Figures like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and US secretary of state Antony Blinken have tried to rewrite history to serve their own ends, often to equate Nazism and Communism. They exemplify the alarming trend of politically expedient distortions of history.

Soviet prisoners of war covering a mass grave after the Babyn Yar massacre, October 1, 1941. (Johannes Hähle / Wikimedia Commons)

“Eighty-two years ago, Nazis murdered 34,000 Jews at Babyn Yar. Soviets buried this history, which today Putin’s government manipulates to provide cover for Russia’s abuses in Ukraine.”

This statement, made on Twitter/X by US secretary of state Antony Blinken on September 29, has 6.3 million views.

However, the claim that the Soviet Union deliberately concealed the history of the Babyn Yar massacre is nothing short of a fabrication. It is but one of several recent examples of Western leaders issuing deliberately misleading statements that seem to be intentionally designed to revise or rewrite the historical record to fit contemporary geopolitical narratives.

Had a nation or individual Blinken thinks poorly of made a similar statement, Blinken might rightly call it misinformation, or fake news. The Soviet Union didn’t bury the history of Babyn Yar, since Soviet citizens were killed there too — exterminated by the Nazis either because they were Soviets, Slavs, Communists, or simply because they were the enemy.

If any group of people could be legitimately accused of burying the history of Babyn Yar, it would be the Nazis. They forced mostly Soviet prisoners from a nearby concentration camp to exhume the bodies from the mass grave and destroy the evidence, after which the Nazis murdered them all. This is just one of the many ghastly war crimes to have occurred at Babyn Yar.

Fake History

When asked for comment on Blinker’s statement, the State Department told Jacobin:

The Soviet Union buried the history of the massacre at Babyn Yar. Soviet authorities, who adhered to the idea of a collective memory, did not want to divide the victims into separate categories. In a USSR report on the Nazi killing of Jews at Babyn Yar published in February 1944, all mentions about the ethnic background of the victims were removed, and the word “Jews” was replaced by the universal term “Soviet civilians.” The report also did not mention that the more than 33,000 victims of the September 29–30, 1941 Nazi massacre were Jews, nor did it mention the other groups of people that that were killed at Babyn Yar. These are just two examples of the countless ways Soviets have altered history.

This, however, was contradicted by another statement in the same reply: “Despite many efforts, there was no memorial at the site of the massacre until the Soviets installed a monument in 1976.”

The Soviet Union cannot reasonably be accused of burying the history of Babyn Yar if it was Soviet authorities who published the first report on it. Moreover, they also cannot be reasonably accused of burying the history if they also built a memorial there. The State Department contradicts itself in stating, essentially, that “nothing was done until something was done.”

If the Soviets were late in constructing a memorial or dragged their feet in locating the commemoration in the context of a specifically Jewish interpretation of the Holocaust — and these are fair criticisms — they arguably weren’t alone. Historians have noted that the general American public awareness of the Holocaust was limited until the 1960s and 1970s. The first American public monument to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust was only erected in 1964, just twelve years before their Soviet counterparts, and was entirely a private undertaking. The United States’ official Holocaust memorial — the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC — was established in 1980 but only opened to the public in 1993.

Scholarship on Holocaust commemoration in the postwar Soviet Union, published by Yad Vashem, presents a far more nuanced picture than that provided by Secretary Blinken. The Soviet Jewish community not only began the vital task of collecting artifacts and testimonies immediately after war — it also identified the locations of massacres early on. Though Soviet authorities were often hostile to explicitly Jewish public commemorations of Holocaust massacres, they were also occasionally favorable to such demonstrations, especially if they took place in the Baltic states, Belarus, or Ukraine. This might be attributed to the fact that nationalist elements of the local populations in these areas of the Soviet Union had so enthusiastically supported the Nazis. Soviet authorities did not object to Jewish commemorative services held in synagogues, as this was considered an appropriate kind of religious commemoration. However, the Soviet Union did promote atheism and vehemently opposed what it viewed as manifestations of nationalism or national identity in public life.

Rhetorical Gymnastics

To go as far as saying that this was equivalent to a cover up — the State Department actually said “burying the history” — is an obscene distortion of the historical record. For comparison’s sake, consider that the United States government not only knew of Japanese medical experimentation on human guinea pigs during World War II, it actively covered up this experimentation.

Blinken’s statement appears to be deliberately ambiguous in order to suggest some kind of moral equivalence between Nazism and Communism. This false equivalence has manifested in several distinct ways recently, be it in the form of the discredited double-genocide theory, or the related commemoration of Black Ribbon Day. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has kicked this historical distortion into high gear, with American and other NATO leaders routinely trying to draw historic parallels between Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the expansion of international Communism during the Cold War, and historically illiterate allegations that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies in World War II.

These rhetorical gymnastics were on full display just a couple weeks ago in Canada, after the Canadian Parliament inadvertently honored Yaroslav Hunka, a ninety-eight-year old Waffen-SS veteran who fought against the Russians in World War II. When the public became aware of this, leading Canadian politicians — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, and UN Ambassador Bob Rae — all suggested that the problem was fundamentally one of Russian propaganda.

The historical record is obviously not Russian propaganda or disinformation, though this is a routine argument made by Canadian officials when the country’s unfortunate history of welcoming suspected Nazi war criminals is brought up. When Freeland’s maternal grandfather was exposed as a Nazi propagandist — a fact that Freeland was acutely aware of — her office initially deflected those reports as Russian propaganda.

Eroding Trust in the Present

The effort to distort the historical record to fit contemporary geopolitical narratives is not limited to the political class of NATO nations either: the media is equally complicit in this distortion effort. Writing for Politico in response to the Hunka affair, Keir Giles made the extraordinarily ahistorical statement that fighting against the Soviet Union during World War II didn’t necessarily make one a Nazi. Giles also insinuated that the SS’s primary mission wasn’t genocide, and that the idea that those who served in the SS are guilty of war crimes is a historically reductionist oversimplification. This would be news to the Nuremberg prosecution team. The tribunal prosecutors tried and convicted the entirety of the SS as a criminal organization that was collectively responsible for the Holocaust.

One of the most striking instances of recent historical distortion occurred eight years ago, and it takes on added significance in light of recent events in Palestine. On the eve of his October 2015 visit to Germany, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the World Zionist Congress and made the incomprehensible claim that Hitler didn’t want to eradicate the Jews, but was goaded into doing so by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian religious leader.

In fact, the first massacre at Babyn Yar occurred a month before Hitler met with Haj Amin al-Husseini. Netanyahu was rightly condemned for his comments across the Israeli political spectrum, and around the world, but these criticisms essentially had no impact whatsoever. Netanyahu’s bizarre and historically illiterate statement — the idea to exterminate the Jews of Europe was first and foremost Hitler’s — was calculated and deliberate, clearly intended to attribute Palestinian animosity to historic antisemitism, rather than the consequence of Israeli occupation, settler colonialism, and subjugation of the Palestinian people. As the Washington Post reported at the time, Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party asked rhetorically whether the corpses of those murdered at Babyn Yar should be exhumed so they could be brought up to speed on this latest historical revelation.

Netanyahu has often faced correction and opposition from historians at Yad Vashem. Whether or not the increasingly autocratic Netanyahu — if he stays in power — will continue to fund an institution that consistently challenges his government’s stance remains an open question. Scholars and historians have been quick to point out Netanyahu’s penchant for politically motivated historical revisionism. In recent years, Netanyahu has happily looked the other way when far-right Polish or Hungarian governments sought to rewrite Holocaust history to suit contemporary ultranationalist narratives.

If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, what are we to make of those in government — in positions of power and leadership — actively memory-holing historical reality?

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