Auschwitz, the Holocaust, and the Fog of Propaganda War

There's a lot of western historical revisionism about the Soviet Union and World War II. As a Soviet Jew, I’ve come to expect it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz. Newspapers have queued up all sorts of articles, think pieces, and Twitter posts to commemorate the occasion. Not surprisingly, a lot of the coverage reflects decades worth of revisionism that has downgraded the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany and stopping the genocide.

The New York Times’ Warsaw bureau chief — who didn’t think it was important to mention that it was in fact the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz — used the occasion to equate the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. Yep, they’re totally the same. Just ask any Ukrainian fascist! Meanwhile, Der Spiegel straight up gave credit to the “amerikanischen Armee” for liberating the camp. You can’t make this up.

As a Soviet Jew, I’ve come to expect this revisionism. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother me. A lot of my family died or almost died fighting in that war. My grandfather Gennady miraculously survived the gangrene that he developed from a shrapnel hit to his head in 1944, during the Red Army’s final assault to break the siege — which, in fact, officially happened on this 76 years ago. He was one of lucky ones. Whole branches of his family in Belarus were murdered and buried in pits by the Nazis in the first few months of the war. My uncle was actually born during the Siege of Leningrad and barely made it. I was told that his body was so weak from hunger that his intestines began slipping out of his anus.

As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, World War II was a genocidal war — not just against us Jews but against the entire Soviet Union. Hitler was a big fan of the way American settlers treated the Native American “problem.” His plan was to depopulate most of the land through genocide — including, among other things, cleansing Crimea and much of the Black Sea coast and turning it into a seaside vacation wonderland for German tourists.

The trauma of that war is hard to comprehend for those who didn’t live through it. If you want to get a sense of how scary and other-worldly it was on the Soviet front — complete with stories of partisans tortured with specialized German machines that jabbed needles under their nails — I recommend reading Svetlana’s Alexievich’s account of the Soviet women who fought on the frontlines: The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. It captures the horror and the low-key guts and bravery in what was, as far as I know, the only integrated fighting force in the world at the time. Almost a million women served in the Red Army — with quite a few fighting with partisans as well as in tank, artillery, sniper, and sapper divisions.

What’s funny about all this revisionism is that while America and Europe continue to erase the Soviet Union from World War II history, in Russia the push for Word War II commemoration has reached ridiculous proportions. The war is one of the few things that can still unite most Russians today. So Putin’s anti-communist and anti-Soviet elite has cynically made it the cornerstone of a Russian oligarchic culture war program — a manipulative cult of historical remembrance that strips the war of any Soviet or communist politics and reduces it to a primal us-vs-them narrative. It’s meant to give Russians a depoliticized, nationalist sense of unity at home, while reminding them of the constant western threat to the Motherland.

Yep, nationalism and revisionism are an ugly business. But nationalism and revisionism and forgotten history are what this newsletter is all about!

So for the next installment of Immigrants as a Weapon’s “Weaponizing Fascism for Democracy” series (read the previous one here) I’m going to do some of my own historical revisionism. I’m working on a short profile of a Ukrainian Nazi collabo — a mass murderer who was saved and weaponized by the CIA right after World War II and lived out his life as a respectable pro-democracy activist in Yonkers. It’s an example of the kind of people and causes that America was naturally drawn to in its war against leftwing movements and the Soviet Union.

Stay tuned for an update later this week. Until then, read the intro and the first installment and sign up to get subscriber-only updates!

—Yasha Levine

Mykola Lebed, the Gestapo-trained mass murderer and CIA-funded democracy activist. Image inspired by the cover of Joe Conason’s “To Catch a Nazi” — a fantastic 1986 Village Voice article that blew Lebed’s cover as a CIA-protected Nazi collabo.

Immigrants as a Weapon is a new investigative newsletter that looks at the weaponization of nationalism and immigrant communities. Check out this introductory post