What Will Justice For Ukraine Look Like? The Nazi Demise Offers A Clue
Russia has just celebrated its Victory Day over Nazism. It's a good time to reflect on what retribution means, and how it's not always black and white.
KYIV — In today's Ukraine, people often recalls the Germans of the 1930s-1940s, but there are two opposing historical narratives.
According to the first narrative, the Germans of the past are compared the Russians of today. Just like the Russians, the Germans massively supported their Fuhrer. Just like the Russians, the Germans welcomed the invasion of their army in other countries. Just like the Russians, the Germans did not want to know about the atrocities of their compatriots and diligently tried to ignore the Holocaust.
It is believed that even without being a member of Hitler's Nazi party, millions of Germans passively participated in Nazi aggression and were collectively responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich — and therefore do not deserve compassion.
All the tragedies that struck the civilian Germans are regarded as cruel but just retribution.
Cruel but just retribution
The words of the "good German", the famous émigré writer Thomas Mann, become very relevant for modern Ukrainians:
“As a result of the last British raid on Hitler's Germany, the old Lübeck suffered. It affected me directly; this is my hometown. The targets were the port and military factories, but the city was engulfed in fires, and I am not at all happy that the Marienkirche, the wonderful Renaissance town hall and the club of captains, have probably been affected.But then I remember Coventry and I can’t object to the fact that you have to pay for everything.”
Of course, we know that the massive bombardments of the Third Reich not only destroyed the German architectural heritage but also claimed hundreds of thousands of German lives.
In the burning cities of Lübeck, Hamburg, Cologne and Dresden, defenseless women, old people and children perished. But when faced with hostile aggression, many Ukrainians tend to believe that this is what ruthless historical justice looks like.
Like those in Nazi Germany, Russia's civilian population will also have to pay in full.
You must pay for everything! The civilian population of Nazi Germany paid for the inhumane crimes of their country — and the civilian population of the Russian Federation will also have to pay in full.
However, this historical narrative paradoxically coexists with another one that is just as common in Ukrainian society. Within the framework of the second narrative, modern Russians are no longer identified with the Third Reich, but with the USSR and the Red Army. And the civilian population of Germany appears as a victim of a wild horde that invaded Europe in 1945 — and becomes an object of empathy.
Last spring, many of us began to draw parallels between the Russian crimes in Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and the war crimes of the Red Army on German soil. Between stealing Ukrainian toilets and washing machines and appropriating German bicycles and wristwatches. Between sexual violence in the occupied Kyiv region and mass rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers.
Here, we are faced with gross logical manipulations.
In this case, the source of relevant quotes is no longer Thomas Mann, but “A Woman in Berlin” by Martha Hillers or the memoirs of the Soviet front-line soldier Leonid Rabichev:
“Women, mothers and their daughters are lying to the right and to the left along the highway, and in front of each one there is a laughing armada of men with their trousers down. Those who are bleeding and losing consciousness are being dragged to the side, the children trying to help them are being shot. There is roar of laughter, growls, giggles, cries and moans. And their commanders, their majors and colonels are standing on the highway — some laughing, and some — conducting — no, rather, regulating.”
The reaction of our compatriots to such shocking quotes is quite predictable. Here they are — the Moscow orcs, who demonstrated their brutal nature both in 1945 and in 2022. Here it is — the notorious "Russian soul." Here it is — the nation of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which has nothing in common with civilized Ukrainians... But, unfortunately, here we are faced with gross logical manipulations.
The USSR of the forties is obviously not equal to Russia, and the then Red Army is not equal to the Russian Army.
Along with representatives of other nationalities, about seven million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army — this is approximately 23% of all Soviet military personnel.
And if we have always opposed Russian attempts to privatize World War II, if we were outraged by Putin's manipulative thesis “Victory would have been achieved without Ukraine,” then we must also see the other side of the coin.
Hans-Jürgen Westphal, political activist, stands with a flag of the former Soviet Union, at a commemoration ceremony for Liberation Day at the Red Army Memorial.
Lack of empathy
Ukrainian soldiers in Red Army uniform fought against the Nazis, stormed Berlin and liberated Auschwitz. But, also, Ukrainian soldiers robbed German houses, raped German women and killed German children together with Russians, Belarusians, Caucasians and natives of the Central Asian republics. By anathematizing the USSR, one can only distance oneself from the policies of the Soviet regime, and not from the actions of Ukrainian grandparents and great-grandfathers.
But actually, why do modern Ukrainians reject the idea that their ancestors could take part in the scene from Rabichev's memoirs? After all, the victims of Red Army crimes were the same Germans whom Ukraine regularly equates with modern Russians — and then they do not evoke any empathy.
The same Germans who massively supported Hitler rejoiced at the blitzkriegs in Europe and tried not to notice the Holocaust. The same Germans whose cities were destroyed during the merciless bombing. However, the death of a German woman and her children in a firestorm fit into the ruthless formula "You have to pay for everything!", but the violence of the Red Army against a German woman does not. Why?
Ukrainians don't want to see our soldiers as marauders and rapists on enemy soil.
Probably, it's not only about ethics, but also about optics. A bomber pilot who drops a deadly payload on Lübeck, Cologne, Hamburg or Dresden has no contact with his victims and looks quite decent. But a soldier-rapist with his pants down or a marauding soldier with several pairs of watches on one wrist is not. He causes too much emotional rejection, and he cannot be perceived as the executor of cruel but just historical justice.
What conclusion can be drawn from all of this? Today in Ukraine, there is a lot of talk about retribution for fascist Russia, but no less important is the degree of Ukrainian participation in this retribution.
A significant part of our society would like civilian Russians to experience the horrors of Bucha. But hardly any Ukrainians would like to see our soldiers as marauders and rapists on enemy soil.
That is why forecasts about the upcoming civil war in the Russian Federation are so widespread among our compatriots. In this case, the Russian citizen will face looting, violence, extrajudicial executions — but the Ukrainian soldier will not carry out any such actions.
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