Vít Smetana: I AM AFRAID THAT NO CONVERGENCE IS POSSIBLE HERE
Seventy years ago WWII was finished. It is relatively long period but interpretations of this tragic event are rather different until today. Where would you see reasons why historians are not able to reach some common interpretation of this war? Particularly in the case of explanation of its outbreak and its consequences.
I think that the measure of consensus amongst western historians in terms of major reasons that led to the outbreak of war in 1939 is quite high, despite continued discussions especially about the role of the Soviet Union on the eve of the war. This exception is caused by inaccessibility of the crucial Soviet documentation (and there are indeed no signs of improvement to be seen…). Of course, the current Russian government uses distorted interpretations of history as a leverage and argument for its current territorial expansion. And this is very dangerous because if the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, with all its tragic consequences, is being presented merely as a “natural” response to the international tensions in 1939, as fulfillment of “legitimate” Russian security needs or even as a redress to previous wrongs committed on the USSR, then no wonder that the Baltic states should feel endangered again by Russian expansionism.
One of the crucial discussions is going on in the sphere of the interpretation of impact of WWII on Central Europe. Presence of the Red Army in Central Europe rewrote political map of this region. Backed by the U.S.S.R., communist parties established there totalitarian regimes for next forty years. Therefore there is a certain dilemma if we speak about liberation of Central Europe. Title of book which you published with your colleagues in 2009 put this dilemma well: Dearly Paid Freedom.
Can we observe some convergence between two very different assessments of years 1944/45 in Central Europe, i.e., between position: Red Army brought liberty and any doubt on it is disparagement of victims which the U.S.S.R. brought and second position: the Red Army liberated Central Europe but this liberation had fatal impact on the future of this territory?
I am afraid that no convergence is possible here. If a mere “doubt” (i.e. critical assessment) about the role that soldiers of an army played on a liberated territory means disparagement of the victims, then virtually no debate is possible. I would agree with the second position, but with the reservation that there were at least two remarkable exceptions to that “fatality” – namely Austria and Finland. While the former profited above all from the fact that the solution of this sensitive issue was being postponed with the growing East-West tension and came to a head only in the era of Khrushchev’s thaw, the latter deserved for its rescue by its wise policy of a “loyal looser” who, however, rejected interference into its domestic politics. Stalin was always careful if and when he expected a staunch resistance. And the loss of 140 thousand soldiers in the “Winter war” of 1939-40 probably served as a sufficient memento – when he made up his mind with respect to Finland after the war.
Destiny of Poland was more or less decided in Yalta, Czechoslovakia should serve as a certain litmus paper indicating if coexistence with the U.S.S.R. is possible. Eventually both countries met the same fate. Most of Polish people did not have too big illusions concerning the U.S.S.R.; the situation in Czechoslovakia was different. U.S.S.R. was taken as fraternal country but gradually position of Czechoslovak citizens became very similar to Polish. Where should we look for main reasons?
Firstly, I would disagree with the statement that the fate of Poland was more or less decided in Yalta. In my view, the Yalta declaration on the Polish government represents one of numerous attempts by the western statesmen to pin down the Soviets and make them agree with a “compromise” – in the situation when Poland was already occupied by the Red Army which was handing power to the “Lublin government” formed of Moscow stooges. According to the Yalta decision, this was to be supplemented by the members of the Polish government-in-exile and home resistance. Yet, this concession (that Lublin government would become the core of the future government) was more than compensated in U.S. and British eyes by Stalin’s promise of holding free elections in a month. However, the subsequent negotiations in Moscow (Molotov + Ambassadors Harriman and Clark Kerr) broke down very soon and the new Polish government was not created before the end of June - of course, with a “Lublin” majority – following a special mission by Harry Hopkins to Moscow.
While Poland was gradually becoming a mere object of Soviet imperialism towards the end of the war, the Czechoslovak politicians themselves did their best to invite the Soviets to play an active part in the destiny of their country. Haunted by the specter of German menace even for the future, with reliance on the West fatally shaken by Munich and the subsequent destruction of Czechoslovakia, most of the Czechoslovak democratic politicians were ready to compromise freedom for security, the source of which they could see only in Moscow. Thus, by their unequivocal support of all Soviet “wishes”, ever since the signing of the Soviet-Czechoslovak Treaty in 1943 if not earlier, they substantially assisted the Kremlin rulers to create their sphere of influence in East-Central Europe, and were unable to find enough will and courage to make even an attempt to thwart the increasingly hopeless situation during the three post-war years.
Of course, one can ask whether there were any alternatives to this development. I should think there were! It is often claimed that any different policy practiced by Edvard Beneš during the war years would have only resulted in his failure to return home as a President – similarly as in the case of the Polish London government. But the scale of historical as well as territorial differences makes any comparison between the two a-historical. Another frequent argument in defence of Beneš’s policy is that he was afraid that the Soviet Union might support an irredentist movement in Slovakia and its fate might not differ from that of Sub-Carpathian Russia. However, in the case of Slovakia there were neither any ethnic links, nor a historical tradition of Russian rule – and everything we know about the Soviet aims seems to suggest that Stalin wanted to show the West his good will in relation to Czechoslovakia in the matters of primary importance, such as the fate of its integral part that was even contained in the name of the country. Thus, the Czechoslovak politicians certainly had the option to implement a friendly, but at the same time a dignified policy towards the USSR. That would not mean fulfilling every Soviet wish, sometimes even before it was tabled in the Kremlin itself; and not frightening the Soviet leaders with the specter of a new war between the Slavs on the one hand and aggressive Germany and the West on the other (as Beneš did repeatedly towards the end of the war). That was the absolutely necessary prerequisite for being able to say “ENOUGH” to the Soviets (as well as to the Czechoslovak Communists) at one of the turning points – such as the Marshall Plan offer in July 1947.
Today´s Russia reacts very sensitively on any remark discussing a role of the U.S.S.R. in WWII. One of the contributions published in this issue tries to outline different attitude to the role of the Red Army in Central Europe. What was Red Army soldier in Central Europe more: liberator or occupant?
It certainly differed from country to country. In some of them – such as Hungary or obviously German lands starting with East Prussia – the Red Army soldier was primarily a victor and occupant. Almost the same applied to his behavior in Rumania and Bulgaria. Even the “liberation” of Poland bore many traces of occupation. Numerous testimonies that we have confirm that it was perceived as occupation by ordinary Poles, but as one preferable to the German rule. I would, however, be disinclined to use the term “occupant” in the case of Czechoslovakia. The more so that the Red Army was withdrawn from its territory by December 1945 and did not return back before 1968. The very fact that the Soviet liberation of 90 % of the Czechoslovak territory, including its capital, helped the Communists in numerous ways in their subsequent march to power is, of course, another issue. Yet, even in Czechoslovakia in 1945, somewhat too often the Soviet soldier was a rapist, a looter and most frequently an unpredictable rude drunkard.
Russian aggression against Ukraine affected also contemporary historiography. Particularly interpretations of modern history given by Vladimir Putin have provoked vivid reactions and vice versa Western interpretations are questioned by Russian historians. Do you see any way how to calm this not too pleasant situation when history has become part of political confrontation?
No, I don’t. As long as the current Russian government feels internally vulnerable due to the failures of its economic and other policies and as long as it chooses outside expansion as a method how to create national unity based on the feeling of endangerment by the “perfidious West,” appropriate historical interpretations will always serve as necessary ammunition. I am afraid that there are many Russian historians more than ready to provide them. And even if there were none, it would not be a big deal for Putin and his collaborators. It seems that it is enough for disciplining the bulk of the population if you keep saying “They are fascists, THEY are fascists, THEY ARE FASCISTS!” – whether “They” means Ukrainian politicians or some western statesmen.