The end of World War II in Europe was celebrated this past week in Moscow, capital of the “former Soviet Union,” the world’s first socialist nation, which made the greatest contribution to victory over the fascist Axis. It was a bittersweet celebration, because the Soviet Union — whose people fought more than 80 percent of European Axis forces between 1941 and 1945, and whose victories at Moscow (1941), Stalingrad (1942-1943) and Kursk (1943) not only turned the tide on the battlefields but inspired resistance to the Axis throughout Europe and Asia — no longer exists.
While the Cold War that followed World War II partially stemmed the progressive tide in human events that the great global victory over fascism and colonialism created, the victory still lives on in the United Nations, formed in the ashes of the war as an institution to promote peace and justice, and in peoples’ struggles against militarism, racism, imperialism and war.
George W. Bush, who fortunately was not president between 1941 and 1945, went to Moscow as something of an unfriendly guest.
Bush and his advisers have their own peculiar view of history, one reminiscent of the grotesque characters in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Remember Milo Minderbinder, the profiteer who signs contracts with the Germans because it is more profitable, and even bombs U.S. installations? Those are the sorts of Halliburton “good old boys” that Bush prefers to hang out with, along with the U.S. cold warriors who began to work with “former” Nazis and fascists everywhere to fight the Soviets, communists and the left generally in Europe and Asia.
Bush may not know about the Soviet contribution to the war, the 27 million who perished, the decisive nature of the Stalingrad and Kursk battles, even the role of the Soviets in launching an offensive in the East in the summer of 1944 that facilitated the Anglo-American breakthrough at St. Lo and the subsequent liberation of Paris.
When he addressed the NATO states in Brussels earlier this year and spoke of “allied” victory in World War II, Bush didn’t even mention the Soviets. Now, on his way to Moscow, he decided to offend all former Soviet people and many others by visiting the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Georgia to “celebrate” their “liberation” from the USSR (in effect turning a celebration of the end of World War II into a triumphalist Cold War party).
No matter that the Latvian exemplars of “democracy” whom Bush praises pursue outrageous discriminatory policies against their Russian minority (this is also true of the other Baltic states) that crudely violate United Nations human rights standards. No matter that Latvia sent 150,000 Waffen SS “volunteers” to fight against the Soviets during WWII, reputedly the largest number of Waffen SS troops from any German-occupied country. Never mind that veterans of the Latvian Waffen SS have marched in parades and celebrations and even had the Latvian government quietly unveil a monument to them in 2003. Latvia will do what Bush wants, and that is his definition of “democracy.”
Not everyone is blind to what is going on in Latvia, where schoolchildren today learn that “heroic” Latvian SS soldiers — who in reality exterminated tens of thousands of Jewish civilians and antifascist fighters on their own soil — fought to save the country from the monstrous “Bolshevik” hordes. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs has called the Latvian government’s treatment of World War II “one of the worst cases of falsification of history.” Russian sources have noted that, while pro-fascist historical “revisionism” is developing in many countries, in Latvia it has open government support.
One doesn’t have to have any sympathy for the anticommunist Putin government to say that George Bush disgraced all of us by traveling to Latvia and Georgia to spit on, rather than honor, the graves of the millions of Soviet soldiers and partisans, American and British soldiers, Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Italian, Greek and other partisans who fought to defeat the living hell of Axis fascism that “new nations” like Latvia and Croatia quietly celebrate.
As a friend of mine said, what Bush did is like going to visit someone’s house for dinner and then informing him that you will be stopping off at your host’s enemy’s home for cocktails. It makes sense only if you are either very stupid or wish to pick a fight or both.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.