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World War II in Europe Ended 75 Years Ago—But the World Is Still Fighting Over Who Gets to Say What Happened

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At the end of March, the historian Jan Grabowski was set to have a busy few weeks. First came the release of what he describes as “the most important” of his 17 books, which features his research into the Polish policemen responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. A week later, a hearing was set to take place in Warsaw in a lawsuit he filed against a nationalist organization aligned with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party, over its claim that he “falsifies the history of Poland” by doing that work.

That hearing has been postponed indefinitely because of the pandemic, but the issues it raises are not going away anytime soon. “I have no doubts of course my detractors will strike sometime soon because that’s what they do. It’s a question of time,” he tells TIME by phone while in lockdown in Warsaw. “Whenever I write about something that speaks to the fact that segments of Polish society during the war were complicit with the Holocaust, I become an enemy of the people.”

Europe’s physical battles of World War II ended 75 years ago with German surrender on May 7, 1945. But that doesn’t mean the fighting is over: A wave of right-wing nationalist leaders, who have come to power in Europe in recent years, are waging a war of words over the past. While outright Holocaust denial remains an issue, says scholar Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, these days there’s more “rewriting the history, taking inconvenient details and reshaping them.”

So, as historians like Grabowski, 58, try to tell the story of what happened all those decades ago, they’re facing resistance from officials who have their own reasons for wanting to tell the story a certain way—and, they say, the outcome could affect the lessons the world takes from World War II for generations to come.

On May 9, Russia will celebrate Victory Day, the country’s most important national holiday. As might be expected for a festival that marks the surrender of Nazi forces to the Soviet Union, official commemorations are mostly centered on the Soviet triumph in ending a war that killed over 8 million Soviet soldiers. In a few months will fall another significant World War II anniversary—one that fewer in Russia are keen to embrace. On Aug. 23, it will be 81 years since Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union inked the nonaggression treaty commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which helped usher in World War II.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signing, 1939
The Foreign Minister of Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Soviet Leader Iosif (Joseph) Stalin and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (foreground L-R) pose for a photo at the singing ceremony of the German-Soviet Treaty of Nonaggression, Aug. 23, 1939, in MoscowTASS via Getty Images

A week after the pact was signed, Hitler invaded western Poland. The Soviet Union followed two weeks later by invading eastern Poland. At least 3 million Jewish and 1.9 million non-Jewish Poles were killed during the Nazi reign of terror that followed; it is also estimated that, under wartime Soviet occupation, half a million Polish citizens died. And although the pact promised ten years of non-aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, Hitler launched a blitzkrieg attack on the USSR, calling for the capture of Moscow within four months. The subsequent fighting ultimately led to the deaths of an estimated 26 million people across the Soviet Union. After the war’s end in 1945, the annexed region of Poland became part of the USSR until it gained independence in 1989.

By that point, the war had ushered in a new world order. The United States had emerged as the foremost economic superpower, and the United Nations was founded. Empires vanished, as European colonies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East fought for and won their independence. Europe was devastated. And the mythos of the war had already begun to take shape. The American narrative often simply left out the role of the nation’s Cold War enemies in the USSR, and the Soviet Union was involved in its own myth-making project. There, authorities denied the existence of a secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact protocol that made plans to divide territory in areas like Poland between Germany and the USSR. Russian officials have since said the Soviet incursion into Poland wasn’t an “invasion” but an act of “self-defense” because Poland had blocked the formation of a coalition against Hitler’s Germany before the war. “Propaganda in films and literature glorified the war role. Censorship prevented a discussion about the trauma, so that the population would forget about the tragedy and move on,” says Irina Scherbakova, a Russian historian and founding member of the human-rights organization Memorial.

These stories of World War II—stories of victory or victimhood—became the backbone for the new regimes that rose in its wake. “In Eastern Europe, the legitimacy of the communist regimes that came to power after the Second World War was constructed around this narrative of ‘only [the] Soviet Union can guarantee our safety from [the] German threat.’” says Jan T. Gross, an expert on post-war Soviet and East European politics and the Holocaust and professor emeritus at Princeton University. “But underneath, there is a great disquiet.”

In the 1960s, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made May 9 a national holiday and introduced grand military parades. In 1995, Boris Yeltsin, the first leader of post-Soviet Russia, made those military parades an annual tradition. The Victory Day parade has only expanded under Vladimir Putin, who has been Russia’s de facto leader since 2000. In recent years, it has typically featured thousands of military personnel marching alongside dozens of tanks and armored vehicles among hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Russia Commemorates 70th Anniversary Of Victory Day
A gala concert was held in Red Square to mark the 70th anniversary victory, May 9, 2015 in Moscow.Handout/Host photo agency / RIA Novosti / Getty Images

This year, with 12 million Muscovites confined to their home in a lockdown against the coronavirus, Putin, after much resistance, decided to postpone the parade that was to commemorate Victory Day’s Diamond Jubilee. Moscow’s Red Square, the familiar brick expanse in Russia’s capital city, will be ghostly quiet on May 9 for the first time in over 25 years. But even without the parade, the power of the memory of victory is clear.

For proof, look to Putin himself. As he has made moves to extend his political power, he has likewise attempted to more assertively impose his version of the narrative of World War II. The government has “weaponized the war” through rhetoric, legislation, revising textbooks and cultural events as a means of shoring up public support for a regime that promotes a vision of Russia as a reborn global power, says Scherbakova.

Over the past few years, Putin has also cast the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol—the very existence of which was denied by most of his forebears—as a move the Soviet Union was forced into by Western leaders’ alleged “collusion” with Hitler at the time of the 1938 Munich agreement, under which Britain and France allowed Hitler to annex the Sudetenland in what was then Czechoslovakia. “When the Soviet Union realised that it was left to face Hitler’s Germany on its own, it acted to try to avoid a direct confrontation, and this resulted in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact,” Putin said during a 2015 press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last August, Russia put the original pact and its secret protocol on display at the State Archives in Moscow, alongside the 1938 agreement.

Taking particular aim at Russia, the European Parliament issued a resolution last September on “the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe,” specifically urging Russia “to come to terms with its tragic past.” Calling the resolution “sheer nonsense,” Putin and his officials in December took to blaming Poland for the start of World War II. Speaking for an hour on the subject of the war during a Dec. 20 summit, he claimed that in 1938 “Poland assumed the role of instigator” and that “Poland and Germany acted together.” Putin brought up the subject of Polish responsibility no less than five times in a single week that month. In an unusual outburst at a meeting with the Defense Ministry on Dec. 24, he proclaimed that the Polish ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s was “scum” and an “anti-Semitic pig.” That same day, the speaker of Russia’s parliament publicly called for Poland to apologize for starting the war. The Polish government, in response, accused Putin of reviving “propaganda from the time of Stalinist totalitarianism.”

Paweł Jabłoński, Poland’s deputy foreign affairs minister, believes Russia focused on Poland because it is a vocal proponent of the sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Russia is using historical memory, he argues, to try to create an image of blamelessness.

In that, Russia would not be alone. A monument erected in Budapest in 2014 under the nationalistic Fidesz party came under fire for depicting Hungary as the archangel Gabriel being attacked by Germany; critics say it whitewashes the fact that the wartime government was complicit in the murder of a large part of the country’s Jewish population. Lithuania’s Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, located in the capital Vilnius, was in 2018 re-named from the Museum of Genocide Victims and focuses almost entirely on the murder of the Lithuanian non-Jewish population, while perpetrators of the Holocaust are lauded as victims in their countries’ struggle against Soviet occupation. The museum has been widely criticized in a country where Germans murdered about 90% of the Jewish population—one of the highest rates in Europe. “The Holocaust disappears as the unique event it empirically was,” says Dovid Katz, an American Yiddish historian based in Vilnius.

But Poland, Putin’s target, has also taken particularly forceful steps to introduce its own version of history. Historians say Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has pursued a nationalistic revision of history since it came into office in 2015. “The government wants to emphasize that Poles suffered under German occupation and most importantly they were not perpetrators or collaborators,” says Svenja Bethke, a history lecturer at the U.K.’s University of Leicester. Spokespeople for PiS and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

In February 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a bill into law making it illegal to accuse the Polish state or people of involvement or responsibility for crimes committed by Nazis during the war, citing the need “protect Poland’s and the Polish people’s good name”—even though historians agree that, in a society that fostered widespread anti-Semitism, relatively few non-Jewish Poles tried to protect their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis. The law, commonly known as the Holocaust Law, meant that phrases like “Polish death camp” were banned from use by the media, as that wording may suggest a camp established and run by Poland.

Far-right Polish groups protest against Israeli politics
Far-right protesters march in support of the law introducing a penalty for using the term 'Polish death or concentration camps' near the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on Feb. 5, 2018NurPhoto via Getty Images—Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto

Following international condemnation, the parliament amended the law in June 2018, replacing the original criminal penalty with a civil one. Since then, Poland has concentrated on a public relations strategy for getting its interpretation of history out there, such as through op-eds and statements by the Prime Minister. In November 2019, Netflix added text to its recent documentary The Devil Next Door that clarified that death camps in Poland were run by Nazi Germany after Morawiecki wrote a letter to Netflix’s CEO. “Better than punishing somebody for using the wrong language is to explain— write about it, make movies about it— and show people real facts, not punish them,” Wojciech Surmacz, President of the state-run Polish Press Agency, tells TIME of the approach. “Just show them the truth.”

In the years after the invasion of Poland, Jan Grabowski’s father had an experience that was all too familiar for Poland’s Jewish population. His neighbor, knowing the family was Jewish, went to the Gestapo to turn them in. But then something unusual happened: the officer who came to grill Grabowski’s grandfather realized they had both served in the same unit in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. On the basis of that connection, he vowed not to tell his superiors about them.

By thus surviving the war, Grabowski’s father became one of only 1% of Polish Jews to outlive the German occupation. And so, for the historian, getting to the truth about that time—the real truth—is personal. Over the last 20 years, he has researched the countless times Poles informed Germans about local Jewish people, many instances of which are documented in German court records in Warsaw. “Several members of my family were murdered during the war,” he says. “One of my grandfather’s brothers was murdered one year after the war by Poles, who simply did not like very much to see a Jew returning to Poland.”

Holocaust historian Jan Grabowski in his office in Ottawa in 2017.Courtesy of Jan Grabowski

But, despite the personal nature of his work, Grabowski has stopped giving workshops for Polish teachers on the history of World War II and the Holocaust because, he says, teachers were afraid to attend sessions that might “slander the good name of Poland” or to be associated with someone targeted by nationalists. In addition to the lawsuit Grabowski filed against the Polish League Against Defamation, which is aligned with PiS, he is also embroiled in a suit filed by the same group on behalf of a woman who objects to a book that Grabowski co-edited, which describes her deceased uncle robbing a Jewish girl and allegedly helping Germans find Jews who were in hiding. The group accused him of being a “carrier of lies” in a June 2017 letter sent to the University of Ottawa, where he is a professor. More than 180 Holocaust scholars in the U.S. and worldwide issued a statement of support for Grabowski, denouncing the accusations as “baseless” and an “attack on academic freedom and integrity.”

Grabowski’s work is part of a field that has flourished since the collapse of communism. For example, the 2000 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, documented the slaughter of about 1,600 Jews by their Polish neighbors in 1941 in the village of Jedwabne, outside Warsaw. But, now that the fight over this history has ramped up, some experts worry that the field may start to shrink.

Jabłoński, Poland’s deputy foreign affairs minister, tells TIME that “academics are free” and that “if there are any attempts at rewriting history it’s done by those who try to portray the grey area as representing the whole story.” But Dariusz Stola, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, says he fears Poland’s 2018 law has triggered an atmosphere of “intimidation that discourages scholars, especially those of the younger generation” from tackling difficult subjects related to crimes committed on 20th century Polish soil.

If future historians are discouraged from such study, the consequences could be grave, and not just within academia.

Memory is shaped by current events. The story of World War II, like any world-shaping event, is told by people in the present looking back to try to make sense of what they are going through now. The United States is certainly not immune from this phenomenon, as post-war attitudes obscured discussion of the country’s own WWII injustices, ranging from racial segregation in the armed forces to the incarceration of Japanese Americans. “History is about the past, but you write it in the present,” says Rob Citino, Senior Historian at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “Memory is about the past, but you’re living in the present, and the way you remember things is very much altered by what you’re going through at the time. History is a technical field. Memory—everybody has one.”

VE Day Moscow
A British sergeant is lifted up as Moscow women celebrate VE Day on May 8, 1945.Getty Images

Likewise, memories of the past inform present-day policymaking. World War II provides what is perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon: From the Vietnam War in the ‘60s to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Western leaders have invoked Munich to warn of the danger of appeasing dictators. And in Russia, memories of World War II have been implicitly used in an attempt to legitimize the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Putin compared the Ukrainian military’s offensive in Donbas to the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II, and Russian officials compared the “return” of Crimea to Russia and victory in World War II as moments of which citizens could be proud.

There is some evidence that efforts to tweak those memories are working. Within Russia, the public’s pride for the past appears to be reflected in the largely supportive response to Putin’s decision to annex Crimea. Just 3% are embarrassed by their country’s Soviet history and the 2014 capture of Crimea, according to a 2016 survey by Independent polling agency the Levada Center. Meanwhile, Stalin—whose labor camps, executions, forced famines and policy of collectivization led to the death of 20 million citizens—hasn’t been so popular in years. Levada found that, in 2003, 35% of respondents said they thought Stalin played a rather positive role Russia’s history; in 2019, the figure rose to 52%. Support for the Nazi-Soviet pact has also risen in the past decade. The center also found in a 2017 survey that 31% of respondents “somewhat approved” of the Nazi-Soviet pact, up from 26% in 2005. Central and Eastern Europe, however, remember the pact as something that “doomed half of Europe to decades of misery.”

So, if leaders in any one nation succeed in convincing the public to rely on a vision of the past based on nationalism, not historical research, they will have done much more than rewrite textbooks. As they fill their arsenals with friendly analogies, they remove the possibility of learning from what really happened.

Yet not everyone is prepared to accept a state-led account of the past—and if victorious historical narratives have aimed to unite the population in Russia, they have largely failed. “The current model of national historical experience splits people up instead of bringing them together,” Andrei Kolesnikov, Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, has written.

In fact, Olga Malinova, a politics professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says a “new trend” of historical debate in Russia is emerging. “People in social networks are having serious debates about how Victory Day should be commemorated, whether it should be commemorated at all,” she says.

And there and elsewhere, despite everything, scholarship continues to be produced. “Nobody gives a damn” about the risks, says Princeton’s Gross. “Over the last 20 years, there have been piles of books in Polish where these matters are very well-documented.” Last fall, Polish prosecutors dropped a roughly four-year-old case over the fact that Gross wrote that the Poles killed more Jews than they did Germans in a 2015 op-ed. And a review of Jan Grabowski’s latest book, On Duty: The Role of Polish Police in the Holocaust in a prominent local newspaper praised it for reminding readers how much there is still to learn about the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population. They and their colleagues plan to keep doing the work, so that others can learn—perhaps prompting more of the type of conversations that make a top-down rewriting of history so difficult. Seventy-five years later, there is still much work to be done in learning about that past.

“When you do the history of the Holocaust, it’s a commitment,” Grabowski says. “I have an obligation to the dead.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com