Wait, when was World War II again?

Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.


A strange questions, it seems, especially coming from someone studying history. But the more you travel in the post-Soviet world, i.e. in the countries that became independent after the end of the Soviet Union, the more doubts you will have.

Before you read on, please pause for moment and try to pinpoint the beginning and the end of World War II. And then look at the dates on these memorials:

1941-19451941-1945 groß1941-1945 Cenotaph1941-1945 (1)

The photos were taken in Uman, in Kyiv and in Odessa in Ukraine and in Sukhumi in Abkhazia. But you will find such monuments in most post-Soviet countries.

If you went to a school that taught something similar than my high school in Germany, then you probably let World War II begin in 1939 and end in 1945. Why are the first two years omitted from the Soviet monuments? Was the Soviet Union not yet involved in the war at the time?

Oh yes, it was. Very much so! Just before the German attack on Poland, Germany and the Soviet Union had concluded a non-aggression pact in 1939. In a secret protocol, they did however agree on quite a lot of aggression against the Eastern European countries situated so unluckily between the two major powers.

Already in September 1939, the Soviet Union attacked Poland and occupied the east of the country. Two months later, it attacked Finland, and in 1940 it gobbled up Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Romania.

Molotov-Ribbentrop-EN

But these years, in which the Soviet Union made common cause with Nazi Germany, dividing Eastern Europe among them, are sidelined so much by the second half of World War II that they seem to have been completely removed from public memory. When people who grew up in the Soviet Union speak of World War II, they mean the German-Soviet war, which began with Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and ended in May 1945.

Obviously, everyone prefers to see themselves as the victim rather than as the aggressor, as heroic defenders of the motherland rather than as heinous Nazi allies. If your historiography begins on 22 June 1941, it’s easier to maintain the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War”. That image is carried over until today. The families of the Soviet soldiers killed in 1939 and 1940 have no memorial, where they could lay a wreath. The veterans from the Finnish campaign remain at home, lonely and sad, when everyone else is out for the victor parade on 9 May, unless the were “lucky” enough to have fought in Stalingrad or in Kursk later.

From the Soviet point of view, this is no surprise. But why are the successor states sticking to this tradition of memory? Because the photos above do not depict some historical monuments. I have taken them in recent years. These monuments are still taken care of, with candles burning eternally and flowers being placed.

Russia does not only regard itself as the geopolitical successor of the Soviet Union, the president recently defended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. No trace of distancing, historical reappraisal or self-criticism. History is being abused for contemporary interests, it is part of hybrid warfare.

In other countries, changing the 1941 into 1939 also only looks easy in theory. In practice, it would have consequences if a memorial suddenly does not only commemorate the heroes, but also the aggressors. What would the old veterans say? When the young are leaving the country in droves, the votes of the oldest generation are important. Thus, they are allowed to keep their traditions.

In Ukraine, I found this conflict particularly interesting:

On the one hand, the country sees itself as a counter-example to Russia, even fighting a little bit of a war with the ever-annoying neighbor. You don’t hear much positive about the Soviet Union around here, quite the contrary. The Holodomor, the famine caused by the Soviet state is a central building block of Ukrainian historiography. Or in the dispute about languages, it is always mentioned that it was Russian tsars and Soviet communists who oppressed Ukrainian culture and language. During World War II, Ukrainian rebels tried to obtain independence, for which they even cooperated with the Nazis for a while.

But then, on the other hand, the whole country is full of Soviet memorials. Red flags, hammer and sickle, the Lenin Order, all of them recently painted, not decaying since 1991, as one might have assumed. And of course the monuments for World War II, engraved with the distorting years 1941-1945, as everywhere.

At first, this comes as a surprise. Until you realize that Ukraine actually gained quite some territorial weight during the time of the Soviet Union. In 1939, Ukraine benefited from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by having Eastern Poland added to its territory, later a few beautiful areas of Romania and Czechoslovakia, without which Ukrainians wouldn’t have anywhere to go hiking in the mountains. And lastly, in 1954, Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine.

ukraine-growth

As much as they condemn the Soviet Union, even the most ardent anti-Soviet Ukrainians wouldn’t want to give up on Stalin’s conquests and Khrushchev’s boundary changes. Instead, they pretend that all of these territories have always been Ukrainian since the dawn of time. Obviously, that’s hard to maintain if you open up the debate about the role of the Soviet Union in World War II before June 1941.

By the way, Ukraine is also a good example to question the generally accepted end date of World War II. True, the bombs stopped falling in 1945, but the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, kept fighting against the Soviet state until 1954. They were putting their hopes on the Cold War (which they got) and on military support from the West (which they didn’t get, probably because they failed to provide the US President with dirt on his opponent).

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Abkhazia, History, Military, Photography, Russia, Ukraine, World War II and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Wait, when was World War II again?

  1. Pingback: Wann war noch mal der Zweite Weltkrieg? | Der reisende Reporter

  2. I like history because it’s a mystery that’s never solved. Different perspectives tell different versions, and it’s constant being rewritten.
    The US has Pearl Harbor memorials, but only recently have we acknowledged all the Japanese Americans that were stripped of their property and sent to camps, simply for having Japanese ancestry.
    I didn’t know any of these things about the Soviets and WWII. Thank you for teaching me something new.

    • The deeper you dig, the more complicated it becomes.
      (Which is one problem I have at university now. In history, you can go wide and deep almost eternally, easily forgetting about the exams I should be focusing on.)

  3. Jim Hinds says:

    ’41-’45 were the years when the Soviet Union was involved (not counting their invasion of Poland in ’39 and the “Winter War” with Finland).

    • And why would you not count that?
      The Soviet Union was involved in World War II from September 1939, when it attacked Poland. I understand the reasons behind the falsified monuments, of course, but I find it surprising that they haven’t been changed.
      Or I found it surprising, until I dig deeper, as in the example of Ukraine explained in the article.

    • Dino Masic says:

      Because Soviet Union counts their invasion of Poland and Winter War in Finland as separate engagements. Great Patriotic War, name they use for WWII, started for them on June 22nd 1941 with the commencement of the German Operation Barbarossa. That’s when they also allied with the Allies.

    • Jim Hinds says:

      You had asked why their monuments say 1941-1945. I thought I answered your question.

  4. “The families of the Soviet soldiers killed in 1939 and 1940 have no memorial, where they could lay a wreath.”
    That’s plainly false. Numerous such memorials exist in Russia. I mean, you didn’t even bother to look online, because you were pushing a pre-readied narrative.

  5. Caren Leong says:

    This is exactly why I love your stories – providing historical context and cautioning people against being mindless tourists.

    Recently, I saw a post that said Russia wasn’t given enough recognition for the fall of Berlin. I had to introduce the Molotov cocktail and talked about its role before it was attacked which led to Stalin switching sides. The rewriting of this part of history is quite effective.

    The part about Ukraine working with the Nazis, the Tartars took a lot of the blame, and was used as an excuse to seize their property and to banish them after the war.

    Wonderful read. Thanks.

    • Thank you very much, Ma’am!

      I am really trying two things, I guess: Getting people to overcome the “mindless tourist” stage, as you called it. But also to prepare themselves for the trip, so they can put all the new information in perspective, question things, discuss them.
      I sometimes wonder with what impression I would come away from places if I didn’t have some grounding in history. I guess it could be quite distorted at times.

  6. Adina Moisei says:

    Where are you now? Making me want to take the train to Kiev…which was the original plan for Easter. Maybe I still could! Don’t know :) thanks for your writings; best way to start off a day

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