“We may have differences with Vladimir Putin but I have not forgotten and will never forget that the Russian people gave millions of lives [during World War II]. I told Vladimir Putin that as the representative of the Russian people, he is welcome to the ceremonies.”
- French President François Hollande, May 8, 2014.
It was never a good idea to invite Vladimir Putin to join the 70th-anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings on June 6. But the justification now offered by the French government makes the original mistake a great deal worse.
As Putin prepares for the Normandy ceremonies, his hirelings are attempting to provoke violence and disrupt elections in Ukraine. Putin justifies his government’s actions against Ukraine as necessary to resist Ukrainian “fascists.”
This represents an audacious inversion of reality. In free presidential elections on May 25, about 2 percent of Ukrainians cast their ballots for the ultra-nationalist parties Svoboda and Pravy Sektor. In elections that same day to the European Union parliament, France’s xenophobic and anti-Semitic National Front collected 25 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Putin himself has emerged as the chief paymaster and inspiration for Europe’s far-right parties.
In Putin’s distorted version of reality, those Ukrainians who demonstrated for a liberal, democratic, and European-oriented future are vilified as neo-Nazis. The Russian-backed thugs and goons who violently attack them are saluted as the heirs to the anti-Nazi resistance.
This inversion may be audacious, but it is not new. For almost half a century after 1945, Soviet leaders vilified any and all resistance to their rule over Eastern Europe as fascist by definition. Social democrats, Catholics, peasant populists, and monarchist conservatives: fascists all. At the same time, the Soviets redefined the war against Nazi Germany as a specifically Russian struggle. The millions of war dead inside the Soviet Union—many of them Jews, Ukrainians, Poles, Belarusians, and other national minorities—were boldly relabeled as “Russians” all. When François Hollande salutes Vladimir Putin as the heir and legatee of the wartime Grand Alliance, he repeats and ratifies this antique and deceitful propaganda.
In the context of 2014, this propaganda is especially dangerous. The Soviets reinvented World War II as a Russian war to deliberately discredit any expression of nationalism in their largest subject-nation, Ukraine. If the Ukrainians were all Nazis, then a bid for Ukrainian independence must be a Nazi project. That was a highly useful idea for the Soviets in the postwar era. It’s a useful idea for Vladimir Putin again today.
And yes, the Nazis did indeed recruit collaborators inside Ukraine. Some Ukrainians welcomed the Nazi invasion in 1941 as a liberation from Soviet rule. Some committed vicious atrocities against Poles and Jews. Some opportunistically served whichever side seemed to be winning at the moment. Some heroically sacrificed themselves to win a global victory for freedom in which their own country would not share.
The same story could be told almost everywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. If collaboration in the 1940s discredited a nation’s right to self-government in the 2010s, then France itself would forfeit its rights.
Putin’s approach is to claim for Russia all that is creditable in Soviet history—and then to present Russians as the principal victims of every Soviet crime and atrocity, when those crimes are not outright excised or denied. Yet 7 million Ukrainians wore the uniform of the Red Army during World War II. If Putin is entitled to a place on the Normandy reviewing stand to honor the contributions of Russians in 1941-45, why not also invite Ukraine’s president-elect—and, for that matter, Kazakhstan’s and Uzbekistan’s and those of all the successor republics of the Soviet Union? Are too many of those leaders thugs and crooks? Well, what else is Putin? If it’s too embarrassing to invite President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, it ought to be too embarrassing to invite his patron.
In 1994, French President François Mitterrand—himself a former collaborationist—declined to invite Germany’s Helmut Kohl to the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. The excuse was that the day belonged only to the victorious Allies. (The true motive seems to have been to remind newly reunified Germany to mind its Ps and Qs.) Since then, a more charitable spirit has prevailed. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder joined French President Jacques Chirac to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. In explaining the invitation and his decision to accept, Schroeder wrote that on D-Day, “France was liberated from German occupation and we Germans from the Nazi tyranny. This day is much more than victory or defeat. It has become a symbol of the struggle for freedom, democracy and human rights. It is only right that we Germans take part.” That decision seems just and generous today. And it explains why all the states of democratic Europe deserve an invitation to share the memory of the day—and why Vladimir Putin doesn’t.