Rutte was not in Moscow

Utrecht, May 22, 2015

Czech president Milos Zeman went to Moscow on May 9, breaking a nearly total Western boycott of the Russian commemoration of the end of World War II, 70 years ago. The US ambassador in Prague, Andrew Schapiro, had strongly criticised this decision; but Zeman simply shrugged his shoulders, said I cannot imagine a Czech ambassador in Washington giving advice to the US president on where he should travel and went, showing the independence of mind that seems to be the norm among Czech leaders (Masaryk, Benes, Dubcek, the unforgettable Vaclav Havel).

The Dutch PM, Mark Rutte, stayed home, of course. No such independence in Holland. Here, the government goes out of its way in order to extradite its own citizens to the USA, even when it is clear that they have been tortured by CIA personnel, and will be tortured again when in US hands. Fortunately, there are still judges in Holland who don't approve of this.

Zeman has also said that his trip to Russia would be a sign of gratitude for not having to speak German in this country.

Huh? Isn't this utter insolence?

Don't Americans always shout at us: If it hadn't been for us, you'd be speaking German now? Whenever we criticise the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, the "collateral damage" of about half a million dead Iraqis (surpassing every atrocity committed by Saddam Hussein), Guantanamo Bay, the use of non-uniformed mercenary forces of Blackwater, the torturing, the indiscriminate killing, the ubiquitous drone attacks...Shouldn't we, in spite of all this, always remember that, thanks to the USA, we don't have to speak German?

However, there is a simple answer to the American reproach: no sir, we'd be speaking Russian.

Who won the war?

Every year, but especially in 2014 when it was 70 years ago, there is a lavish commemoration on June 6, attended by all European leaders, of the British-American landings in Normandy. We are told that June 6, 1944, marked the "beginning of the end" for Germany. And o, yes, as an aside, someone will mention that there had been something called the eastern front...

Everyone knows what happened in Normandy, 1944. The western allies put 160.000 man ashore, most of them British and Canadians. They managed to form a bridgehead, and after a month, they had a million man in France. However, breaking the German resistance proved tough, and it was not before the end of July that English, Canadian, Polish, French and American forces could break out. In the process, they let the bulk of the German armies in France escape to fight another day.

We do not hear so often, that the whole action in Normandy, spectacular and great though it was, was a mere side-show compared with what the Russians were doing at the other end of Europe. There, on June 22, over a vast front around Vitebsk, started Operation Bagration, which dwarfed Normandy. The Russians mounted an all-out attack agaist the German Army Group Centre; they attacked from the start with 2.5 million men. They did not allow any Germans to escape! By the end of July, when the western allies were still locked up in their bridgehead, 650.000 German troops had disappeared in the East, and Russian reconnaissance units were near Warsaw. We also do not hear so often that during the fight, the German high command shifted German forces from West to East.

Nor was Bagration the only battle of almost unimaginable scope, that the Russians fought. Kiev 1941, Moscow 1941-2, Kharkov 1942, Stalingrad 1942-3, Kursk 1943, even if some of these were disasters for the Russians, were all epic encounters.

Already in 1941, when they are still celebrating victory after victory in the East, Germans feel a certain apprehension. There is, in spite of the mega-successes, an uneasiness which finds its way to diaries and reports. There is something uncanny about the Russians. It is not simply that they won't surrender; it is the savagery, the ferocity with which they fight. They are mown down, but they don't seem to care. A German officer, fighting "partisans", caught a group of boys, 12 years old. One of them had to dig their own grave; the boy did this smiling. The German shuddered. Their preferred strategy, brutality and terror (in modern terms: shock and awe), fails here.

From all German accounts it is abundantly clear that the Americans did not instil fear in them. If only we had the weapons, we'd be done with them in no time, Heinrich Böll writes home from France, in 1944. The Eastern Front, however, gave them the shits.

In December 1944, the Germans still disposed of a considerable strategic reserve. Discussions went on about how to use it to maximum effect. In the West or in the East? We know what happened: the Germans decided to attack in the West, through the Ardennes (the "Battle of the Bulge"). What was the argument? Military planners had calculated that if all went well and with a lot of luck, they might destroy 30 enemy divisions. Then, they concluded that this would make no difference at all in the situation on the Eastern Front, whereas in the West it might be decisive.

Of the roughly 5.3 million German soldiers killed (according to recent estimates), around 90% was killed at the eastern front.

There can simply be no discussion about it: without an eastern front, the Germans would have had no trouble in throwing the English and Americans back into the sea. Without a western front, the Russians would still have prevailed. It is also clear that, although pompous fanfares and hero-worshipping are no longer fashionable in anti-militaristic Europe, the eastern front has seen true heroism of Russians on an unparallelled scale. Even if there is no denying the bravery of Americans ("they were fools, but brave fools", a British officer said).

And what now?

When in 1989, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev discussed the reunification of Germany, they agreed that NATO would not expand to the East. But the dying Soviet Union had no clout, and most of former Soviet bloc countries are now part of NATO, even countries that in 1941 were allied to Germany and took part in the fight against the Soviet Union: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria.

The fall of the Soviet Union has not moved western leaders to magnanimity. Instead, triumphalism has been rampant. We have won! We won the cold war! You see, we were right all along!

The second world war has been all but forgotten, and this is convenient for governments and public opinion in some eastern-European countries, who have never found the strength to come to terms with a less than glorious past.

The commemoration of the second world war is turned into another vehicle to humiliate the Russians, to deprive them of their due which is everlasting gratitude for liberating us from the Nazi nightmare. One doesn't have to be blind to the horrors of the Soviet state to say this.

It is ironic that the bone of contention is Ukraine. The memory of world war II is sacrificed for a right-wing, anti-Russian Ukraine. There was, in those years, also a right-wing, anti-Russian Ukraine. The henchmen in Treblinka and Sobibor were Ukrainians. In Poland, the rampaging bands of Ukrainian Hiwis (auxiliary forces in German service) were feared more than the Germans themselves...

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