June 25, 2020 17:47 GMT – RFE/RL
MOSCOW — When Julia Obertreis, a professor at a university in Bavaria, Germany, checked her e-mail on June 22, she was surprised to see a message from the Russian Embassy in Berlin.
It touted a revisionist article about World War II authored by none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Attached to the e-mail was a German translation of Putin’s text — all 9,000 words of it.
What rankled Obertreis most was the direct appeal with which the embassy’s message ended.
“The Russian president’s article will undoubtedly arouse considerable interest among your readers,” read the e-mail, a copy of which Obertreis, of Friedrich-Alexander University, shared with RFE/RL. “With that in mind, we propose that you use Vladimir Putin’s article when preparing future lectures on history.”
Baffled, Obertreis took to Twitter to register her chagrin over what she saw as an unsolicited attempt to influence her teaching. It turned out the same e-mail had gone out to many other German historians, who took to the platform to likewise make their views clear.
“I’m not sure if I should be laughing or crying,” wrote Anke Hilbrenner, a historian of Eastern Europe at Goettingen University.
“Putin is again playing the historian,” Martin Aust of Bonn University tweeted.
Putin’s article, titled The Real Lessons Of The 75th Anniversary Of World War II, has been subject to major controversy since its publication in U.S. journal The National Interest on June 18. It cites archival documents but is riddled with grammar mistakes and odd phrasing. The Kremlin has denied accusations by a Russian historian that a quote attributed to Hitler is a fabrication.
The extended monologue on history reads like a summary of revisionist views Moscow has actively advanced in recent years, as it rails against what it calls Western distortions of World War II and reminds the world of the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany — at the price of almost 27 million lives.
The text, the latest in an array of combative Russian public statements on the subject by Putin, incensed governments of the Baltic states for its suggestion that they willingly relinquished sovereignty to occupying Soviet forces. In Warsaw, it prompted condemnation — but apparently little surprise — for its claim that Poland was responsible for its double invasion by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, enabled by a secret protocol to Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which Putin justifies as defensive.
In e-mailed comments to RFE/RL, Aust of Bonn University admitted he was “taken by surprise” when the Russian Embassy’s message dropped in his inbox. But he said he viewed Putin’s article as part of a memory war that Eastern Europe has waged with Russia in recent years, and was sympathetic to some of its conclusions, including Putin’s condemnation of British-French appeasement of Hitler in 1938 and the emphasis on the enormous suffering the German invasion of 1941 inflicted on the Soviet people. But he calls other parts of the text distortions.
“No historian in Germany will subscribe to blaming Poland for World War II. That is completely outlandish,” he said. “My guess is that quite a lot of colleagues will use Putin’s text as a source that can be studied to learn more about the mechanisms of politics of history in general, and antagonistic memory culture in particular.”
But in Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, the views Putin expressed enjoy widespread support, with many people angry their country is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the Allied victory over fascism. Commemorative events in the West that fail to mention the Soviet contribution provide fodder for Moscow’s claims that a deliberate campaign to rewrite World War II history is under way, and that Russia is its target.
‘A Remarkable Event’
Nevertheless, few recipients of the Russian Embassy’s circular e-mail appeared to be impressed.
“Usually we understand history as a discourse free of bias,” historian Schulze Wessel told Germany’s main evening news program, Tagesschau. “But when a president puts pen to paper and lets his article be shared with tenured professors with the request that it be used in history classes, then that is a remarkable event.”
In written comments to RFE/RL, Russian Embassy Berlin spokesman Ilya Rozhkov defended the e-mail and said it was “of a purely informational character aimed at helping readers develop an objective view of the material.”
Responding directly on Twitter to Obertreis, the history professor who first shared her irritation about their e-mail, the embassy said Putin’s article had prompted debate in German society and it was simply sharing it with German experts.
The aim, it said, was to ensure that people make their own conclusions about the article, “and don’t rely on foreign assessments.”