of, this kernel of history, which the Russians keep going on about, because the Ukrainians can look back to Kiev and say, "Well, we've been here since, well, actually before 900, and it's a continuous presence. This is our country, our culture, and our identity." And yes, indeed the Ukrainians have had enormous struggles trying to create a nation state. There have been all sorts of reasons for it. Omer was talking about the problems with Pols, the Lithuanian Commonwealth and Lithuanians, and also problems with Muscovite and choices that the Ukrainians made going with Muscovite, which ended up with them being subjugated by the Russians. Then also parts were part of the Austria-Hungarian empire as one of the most complex histories to unravel.

But in terms of using this history, in terms of manipulating it, the Ukrainians can say, "This is the kernel. Kiev is the place where we started. This is where we began." The trouble is that the Russians also claim that that's where they began. And so they consider Kiev to be their roots as well. And this is why you had the situation, for example, someone like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when the Soviet Union was breaking up, and he said, "Well, okay, they can have the Baltic states." I mean, this great writer, author of The Gulag Archipelago, you'd think he'd stand for all these human freedoms and so on. You know, Baltic states can go and caucuses can go. They're colonies. We don't need them. But we have to fight to keep Ukraine. We have to fight to keep Belarus. Because this is the true core Russia." And with this kind of conflict and a conflict over history and over the reading of history, the interpretation of history, it's very, very difficult to see how there will be a solution.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Thank you. Omer?


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Yeah. So, first of all, as a historian, of course, I think that history is a great deal. And it's true that for Americans, and I think not a few west Europeans too, it's very difficult to get a grasp of the very complex history, as Alex was indicating, of that region. But I'd say that if we are to understand what lies at the core of many of these conflicts, apart from the contemporary politics and interest and the memory of World War II, which is huge and important, and certainly Russia plays a huge role, but also in much of Eastern Europe, for reasons that are indicated, not just the war, but everything that came after that; if we are to understand how people view themselves, we need to go much further back in history.

And here, what I would say is that it's not just that history matters to many people involved in what we see now between Ukraine and Russia, but that history is read completely differently and that it makes you understand that history is not simply telling what happened in the past, but how a national history is created and internalized by generations of people who believe this to be a major component of their existence, of their identity.

And I'll just give a couple of examples. I mentioned the free Cossack state. It was not really a Ukrainian state, and the Cossacks in Ukrainians are not the same thing, but it doesn't matter. In the histories and novels written in the 19th century, the 17th century was then related to readers of those popular books as the beginning of nationalism, the beginning of Ukrainian nationalism. The main figure in the Cossack uprising is Bohdan Khmelnytsky. And Khmelnytsky is a major Ukrainian national hero. In other stories, Khmelnytsky is the scourge of the Jews and the Pols. For traditional Jews living in Ukraine in the late 19th century, first half of the 20th century, the word Khmelnytsky meant pogrom because the Cossack uprising included major slaughterers of Jews and Pols in what is now Ukraine. So the same figure has very different meanings in different historical memories.

The same would go to the next Ukrainian national hero of the second attempt to create an independent Ukrainian state. And that's Khmelnytsky, who was a national Ukrainian hero, tried to create an independent Ukrainian state, and that state then could not survive under the Bolshevik onslaught and became part of the Soviet Union. And the same goes certainly in west Ukraine to the man who was head of the more radical faction of the organization of Ukrainian nationalists, Stepan Bandera, who is commemorated everywhere in west Ukraine and remembered as having fought both against the Pols in the 1930s, Polish rule in the 1930s, and the insurgency against the Soviets that continued long after the end of World War II into the late 1940s. But Bandera and the Banderites, his followers were involved in killing Jews and Pols. So again, a very different collective memory that matters to this day.

Effective memory, that matters to this day. And if we talk about Putin, when you think about it, who are Putin's examples? I don't think that Putin wants to go back to Lenin. I don't think he wants to recreate communism. But he has heroes. One of them is Stalin, and Stalin, of course, under Putin, has become a national hero again in Russia. And it's major suppression of the actual history of Stalin, the butcher, the murder of millions of Soviet citizens. And a memory of him as the hero of World War II, as having defeated Stalin, and under him, he made Russia great again. He made a great Soviet union, all these acquisitions of territory in Eastern Europe after World War II.

If we go back from that, it would be Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible. These would be the sort of heroes who created great Russia, which in the kind of historical narrative that Putin is trying not only to inculcate in his population, but also to realize these are the heroes. And that's why if we try to think about it from a political perspective, the current political perspective, we have to understand that Ukraine naturally in his eyes and much of the Russian population belongs to Russia.

But beyond that, there are many other parts of Europe that should be under Russian sphere of influence, and those include the Baltic countries, those include, of course, areas like Transnistria, the historical fear of Poland. And a kind of association, and that's interesting to see, also, between Russia and the southern Slavs in the Balkans. So the vision is a much greater vision, and Putin will try to realize it if he is allowed to.


Dr. Jason Dawsey

I appreciate you both answering that question. There's so much there to compress in a few minutes, but I think just even hearing that will really benefit our audience. Just looking at my remaining time, I think I've got about 10 minutes or so with you before we turn it back over to Mike for the audience's questions. This next one I wanted to ask is about Putin, and about his kind of great-Russian nationalism, and his attempt to appropriate the history of World War II to justify the invasion.

And this is really for both of you, and we'll hear from Omar first this time, is, how successful do you think he's been with the Russian population? Here in the United States, the US press has of, course, covered what's happened with protests against the war in Russia. Several thousand people having been arrested, the prison sentence for Novatany, etc. We've seen a great deal about this. These moves. And Alex alluded to it in her commentary.

But, here, I want to ask, how successful has this really been, in terms of saying to Russians that, "This war is necessary, that this is a kind of inheritor conflict to World War II. It is about de-Nazifying Ukraine. We have fascists on our doorstep." That's the rhetoric that Putin has been using. How much success he really had in making his case to the Russian people?


Dr. Omer Bartov

I think we don't entirely know. It's very hard to know, when you're speak about a country in which reporting about public opinion is highly limited, and increasingly so. I think that the general view, from my understanding, is that Putin has been much more successful in those parts of Russia that have, in fact, been left behind. That it's less successful in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which look much more like modern, advanced cities, with a flourishing middle class, much westernized, connected to social media, that sees itself in many ways as part of the rest of Europe.

And if you drive 10, 20, 100 kilometers out of there, then you end up in a very different kind of Russia. And in that Russia, which still adheres very closely to the narrative of the great patriotic war, which watches mostly Russian television, is not well connected to social media there, if you continue telling these stories on the news channels, then obviously there is much more support for his regime and for his narrative.

It's a bit more complicated than that, though, I would say. For a number of reasons. First of all, I'd say what we see happening now, that is numerous indications of demoralization in the Russian army, why is that happening? Well, because Putin wanted to sell his war, and didn't want to sell his war the same time. That is, he wanted to say, "Oh, it's just a special military operation. We are just going to cleanse Ukraine of all those fascists who are oppressing the Ukrainians. And once we do that, then of course they'll join us, because it's just the fascists there who don't want to be part of great Russia."

But when you do that, it means that you cannot have the kind of propaganda that would sell the war to the soldiers and to everyone else. So I think that has been a kind of conundrum for the Russian regime. On the other hand, I would say, the same groups of people that are less supportive of the war, and now less supportive of Putin, and of whom thousands have now left Russia and gone to Yerevan, to Tbilisi, to Istanbul, because they don't feel that the Russia that is emerging will be to their taste. Those were the people that Putin actually bought, and brought together, by allowing the, after the turbulence of the Yeltsin era, to become an affluent, constable middle class, in nice apartments, with iPhones, with the travel around the world. And so they were not that opposed to the regime, as...

And as many Ukrainians would say, in 2014, when the Russians invaded East Ukraine, they said nothing. Now they will suffer, in many ways, more than anyone else because they, before that, were the beneficiaries. So I think it's a mixed picture, but clearly the regime has not been able to sell this war as successfully as it would like. And I think things are going to get worse in the next few weeks.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Thank you, Omar. Alex?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Yeah. I agree with that. I mean, we don't really know. When I was living in Russia, I was there in the Yeltsin years, with this sort of young, up-and-coming, new middle class, who had gone to Harvard or somewhere, and they'd come back, and they were going to be bankers, or whatever else. So they were this sort of aspiring middle class, and doing quite well. And in that period, we could talk about anything; there was no censorship of any kind. But despite everything else, and all the sort of looking toward the West, and having links with the West and everything else, I didn't meet one single person, the whole time I was there, a Russian, who believed that Ukraine should be an independent state.

It's just so deeply ingrained in the Russian mentality, so that even the sophisticated young men and women in the cities still believe that this is so. It's rather like if you said that, I don't know, Washington State should no longer be part of the States. That's somehow how they feel about it. But that's, that's one question: that's that historical perspective.

But another question is the experience that we had, for example, with Russian mothers, when the body bags started coming back from Grozny or Afghanistan or wherever, and there is some hope that... Nothing to do with historiography, but to do with the fact that this is a war that's not going well; it's not what Putin expected. And obviously the military is very demoralized, as Omar was saying. And the young men who were sent there, calling home to their mothers, saying, "I didn't even know what I was doing here. I thought we were on some sort of maneuvers," and so on. And so, if that increases... In other words, if the failure continues to be as bad as it seems to be, and the body count starts to mount up. It's possible that there will be demonstrations, as there were before in Moscow, Petersburg, and elsewhere. As Omar says, not so much out in the countryside.

And another thing to remember is that Putin is ex-KGB, lieutenant colonel. Lieutenant colonel meaning he didn't get very far in his career. He's not a particularly imaginative or interesting thinker, or a person to that effect. He has sort of a mediocre career. Went back to Petersburg to make lots of money, and actually stumbled into, rather, getting Yeltsin to... I mean, he manipulated it very cleverly, but he also was very, very lucky. And he's not a particularly thoughtful, interesting, insightful man. He's KGB, through and through. FSB.

And one of the first things he's done and did was to control the media. There's no free press anymore. Even Rain Television has shut down, and the free newspapers and other media outlets have, have gone. And so, with the exception of that sort of urban class, with their cell phones and stuff like that, who can talk to one another, out in the countryside, the only information they get is Russian TV, which has Putin on it every day, all the time. You can't move without seeing him doing something, opening something, greeting somebody, whatever it is. And so these people are really, really convinced by the propaganda.

So I think the hope, if there is any hope for any kind of general upsurge against him, it would be because of the war is going badly. Not because he's lost control of the media, or because of historiography.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Yeah. Can I, can I add just one word?


Dr. Jason Dawsey

Please. Please.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Because I think that is an important point. My sense, too, is that Putin... If anybody's hoping that Putin will be removed because there are protests against the war, I don't think that will happen. They can put 10,000 people in jail, or 100,000 people in jail. Russia is a big country. I think the only prospect of a regime change in Russia would be if the small elites around Putin himself believe that he is really taking Russia on the wrong path.

But as one former Russian foreign minister said, in Russia, historically... And this is where history comes in... You don't come to the boss and give him bad news. You either don't give the bad news, or you come to the boss with a weapon, and then you either lead him to the cemetery, or to early retirement. And the thing is, I think that people around Putin will be afraid not only of removing him, but also who will come after him, without there being a bloodbath in the Kremlin.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

It's very interesting. It's, again, you know, everybody hoped that the Hitler in the bunker would be assassinated, and this little awful corporal, and that they would get together, and that... It just doesn't happen. And you're absolutely right, Omar, that the clique around Putin has been so carefully hand-picked by him, and they don't say anything that he doesn't want to hear. And also, you must have been to the Kremlin. I mean, it is a sort of vast prison. I mean, it's very, very difficult to get in and out of there if you're not invited, let's put it that way.

And it's physically very, very controlled. And it reminds me a little bit of the death of Stalin, when everybody was so frightened to go, because, because they all knew that he was creating this sort of secondary, this doctor's plot. And a lot of them knew they were going to be for the chop, and yet not one single one, despite all the rumors to the contrary, not one single one actually had the gumption to actually kill him. He collapsed, and they left him be, but, you know.

So unless Putin has some sort of strange medical condition, of which there's been speculation as well, I think that the idea that there's going to be either a palace coup or, as you rightly say, that the Russians have never been shy of putting tens and tens and tens of thousands of people in prison, or worse. And that's a tradition that Putin very much believes in. So I don't think that's, that's the way it's going to go. There still may be protests, however.


Dr. Jason Dawsey 

Well, I want to thank you both for an outstanding conversation. There are so many more things I would like to ask you, but I think our audience would also like to have an opportunity to interact with you. And so I'm going to turn it back over to Dr. Mike Bell, who will handle the Q and A for the remainder of the session.


Dr. Mike Bell

Well, thanks, Jason. And thanks for our panelists. The first question is really about new directions in scholarship. What new directions do you think scholars will take about World War II because of other contemporary crisis in Ukraine?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Well, first of all, when something like this happens, and it's a pattern that's repeated itself throughout history... So, for example, when all of a sudden there's war in the Middle East, and all of a sudden they realize that... Washington realizes there are no Arabic speakers, and that, "Oops, we'd better get onto this." Or whatever it might be. When there's a war, when there's a conflict like this, when something like this flares up, all of a sudden people become interested. Rightly so. We might be looking down the abyss of World War III, if we're very unlucky.

So, this part of the world, it's always mattered. It's always been interesting. It's always been crucial to Europe. It's always been crucial to Russia, to the Soviet Union. But, you know, it was behind the Iron Curtain, and out of sight, out of mind. And then it's had the strange history with Russia. And so it's rather been left aside, except for some very interesting scholars. But I think now the complexity of Ukraine's history, and its meaning, and why it's important, is going to be valuable. And I suspect that the Ukrainian Center at Harvard, or all the other places that have Ukrainian scholars and libraries and so on, are going to start to see an upsurge of interest.


Dr. Mike Bell

Yeah. Excellent. Yeah.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Yeah. I'd just add that, first of all, I teach European history at an American university, and as many people know, European history, or modern European history in particular, has been under attack within history departments in the United States. Not in Europe, but in the United States. And I think that what we see now reminds us how important it is for us to actually know European history, if we want to know the world that we live in.

Specifically for Ukraine, I must say that this has been a huge change, because most people in this country didn't really even know where Ukraine was, or what it was. And this is a lesson in Ukrainian history. Which is, as we've been saying throughout this hour, a very complicated history. So I do believe that this will make a difference. How long? That's hard to say, because certainly in scholarship things move very quickly from one interest to another.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Yeah. While we're waiting for the next question to come up, do you, do you think there'll be more interest in what had been seen as kind of traditional history? You know, political history, history of state craft, or wars, as opposed to the social history, because of this?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Oh, absolutely. It's very interesting because I've, I've always specialized in, first of all, Central European history, where people say, "Why are you interested in that?" And then World War II history, and there's been the equally mystified question. And all of a sudden I'm getting calls and emails and whatever from people saying, "What's going on here? What about this? What about that? What are these weapons?" Because I also do native defense and security studies here at my university, and people all of a sudden want to know, " What? What kind of tank? How many tanks do we have in Europe?" And all this kind of stuff.

Nobody cared before. I mean, absolutely no interest whatsoever. And I had a summer school for the World War II Museum called Between Hitler and Stalin, and took students up to the Baltocs; you know, Baltic. Maneuvers on the Baltic for NATO, and this kind of thing. And people would sort of bafflingly ask, "Why are you interested in this?" Well, all of a sudden we have our answer. We were living in a sort of sense of false security. And all of a sudden, we are at war. And "we" meaning the world is facing a war. And as I said, it hopefully won't spread, but it may. And all of a sudden, it becomes an existential threat to Ukraine, and possibly even to some of the rest of us.


Dr. Mike Bell 



Dr. Omer Bartov 

Yeah. Yeah, no, I couldn't agree more, first of all, on the military side of it. I started as a military historian, and military history has not been exactly at the forefront of historians in the last few decades. And I've been seeing exactly the same thing, including many commentators who don't really know the military history of World War II, don't know much about militaries or weapons anyway, and suddenly they have to find out. So, yeah. I think there will be an interesting depth.

I would add one more thing: for many years in scholarship, but also generally more in academic circles, there has been this idea that nationalism, patriotism, all those old ideas, were behind us. Europe would be just Europe, and patriotism was something that our grandfathers did in the World Wars. Or fathers, in my case. And I think that what we see now, first of all, in Ukraine, is extraordinary, in the sense that you are seeing live, real patriotism. People fighting for their own country, and believing that it is important to do so. And the rest of the world, watching it in awe, rather than cynically.

And that has to do also, of course, with the power of nationalism, that people believe that their nation, as they define it, has a right to exist, and must be defended. And that may have a long-term influence. And there could be negative sides to it as well, of course, as there have been always, in the case of nationalism. But I think at least as historians, we have to recognize the centrality of these ideas at the present time.


Dr. Mike Bell

Well, thank you.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

I agree, and-


Dr. Mike Bell

Oh, go ahead, please, Alex.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Just to briefly just add a quick comment that about 20% of my students here are Ukrainian. And I've been absolutely amazed. Because, you know how everybody was saying, "Oh, this is a flake generation, and they don't do anything, and ha-ha." And these students, and there's one young man in particular, who had bought an apartment flat here in Warsaw, which his parents had helped him to buy. And he had student right to stay here and everything else. He sold his flat when the invasion started, so that he could finance himself to go back and fight. And my students aren't at my class anymore, because they're fighting. I am completely amazed at this. And it's just unbelievable.


Dr. Mike Bell 

No, thank you. And the next one is probably related to this nationalist narrative, but what can historians do to preserve history when governments restrict the narrative? And, Alex, we could start with you, and then move to Omer on this.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Well, first of all, it's no longer... I mean it depends where you live. Obviously if you live in a place like Russia, where it becomes a criminal offense to even say anything rude about Stalin, it becomes dangerous. But the thing is, the world is changing. And so for most of us, even if there are restrictions on history with this Polish Holocaust law or whatever it might be, my view is, publishing be damned. I mean, if you've got... Unless you live in a place where you're going to go to prison, then maybe you should move, or publish it in a different way, or publish it under a different name, or whatever else. And my father-in-law was imprisoned by the Germans, and then by the Stalinists. When he got out, he kept publishing and publishing and publishing illegal papers about Katyn. Then he'd lose his job at whatever paper. Then he'd go and publish something else about the victims of Stalinism. And then he'd lose that job. And then he was back in prison, and this and that. If you want to get the information out, and if you have the courage and the determination, even in the most vile system, you can do it. And most of us are fortunate enough not to live in that sort of system.

I think you need to always keep in mind to write that truth. I mean, "the truth", whatever that means. But using sources. Going to history sources and being as absolutely true [inaudible 01:11:16], warts-and-all history, however unpleasant it might be for the regime, however unpleasant it might be to your personal history, or whatever it is, to go and be absolutely, scrupulously honest, and publishing be damned, unless you're about to lose your life for it.


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Yeah. I, of course, agree. I'd say that, look, as historians, we obviously believe that history is important. I think that if we try to understand the last two centuries, the 19th or the 20th centuries were centuries in which history came to play an increasingly important role. And first of all, it emerged as a historical discipline, and it came to-

It's a historical discipline and it came to play an increasingly important role in how people understood their place in the world and their place in their community, in their society, in their state, in their nation. And so, in that sense, history was always also complicit in nationalist narratives. Historians played a huge role also in creating, I'd say, pernicious histories. That is one side of it. History can actually tell you a particular story that conforms with what your regime wants you to think. That can be incorporated in school curricula. It can be part of the media. You're telling your people a history. It has many true elements to it, but at the same time, it is a particular kind of history. Usually, that history has both friends and foes.

The other side of it... and the important one... is that, as historians, we always have to both believe in the power and importance of knowing the past and, at the same time, to go against the myths and mythologies and lies and these pernicious histories that make people believe in a national narrative that sets them apart. Every nation, of course, has its own special path. Believes that it's the most important. That its existence is the most important. Yesterday, I think, Putin was saying that now the West is trying to cancel Russian history. Their 1000 year old history. So, in that sense, as historians, we must first say that history is crucial to understanding who you are, where you came from, and therefore, possibly where you're going. And at the same time, that you always have to look at it critically. You cannot take anything at face value.


Dr. Mike Bell 

That leads us into a segue and our next question. Omar, you'll get this one first and then Alex. As we think about these dueling narratives, as we compare and contrast the Great Patriotic War and the Good War, how do you see that Russia's World War II narrative compares and contrasts with the World War II good war mythology?


Dr. Omer Bartov 

That's a good question. I do think that, in Russia, the Great Patriotic War plays a much more central role in political... First of all, just in people's sense of themselves and of their history, but also in political manipulation than in the United States. I think, in the United States, a certain view of World War II was created over time. I don't think it was there right at the beginning, right at the end of World War II, but was created as the Good War was obviously never good and the best thing about war is how to avoid it. But a sense that there was a time in which America fought for democracy, fought against tyranny and totalitarianism. A time in which society mobilized. That everyone was on the same page. And that is a unifying memory.

The case of Russia is different because the Soviet Union was invaded by over three million German and Allied soldiers and devastated. The Soviet Union suffered up to possibly 28 million lives. The majority of whom were civilians, although also millions of soldiers. And so it's also a highly traumatic memory, which I don't think is the case of the Good War. The Good War is a kind of good memory. That Russian... Soviet and then Russian... story of sacrifice, of victimhood, and then of winning the war against evil, against Nazism, is a complicated one. We have to remember that the price that the Soviet Union paid was a price for generations. It wasn't just that the war was very costly. The economic devastation. The demographic effects of the war. If you just think of the millions of orphans, the effect on an entire generation of children was huge. And so, in that sense, I think it's a much heavier load to carry as a historical memory and it's one that can be manipulated more effectively to justify the unjustifiable precisely because it's so traumatic.

And I'd say... One last thing. I come from Israel. I was raised in Israel. Part of the burden of being there is the memory of the Holocaust. That's not equivalent to the Great Patriotic War, but it's of course also a deeply traumatic nationalized memory. Such memories can be unifying and can also be used to justify what should not be justified as one sense of a fight for existence. That you can do what otherwise would not be allowed because you have once almost been entirely destroyed.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Those are important insights. Alex, you want to add anything?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Yeah, no, I completely agree. The Great Patriotic War really was a horrific conflict. 26... We'll never know the exact number of people who died on what we call the Eastern Front. Deprivations and privations, murder, bestiality. Young soldiers being sent out to die. These are absolutely dreadful things. But the thing that I object to with the way in which the war is portrayed in Russia now is that all those things are true and I don't know anybody who would say these poor young guys dying and so on isn't terrible... But it's the way in which the rest of the history is manipulated. That Poland started the war. That the Finnish War never happened. The Winter War never happened. Also, the aims of the Soviet Union, of Stalin, both during and after the war. He was always fighting not just a military but also a political war with the aim of creating this sort of buffer zone or sphere of influence in which the peoples he was taking over were never to have the freedoms that they fought for. Particularly the polls, but others as well.

Whereas, I must say, that the narrative in the United States... which was always much more careful about its troops. It was always trying to preserve the lives of its own citizens. No race to Berlin because there may be casualties. You can drop the bomb on Russia because there may be American casualties if you don't. It was a different kind of calculation and much more respect for individual human life. It's a different society. Different culture. Different concept of what that means. In a sense, if you were talking about which one of those is a good war... Well, yes, good in both senses that we are trying to fight Hitler, but I would say that it does matter what you're fighting for in the end. It's not just to get rid of Hitler. It's also what kind of society do you want to put in place afterwards?

We on our side, if you will, had things like the Atlantic Charter and the creation of United Nations and the decision to allow Germany to... at least Western Germany... to thrive and become part of the Western economic community and military, eventually NATO, and everything else. Whereas Stalin's idea was to punish, take reparations, keep the boot down. Not just on Germany, although that was the prime target, but also on countries like Poland that had actually helped to fight against Hitler. So, I think that also must play a role. What your aim or ambition is as well as the actual sacrifice of the soldiers on the ground?


Dr. Omer Bartov 

I just want to jump in-


Dr. Mike Bell 



Dr. Omer Bartov 

... for one sec because I completely agree with Alex. I just want to add that... I think I mentioned it someplace. There was a TV show a good 20, 25 years ago about the Eastern Front. It had different names. In Russia, it was called The Great Patriotic War. In Germany, it was called The Unforgettable War. And in America, it was called The Unknown War. And that tells us something, I think. What I think many Russians have felt, rightly, is that there was a kind of Western narrative that we all together won the war against Nazi Germany and there was really very little knowledge about the nature of the Eastern Front War on the East.

When I did my PhD examination, one my examiners was Michael Howard, who was then Regius Professor of History at Oxford. He had been an officer in an armored brigade on the Western Front. When he read my dissertation, which was on the war in the east, he said, "You know, we fought against the same Panzer Division for months. When we caught some of their officers, we treated them nicely. We'd have a drink with them. There was an air of chivalry and the same on the other side." And he said, "I had no idea that things looked the way you described them on the Eastern Front." So, in that sense, I think... First, there were really two wars being fought. One was the war that Americans remembered and the British and it had many aspects of being a good war. And the other was something that was entirely different. Totally barbarous. The sacrifice... including, of course, the battle on Berlin. The sacrifice of the Red Army, I think, was not recognized in Western historiography, including military history, for decades to come.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Go ahead, Alex.


Dr. Alexandra Richie

I completely agree that that's one of the things that I think that... Really, in order to understand the world that Putin's living in, the world that we are now living in as well, we really do need to understand what happened out here. I've been beating this drum for a very long time at the World War II Museum and everywhere else I can. That to really understand... And also the psychological scars here. By the way, not just of the war, which was horrific. Unbelievable sometimes. I'm sure, Omar, you've had the same experience. You sometimes just have to go and go for a walk and get some fresh air because some of the things you're reading are just so horrific. But it's also the Soviet history out here as well, which is the postwar settlement and those countries which ended up behind the Iron Curtain and all of the baggage that that's also brought. For example, when you were talking earlier about the Holocaust, Omar. That for us in the West, it's now become really... If you talk about World War II, especially in Europe, the Holocaust is the prime subject. But if you go to some of the memorials or museums in places like Lithuania or wherever, you find that the museum to totalitarianism is not about the Nazis at all, but it's about the Stalinist view. And that's something that, again, there's this huge blind spot in the West about. About the complexities and the layers and layers of how people feel here about their both wartime... Well, I'd say World War I experience is totally unknown, interwar experience, Bolshevik Revolution, the civil war, the Polish-Soviet War, the second world war, and then the Soviet takeover. There needs to be an awful lot more work done on it.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Well, your point about how people feel... I'm going to ask you each how you feel here. Alex, we'll go to you first. Is it dispiriting as historians to see history in the 21st century so clearly hijacked for another war in the region? Alex?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

I think it's inevitable. As I was saying earlier, I think, as historians, we need to try and be completely honest about history. I think that a great deal of that has to do with debunking myths that were created here very largely starting in the 19th century. Precisely because this part of the world was under imperial powers. Under the Germans, Russians, Prussians or Germans, and Austro Hungarians. And then when the first world war happened, the unthinkable happened, all these countries were recreated. They went back to these fake foundation myths. Including Germany and Hegel... Omar was talking about the complicity of historians going back into the 19th century. It wasn't just in Poland or, or Ukraine. It was the trend. These are the myths that we must debunk and we must look at. A lot of governments and patriots don't like it, but I think it's extremely important. And so I would say, A, it's not surprising. As historians, you accept that it's going to happen, but you try and work against it as much as possible.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Good. Omer?


Dr. Omer Bartov 

Well, I'm not surprised at all. It's always been the case. History has always been, as I was trying to say, both a real attempt to understand what happened in the past and a discipline that has been mobilized often to tell a particular story and to distort it in a way that says what is seen as a regime or a national or an ideological interest. There was a French scholar in the 1920s who wrote about the treason of the intellectual. [foreign language 01:27:03]. We, I think, as historians actually have to always understand that and have to know that quite apart from, I think, what drives us as historian, which is to understand, to know the path in all its complexity, to also know that what we say, what we write, can be used against us. Therefore, when we see that, if we have a particular authority as scholars, to expose the lies about history that are being espoused by this or that regime or leader. That perhaps is the most important task that we actually face today as in the past.


Dr. Mike Bell 

We've got time for one more question. As you think about that role, does one particular media... social, print news... really carry the bulk of this struggle for historical memory in Poland and Ukraine today? Omar, we can start with you. How's that?


Dr. Omer Bartov 

It's hard to say these days which part of the medium... I think the question is a little bit the scale. Obviously, in terms of the immediate effect that comes from social media. Anything that is circling around the internet, I think. Then, television. Radio. The more traditional media. I think in the long run what actually matters are other things. In the long run, I really believe what matters is knowing and understanding the past and knowing and understanding the deeper historical origins of what we see today. That we find in books. That we find in teaching and school curricula. That we find in more intellectual debates. So, I would say that we have to distinguish between the immediate effect, the instant gratification that you get from your Twitter, and the deeper knowledge... including, of course, when it's manipulated by state... of the past.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Alex, any thoughts from you?


Dr. Alexandra Richie

Yeah, I agree with that. It's the whole range of things. I mean, immediate is social media, but it's transitory. How much will we be able to use in 50 years time as historians? All that just goes into the ether. For example, just an example, I'm working with a friend of mine in London who's a lawyer. They're interested in getting together materials to document for possible war crimes trials and so on. I think that this is the sort of thing where you need to go and you need to documentary evidence proof. Photographs, testimonies that are signed, all these sorts of things. That these are the things that we have. For example, when I was working on the Warsaw Uprising book, you have these amazing documents. Testimonies of people who were interviewed immediately after the war officially or by the Red Cross, whatever. What happened to you? What did you see? They sign it. It's an official document, which is an eyewitness testimony, which you then have at least some sense that it's valid. It's not just been made up by somebody or whatever else. So I think there's a whole range of things we can do.

Just as another note, I'm really surprised at how... and this my technological uselessness coming through... how little we've been able to infiltrate what's going on in Russia. We talked earlier about the fact that they get their news through Russian TV. But where are our amazing... Where's the amazing technology that can just flood the place with images and information about this? This is my question to the techno people out there.


Dr. Mike Bell 

Great, provocative panel. Thank you to our chair, Jason, and our panelists, Omar and Alex. Also, the audience. I'm sorry we didn't to all the questions, but they posed some great questions for you. Again, just a quick thanks to our sponsors of our Remember War conference. The ABMC, American Battle Monuments Commission, EA, Respawn Entertainment, and Oculus by Meta. And thanks again to our presenters.


Jeremy Collins

Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please consider visiting for more episodes. Again, that is national, W W, the number two, museum dot org backslash podcasts. This series is made possible by the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Charitable Foundation, which supports content like this from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Don't forget to rate and subscribe. It goes a long way to helping others find this series. I'm Jeremy Collins signing off.