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Anatoly Podolsky: Heroism and feats are derivatives from the tragedy of war

The Ukrainian scholar discusses the lessons of the history of the last century, and the present political situation in the country

Today we publish the first part of an interview with Anatoly Podolsky – a Ukrainian scholar and candidate of historical science.

Anatoly Podolsky graduated from the Kiev pedagogical institute with the profession of history teacher over 20 years ago. He is the director of the Ukrainian center for Holocaust studies, and also a senior scholar at the I.F. Kuras Institute of political and ethno-national studies of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He is the author and publisher of study materials on the topic of the Holocaust for teachers of Ukrainian schools, and the head of study seminars on the history of the genocide of the Jewish people in Ukraine. He is the organizer of the All-Ukrainian competition of school essays “The history and lessons of the Holocaust”.

The second part of the interview will be published on Monday, 27 April.

What led you to study the topic of the Holocaust?

Since my student years this topic was very important for me as a historian. Besides the professional interest, this is part of the history of my family, as my father and two aunts on my father’s side were killed at Babi Yar. This was never mentioned at home, and I only learned of the tragic fate of my relatives in my late youth.

This topic, which is part of the history of the Second World War, the history of the Jews during the years of Nazism, has interested me for almost quarter of a century. In the mid-1990s I defended a dissertation, and in 2002 I created the scientific education organization “Ukrainian center of holocaust studies” along with my colleagues. Its goal is to preserve the memory of the fate of Jews of Ukraine: the study of this problem and the teaching of the history of Shoah in Ukraine.

What is the most difficult thing in teaching the history of genocides, and the Holocaust in particular?

This is all very close to us in time. Of course, very unfortunately few witnesses remain alive, but they are still with us – this lends a specific nature to the study of the problem of the Holocaust. Additionally, the history of genocides in Ruanda and Turkey, the crimes of Stalin and Hitler, not only lie in the field of historical study, but also in the field of historiosophical, psychological, moral and literary contemplation.

But this topic is exploited by politicians, when historical events are interpreted and used in the interests of a certain political force or the current political situation. This phenomenon needs to be resisted. But this is not easy – the only effective resistance can be professional and honest studies in this sphere.

The other difficulty is that the topic of Shoah is very delicate. We examine the behavior of people in extreme conditions, and analyze the mechanisms of decision-making – this forces people to help murderers or save victims. These topics bring us to an understanding of how to remain a human being in inhuman conditions. The history of the Holocaust serves as a wide field for searching for answers to these questions.

Why was the last century the bloodiest in all human history?

Based on my feelings, and judging from the documents and materials that I have seen, it all happened because of governments. Countries were ruled by people lacking moral principles and values, with little education, and even worse, they were people who did not feel responsibility for their actions.

This is still happening today, unfortunately, and thus a kind of challenge is issued to studying the history of genocides and Shoah. People should not be allowed into power if they do not have a feeling of responsibility. When politicians of this kind rule countries, tragedies start to take place.

It was believed that the 20th century would be the century of the development of literature, science, culture and humanity as a whole. But in fact last century was a century of genocides, when people humiliated other people, deprived them of dignity and took their lives, and this became a mass phenomenon. This all happened in many ways under the influence of propaganda, which destroyed people’s critical attitude towards stereotypes. Additionally, there was the need to constantly look for those who were guilty…

But along with this, last century gave us worthy examples of courage and resistance to circumstances, examples of development of human genius and thought…

It was in the last century that propaganda became one of the main tools in cultivating hatred. Why did humanity start to give so much attention to developing this tool?

This is all still happening today. A reluctance to draw lessons from the past dooms people to repeat tragedies. The current Ukrainophobia in East Ukraine was also born from propaganda and is also accepted without any sort of critical thinking.

Just 20 years ago, in 1994, one of the worst genocides in modern human history took place in Ruanda in Africa, when one people began to exterminate another. Both peoples were of the Catholic faith, but the propaganda of hatred worked so well that even women and children took part in the genocide. Members of the Hutu tribe believed that the Tutsi tribe were to blame for all the problems in their country, and started to kill them indiscriminately – women, old people and children.

And at the same time, in 1994-95, European institutions took decisions on studying the history of the Holocaust as an example of interethnic intolerance and the fatal effect of propaganda. They gave grants to projects connected with teaching and studying the topic of the Holocaust at the same time that almost one million members of one ethnic group in Ruanda were exterminated by members of another ethnic group.

People don’t learn anything. At one moment a person may sink to the very bottom, and today, in the 21st century, this may repeat itself at any moment.

How can we fight against propaganda?

If we learn to resist propaganda, then we can prevent genocide and the physical destruction of innocent people, so this is a very important issue.

The paradox is that after the Second World War, humanity seemed to come to some kind of agreement, but now these agreements are once more under threat. Against the background of recent events in our country, I get the feeling that for the people who take the decisions, it is not human life that is important, but something else. And if this is so, then after a certain amount of time they will have to contribute money to commemorating and studying a catastrophe which they could have prevented today.

In Europe in the 1930s, the attitude that “human life is the most important thing” did not work. The League of Nations did not work, and neither did the western democracies. Open anti-Semitism, which the National Socialist ideology never concealed, did not frighten anyone. But then six death camps were built in Poland and six million Jews were killed – and this did frighten people. Western democratic countries began to spend money on studies and memorials, instead of preventing this catastrophe.

In order to resist propaganda, people must be educated and capable of understanding one simple thing – they should check the things they see on information resources.

Our Center recently published a book – a work by the Norwegian journalist Bjørn Westlie, “My Father’s War”. On 27 January we presented this book at the Goethe Institute in Kiev during our annual roundtable dedicated to international Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Ukrainian society and the memory of the Holocaust: scientific and educational aspects”. The journalist’s father, Petter, supported Nazi ideology, fought in the Waffen-SS on the Eastern front. He began to fight in 1941, when he was 20 years old. Petter followed the path of the SS division “Viking” from Lviv to Kharkov, and evidently took part in the murder of Ukrainian Jews. His son, who was born in 1949, discovered his father’s past in the 1960s, and broke off relations with him for 30 years. Only in the 1990s, Bjørn contacted his father again and recorded 30 audio cassettes with his memories of the war, which became the basis for his book. I won’t retell the story, it is about a young man who grew up in a Norwegian Christian family and knew the Bible, and whose mother told him that the Jews were the people of the Bible… But when the National Socialists came to Norway, which was under Hitler’s control in Quisling’s regime, this quite normal 20-year-old man came under their influence. He told his son that he liked their uniform, songs and slogans, and so he didn’t particularly analyze them, but simply believed them and enlisted as a volunteer. But when Petter came to Lviv, he had to do things that he hadn’t even imagined. He said that when he tried to ask questions, he was rudely told: just do what you’re told, and that’s it. This is how an ordinary 20-year-old man became a serial killer.

What lessons that the Holocaust and other genocides have given humanity should the world remember today in light of recent events?

There are many things we should pay attention to. For example, stereotypical thinking and prejudices are unacceptable. We should analyze the behavior of people who live under a dictatorship – this is also the history of the Holocaust.

We should talk about how to remain a human being in a situation when it is difficult to do so. We should study who religious leaders of different denominations behaved in extreme conditions.

The lessons of the Holocaust are the culture of communication between people. We can say that the history of this genocide is the history of interaction with neighbors who you supposedly have known for many years, but who suddenly become different.

We must also reject clichés. When we say “that’s a murderer, that’s a victim, and that’s a collaborator”, a triangle is formed, and this should not be the case, for everything was much more complicated. We shouldn’t simply label someone as an “enemy”, we should think for ourselves.

On 9 May there will be a big parade in Moscow, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of victory. Many world leaders refuse to go to this parade. How correct do you think this decision is, and taking this position?

I, Anatoly Podolsky, a Kiev Jew and historian, a citizen of Ukraine, am prepared personally to shake the hand of every politician who refused to go to Moscow on 9 May. The Russian Federation, which became the legal successor of the USSR, is obviously guilty in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and is killing people there. This country accuses Ukraine of fascism, but it is behaving in a fascist way itself, or even worse… I believe that a total boycott should be declared against the present political regime of the Russian Federation.

Additionally, no one has the right to ascribe victory over Nazism. When the Russian President, whose surname does not deserve to be mentioned or even written with a small letter, says that victory over Nazism would have happened without the Ukrainian people, this is terrible. He insults the memory of millions of Ukrainian victims who fought in the divisions of the Red Army and gave their lives to the destruction of Nazism.

And today this country is giving weapons to one group of people who kill another group of people, and thus it does not have the moral right to celebrate Victory Day.

It is this regime that is betraying the memory of the Second World War today, because many different peoples fought on the side of the Red Army – Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Poles, Kazakhs, Tajiks and Belarussians, and in the achievement of this victory you cannot undervalue the contribution of any one of the peoples. And additionally, victory was achieved by the forces of the entire coalition, representatives of which today refuse to go to Moscow. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the position which the League of Nations lacked in the 1930s…

I have many issues and criticisms of the laws that have now been passed in Ukraine. But the fact that the 8th of May has been declared a Day of Memory and Mourning is correct, in my opinion.

Today, for example, joint textbooks of French and German historians are published. In these textbooks, the section on the history of the Second World War begins with the words “War is a tragedy”. That’s what war is. Heroism and feats are derivatives from the tragedy, for no one wanted to achieve any heroic deeds… People wanted to live! And the victims of this tragedy were Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews and many others…

And we need to talk about this, without undervaluing the achievement of Soviet soldiers, American or English soldiers. Several million Ukrainians and around half a million Jews, the majority of whom were from Ukraine, wore the uniform of the Red Army.

I don’t understand how there can be discussion of the victory over totalitarianism, and people can be invited to celebrate this victory, when the Russian Federation itself is a totalitarian state today.

There is also another important aspect for me as a historian. As we know, for two of the six years of the war, Stalin’s Soviet Union was the official ally of Hitler’s Third Reich. From 23 August 1939, when the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed, until 22 June 1941. These countries between them divided up Poland. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia lost their independence, people were deported and killed. In 2009 in Prague, a declaration was passed to make the 23rd of August the International memorial day of victims of totalitarian regimes.

But here we must give special attention to the fact that recognizing the criminal nature of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact does not deny the fact of heroism of Soviet soldiers, who liberated Auschwitz and Europe from Nazism. People were the liberators, it was people who were heroes, and the memory of heroism should only apply to people.

The regime that rules Russia today manipulates the past, using it for its own political goals. And it is important to understand that the topic of the Second World War and the Holocaust can very easily become a tool for political manipulations.

Today we are starting to talk about the history of the Second World War. At the same time, almost every family has its own history connected with the participation of family members in the war, on the side of the Red Army. How we can talk about the history of the war without insulting people’s feelings, but at the same time remaining honest?

Ukrainian society feels very sensitive about this topic. We only came to this discussion through the Revolution of Dignity and Putin’s aggression.

There is a concept in Europe that was developed in the 1980s, but is regarded somewhat sensitively by people – the concept of reconciliation with the past. The thesis that the Communist and Nazi regimes drove people towards the greatest tragedy of last century and pitted close people against each other is the only correct one, as both sides have blood on their hands,. The history of the Second World War is not the history of heroism and feats, but the history of death and losses. We must stop transferring these events to the present day.

We may try to explain them in application to the history of Ukraine in the 20th century, and say that on the territory of Western Ukraine there were people who fought in the ranks of the Red Army, and those who fought in the ranks of the Ukrainian insurgents, and those who served in Nazi divisions. This history is the tragedy of a people without a country.

One elderly lady from Yaremche [Ivano-Frankovsk Oblast – I.N.’s note] once told me that in 1946 they came and arrested everyone, despite the fact that the people did not fight in the ranks of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and had nothing to do with it. They were arrested simply because they lived in Yaremche, Chertkov, Berezhany and Stanislav (Ivano-Frankovsk) – just for this people were sent to the Gulag, Or members of the extreme right wing of the Ukrainian Nationalists Organization came to them and forcibly took young people who did not want to fight in their ranks. In the same way, members of the Red Army came to them…

All of this history is the tragedy of the past, and it should be perceived like this, without making clichés. Today, from the viewpoint of Putin’s propaganda, any person who speaks Ukrainian or lives in the Rovno, Volyn or Lviv Oblast can be labeled as a “fascist”. But people who live in Kharkov or Dnepropetrovsk can also be called members of this “Russian world”.

Let’s take the example of Lev Kopelev, a Ukrainian Jew, Russian writer and dissident. He took part in agitation brigades, and called on peasants to hand over bread “for needs of industrialization”. After this agitation, people really did give him bread, and subsequently died, because they had nothing to feed themselves with.

And later Lev became an officer of the Red Army. But in 1945, Kopelev stood up for German women who were being raped by the soldier of a platoon under his command. The soldiers said that they could do this “by the right of the victors”.

Lev Kopelev was sent to the camps for ten years “for showing bourgeois humanism”. Kopelev himself later wrote that he was grateful to the Soviet regime for putting him in prison for ten years. Why? Because he felt guilt for the Holodomor of 1932-33, for people died because of his fiery speeches. He also said that if he hadn’t been put in jail at that time, he would have taken part in Stalin’s post-war crimes. And his comrade, the German writer Heinrich Böll, wrote the book “Why did we shoot at each other?”. This is probably the most important question.

We must strive not to give our lives for the homeland, but to preserve as many lives as possible. And we should respect those who lived through this time, regardless of their political affiliation. We must be attentive towards the past and study it, and not transfer it to the present day.

As my colleague, the young Polish historian Anna Wylegala, wrote: “People in Ukraine cannot reconcile themselves with the history of the Second World War”. We shouldn’t try to persuade Soviet veterans that the Great Patriotic War was a term of Stalinist propaganda, that it was the Second World War. We shouldn’t try to reconcile them with soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgents Army, we shouldn’t touch the ideologemes of the former or the latter. We must wait for them to pass away…

But in conversations with young people, with students and school pupils, we should call things by their real names.

Recently a law was passed prohibiting Communist symbols. To what extent is this move justified?

Your question is imprecise. The law is called “On the prohibition of Nazi and Communist propaganda and ideology”. The swastika is prohibited, and along with it the hammer and sickle.

It’s important to understand, for example, that under the flag with the hammer in sickle in Kharkov, Belgorod and Smolensk, 22,000 young Polish officers, the graduates of military academy, were executed. These children were not guilty of anything, many of them had just got their first girlfriends… But on Stalin’s order, these people were killed, so how is this regime better than Hitler’s? And the fact that Europe was subsequently liberated under this flag – it was people who liberated it, not the regime. The regime remained criminal. For me it’s very important that the condemnation of Nazi and Communist ideologies does not cancel out the achievement of Soviet soldiers, it simply cannot annul it.

Today there are also irresponsible people in power, who are not controlled by the people. This means that humanity is once more in danger. Because it was not the Nazi fascist beasts who killed peaceful Soviet citizens, as it stated in every Soviet textbook, but people killed people. And until this is understood, we are not insured against a repetition.

We have our own state flag. And we have the holiday of Victory Day, or Independence Day, or the Workers’ Solidarity Day, or any other day. And on these holidays, the yellow and blue state flag should be raised. This flag has become very important over the last one and a half years, people have realized that state symbols are a value. And the red flag under which Kiev was liberated should be kept in a museum of war history, at a library or exhibition. The USSR does not exist today, and so this flag should be kept in a museum.

The problem is that this should all have been done 24 years ago. But how could the communist Leonid Kravchuk prohibit Communist symbols? As a decent person, he would have had to shoot himself immediately… We must conduct a public discussion of these issues. Today laws have been passed, but there has not been a discussion, plus there is aggression from Russia, which will not miss the chance to portray these laws as a sign of “Ukrainian fascism”.

The term “fascism” does not even have anything to do with Hitler. This is a similar ideology, but it is different. The ideology of fascism, for example, did not have an anti-Jewish component. And after the war, Stalin ordered for the term “National Socialist” to be forgotten, as it contained two ideologemes that were crucial for the Soviet regime. Hitler’s party was called the National Socialist Workers Party of Germany. Thus, people who shared the views of socialism and represented the interests of the working class were the ones who killed tens of millions of people during the Second World War. This is why Nazi Germany became fascist, although it was not. This should also be discussed. Symbols are important even on this level.

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