Aimar Ventsel: Why Russia lacks a Nazi past?

Aimar Ventsel.
Aimar Ventsel. Source: ERR/ Laura Raudnagel

It has been suggested that up to one million Russians fought for Germany in World War II. Collaboration with Germans is an aspect of Russian history that virtually cannot be studied, Aimar Ventsel finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Reading all manner of comments sections is a bad habit of mine. A little while ago, I once again found myself reading the comments under a YouTube video in Russian about Estonians. An ordinary travel video from a few years back. Such videos make for a separate genre in Russia.

As always, the comments fell into one of two categories. One side applauded Estonia and recalled vacations to Tallinn or Saaremaa, praising Estonia's cleanliness, beautiful architecture and nature. The other had nothing but criticism and contempt. And somewhere among those dozens of lines of tribute or abuse it read: "We will never forget that Estonia was the first judenfrei country!"

Allegedly, Estonia was the first German-occupied territory to report that all local Jews had been destroyed. Judenfrei in other words. It is a very typical comment whenever someone from Russia wants to stick it to Estonia.

However, it made me think about another thing. One reason to accuse Estonia of genocide against the Jews is that the same accusation cannot be leveled at Russia. But is that really true?

It was in the days of the Estonian kroon when Russian newspapers were stilled published that of the best papers of re-independent Estonia Den za Dnjom ran an article about a Russian historian who came to Estonia to defend their doctoral thesis.

Its topic were Russian SS units. When non-Arian units of the Third Reich started to be formed during World War II, Russian units were also formed next to Estonian, Danish, Dutch and other SS units. The latter are Russia's "best kept secret" and a completely taboo subject. Even the internet yields next to nothing on the Russian SS.

I once had a book by a retired Russian polkovnik titled "They were all Traitors." The book listed all non-Arian SS units by nation and Soviet republic and other ways former Soviet peoples collaborated with the Germans in WWII.

It included SS units of Cossacks and the Russian Liberation Army, or Andrei Vlasov's army, but not Russian SS units. The SS is a symbol of evil in Russia's great victory cult. Therefore, claiming that Russians also fought for the SS amounts to suggesting people are being boiled alive in Russia today.

It has been suggested that up to a million Russians fought (or served in police battalions) on the German side in World War II. Collaboration with Germans is something that virtually cannot be studied in Russian historical tradition.

A few years ago, a St Petersburg historian wanted to defend a thesis analyzing why and how Russian officers joined Vlasov's army (the reason was being disappointed in how the Red Army fought and feeling abandoned in prisoner camps. Most so-called Vlasovians were recruited from among captured Soviet troops).

The thesis caused a major scandal. The author was accused of romanticizing traitors, heroizing fascism and what not. While they succeeded in defending the thesis, calls from patriotic and veteran organizations caused them to be stripped of their degree. It was later restored after a repeat defense.

The reason for the scandal is very simple: the Russians were on the side of good in the war, they fought and saved the world from fascism. Even hinting that Russians could also have supported fascists and in large numbers is enough to enrage every Russian resident.

Let us also recall that a part of Russian archives remain closed to this day, especially to foreign scholars. Efforts to hinder foreign historians' work with Russian archives started in 2014, while it has become all but impossible today. Things aren't much easier for Russian historians. Certain topics are simply impossible to study these days.

Returning to the Russian SS, several units existed that had been so severely damaged by the end of the war they were merged with Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army. While the Russian SS achieved little, it nevertheless consisted of SS units that fought on the side of the Third Reich. The Nazis had no mercy for Jews, and if we add that to antisemitism that existed in Russian culture of the period (and still does to some extent), it is very difficult to believe Russians did not participate in the Holocaust.

But it is impossible to prove. And for as long as there are taboo subjects in Russian history and the archives remain closed, every patriot can claim with a clear conscience that Russia lacks a Nazi past, unlike many other nations whose noses can be gleefully rubbed in it.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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