|The Liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army
January 18, 2015
By Joshua Tartakovsky
In wedding and in funerals, one normally invites people who have some relation to the event, rather than strangers. In light of that, one must seek for a deeper explanation when attempting to understand the declaration of the Foreign Ministry of Poland not to extend a formal invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 70th year commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, scheduled for January 27, 2015. One may argue that this is due to a political disagreement Poland may have with Russia, but then the event of Auschwitz should be sacred and beyond political disagreements or perhaps Polish politicians chose to use an immense tragedy for the sake of playing political games?
Auschwitz was the place where Russian and Soviet prisoners of war were the first ones on which death by gas was attempted. Captured Russian soldiers were successfully gassed by the Nazis in Auschwitz I in August 1941, and after several more successful experiments of gassing 1500 Russian Prisoners of War in the coming months, the Nazis went on to implement the same mechanism of mass murder in Auschwitz II- Birkenau on Jews.
A plaque in Auschwitz I explains how for Nazi Germany, not only were Russian soldiers an enemy, but the Russian and Soviet population at large. The Nazis exterminated Russians en masse for a reason. The plaque explains that: “the extermination policy of the Nazis also extended to the civilian population of the USSR. In order to implement the policy, Nazi Germany defined in advance the categories of the population subject to mandatory extermination by special police forces and the Wehrmacht. The “Generalplan Ost,” which was developed in the office of SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler by April 1942, assumed that “without complete extermination” or without the weakening, by various means, of the “biological strength of the Russians,” it will be impossible to establish the rule of Germany in Europe. That is why it is necessary “to destroy the Russians as a nation and disunite them.” With this in mind, the occupiers peacefully conducted mass executions under the pretext of fighting against partisans, which often led to the complete destruction of entire settlements. For the same reason, they used Soviet force[d] labor in complete disregard of their welfare, both in the Reich and in occupied territory… civilians from the occupied territories of the USSR were deported to Auschwitz, generally as a result of anti-partisan actions.”
It is only fitting therefore, that it was also the Red Army, composed of Russian soldiers and from the other Soviet republics, that liberated Auschwitz in January 27, 1945. Furthermore, it was Russian soldiers, alongside other comrades in arms from the Eastern Bloc liberated the capital of Poland, Warsaw from the Nazis, one week earlier. It is not only that the Red Army liberated the city in which the Polish Foreign Ministry is located, but it is also that due to the fact that 27 million Russians lost their lives in the hands of the Nazis who were viewed as an inferior race, it would have been appropriate to acknowledge that perhaps the Russian President as a representative of Russia would have some connection to the event.
However, this recent move can be seen as part of a wider process. American President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron have took pride earlier in the fact that their countries beat Nazism but failed to mention that Russia was their partner. As Melanie McDonagh wrote in response to the audacious claim, that it’s easy “when you’re trying to convey the beauty of a two-way relationship, to remember that others may have been involved in the events that brought you closer. But when it’s the Second World War, these little lapses of memory are less forgivable.” Furthermore, the Soviet Union has been fighting the Nazis since June 1941, whereas the US jointed in three years later, in June 1944. The USSR accounted for about 90% of German casualties. Russia lost at the most conservative estimate between 10-13 million soldiers, whereas the US lost about 400,000 soldiers. Of course, this is not to say that the US did not play a major role in the defeat of the Nazis. Countless brave US soldiers gave their lives to defeat fascism. The most difficult battles were for the most part in the East, however, and it was the USSR that liberated most of the occupied territory.
It appears, however, that over the years the central role played by the Red Army has been forgotten, possibly due to Western efforts to claim most of the credit and deny the role of the former partner. For example, while in 1945, 57% of French respondents saw the USSR as playing the most crucial role in the defeat of Nazism, by 2004, only 20% of French respondents gave the USSR this role. Either way, in our days we have reached a point where Obama and Cameron have claimed that “together we defeated the Nazis” without mentioning Russia, and historical amnesia has reached such a low point that Russia was not even invited to the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz, a place where Russians perished and also liberated. The Polish move then, cannot be fully understood apart of a systemic move to minimize the role of the USSR in the defeat of Nazism and even to fail to acknowledge the immense human losses experienced by Russia.
One would hope that at the ceremony at least, some representatives will realize that they forgot to invite the groom.