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Regular version of the site

A People’s History of War

HSE has hosted the international academic conference ‘Europe, 1945: Liberation, Occupation, Retribution,’ during which historians, sociologists, and culturologists from various countries discussed the social, economic, military, political, and cultural phenomena caused by World War II. In an interview with the HSE News Service, the Director of HSE’s International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, Oleg Budnitskii, discusses the conference, its organizers, and its guests, and also talks about why it is important to study the human dimension of war.

About the Centre

The International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences is in its fifth year of existence at the Higher School of Economics and became ‘international’ last year for several important reasons. The Centre’s Academic Supervisor is renowned Georgetown Professor of History Michael David-Fox. The Centre is comprised of young, promising scholars (postdocs) from the U.S., Canada, Germany, and Italy. American Seth Bernstein received his PhD at the University of Toronto and wrote his dissertation under the guidance of Lynne Viola, Canada’s most prominent specialist on the history of Stalinism. Seth is writing a book on Soviet youth’s military training in the 1930s. Canadian Kristy Ironside defended her dissertation at the University of Chicago under Sheila Fitzpatrick, one of the world’s best-known researchers on Russian history. Kristy is carrying out a wonderful project devoted to the social history of the ruble between 1945 and 1965. German Franziska Exeler received her PhD from Princeton, her Academic Supervisor being Stephen Kotkin, the author of the influential book Magnetic Mountain. Stalinism as a Civilization. Exeler’s dissertation – and future book – is on Belarus during the occupation and after liberation. Finally, Italy’s Tommaso Piffer received his PhD from the University of Bologna and is currently writing a book on the Resistance Movement in Europe. He also researches the guerrilla movement in the USSR during the Great Patriotic War.

The Centre also has some of the best researchers in Russia, including Oleg Khlevniuk, one of the world’s foremost history scholars on Stalinism and the author of numerous monographs on Soviet history from the 1920s through the 1950s. He is also the publisher of an impressive number of archival records and his latest book – a biography of Stalin based strictly on documental evidence and written in a language accessible to readers of all levels of education – is becoming an international bestseller. The book has already been released in Russian and English, and what is more, the prestigious Yale University Press published the English version. The book will be published in German this year, and translation rights have already been sold to at least a dozen countries around the world. In addition, Oleg has prepared a volume of documents from the State Defence Committee for publication, and the researcher prepares to work on a wartime history of Stalinism. Another researcher, Liudmila Novikova, is the author of a wonderful monograph on the Civil War in Northern Russia, which has just been translated into Italian. She is not abandoning the North and is currently working on a book about the Soviet North during World War II. In addition, literary historian and one of the freest thinking individuals I have ever met, Ilya Kukulin, researches the history of literature – and culture as a whole – in wartime.

 We know about war from the memories and diaries that were largely written by urban, educated people. But before the war, the USSR was still [made up of] peasants and wasn’t a very well educated country…

We are not studying the history of military operations or the history of diplomacy. We are interested in the social history of war and aspects related to culture, gender, and other things that have long lain in the background. To put it differently, we are studying a people’s history of war. What and how do we know about war, aside from what we see in official documents, which oftentimes not only reflect, but also distort, historical reality?  We know about war from the memories, diaries, and interviews of participants in war, but after all, these were largely written by urban, educated people. Before the war, however, the USSR was still made up of peasants and was not a very well education country. Peasants made up two-thirds of the population, and the majority of urban dwellers were those who had recently come to the city from the country. For every 1,000 residents, statistics show that 77.8 had a full or partial secondary education, while just 6.4 had a higher education. How can we know how this ‘silent majority’ thought, felt, and ‘underwent’ war? This is one of the problems Centre researchers are working on. I do not think it is necessary to prove that the level of urbanization and education had more than a significant impact on the course of the war.

‘Most important are the quality and originality of proposed topics…’

The latest conference was the third large-scale event that the Centre had organised. The first conference took place in 2012 and focused on the Nazi invasion and the holocaust within the USSR. A second conference took place in 2014 and centred on events of World War I, such as ‘Europe’s suicide,’ which determined the course of Europe throughout the entire 20th century. The main focus of the third conference was 1945 – the year when a transition occurred from occupation to liberation, from war to peace. The conference aimed to analyse this transition, as well as new approaches to researching it.

There were upwards of 130 applications to participate in the conference, of which an international academic committee selected 50 presenters. Previous academic work was of little importance when selecting presenters, as the main criteria were the quality and originality of proposed topics. I am certain that in order to ‘move’ science, a certain drive is necessary. From what I have observed, science is in fact moved by those who just wrote their dissertations, have fresh ideas, and want to build a career. We had researchers come from Germany, Poland, Great Britain, France, Italy, Latvia, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and other countries, and these were not just historians, but sociologists, philosophers, and culturologists and well. In the end, I think we had a very successful combination of recognised scholars and researchers who are in the early stages of their academic careers.

The Big Question: Liberation or Occupation

The year 1945 was a year of radical change for not only the borders of those nations that participated in the war, but also for all political, social, economic, and cultural practices. For the majority of Eastern European countries, Sovietisation began at this moment, and each country had its opponents and proponents. While for some, the arrival of the Red Army signified liberation from Nazi domination with the establishment of Soviet rule opening up new opportunities, for others, the Red Army meant a new occupation, and for collaborationists – retribution for previous acts committed under the Nazis.

 The Poles didn’t want to build a Soviet version of socialism, instead actively resisting Sovietisation and fighting against the Red Army. We should think about them, as this allows us to understand the roots of many of today’s problems that stem from the past…

Jan Gross, a Princeton Professor and the author of the famous book Neighbors, which tells about the murder of 1,500 Jews in Jedwabne, Poland in July 1941 by their neighbours – the Poles, talked about what 1945 meant for Poland. On the one hand, this was indisputable liberation; Poland had lost 6 million people and became the centre of ‘industrial’ destruction of the Jewish and Polish population. The extermination camps Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Chelmno were also located on Polish territory. The Nazis deliberately massacred the Polish intelligentsia – the nation’s backbone – and destroyed university professors, priests, and other people capable of uniting and leading others. But on the other hand, the Poles were against buildinga Soviet version of socialism, instead actively resisting Sovietisation and fighting against the Red Army. In such a situation, there is not a single answer when it comes to liberation or occupation. We should think about them, as this allows us to understand the roots of many of today’s problems that stem from the past.

Egbert Jahn, Professor at the University of Mannheim, also raised a question that is very sensitive for German society: ‘Was Germany defeated or liberated on May 8-9, 1945?’ In an official speech to the Bundestag in 1985 devoted to the 40th anniversary of the German Instrument of Surrender in 1945, German President Richard von Weizsäcker called the military defeat of Nazism the liberation of the German people. ‘All of us, guilty or innocent, young or old, must accept the past. […] But those who close their eyes to the past become blind to the present,’ he said. Professor Jahn’s paper focused on analysing debates in German society on von Weizsäcker’s historic speech.

Liberation through the Prism of Personal Experience

For the 8 million Soviet soldiers and officers involved, 1945 was a unique experience, as many of them were sent abroad. The main thing was of course war, but it is the diaries of Soviet troops that best show how important this ‘meeting with Europe’ was for them. I presented my colleagues with the results of my work on the diaries of Soviet soldiers that I uncovered in personal and state archives. Some started writing in diaries specifically because they were abroad and wanted to document what they saw. The journals are evidence of a clash of different cultures and social worlds that serve as a record of moments in real human history. For example, Captain Igor Safanov writes that he dreamt of hearing if the birds in the Vienna Woods sang like they had in the popular pre-war film The Great Waltz. Safanov does in fact end up in Vienna – in April 1945 when fighting was underway – and goes to the destroyed Vienna Opera to find Red Army soldiers sleeping side-by-side on the ground. A Red Army soldier was ‘pecking‘Chizhik’’ on a miraculously spared piano on which Johann Strauss might have played. Such reports offer an excellent sense of historical reality.

The war affected and changed the fates of millions – those who fought, those who remained behind enemy lines, were captured, or taken out of the country. At the conference, Elena Rozhdestvenskaya, a Professor in HSE’s Faculty of Sociology, talked about the lives of former Ostarbeiters, people who returned to the Soviet Union after forced deportation to Germany. In studying various archives and the recollections of those who were captured and their relatives, Professor Rozhdestvenskaya showed how people found strategies to overcome and get through this trauma, and how they integrated into Soviet society.

No Peace after War

The issues and chronological framework of the conference were not limited to the year 1945 alone. Renowned Australian demographer and historian Stephen Wheatcroft, a Professor at the University of Melbourne, spoke about the problem of food after the war. In addition, Lewis Siegelbaum, Professor at Michigan State University, analysed the problem of population mobility in the post-war period, while Tommaso Piffer, a Centre researcher, presented a paper on the Soviet Union’s role in the European communist movement and the origins of post-war Europe. Lastly, Rachel Applebaum, a researcher at Tufts University’s Center for the Humanities, discussed her view on war as a form of cultural diplomacy using the example of post-war Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Eastern Bloc.

 As an example, we discussed the question of how many Sistine Madonnas are equal to the destroyed Saviour Church on Nereditsa – six or ten…

Separate sections were devoted to issues surrounding resistance and collaborationism within occupied Soviet territories, as well as re-Sovietisation processes in the Baltic States, aspects of Soviet-Jewish culture after the Holocaust (1945-1948), the role of World War II in post-war culture, and much more.

The Human Dimension of War

From a human standpoint, I was particularly touched by two stories at the conference. The first concerned the discovery of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, or Old Masters Gallery, in Dresden in 1945, which Irina Alter of the Berlin-based publisher Walter de Gruyter discussed. Alter compared the recollections of two contemporaries, the gallery’s ancient sculpture curator, Ragna Enking, and Soviet officer and lieutenant, Leonid Rabinovich, who tracked down the location where the Dresden Gallery’s masterpieces were being held. Rabinovich, an artist from Kyiv, did this on his own initiative and found the gallery in Dresden, which had been bombed, using a travel guide. Reading their diaries, you understand that this is living history right before your eyes. Ragna Enking wrote how scared she was that the Soviet officer would shoot her, though he actually kissed her hand goodbye. Finding the immured antique sculptures in a basement was the beginning of the search for the remaining treasures of the Dresden Gallery, including the Sistine Madonna. They were brought to the USSR before returning to Germany in 1955. Irina Alter uses archives to show that the question of compensation for the cultural property destroyed in the USSR has been under discussion since as far back as 1943, while it was the Sistine Madonna in particular that was used as an equivalent. As an example, we discussed the question of how many Sistine Madonnas are equal to the destroyed Saviour Church on Nereditsa – six or ten?

The second story concerns the fate of Elena Rzhevskaya and Käthe Häusermann. Rzhevskaya’s granddaughter, philologist and translator Lyubov Summ, spoke at the conference using materials from the family archive. Military translator Elena Rzhevskaya was part of the group that discovered Hitler’s body, and it was she in particular who sought out Käthe Häuserman, the assistant of Hitler’s dentist, Doctor Blaschke. Häuserman’s evidence allowed for the burnt body found in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery to be identified once and for all. After this, Käthe Häuserman, a ‘witness of Hitler’s death,’ was arrested, taken to Moscow, and held in prison for six years. Her case was heard in 1951, when she was sentenced and sent to a camp for ‘aiding the continuation of the war.’ Stalin found it necessary to hide the death of Hitler, and even Marshal Zhukov was not informed that Hitler’s body had been found. It is clear that the main witness was hidden. This was an ‘open secret,’ as everyone abroad was well aware that Hitler was dead. In 1955, Käthe was released from camp and even given a tour of Moscow before being sent back to Germany. No one had been expecting her there, however. Her husband thought her to be dead and had remarried. And Rzhevskaya suffered her whole life knowing the role she had played in the life of the German woman, who being the assistant of Hitler’s personal doctor had simultaneously hidden and fed her former employer – Doctor Blaschke, a Jew. It is these stories – the surprising and heroic, the atypical and common – that allow us to feel and grasp what the war was really like.

Lyudmila Mezentseva, HSE News Service


See also:

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Studying Russian Writers on How War Alters Aesthetic Experience

Dr. Angelina Lucento is a Research Fellow at HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences. Her work focusses on art and war. In this interview with HSE English News she explains how family history brought her to research WWII and Russian culture and tells us why Moscow suits her so well for living and working as an international academic in her field.

How We Remember the War: Politics of Memory Analyzed by Russian and German Scholars

In 2015, the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, an event that is a particularly important part of Russian and German history. Scholars from the two countries were the authors of the latest edition of the Journal of Social Policy Studies.

Culture of Historical Memory: World War II and Political Regimes of the 20th Century

A group of 14 undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Department of History at HSE St. Petersburg took part in a joint research and educational seminar with Humboldt University in Berlin and Bielefeld. The seminar, which was devoted to the culture of historical memory of World War II and Political Regimes of the 20th century, was led by Alexander Semyonov, Head of the Department of History, Dietmar Wulff, Associate Professor at the Department and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and Kerstin Bischl of the Humboldt University Chair for the History of Eastern Europe. The trip was made possible thanks to a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service.

'In Times of Misunderstanding, We Must Remember Our Alliance during WWII'

On April 24, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia (2008-2012) John Beyrle gave a lecture at the Higher School of Economics on American and Soviet cooperation in the Second World War. The lecture also commemorated the 70th anniversary of Elbe Day, when Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe on April 25, 1945.

‘My Father Wanted the Americans to Know How Many Soviet Citizens Suffered in This War’

On April 24, HSE will host a talk by John Beyrle, U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation 2008-2012 marking the 70th anniversary of the meeting of the Allied Armies at the Elbe, and U.S./Soviet cooperation during the Second World War. For John Beyrle, the Second World War is a very personal story.

Understanding Our Own History by Learning about Another’s

Social Historian, Franziska Exeler has focussed much of her research on the Soviet Union and the Second World War but at HSE she is asking students to find out what happened in other countries to try to understand the Soviet experience in a global context. She talked to the HSE English News website about teaching and researching at the HSE International Centre for History and Sociology, about discovering Moscow’s architecture and about her life as an academic in Russia.

70 Years on: Remembering Victory in WWII — A View of Post-war Life in the Soviet Union

In the year that marks the 70th anniversary of victory in the Second World War, we talk to Kristy Ironside, who received her BA and MA from the University of Toronto before going on to complete her PhD at the University of Chicago, and who is currently researching life in the Soviet Union in the post-war years. Kristy Ironside’s work examines what the War meant to ordinary people, how their lives changed — and how Soviet society coped with the aftermath.

The Demographic Echo of War

The Second World War ended on September 2, 1945. A new study of human losses suffered by the Soviet Union and their consequences for subsequent generations was published in Demoscope Weekly, an HSE online journal.