TOOMAS ALATALU Kremlin bracing to write new World War II narrative

Toomas Alatalu
, political scientist
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: Yury Kochetkov / POOL / AP
  • Russia needs a new narrative on World War II.
  • The biggest Nazis, they say, are in the Baltics.
  • An anti-Germany campaign has also been launched.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has several schemes he follows when delivering his propaganda sermons. Broadly speaking, the narrative once fabricated and launched is constantly repeated, but with changes to the sequence of its sub-themes. Sometimes, he gets carried away with this repetition, and then we hear about entirely new thoughts and facts on the same topic, which have clearly been discussed before, but have been left out of the traditional main narrative, writes political scientist Toomas Alatalu.

Multiple such unexpected messages were heard in Lavrov's June 1 interview for the project «With no Statute of Limitations» («Bez sroka davnosti»). Everything was put on the table already with the first question: how far does the minister thinks the investigation of the crimes committed by Nazis against the peaceful population during the Great Patriotic War has progressed?

I would like to remind readers that the Kremlin's attitude towards German politics and the Germans changed radically after the construction of Nord Stream 2 stalled. At that critical moment — the war in Ukraine was ongoing — they came to the conclusion in Moscow that in order to overcome the stoppage, greater emphasis should be placed on the feelings of guilt of Germans in connection with World War II. So in 2019, a review of the judgments of military courts made after the liberation of territories of the USSR occupied during the war was launched, and while in the indictments of 1944–1945, war crimes or crimes against humanity were named, now they were all reclassified as genocide against the Slavic or, a little later, the Soviet peoples more broadly. More than 20 of such trials have been organized from Karelia to the Caucasus and some are ongoing today. When elaborating on the subject, Lavrov once again recounted how Germany at one point paid compensation to the Jews who survived the siege of Leningrad, but refused to pay the other survivors because it considered only the former as victims.

Behind this stance was a clever reminder to Moscow that it, too, was instrumental in the outbreak of World War II. Although such a fundamentally new message was not followed by substantive conclusions from other quarters — the major powers have a growing propensity to refrain from saying out everything, but to remember — experts understood that this marked the end of the World War II narrative composed in the Kremlin that we used to know. In other words, a more carefully thought-out narrative will be written. The perception of this change was well reflected in the campaign immediately launched in Russia, which included adding a clause to the Constitution stating that the history and outcomes of World War II are immutable, and establishing penalties for those who questioned it.

This marked the end of the World War II narrative composed in the Kremlin that we used to know. In other words, a more carefully thought-out narrative will be written.

After bashing the «arrogant» German ministers of the time, Lavrov came to the alleged rebirth of Nazism in Ukraine, and we got to hear a «new» piece of news. This rebirth allegedly began earlier, when the Pribaltika [Russian for the Baltic states — ed.] joined the European Union and NATO. In other words, the arch-Nazis were Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians. According to Lavrov, the ones who accepted them made a promise to re-educate the Pribalts and cited the hope that the Russophobia that resulted from their occupation would disappear. However, the opposite happened, because the Pribalts, along with Poles and Czechs, are now the most aggressive towards Russia in the EU and NATO.

Speaking of the removal of monuments to the occupation in Eastern Europe, Lavrov claimed that the Bronze Soldier was relocated in 2017 — although in fact it was done in 2007 — but this error of fact allowed him to return to listing the mistakes of Ukrainians in the ongoing war, which of course they, not Moscow, started. Returning to the aforementioned trials, Lavrov declared that genocide was being assessed and «there are grounds to assume that this was a conscious action by the Germans.» In December 2023, Lavrov said the same thing without any caveats.

We can say that this interview fits into the anti-Germany campaign announced by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on April 18: don't even hope that we will stop demanding compensation for others who were under the siege and assessing your crimes. This declaration of war on Berlin was made after Russian representatives were not invited to the annual memorial event for the liberation of concentration camps in Germany.

It cannot be said that this political and propaganda war between Moscow and Berlin has not affected the domestic politics of Germany, Austria, and some other Western countries. The heavy burden of history is a reality, and the addition of another accusation of genocide (plus the acknowledgment of genocide in Namibia from 1904–1908 in 2021) certainly affects the guilt feelings of ordinary citizens. Especially those who went through the denazification process under the occupying powers, the victorious ones, between 1945 and 1955 and have in subsequent years been exposed to the Kremlin's brainwashing.

Clarity about the big and small, early and later Nazis will come with the writing of a new history of World War II.

As a nation that loves discipline, they quickly realized that the easiest way to show their true stance to the rest of the world was to openly protest against the far-right parties and groups that have emerged in Germany. That is why such demonstrations in Germany have long ceased to be news, as has the authorities' swift reaction to anything that recalls the time of the Third Reich. We can say that nothing not previously known has been said (including justifications such as, but so did Nobel Prize laureate Günter Grass, so did UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, etc.), but when you add to that the infamous speech by Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the European Parliament, for example, then — the messages of others are taken more lightly than those of Germans. That is probably the way it will remain, but there is one more factor in it today. Namely, the aforementioned Russian campaign to put the blame for triggering World War II on the Germans alone, in a bid to also influence the course of events in the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, and in other world conflicts as well.

As we know, there are influential Russian communities in many countries, and there are plenty of politicians who, with Moscow's money, are willing to renounce democracy and freedom. A separate group are the far-right parties, all of which receive money and support from Moscow. It was therefore quite a surprise when the French far-right severed its ties with their German partner, the AfD. The real reason, of course, was an order that came from the Kremlin: leave the Germans on their own and at our mercy. What result this partial ignoring of a part of the German population will bring becomes clearer after the European Parliament elections. Clarity about the big and small, early and later Nazis will come with the writing of a new history of World War II.

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