The Second World War brought upon earth some of the most tragic and horrific incidents which has left a scar forever. All parts of the world from the Far East to Far West were shattered to different extents. People from different countries and communities bore the brunt of this ill-fated war. The epicenter of this cyclone called the Second World War was Eastern Europe and Hitler and Stalin were the main characters in this tragic play. All the countries the Allied powers and Axis powers were devastated by this war, which many calls “the Worst War of History”.
The loss of life and loss of fortunes came hand in hand with the war and devastated communities, countries and armies. “Holocaust”, the term coined to describe the carnage on the Jewish community was the darkest side of this war. Millions of Jews lost their lives, families and dignity in the hand of Hitler and his German Army. All across of Europe people of Jewish community were either killed or taken to concentration camps where they were treated worse than animals. The Jews who were able to avoid the above two were trapped in several ghettos all around Europe.
The tortures, which the Jews had to face at the concentration camp, were beyond comparison. Many preferred death over life due to the inhuman behavior they faced day after day. “Anyone who has been tortures remains tortured…… Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world, the abomination of the annihilation is never extinguished”. (Levi, P. 25) Like Jews in the Second World War, the other group, which faced atrocities of a different level, was the soldiers of the Red Army.
Stalin forced his men into the battlefield in front of the shells and tanks of the German Army. The secret Police of Russia often used this Red Army for suicidal attacks on Hitler’s army. “They were men and women of the Red Army, Stalin’s famous cannon fodder, a ragtag mass of recruits who confronted the most lethal professional fighting force on the continent and by 1945 had defeated it. ” (Merridale, P. 1) The most important thing about these horrific incidents, which took place after the war, is a sense of denial in people who were responsible for the crimes.
The Second World War is a story of two big leaders Hitler and Stalin, both engaged in a war between them destroying humankind and attacking humanity from the same stage. Let us first take up the case of the Red Army, and see how it became a prey to the moral ambiguities during the Second World War. Unlike other nations going into a war, Stalin’s Russia thought that it would be a short-term affair where getting a victory over the enemy would be easy and instead of sadness a cheerful optimism had engulfed the nation.
Comforting stories and images, which were generated on purpose, circulated everywhere in Russia and also in Europe. Media played a major role in the circulation of this myth especially the medium of cinema. “The Soviet vision of future conflict was destined to inspire a generation of wartime volunteers…. ” (Merridale P. 23). Some cinemas were made on the real fight in the Russo –Nazi war. It showed millions of people volunteering to join the Red Army of all ages and even women participating in it.
One film called “The Tank Men” went even further to show the capture of Hitler by the Red Army from Germany. Stalin thought of attacking Hitler in their territory and win the battle. What was portrayed in the cinemas became a reality and “the fantasy had affected the real strategic thinking” (Merridale P. 27). The Red Army and the propagandists jointly propped “Decisive victory of low cost”. The ‘low cost’ which was a propaganda came at the cost of millions of lives. The unrealistic dream of destroying the enemies on their own land, as it was shown in the films now became the official agenda of Stalin.
The higher officials in Stalin’s army were unrealistic and building castles in the air. They underestimated Hitler’s force and in the process sacrificed a significant portion of their country’s population. The slogan was, “If the Bolsheviks could win the civil war ………. if they could dam the Dnepr, banish God and fly to the North Pole, then surely they could keep the Fascist invader at bay. ” (Merridale P. 28) the economic condition of Russia during the Second World War was not good they had not gained fiscally from the revolution and poverty was very much apparent.
Thus, these patriotic films, which glorified Russia and the invigorating slogans made the population, feel safe. However, very soon the bubble of illusion created by the cinemas like, “Alexander Nevsky” by Sergei Eisenstein, burst. By the end of 1941, it was clear the Russia was not in an easy war and it will not end very soon. This assumption was very true as the war demanded lives of eight million soldiers of the Red Army. The atrocities of the Second World War were not limited to the Red Army.
The Jews were the worst affected community and were the worst sufferers in the war. Millions of Jews were murdered inside the gas chamber and others committed suicide unable to bear the torture. Hitler’s men committed these felonies by his order. After the war, and also during the war, these men even defended the gas chambers by saying that those were meant for killing the lies and not taking lives. The two Nazi men Eichmann and Rudolph Hoss defended themselves almost in a synonymous speech about the heinous acts against humanity.
“We have been educated in absolute obedience, hierarchy, nationalism; we have been imbued with slogans, intoxicated with ceremonies and demonstrations; we have been taught that the only justice was that which was to the advantage of our people and that the only truth was the words of the Leader. ” (Levi P. 28) Primo Levi in the first chapter “The Memory of the Offense” of his book “ The Drowned and the Saved” describes how the memory is obliterated with time or by other means. Levi had used some of his own real life experiences while writing the book, as he was a holocaust survivor.
Levi is of the opinion that most of the time the memories of the ill fated days are made ambiguous unconsciously by the human mind. “ A person who has been wounded tends to block out the memory so as not to renew the pain; the person who has inflicted the wound pushes the memory deep down, to be rid of it, to alleviate the feeling of guilt. ” (Levi P. 24) It seems the oppressor and oppresses are both in a similar position and both in eager to forget the incident. When interrogated all of the Hitler’s men be it Speer, Eichmann, Hoss or Kaduk gave one identical statement that they did it as an order.
They defended themselves even by saying that things would have been worse if somebody else was there is their place. They were disillusioned about the severe ordeal they caused and everyone though they were lying when they gave excuses for their actions. However, Primo Levi is of the opinion that their memory tricks them and obliterates the truth to give comfort. Levi says, “It is true, those who lie consciously, coldly falsifying reality itself, but more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever, from genuine memories, and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality”.
(Levi P. 27) The huge burden of the horrible past is changed by memory to give relief to an individual both the oppressor and the oppressed, thus changing the truth to an extent. The stories, which the opressors make up to save themselves, are not only for others but it also meant for their inner peace. After telling the same story, many times it becomes the truth, which he begins to believe and may be other too. “The silent transition from falsehood to self-deception is useful: anyone who lies in good faith is better off.
He recites his part better, is more easily believed by the judge, the historian, the reader, his wife and hic children. ” (Levi P. 27) Levi gives an evidence to establish his statement. He says that Louis Darduier de Pellepoix who had deported seventy thousand Jews while he was the commissioner of Jewish affairs did not take responsibility for his actions and denied the truth completely. Similarly, there was propaganda after the war that the gas chambers, which were there in Auschwitz, were to kill the lice not people.
In addition, according to Primo Levi, he is a “typical case of someone who, accustomed to lying in public, ends by lying in private, too, to himself, and building for himself a comforting truth which allows him to live in peace”. (Levi P. 28) The denials and lies in the Nazi Army did not reflect in the same in the case of Red Army. However, undoubtedly the Red Army also suffered from moral ambiguity, denial, lies and distortion of memory of like the Nazis. The false propaganda by the state was the common factor between the two super powers, which went on both during the war and after the war.
In Russia, the false propaganda was more before and during the war mainly with the help of cinema. The soldiers were idealized to a high degree and a notion of inevitable and easy win over the Nazis where everywhere in 1940. a illusion was created with the help of cinema all over Russia that the German army was weak enough to be defeated. However, the Red Army fought brutally with the Nazis and subjected Hitler’s Germany to traumatic experience. Rape and loot was the main aspect of the Red Army’s strategy, which might be due to the frustration of the soldiers or a pre-determined strategy.
Like the Nazi Army, there was also an effort to obliterate the ugly and horrible crimes committed during the war by the Red Army. The truth of the soldier’s unacceptable behavior was erased from memory and from the war records. Whether these acts of obliterating the facts were conscious or an unconscious effort is debatable. May be, here we can go back to Primo Levi’s theory that after the constant lying the person starts believing in the lie and also that for inner peace and comfort the perpetrators find it easy to forget the truth and in the process destroy it.
A great sense of denial also persisted with the generals of Red Army at the beginning of the war. According to Catherine Merridale “As Hitler and his generals were drilling the greatest professional army on the continent, Stalin’s advisers seemed lost in fantasy. ” (Merridale P. 28) Catherine Merridale is her book mainly focuses on the activities of the Red Army on the Eastern Front. But she has limited herself to the stories of military strategies of diplomatic ventures of the Russians but have also focused on the experiences of the ‘frontovniki’ which means soldiers fighting on the frontiers.
The soldiers were there not only to keep the enemy at bay but also to keep the frontier provinces from revolting against the government or doing any disloyal activities. The stories of the soldiers who died an timely and unrecognized death is also a major portion of Merridale’s book “Ivan’s War”. She tries to explain the reasons behind these brutal actions of Russian soldiers on the frontier and gives a social and political explanation to their actions. While doing this Merridale makes a conscious effort to explain how the truths were obliterated from, the memories of the soldiers and lies had become the new truths.
Both “The Drowned and the Saved” by Primo Levi and “Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945” by Catherine Merridale have discusses the moral ambiguities which persisted both in the Red Army of the Soviet and Nazi Army of Germany. Both parties tried to obliterate the true story both during the war. The measures taken were different though. During the war the Russian media, especially cinema did the work for the government in creating an unreal situation and falsely boosting the moral of its citizens.
The Nazis only relied on strong propaganda and nationalistic preaching. After the war, however the both the powers were interested in obliterating the truth further for different reasons. The circumstances changed but the stand did not change at all. Though the Russians emerged victorious the pain and the trauma faced by its people and the country was something unimaginable. The true stories of the Russian soldiers on the Eastern Front no longer exists may be because the soldiers themselves wanted to do away with it.
The where about of these Russian soldiers who fought relentlessly is not known now. Similarly, Primo Levi in his book the “The Drowned and Saved” talks about the Nazi part of the same story where both the oppressors and the oppressed misshaped the truth. Initially, it was a conscious effort to run from the horrible truth but later these lies became truth themselves. The Nazi officers in the process of defending themselves came up with their own stories and explanations, which after a time was a part of the true story.
It was not only done to save them from the trial but also to get inner peace. Therefore, what happened during the Second World War in the Eastern Front will remain ambiguous due to the distorted memories of both the oppressors and the oppressed. The true story will also not reach the historians anymore, as it no longer exists.
1. Merridale, Catherine, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, 2007, Macmillan Publisher 2. Levi, Primo, “The Drowned and the Saved” 1989, Vintage International