Blogs > Cliopatria > Contested History: WWII Legacies

May 6, 2005 9:31 pm

Contested History: WWII Legacies

I know, you don't need to be reminded how relevant history is, but it's always interesting to see it in action. Definitions matter, because words can obscure as much as they reveal:

"Look, it's a tricky world out there," said Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, when asked if his boss risked offending both the Kremlin and Baltic leaders on a trip starting today that must balance attending a celebration in Red Square of the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat without endorsing the subsequent Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the New York Times reports.

"One cannot use the term 'occupation' to describe those historical events. … At that time, the troop deployment took place on an agreed basis and with the clearly expressed agreement of the existing authorities in the Baltic republics," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the Russian ambassador to the European Union, told a Moscow news conference in which he denied the Soviet Union forcibly occupied Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the Washington Post reports.
[forwarded by Mom, from the Wall Street Journal; both links are registration required; here's a free one]

Just because you've filed the proper paperwork doesn't mean that you're not an imperialistic oppressor... Regular readers know that I'm not a big fan of our President, but in this case he has my full support: this is history worthy of not just memorialization but of clear, precise and complete remembrance. If your pride or legitimacy rests on a denial the realities of history, it's time to find new sources of pride and legitimacy.

For more on the end of WWII, there's no finer blog roundup than the collected works and links of Orac, perhaps supplemented by contrasting Orac's recent meditation on the devolution of Holocaust denier David Irving with these never before published pictures [warning: graphic and disturbing] of the Dachau camp at liberation.

Speaking of" clear and precise remembrance," (which is hard, when reporters are involved) Eric Muller, in addition to the pictures, has been rooting through the National Archives at College Park, Maryland and has found some fascinating primary sources on the WWII internment of enemy aliens (and lots and lots of Japanese Americans) including open discussions of West Coast greed and racism, a memo from FDR on how the East coast Germans and Italians were to be handled differently, and a pair of polls which strongly suggest that the government roundup of Japanese descended Americans did more than Pearl Harbor to create a general fear of Japanese Americans. David Neiwert has a roundup of recent fear-mongering (and obfustication) which makes it very clear how relevant that history is to the present.

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Alan Allport - 5/8/2005

In my view, it is good that these issues are being discussed.

I agree wholeheartedly. But again, I find the use of words like 'blame', 'misjudgment' and 'culpability' out of place in this discussion (no matter who uses them), because they imply that an alternative course of action was open to the Western Allies in 1945 that they chose not to pursue - in my opinion a completely unrealistic bit of post-hoc moralizing.

Maarja Krusten - 5/8/2005

I haven’t seen a transcript of Bush's remarks yet. Blame appears to be the newspaper’s word. What Nush said seems to be more of an acknowledgement. Here’s what today’s Washington Post reports, (registration required).

"'The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact,' Bush said, linking it to British appeasement and Soviet deal-cutting with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. 'Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.'

Bush connected the struggles against Nazi and Communist despotism in this part of the world to his own campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East. "We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations -- appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," he said. 'We have learned our lesson. No one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security, and true stability, depend on the freedom of others.'"

The Post reports further that

“In describing Yalta as an example of American misjudgment, Bush revived a long-standing dispute over the extent of U.S. culpability in consigning Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Stalin hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Crimean city of Yalta in February 1945 to decide the fate of postwar Europe. When the war ended, the continent was left split in half.

Many critics, particularly Republicans, maintain that Roosevelt effectively sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta, while defenders say the conference simply recognized the reality on the ground given that the Red Army already controlled the territory. Others point out that the Yalta agreement included Soviet commitments to free elections in countries like Poland, obligations it broke. That was the view of past presidents, including Ronald Reagan.

'Let me state emphatically, we reject any interpretation of the Yalta agreement that suggests American consent for the division of Europe into spheres of influence,' Reagan said in August 1984. 'On the contrary, we see that agreement as a pledge by the three great powers to restore full independence, and to allow free and democratic elections in all countries liberated from the Nazis after World War II.'"

Bush, by contrast, said "the legacy of Yalta was finally buried, once and for all," only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Baltic states won their independence.” [END WASHINGTON POST EXTRACT]

History can be messy and the consequences of agreements made by the great powers, whether based on misjudgments or pragmatism or something else, can be catastrophic, especially for small countries. I think I mentioned earlier in a posting on HNN that some of my late sister’s colleagues and friends at the National Archives used to call Estonia “a speed bump on the map of Europe.” I always laughed at their clever phrase although as an Estonian American born here in the U.S., I missed never having known my grandparents, etc.

In a comment not picked up in the U.S. press, Agence France Presse reported on May 6, 2005,

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the Soviet grip on the Baltic states after World War II a 'tragedy' but insisted Moscow had already repudiated the secret pact that opened the door to it and should not be asked to apologize again.

'In effect, these Baltic countries were treated as pawns in world politics. And that is a tragedy for these nations. This must be stated plainly,' Putin said in an interview with two German television networks, a transcript of which was published on the Kremlin website Friday.

Putin's comment was a notable departure from standard Russian policy rhetoric on ties with the Baltic states and came as Moscow faced calls from the West to use World War II 60th anniversary commemorative events it is hosting to issue a formal apology for its almost half-century Baltic occupation."

In my view, it is good that these issues are being discussed.

Alan Allport - 5/8/2005

“Bush, however, acknowledged the United States and Britain share a portion of blame for the Baltics' pain. The 1945 Yalta agreement that carved up post-World War II Europe was forged by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”

I am curious about the use of the word 'blame', which implies neglected responsibility. Other than complain (futilely) about it, what in practical terms could FDR or Churchill have done for the Baltic States in 1945?

Maarja Krusten - 5/7/2005

For an interesting specialized study see "Migration and Repatriation Issues in Post-Soviet Countries: the Latvian Case," by Juris Prikulis, NATO Research Fellow, at

Maarja Krusten - 5/7/2005

As a first generation American of Estonian parentage, I am pleased to see the 20th century history of the Baltic countries drawing more attention than usual in the U.S. press and HNN.

The Washington Post has had excellent coverage of these issues of late, here are a few links just from Saturday's newspaper. Since these require registration, I've included a few extracts:

for an excellent editorial “Mr. Putin’s History,”in today’s Washington Post:

This notes

“In fact, the greatest catastrophe of the past 100 years for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia began with Molotov and Ribbentrop and continued with the victory Mr. Putin will celebrate Monday. For her country, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said yesterday, May 9 "meant slavery, it meant occupation, it meant subjugation, and it meant Stalinist terror."

Until Russia and its leaders can accept and fully repudiate that history, it won't be possible to unambiguously celebrate the conquest of Berlin, and it shouldn't be acceptable to treat as a strategic partner a Kremlin leader who can't bring himself to reject the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. "We already did it," an irritated Mr. Putin told a German television interviewer this week, referring to the 1989 Soviet parliament. "What, we have to do this every day, every year?" Actually, in his case, just once would be a good start.”

The Post also prints an op ed by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, President of Latvia, “Rights and Remembrance,”
which describes her country’s suffering under German and Russian occupation (killings, deportations, loss of population by the tiny Baltic nation as a result of brutal actions by both occupiers) and concludes:

“But Latvia's so-called liberation by Soviet troops in 1944-45 materialized in the form of another calamity, accompanied as it was by the customary rapes, lootings and wanton killings that the Red Army committed in a systematic manner throughout the territories it occupied, and that continued in Latvia well after the end of the war. These were followed by still more killings, repression and wave after wave of mass deportations, the last taking place in 1949.

After the war, Germany made great efforts to atone for the unspeakable crimes committed under the Nazi regime. This process began with an honest evaluation of the country's Nazi-era history and continued with Germany's unequivocal renunciation of its totalitarian past. Russia would gain immensely by acting in a similar manner and by expressing its genuine regret for the crimes of the Soviet regime. Until Russia does so, it will continue to be haunted by the ghosts of its past, and its relations with its immediate neighbors will remain uneasy at best.”

See also an updated piece in the Post, “In Baltics, Bush Decries Soviet-Era Repression,”
(registration required)

This notes
“President Bush on Saturday saluted the leaders of fledgling democracies in three Baltic nations that endured Soviet oppression for half a century, and said they could help Russian President Vladimir Putin see the benefits of living in a free society.”
“Bush, however, acknowledged the United States and Britain share a portion of blame for the Baltics' pain. The 1945 Yalta agreement that carved up post-World War II Europe was forged by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”

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