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  Issue Date: 1 / 2018  

Israel, Germany, and the Fate of the Monument to Red Army Soldiers

Dmitry Shlapentokh
       The world press is preoccupied with many events, ranging from Donald Trump’s tweets and his relationship with Vladimir Putin, to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Still, no western mass media, at least to my knowledge, has noted the highly symbolic act – from now on, 9 May has become officially celebrated in Israel. One should remember here that 9 May has been celebrated in Russia, and of course before in the USSR, as the day of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany and its satellites in WWII, known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War.
       Moreover, Israel’s government has relocated some of the monuments to Soviet/Russian soldiers to Israel from Poland, when the Polish government decided to remove them. One might also add here that Israel is the only country outside Russia where the new monument to Soviet/Russian soldiers has been recently erected. Russians who made comments on the Internet overwhelmingly praised this decision of the Israeli government. Some of them wondered why Poland, which suffered so much under Nazi rule, refused to celebrate 9 May, and remove monuments to Soviet soldiers. One could state here that many East and Central Europeans could find an explanation for the Poles, Ukrainians and others who decided to remove the monuments, beside possibly one clear exception – Germans.
       East and Central European logic
       One could understand the Poles’, Ukrainians’ and other East and Central Europeans’ reluctance to see the Red Army soldiers as liberators, and monuments to them on their soil. Poles remember well dozens of thousands of Polish officers and soldiers being shot to death by the Soviet regime in Katyn Forest, and prolonged Soviet control of Poland, together with the other East European countries. Ukrainians could also well remember the horrors of the Moscow-made famines of the 1930s which led to the starvation of millions. Why should they celebrate the replacement of one evil with another, and preserve the monuments of occupation? They might find understanding among other East/Central Europeans. Paradoxically enough, there is one country where such actions of the Israeli government would find no objection, and this country is Germany, albeit Germans could have followed East European logic.
       Germany’s logic and preservation of the monuments

       Following East Europeans’ logic, Germans could also question the reason for keeping the Red Army monuments on German soil. Most Germans would agree that the Nazi regime was evil. Still, they might note that they had absolutely no responsibility for its deeds. It was something which was related to the life of their grandparents and increasingly great-grandparents.
       They could also argue that the Red Army and its allies were hardly humane. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of German women were raped by Red Army soldiers. Many of them were murdered. Most Russians discarded these notions as slander, and pointed to the cases in which the Russian army fed the starving German civilians. They also pointed to the monument in Berlin, built after WWII. Here, the valiant Soviet soldiers striking down the swastika – the symbol of Nazi power – and holding in his other hand German girls, who symbolized the German civilians, and Germany in general, liberated from Nazi evil. In the context of these narratives, the notion of mass rape could be seen, as critics have stated, as blasphemous and smearing the memory of millions of Soviet soldiers who sacrificed their lives for victory. Still, the mass rapes were not an invention of Goebbels’ propaganda. German could also note that hundreds of thousands of Russian Germans were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan during WWII, on the grounds of their disloyalty to the Soviet state. Many of them died from starvation and overwork. After WWII, millions of Germans were deported from places where they had lived for centuries, on account of “collective guilt.”
       Hundreds of thousands of them died as a result of ethnic cleansing, deportation and starvation in the camps. From a formal point of view, this was done by the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments, which provided a variety of justifications for these actions. Czechs, for example, appealed to the Sudetenland crisis, in which Nazi Germany took over the Sudetenland, the conclave in Czechoslovakia populated by ethnic Germans, and later took over the entire country of Czechoslovakia. While actual deportation was formally a decision of Warsaw and Prague, they could do nothing without Moscow’s formal blessing. One could also note that the Western allies of the USSR did not object to these actions. And how they could when Roosevelt send thousands of Japanese-Americans to internment camps solely on the grounds that their ethnicity was the same as the ethnicity of the USA’s enemy?
       Needless to say, Western allies mercilessly bombed German cities, killing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians who were unable to change their regime, even if they wished to. Finally, they could note the generationally-long Soviet occupation, in which defections to the West from the GDR, the Soviet-controlled East Germany, was a mortally risky business. Why should Germans keep these symbols of foreign occupation, and not relegate the entirety of WWII to history textbooks and scholarly monographs, and basically forget about these events? Still, no viable German politicians would air such an idea, and no proposal for the removal of the monuments to the Red Army has been heard, regardless of all the changes in Germany’s political landscape. Indeed, even Alternatives for Germany, the new right-wing arrivals in the German parliament, do not question the basic outcome of war and the nature of the Nazi regime. Regardless of accusations that the party is neo-Nazi, no party leader has demanded the removal of monuments to Russian soldiers from Russian soil.
       The reason is simple: most Germans, regardless of their political affiliation, understand that such a call would be tantamount to implicitly condoning Nazism and the Holocaust. And most Germans understand that the Holocaust is not just a “Jewish issue,” and acknowledging it as the ultimate evil is the antidote to repeating what happened in Europe in the 1930s, and which could be seen in diluted form, even today, in some East European countries, Poland included. Israelis also understand that the Red Army and the Soviet regime, with all its crimes, was the major force which crushed the Nazi regime. And for this reason, Germany and Israel are possibly among the very few countries outside of Russia’s borders where the monuments to Soviet soldiers are preserved or built, and 9 May is seen as the day of liberation and not just replacement of one occupation with another.

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