Vladimir Putin: The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II
The Russian president offers a comprehensive assessment of the legacy of World War II, arguing that "Today, European politicians, and Polish leaders in particular, wish to sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet. The Munich Betrayal showed to the Soviet Union that the Western countries would deal with security issues without taking its interests into account."
The Second World War did not happen overnight, nor did it start unexpectedly or all of a sudden. And German aggression against Poland was not out of nowhere. It was the result of a number of tendencies and factors of the world policy of that time. All pre-war events fell into place to form one fatal chain. But, undoubtedly, the main factors that predetermined the greatest tragedy in the history of mankind were state egoism, cowardice, appeasement of the aggressor who was gaining strength, and unwillingness of political elites to search for a compromise.
Therefore, it is unfair to claim that the two-day visit to Moscow of Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop was the main reason for the start of the Second World War. All the leading countries are to a certain extent responsible for its outbreak. Each of them made fatal mistakes, arrogantly believing that they could outsmart others, secure unilateral advantages for themselves or stay away from the impending world catastrophe. And this short-sightedness, the refusal to create a collective security system cost millions of lives and tremendous losses.
Saying this, I by no means intend to take on the role of a judge, to accuse or acquit anyone, let alone initiate a new round of international information confrontation in the historical field that could set countries and peoples at loggerheads. I believe that it is academics with a wide representation of respected scientists from different countries of the world who should search for a balanced assessment of what happened. We all need the truth and objectivity. On my part, I have always encouraged my colleagues to build a calm, open and trust-based dialogue, to look at the common past in a self-critical and unbiased manner. Such an approach will make it possible not to repeat the errors committed back then and to ensure peaceful and successful development for years to come.
However, many of our partners are not yet ready for joint work. On the contrary, pursuing their goals, they increase the number and the scope of information attacks against our country, trying to make us provide excuses and feel guilty, and adopt thoroughly hypocritical and politically motivated declarations. Thus, for example, the resolution on the Importance of European Remembrance for the Future of Europe approved by the European Parliament on 19 September 2019 directly accused the USSR together with the Nazi Germany of unleashing the Second World War. Needless to say, there is no mention of Munich in it whatsoever.
I believe that such ‘paperwork' – for I cannot call this resolution a document – which is clearly intended to provoke a scandal, is fraught with real and dangerous threats. Indeed, it was adopted by a highly respectable institution. And what does that show? Regrettably, this reveals a deliberate policy aimed at destroying the post-war world order whose creation was a matter of honour and responsibility for States a number of representatives of which voted today in favour of this deceitful resolution. Thus, they challenged the conclusions of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the efforts of the international community to create after the victorious 1945 universal international institutions. Let me remind you in this regard that the process of European integration itself leading to the establishment of relevant structures, including the European Parliament, became possible only due to the lessons learnt form the past and its accurate legal and political assessment. And those who deliberately put this consensus into question undermine the foundations of the entire post-war Europe.
Apart from posing a threat to the fundamental principles of the world order, this also raises certain moral and ethical issues. Desecrating and insulting the memory is mean. Meanness can be deliberate, hypocritical and pretty much intentional as in the situation when declarations commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War mention all participants in the anti-Hitler coalition except for the Soviet Union. Meanness can be cowardly as in the situation when monuments erected in honour of those who fought against Nazism are demolished and these shameful acts are justified by the false slogans of the fight against an unwelcome ideology and alleged occupation. Meanness can also be bloody as in the situation when those who come out against neo-Nazis and Bandera's successors are killed and burned. Once again, meanness can have different manifestations, but this does not make it less disgusting.
Neglecting the lessons of history inevitably leads to a harsh payback. We will firmly uphold the truth based on documented historical facts. We will continue to be honest and impartial about the events of World War II. This includes a large-scale project to establish Russia's largest collection of archival records, film and photo materials about the history of World War II and the pre‑war period.
Such work is already underway. Many new, recently discovered or declassified materials were also used in the preparation of this article. In this regard, I can state with all responsibility that there are no archive documents that would confirm the assumption that the USSR intended to start a preventive war against Germany. The Soviet military leadership indeed followed a doctrine according to which, in the event of aggression, the Red Army would promptly confront the enemy, go on the offensive and wage war on enemy territory. However, such strategic plans did not imply any intention to attack Germany first.
Of course, military planning documents, letters of instruction of Soviet and German headquarters are now available to historians. Finally, we know the true course of events. From the perspective of this knowledge, many argue about the actions, mistakes and misjudgment of the country's military and political leadership. In this regard, I will say one thing: along with a huge flow of misinformation of various kinds, Soviet leaders also received true information about the upcoming Nazi aggression. And in the pre-war months, they took steps to improve the combat readiness of the country, including the secret recruitment of a part of those liable for military duty for military training and the redeployment of units and reserves from internal military districts to western borders.
The war did not come as a surprise, people were expecting it, preparing for it. But the Nazi attack was truly unprecedented in terms of its destructive power. On June 22, 1941, the Soviet Union faced the strongest, most mobilized and skilled army in the world with the industrial, economic and military potential of almost all Europe working for it. Not only the Wehrmacht, but also German satellites, military contingents of many other states of the European continent, took part in this deadly invasion.
The most serious military defeats in 1941 brought the country to the brink of catastrophe. Combat power and control had to be restored by extreme means, nation-wide mobilization and intensification of all efforts of the state and the people. In summer 1941, millions of citizens, hundreds of factories and industries began to be evacuated under enemy fire to the east of the country. The manufacture of weapons and munition, that had started to be supplied to the front already in the first military winter, was launched in the shortest possible time, and by 1943, the rates of military production of Germany and its allies were exceeded. Within six months, the Soviet people did something that seemed impossible. Both on the front lines and the home front. It is still hard to realize, understand and imagine what incredible efforts, courage, dedication these greatest achievements were worth.
The tremendous power of Soviet society, united by the desire to protect their native land, rose against the powerful, armed to the teeth, cold-blooded Nazi invading machine. It stood up to take revenge on the enemy, who had broken, trampled peaceful life, people's plans and hopes.
Of course, fear, confusion and desperation were taking over some people during this terrible and bloody war. There were betrayal and desertion. The harsh split caused by the revolution and the Civil War, nihilism, mockery of national history, traditions and faith that the Bolsheviks tried to impose, especially in the first years after coming to power – all of this had its impact. But the general attitude of the absolute majority of Soviet citizens and our compatriots who found themselves abroad was different – to save and protect the Motherland. It was a real and irrepressible impulse. People were looking for support in true patriotic values.
The Nazi "strategists" were convinced that a huge multinational state could easily be brought to heel. They thought that the sudden outbreak of the war, its mercilessness and unbearable hardships would inevitably exacerbate inter-ethnic relations. And that the country could be split into pieces. Hitler clearly stated: "Our policy towards the peoples living in the vastness of Russia should be to promote any form of disagreement and division".
But from the very first days, it was clear that the Nazi plan had failed. The Brest Fortress was protected to the last drop of blood by its defenders of more than 30 ethnicities. Throughout the war, the feat of the Soviet people knew no national boundaries – both in large-scale decisive battles and in the protection of every foothold, every meter of native land.