Why Cry “Genocide”? The Second World War Still Looms Large in Russia’s Collective Memory

Why Cry “Genocide”? The Second World War Still Looms Large in Russia’s Collective Memory

[Kim Christian Priemel is Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oslo and author of The Betrayal. The Nuremberg Trials and German Divergence (OUP 2016).]

The Kremlin’s allegation that its invasion of Ukraine was necessary to stop a genocide committed by the Kiev government against the population of the secessionist Donetsk and Luhansk provinces has been widely and rightly taken as the abstruse lie of a cynical regime. It is flanked by the Orwellian “special military operation” as the only legal way of speaking about the war inside Russia and by the “neo-Nazis” from which Russian troops are supposed to purge Kiev once they have taken the city. All three fit all too well into the picture of an aging autocrat who has abandoned all reason and lives in an echo chamber of his own making.

There is a lot of truth in this depiction of a house of lies, yet it raises the question why Moscow’s communication strategy draws on obvious falsehoods. One answer points to the country’s firmly censored media which have systematically misinformed the Russian public for many years; another to the hermetic decision making processes inside the Kremlin’s walls which are either one-man shows or characterized by a set of shared, if outlandish beliefs. But these explanations only go so far. A key reason for employing the language of ‘genocide’ and ‘Nazism’ while frantically seeking to prevent anyone from talking about a ‘war’ is because it harks back to long-established patterns of conceiving of Russia’s role in world politics.

These are a direct legacy of the Soviet Union’s politics of the past, and specifically those of the Second World War, a reference point not only for Putin and his inner circle but for Russian society much more widely. In Russia, World War II is still known as the Great Patriotic War even if the motherland to which the epithet once referred no longer exists. The grand historical narrative emphasizes the terrible sufferings which the Soviet people went through – no country lost more lives to German aggression – and the crucial role it indeed played in militarily defeating the Third Reich. It is a story of national unity in the face of aversion (which bears sad, if ironic similarity to that of today’s Ukraine) and it serves as the redeeming factor in the grisly accounts of Stalinist rule. Most of all it is a tale in which the Soviet Union and, by implication, Russia come out on the right side of history as the pillars of an antifascist alliance that ended the war: the Red Army took Berlin and it also liberated Auschwitz.

Its major contribution to the Allied war effort made the Soviet Union one of the three main victorious powers alongside the UK and the US, to which France was later added for strategic reasons (and to appease a notoriously pugnacious Charles de Gaulle). It also earned the USSR a place on the four-power tribunal that held the first Nuremberg trial against the surviving leadership of the Third Reich in 1945-6. The idea went back to the 1943 joint statement on atrocities which Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had signed at the Moscow conference, and Soviet jurists helped to plan the trial and conceptualize its legal innovations, in particular the hitherto unknown crimes against peace, i.e. aggressive war. The judgement handed out in autumn 1946 appeared to vindicate this approach, famously describing aggressive war as the “supreme international crime” which made all others infractions possible and contained “within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Yet in the years to come the apparent breakthrough disintegrated and this was not least Moscow’s own doing. Already at the drafting stages of the Nuremberg tribunal’s charter, the Soviet delegation had, with good reason, objected to any formulation that would imply jurisdiction over powers other than the Axis members. And in the new cold war realities any idea of a court, permanent or other, which would be competent to try breaches of intentional law by one of the superpowers, was positively utopian. In Moscow’s eyes, of course, there were no grounds for any such proceedings as the Soviet Union did not start wars: it came to liberate peoples from the yoke of oppression as in 1944-5 or it answered calls for help as in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, or Afghanistan 1979.

Meanwhile, another of Nuremberg’s legal innovations came to outshine aggressive war. Genocide, a concept coined by Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin in 1944, had played a rather minor role before the allied tribunal – much less prominent than Lemkin had hoped – but it would be enshrined in international law when the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention in 1948. The concept did not escape the divisions of realpolitik and its scope was carefully clipped to avoid its being used against any of the major powers, notably the Soviet Union at home and Europe’s late colonial empires abroad. Even that did not prevent its being dragged into the cold war theatre where the charge of genocide became a frequent rhetorical tool.

Still, genocide in the Convention’s narrower understanding, would emerge from the Cold War as the worst possible violation international law knew, the “crime of crimes” as the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has it. Although international criminal law knows no formal hierarchy between war crimes, crimes against humanity, aggression, and genocide, judicial practice reserves the severest punishments against génocidaires; that was true at the first Nuremberg tribunal as well as in the subsequent proceedings, and it also holds for the cases tried by the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals. That, and the degree of public attention the charge of genocide automatically secures, has led to a problematic proliferation of such accusations, reflecting an underlying assumption that only the most heinous crime of all will do in naming enormous suffering; war crimes and even crimes against humanity are relegated to the status of lesser crimes.

The current war is no exception as both sides claim genocides are being perpetrated. Ukraine’s president Volodomyr Zelenskyi has hurled the accusation against the Russia forces after bombing a maternity ward in Mariupol, and it has spread rapidly since. Putin and his spokesmen keep repeating that the invasion seeks to stop the genocide among their fellow countrymen in the Donbas. Both are wrong, though in different ways. While Kiev is understandably, if mistakenly using rhetoric hyperbole in the desperate hope to convince NATO to stop Russian bombing, Moscow seeks to rebrand an aggressive war that is impossible to admit as a quasi-humanitarian intervention. This evidently echoes Western justifications for intervening in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s but it is also an attempt to stick to a master narrative which casts Russia as by definition antifascist, the liberator of the sites of genocide, and behind the legal legacy that outlaws aggressive war. Much has been written about Putin’s infatuation with the idea of empire; ethnicised ‘Greater Russian’ reasoning and cold geopolitical ambition inform this idea. But so does the assumption that Russia is a righteous moral force vindicated by its Soviet predecessor’s deeds which resonates strongly with a large part of the Russian public. Crying genocide thus offers a rhetorical route around the dilemma which the present war has created. That Russian historians have called out the regime’s distortions may be small comfort to Ukrainians suffering from the war but a comfort it is.

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