After much speculation that Russian president Vladimir Putin would use the country’s May 9 Victory Day celebration to announce he was escalating his war on Ukraine, Putin’s actual speech was rather subdued. You can be excused if you have trouble sorting out the significance of Victory Day in Russia, along with all the competing claims around who “won” World War II. If you don’t follow European history of the 20th century, it is easy to get confused.
Thankfully, historians can help provide some of the context.
But first, let’s clarify the different dates. The United States and most of the Allies honor V-E Day on May 8, which was the day in 1945 that “jubilant celebrations broke out as news spread of the Nazis’ unconditional surrender in Reims, France, on May 7, 1945.” The Russians celebrate victory over the Nazis on May 9, as Heather Cox Richardson notes, “for by the time the Germans surrendered to the Soviets in Berlin, the different time zones meant it was already May 9 in Moscow.”
Timothy Snyder is one of the smartest historians on 20th century Europe and tyranny. His slim but vital On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a must-read at this point in our life as a nation. On May 9th, Snyder used his Thinking About… Substack site to post 9 Theses on Putin’s Fascism for 9 May. In it, Synder distills work he’s done over the past decade to nine key points about how Putin can “carry out obviously fascist policies, such as a genocidal war of destruction in Ukraine, while claiming the mantle of anti-fascism.” Snyder shows how Putin identifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War. “The past becomes a way for the aggressor to claim victimhood, as well as the right to commit any crime.”
The entire piece is fascinating and informative, and worth your time. Here are a couple of key excerpts:
Soviet usage lacked a clear notion of what fascism is. In the 1930s, Stalinism went back and forth on whether or not fascism was a bad thing. As a result, fascism in Soviet usage never had any very clear content. This was especially apparent after 1939, when Soviet newspapers reprinted speeches by Nazi leaders. In 1939, Stalin sealed a de facto alliance with Hitler, which meant that fascism became praiseworthy in the official Soviet public sphere. This act of collaboration was the most important of the Second World War, since it allowed it to begin. (Speaking of any of this in Russia today is a criminal act.) In 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and so fascism became the enemy of the Soviet Union. But what was chiefly wrong with fascism was the invasion itself. Fascism was never really defined. It was simply the creed of the outsider.
As time passed, Snyder notes, the usage of the word “fascists” became even more vague. “In the cold war, the Americans and the British could be assimilated to wartime Germans as ‘fascists.’ In time, so could Israelis.” “Fascist” — Snyder points out — now just means “enemy.”
Such Soviet nostalgia was ideology, in the negative sense meant by Marx when he used the word. Actual Marxists would have remembered that Soviet victory of 1945 depended upon American economic power, for example in the form of lend-lease aid to the USSR. But Soviet leaders preferred to forget that. It goes unmentioned today in Russian history textbooks, and practically no one in Russia talks about it. And this of course is a great difference between the Second World War and the current Russian invasion: US economic power in 1942-1945 was very much on the Soviet side, but it is today arrayed (if on a smaller scale) against one post-Soviet state (Russia) on behalf of another post-Soviet state (Ukraine). Russian ideology today focuses entirely on the will of Russians as the source of Soviet victory in 1945, rather than on such structural factors. National will is of course the central category of fascism. …
Go read the whole thing.
For her May 9th Letters from an American post, Heather Cox Richardson looks at how Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, filmed outside walking down Khreshchatyk Street, the main street in Kyiv, answered Putin’s take on history. Then she turns to look at one area where Putin has been successful: in the outsized influence his country — our geopolitical enemy — has exerted over the Republican Party since 2008. Chilling.
Finally, Anne Applebaum is a journalist, not a historian, but in her 2020 book Twilight of Democracy she provides a compelling argument in the chapter The Future of Nostalgia that British conservatives’ belief that England was the only European country with a real claim to victory in the Second World War — “the country that was never invaded, never surrendered, the country that chose the right side from the beginning” — led directly to Brexit.
I grew up getting my U.S. history in the late 1950s and the 1960s. We learned that it was the U.S. that not only saved Europe, but saved civilization, from the fascists. It is easy to see how different countries build their national myths on different perspectives that do not account for complexity. Myths don’t handle complexity very well. But history can.
Snyder ends his piece with the following:
Russian propaganda about 1945 and 2022 is summarized in the popular slogan: “We can repeat!” But history, of course, does not repeat. And we cannot make it do so. The whole idea of repetition involves choosing a particular point in the past, idealizing it, ignoring all the context and everything that followed, and then imagining that it can be relived. Whoever performs this exercise eliminates any sense of responsibility: we were right back then, therefore we are right now, and we will always be right — no matter what we do.
Question the myths, even those of your own country.
More to come…
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.