Vladimir Putin Wants to Rewrite the History of World War II

The Russian president’s amateur history lessons are outraging neighboring countries. While he is right to criticize a recent EU Parliament resolution, his historical revisionism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony on the 75th anniversary of the Leningrad siege near St. Petersburg on Jan. 18.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony on the 75th anniversary of the Leningrad siege near St. Petersburg on Jan. 18. ALEXEI DANICHEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Once again, Russian President Vladimir Putin has weighed in on the history of World War II. Speaking on Dec. 20 at an informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), he appeared to blame Poland for the outbreak of the war while downplaying if not altogether denying Soviet responsibility.

“It was them,” he said, “who, while pursuing their mercenary and exorbitantly overgrown ambitions, laid their people, the Polish people, open to attack from Germany’s military machine, and, moreover, generally contributed to the beginning of the Second World War.”

Putin’s remarks have triggered angry rebuttals. The Polish Foreign Ministry decried his claims as Stalinist “propaganda” and accused the Russian leader of undermining joint efforts “to find the way of truth and reconciliation in Polish-Russian relations.”

“Insane,” former Belgian Prime Minister and prominent European Parliament member Guy Verhofstadt tweeted. “Denying that Stalin colluded with Hitler and destroyed Poland. A monster still glorified in the Russia of Putin.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki published an emotional statement, accusing Putin of having deliberately “lied about Poland on numerous occasions.”

“The Russian people,” he added, “deserve the truth.”

Putin’s penchant for historical references is well known, but his remarks last month were unusual—even by his standards. He spoke on the subject for nearly an hour to eight fellow leaders, who looked on stone-faced (though President Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus appeared to be taking notes).

Putin’s long-winded foray into historical revisionism was a reaction to the European Parliament’s Sept. 19, 2019, resolution, “On the Importance of European Remembrance of the Future of Europe.”

That resolution, among other things, condemned Russia for “whitewash[ing] crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime,” blamed the Soviets (alongside the Nazis) for starting World War II, and called for the removal of Soviet war memorials across Europe.

That last clause, in particular, visibly annoyed Putin. “The monuments in Europe,” he told his fellow authoritarian leaders, “were erected to our regular Red Army soldiers. … They were mainly farmers and workers, many of whom also suffered from the Stalin regime—some of them were repressed kulaks, some had family members sent to labor camps. These people died as they were liberating the European countries from Nazism.”

But it wasn’t just Putin’s comments that were unusual; it was how he delivered them. In front of him, Putin had a thick pile of archival documents, from which he read at length in support of his version of history.

Putin the amateur historian would not get a passing grade at any reputable university. Nor would he be able to get his views published in any peer-reviewed journal.

As a historian, I found the sight of Putin piecing together a version of events from a range of archival documents strangely familiar but also a tad bizarre—so I decided to fact-check him. To this end, I located and verified every single document that he cited.

The verdict is that Putin the amateur historian would not get a passing grade at any reputable university. Nor would he be able to get his views published in any peer-reviewed journal. Although the factual side of his presentation checks out, he has twisted his evidence to support preconceived notions. He is also guilty of gross omissions.

Putin’s claims can be grouped into three categories: First, he argues that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, an agreement that mainstream historians would agree, contributed handsomely to the outbreak of World War II by partitioning Poland, was not particularly unusual in the context of the times. Putin draws attention to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to gobble up parts of Czechoslovakia with the full endorsement of Britain and France.

“The partitioning of Czechoslovakia,” Putin claimed at the CIS summit, “was cruel and cynical, in essence, it was pillaging. We have every reason to say that the Munich agreement was the turning point in history following which World War II became inevitable.” There is nothing about this claim that would lead serious historians to object. It is hardly unconventional to argue that Munich was an important turning point on the road to World War II.

However, Putin goes on to argue that had the French stuck by their commitments to defend Czechoslovakia against a German invasion (Paris and Prague signed a treaty of alliance in 1924), the Soviet Union—which also had a treaty with Prague—was prepared to come to the latter’s aid. The problem was that the Soviets had no common border with Czechoslovakia and so depended either on Romania’s or Poland’s willingness to allow the transit of Soviet troops. The Polish, in particular, were not forthcoming.

To demonstrate the extent of Poland’s hostility, Putin cited a May 25, 1938, dispatch by Yakov Surits, the Soviet ambassador in Paris to Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs Maksim Litvinov, a staunch supporter of collective security. In the document, Surits relates his conversation with then-French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier. The latter had been trying to find out whether the Polish government could be relied on to defend Czechoslovakia against Germany’s encroachment.

“Not only can we not count on the Polish support,” Daladier lamented, “but there is no guarantee that Poland would not attack from behind.” He had allegedly asked the Polish Ambassador in Paris Juliusz Lukasiewicz whether the Poles would allow Soviet troops to come to Czechoslovakia’s aid. “Lukasiewicz responded in the negative.” He then supposedly asked whether they would allow Soviet airplanes to overfly Poland. “Lukasiewicz said that the Poles would open fire on them.”

One may reasonably doubt whether Daladier’s account of Polish intentions was accurate. But the document itself is certainly not a fabrication; it’s been known for years. Having received such reports, Soviet leaders would have had reasons to doubt Poland’s goodwill should Czechoslovakia have required Soviet intervention.

Moreover, even a cursory look at the history of Moscow’s relations with Paris between the conclusion of the 1935 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance and the 1938 Munich agreement would show that Stalin had every reason to doubt French dependability in repelling German aggression. The French went out of their way to take the teeth out of their treaty with the Soviet Union: Few in Paris were thrilled by the prospect of defending the murderous Communist regime against possible German aggression.

But—and this is where Putin’s interpretation falls flat—it is naive to argue that Stalin, for his part, would have jumped at the chance to join France in a war against Germany in 1938. Indeed, none of the evidence he cites shows that the Soviet Union was genuinely committed to Czechoslovakia’s defense. Even as he accuses the British and the French of “cynicism,” he seems unwilling to see Stalin as a cynical operator who would have been overjoyed to see Germany and the West at each other’s throats.

After all, Stalin, just like then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Daladier, was playing for time, and the presumed Polish nonagreement to the transit of Soviet troops is better understood as a convenient excuse for inaction rather than a real obstacle to an early Soviet-led war against Germany. Czech President Edvard Benes would later claim that he never believed Stalin: “The truth is that the Soviets did not want to help us.”

The second part of Putin’s revisionist narrative concerns Poland’s policies in the run-up to World War II. In a nutshell, he argues that Poland was an architect of many of its misfortunes as it not just prevented the Soviets from helping Czechoslovakia but actively colluded with Germany to partition it. (Poland did help itself to chunks of Teschen Silesia—a section of what today is the eastern tip of the Czech Republic—in October 1938, after issuing an ultimatum to Czechoslovakia to hand over the region.) Putin cites some interesting evidence to support his take, including obscure Polish documents that spell out plans for Poland’s military action against the Czechoslovaks should they fail to give up the territory willingly.

He also refers to documents long familiar to historians, including a cable from the German ambassador in Warsaw, Hans-Adolf von Moltke, concerning his meeting with Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck. In that meeting, Beck “expressed real gratitude for the loyal treatment accorded Polish interests at the Munich conference, as well as the sincerity of relations during the Czech conflict. The attitude of the Führer and Chancellor was fully appreciated by the government and the public.”

The problem with Putin’s interpretation is that he fails to distinguish between Poland opportunistically seizing a part of a long-disputed territory deemed essential for national defense, not least against Germany, and active collusion with Nazi Germany to bring about this result.

Indeed, as the prominent Polish-American historian Anna Cienciala has long argued, the Polish cabinet kept its options open and was not averse to taking military action against Germany in defense of Czechoslovakia if France and Britain joined in the fight. There is plenty of evidence to this end, including in the Russian archives, none of which made Putin’s selection of documents.

The third part of Putin’s history lesson zeroed in specifically on anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic statements made by various Polish leaders. One piece of evidence here comes from a Sept. 20, 1938, conversation between Adolf Hitler and the Polish ambassador in Germany, Józef Lipski. In that particular conversation, Hitler told Lipski that he had been thinking of exiling Jews to the colonies (presumably to Africa), if the Polish, Hungarians, and Romanians agreed to this solution. According to Lipski’s report to Beck, he responded that “if this were resolved, we would erect him [Hitler] a wonderful monument in Warsaw.”

This report has been in the public domain since at least 1948, when it appeared in a two-volume Soviet collection of documents on the origins of World War II. But it seemed to be news to Putin and outraged him. The Russian president cited Lipski’s report at the CIS summit and then returned to it again several days later in his remarks at a meeting of the Defense Ministry Board.

“That bastard!” Putin raged. “That anti-Semitic pig—I have no other words. He was in complete solidarity with Hitler in his anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic sentiment and, moreover, he proposed erecting a monument to Hitler in Warsaw for persecuting the Jewish people.” Putin’s reference to anti-Semitism made it sound like Poland was responsible for World War II, a point that caused considerable consternation in Warsaw.

It is hardly a revelation that anti-Semitism was pervasive in Eastern Europe both in the interwar period and after the war; Poland was no exception. Soviet leaders, too, shared anti-Semitic views, and Stalin himself waged an anti-Semitic campaign in the final years of his life. Seen in that broader context, Putin’s attack on Lipski is nothing short of bizarre.

But even more bizarre was his rant to the effect that the Soviet army “saved many lives” in Poland after it occupied the country’s eastern half in September 1939. If it weren’t for the Soviets, Putin argued, the many Jews who lived in Soviet-occupied Poland would have been “sent… to the furnaces.” He forgot to mention that the Soviets lost these territories to the Germans in 1941 who then proceeded to massacre the Jewish residents.

At the same time, Putin did not say a word about the victims of the Soviet occupation, in particular about the murder of some 22,000 Polish army officers in the forest of Katyn, a crime of the Soviet regime that still looms large in Poland’s historical memory. These glaring omissions do not strengthen his case.

Nor does Putin improve his credibility by downplaying the significance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with his offhand reference to “partitioning of some territory.” In making a comparison between the Munich Agreement and the 1939 Soviet-German Pact, he fails to acknowledge that the former did not see Britain and France help themselves to parts of a sovereign country. Stalin, by contrast, did exactly that in Poland.

Moreover, Putin completely ignores long available evidence of Soviet-German discussions from 1939-1940, including records of conversations between Hitler and Molotov, that underscore Soviet territorial appetites in Europe and reveal Stalin for the cynical, brutal tyrant that history remembers him as.

Given this twisting of facts and several glaring omissions, Putin’s revisionist history lessons are not convincing, even though some of the evidence he cites is valid on its own merits, and his broader point about shared responsibility for the outbreak of World War II is not unreasonable.

But “shared” does not mean that some countries do not have a much greater share of responsibility. Putin is right to critique the notion—embraced in the resolution of the European Parliament—that Moscow and Berlin were equally responsible. There is no doubt that Hitler shoulders the lion’s share of the blame for the war. The European parliamentarians who ventured to argue otherwise are out of tune with mainstream historical narratives. At the same time, denying any Soviet responsibility, as Putin has done, is equally unwise.

There is, however, a silver lining to Putin’s struggle against the ghosts of history. In recent years, thanks in large part to his attempts to debunk the “falsifiers” of history, the Russian archives have sped up declassification efforts, releasing thousands upon thousands of previously classified documents into the public domain. Speaking to Soviet World War II veterans on Jan. 18, Putin promised to declassify even more evidence. “I would like to stress once more,” he declared, referring to the Poles and other detractors, “that we will stuff their filthy mouths with documents, so that they learn their lesson.”

Putin’s amateur antics aside, there has never been a better time for real historians to study Russia’s past. Today, Russia’s archives are already more open than they have ever been in the past. 

Today, Russia’s archives are already more open than they have ever been in the past. The trickle of documents has turned into an enormous stream. Many of these documents are available online, including a large collection of primary sources from intelligence, military, and foreign ministry archives on Soviet foreign policy in the run-up to World War II. Putin’s amateur antics aside, there has never been a better time for real historians to study Russia’s past.

Putin’s Dec. 20 performance highlights the continued importance of understanding World War II-era history in order to understand Russia’s present. The Russian president lashed out against what he sees as a coordinated Western effort to belittle Russia’s contribution to Europe’s liberation from Nazism. In the process, he twisted facts to present a version of events that serious historians will find unconvincing.

But the Russian president knows that weaponized history does not require peer review. The intended audience for his revisionist account is ordinary Russians, who will likely remember one important lesson from the would-be professor Putin—that the West is out to deny them the glory that their forefathers earned on the battlefield.

Sergey Radchenko is a professor of international politics and director of research at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University. He is the author, most recently, of Unwanted Visionaries: The Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War. Twitter: @DrRadchenko