Simon Heffer: Russia wheels out the evil weapon of history

Roundup: Talking About History

[Simon Heffer is associate editor at the Daily Telegraph.]

There are few things more dangerous or terrifying than when a nation, or the state apparatus that controls it, falls into the grip of a collective delusion. Such was the case in Nazi Germany, when a straightforward decision was taken to scapegoat Jews, Communists and, in the end, anyone else who didn't agree with the prevailing madness, and persecute them to the point of mass murder. Stalin, in his own pursuit of totalitarianism, behaved similarly.

Some of us hoped that, in Europe at any rate, such absurdities were over; but a dispatch from The Daily Telegraph's Moscow correspondent last week showed that the madness is back, in Russia at least, and with it the determination to abuse and manipulate history.

A research official in the Russian defence ministry has published an essay saying that Poland effectively started the Second World War by refusing to accede to Germany's "modest" demands. We may take it that this man's view reflects that of the Russian state; it is certainly widely interpreted as such.

Russia has been struggling with its idea of itself since the international humiliation of losing its empire nearly 20 years ago. For a time its sudden wealth – thanks to a high oil price and the value of other of its minerals – restored its amour propre. Although its rulers locked up people who sought to push democracy to its natural conclusions, such as the former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, poisoned troublemakers and threw the odd journalist out of windows, the money enabled it to offer the pretence of being a dynamic and powerful economy. Rolexed men in expensive suits climbed in and out of BMWs all over Moscow, and an idea was perpetuated that Russia could feel good about itself.

Then the oil price collapsed, soon after the militarily successful but diplomatically disastrous war with Georgia last year. Once more Russia was poor – with many of its greatest businessmen broke – and an international pariah. So now history, that much-abused weapon, is brought out of the armoury.

To the rest of the world, the Stalin era is one of shame for Russia. The country is seeking to change this. The cynical pact with the Nazis, concluded between Molotov and Ribbentrop a little more than a week before the outbreak of war, is now defended as an essential prelude to the defence against the "inevitable" attack by Hitler. It enabled Russia to occupy half of Poland and the Baltic States.

As the genocide or occupation museums in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn all show (and I have visited them all), the miseries inflicted by the Communist occupier on Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians were vicious, bloody, murderous and had nothing to do with protection against Hitler. They were about the Sovietisation of Eastern Europe, a process interrupted by the Nazi invasion of 1941 but pursued with ruthless savagery after 1944-45. Oh, and by the way, Stalin was so reconciled to the "inevitable" Nazi invasion for which this occupation was a "preparation" that he ignored all warnings that it was coming.

The Russian view now is that if only Poland had let Germany have a land corridor to Danzig – then a "free city" but effectively German, with a strong Nazi organisation and surrounded on three sides by Poland in its new, post-Versailles boundaries – there wouldn't have been a Second World War. That is such idiotic nonsense that only a regime founded on lies, as Putin's and Medvedev's is, could seriously attempt to peddle it. Whatever Poland had done, Hitler would have annexed it. It had been his plan since Mein Kampf. It was where Germany's Lebensraum was to be. The Czechoslovaks had made concessions to him (forced by us, not least), and they were not deemed enough: occupation followed.

There is no point trying to reason with the Russians about how they ought to know this. They don't want to know it. Reason doesn't come into it...

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