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HOME| BALTIC CIVILIZATION RESEARCH INSTITUTE (BCI)| AMBERBRIDGE MAGAZINE| "BLIND SPOTS OF COMMON HISTORY". Viktor Ishchenko

The joint commission studying the latest history in Russian-German relations offers substantial evidence of fruitfulness of multifaceted interaction taking place between Germany and Russia and their peoples. Viktor Ishchenko, the Russian secretary of the commission and deputy director of the General History Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences gave an interview devoted to commission activities.

The commission is currently implementing an unprecedented project to create a joint textbook for Russian and German history teachers. A heated but fruitful discussion resulted in the third volume which is to come out shortly in Russia and Germany in the Russian and German languages respectively. The AmberBridge publishes the Russian Germany in the 1920s chapter from the volume, a courtesy from the authors.

 

The second issue of the Amber Bridge in 2012 carried an interview with distinguished British historian Dominic Lieven who described Russian-German relations as the most important in European history. "They are complicated. Family relations are always difficult. They are neighbors. The Germans have always been much more important for Russia and its history than the French, English or Italians. Naturally the nations also mattered, but the Germans were much more important in the state, economic, and cultural sense". Here is a question to you, Mr. Ishchenko. You have participated for many years in the bilateral commission of historians. How do centuries of common Russian-German history, centuries of interaction and convergence influence its work?

 

Historic destinies of both peoples and countries are tightly linked both at the micro and macro level. Micro level means private family life of people where personal fates interlace. Taken together the personal stories rise to the macro level: historians often mention "Germans at the service to the Russian Empire or, in relation to another epoch, Volga Germans". At the same time in the past century our peoples clashed in two horrific wars. Although they were world wars I can state that Germany and Russia were the main adversaries.

 

There is a paradox. Despite multimillion losses in the wars modern public opinion polls show that the Russians are more disposed to the Germans than to other European nations. I believe there is a similar attitude to Russians in Germany.

 

I will sidetrack a little to my personal history. In late '50s my uncle lived in Brest and I visited him as a seventh-grade school pupil. Numerous trains ran through border-located Brest from Warsaw, Berlin, and Dresden and spent several hours at the railway station to change the wage wheels. It was the time of Khrushchev and the Iron Curtain was slightly lifted. People began to cross the Soviet border more frequently. The uncle lived not far away from the station and we often went there to speak to visitors. He spoke German and liked to communicate with Germans although there were men among them who fought against us. Although my uncle's family suffered a lot during the war the talk with the Germans was usually amicable and benevolent.

 

Now back to historians. A similar commission existed in Soviet times with East Germany. But when the Berlin Wall collapsed it figuratively speaking buried the commission under its ruins. Numerous blindspots remained in our common history. The idea to create a commission of scholars was advanced by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In 1997 the joint commission to study the latest history of Russian-German relations was set up. The latest history comprises the whole XX and early XXI centuries. For example, during a regular commission meeting on July 4-5 this year the conference From War to Revolutions: Russia and Germany in 1914-1919 was held. The commission will deal with the issue in the coming two years. The next meeting will be held in Berlin. We shall discuss foreign policy and military aspects of history of the time, as well as the Brest Peace and consequences of the war.

 

Which academic product will the two years of work produce?

 

We are publishing collection of materials of the commission in two languages which include reports at scientific conferences organized by the commission. Activities are also reflected on the commission website.

 

You said a reason for the creation of the commission were numerous blindspots in common history of Russians and Germans. What are preliminary results in eliminating the blindspots?

 

There is one characteristic example. The commission studied the fate of Soviet prisoners of war in Germany and German POWs in the Soviet Union after World War Two. The commission initiated the research. There is an organization in Dresden called Saxon Memorials. It did a lot to compile a database of Soviet POWs in the Third Reich based on archive materials available in Germany. There is a million of entries. Similar work is underway in Russian archives and there is a database of German POWs in the Soviet Union.

 

Another implemented project is called Soviet Military Administration in Germany. Groups of researchers worked under the auspices of the joint commission and produced several collections of documents and a reference book in two languages which reflected various aspects of administration activities in 1945-1949. Another major collection of documents is called The USSR and the German Issue 1941-1949, Documents from Russian Archives. It is also in two languages.

 

The publications help researchers, teachers, students and postgraduates. They do not have to go to archives as the fundamental publications contain most of the documents on the issue.

 

What is the chronology of blindspot elimination? What did you begin with?

 

The very first topic was the Communist International and Germany. It studied both the activities of the organization in 1919-1933 and the fates of German Communists who fled from Hitler to the Soviet Union where many of them were repressed. The research is going on for nearly 15 years and a collection of documents has been prepared and will come out in full in the German language. An abridged version will be published in Russia in the Russian language.

As a rule, taskforces conduct parallel research. Annual conferences of the joint commission determine new research guidelines.

 

Among the latest works there is the Human Dimension of the Stalingrad Battle. In Stalingrad several huge leather bags with correspondence were found - letters of German soldiers home. They have not been mailed for unknown reasons. Member of our commission Professor Nina Waschkau gained access to the correspondence. Today her book I Will At Least Once Write the Truth - Wehrmacht Soldiers' Letters from Stalingrad Entrapment came out first in German and then in Russian under the auspices of the commission.

 

It is not the only example when the commission approved individual research. At present two researchers - a Russian and a German - are preparing major publication of numerous Russian and German archive documents called The Soviet Union and Germany in 1933-1941. The first out of planned four volumes is ready and contains over a thousand pages. It shows how relations between the Soviet Union and Germany developed in the political, economic, and cultural sphere after Hitler came to power and up to the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union.

 

Why did the commission decide to draft a joint textbook for teachers?

 

School and university literature in various countries anyway reflects the historic memory of society. For example, if you ask a passerby what the Russians associate World War Two with, a majority will immediately answer: Stalingrad, Kursk, Victory. Others will say Leningrad blockade. Historic memory is selective. Ask an Israeli and he will say extermination of six million Jews - Holocaust. The Japanese will name the atomic bombing. The Poles will say they were conquered from both sides in 1939 and will definitely name Katyn...

 

How do schoolchildren study? Firstly, they use textbooks and, secondly, they listen to the teacher. Thirdly, they obtain knowledge from parents and Internet. Quite often they remember what they heard for the first time or what is clearly and excitingly formulated. Anyway, they obtain knowledge occasionally. History is science and we would like students to base their historic perception on scientific knowledge. In contrast to physics which do not differ in Russia, Germany or the United States history textbooks often make you think history differed for various countries. For example, in the United States some textbooks say nothing at all about the Soviet-German war of 1941-1945. There is another example. In 2005 the commission held a conference in Saratov devoted to the description of World War Two in textbooks. Doctor Robert Meyer from Braunschweig took the floor. He works in a major European institute and analyzes textbooks from various countries in all disciplines, including history. He cited an example from a textbook for public schools in Hamburg which squeezed all data about World War Two into three pages. The Soviet part of the war - the Great Patriotic War - was described as follows, I will give only one quote: "On June 22, 1941 Hitler ordered to attack the Soviet Union although he had signed a non-aggression pact with the country. Immense space and bitter frosts stopped German advance. The defeat at the Russian city of Stalingrad in 1942-1943 signaled a turn in the war. When Russian troops reached Berlin Hitler and Goebbels committed suicide." No comment. Once in Germany I bought a very curious history textbook with practically no text. 90 percent of it was occupied by photos, charts and other illustrations. Besides, there were questions to clarify whether the reader comprehended what he saw.

 

As for joint history textbooks, they are necessary for the young people who learn historic memory from textbooks to avoid confrontation and comprehend the difficult historic process which triggers different assessments of the past. They should retain the ability to deliberate and independently analyze in order to build up their own opinion on that or another vital issue.

 

Therefore, we began to draft the textbook. The idea was to bring together textbook authors from their respective countries and do something common. Although even professionals often fail to reach mutual understanding at the conceptual level the very process is very important and should be ongoing. The textbook was quickly produced. Little time passed since the idea was voiced at one of the Petersburg Dialogues in which commission co-chair Academician Alexander Chubaryan actively participates.

 

I have some knowledge about co-authorship and can imagine how difficult it was to set up a creative laboratory...

 

The first question faced by the commission was extremely difficult. What should it be? Russian history? German history? History of Russia and Germany? Or the history of Europe? And in which volume? Who the book should target? Initially we kept calling it a textbook. However Russian and German procedures of obtaining a textbook status for a manuscript differ a lot. Therefore, we decided to target teachers and make the book a supplementary manual. It can also be of interest for motivated schoolchildren and teachers can recommend them to get acquainted with various sections.

 

Another difficult question was what to write about? XX century history has issues of specific importance both for Russia and Germany. We identified close to twenty of them.

 

The next question was how to produce the text. Shall it be written in parallel and then gradually united? We decided that authors should sit at a round-table from the very beginning and look for consensus and jointly produce the text. They succeeded. We divided twenty issues by half. One half was headed by a German historian and the other one by a Russian. They wrote the text and handed it over to co-authors who critically read and improved it. A working dialogue emerged: they argued this example was no good so let us cite another one or your example is good but I have a better one so let us cite both of them. They succeeded to find a common language on most issues and produced common chapters. The Russian Germany in the 1920s chapter published in this issue of the Amber Bridge is one of them.

 

No consensus has been reached on certain issues. For example, on Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Konstanz Professor Pietrov-Encker wrote a text with several assessments and interpretations which most Russian historians cannot accept. Her co-author Alexander Chubaryan suggested to correct the text, but was rejected. Then Chubaryan produced his own text which was published next to the first one. They do not repeat each other in contents. Readers get a chance to compare the arguments of the parties themselves.

 

Similar situations emerged with the chapters about the Stalingrad Battle in 1942-1943 and the first Berlin crisis in 1948-1949. Munich historian I. Hurter wrote an interesting and truthful text about Stalingrad and did not forget heroic defenders of the city and victims of German aggression. However there are two aspects in his interpretation of the Russian-German standoff in 1941-1945 which cannot but cause objections in Russia. Firstly, the war which began in 1941 was characterized as a clash of two dictators for world dominance. Secondly, he wrote a lot about heroic defenders of Stalingrad but said the reason for heroism was Stalin's order #227 Not to Retreat! and the presence of retreat-blocking detachments. It turns out Soviet soldiers had no choice: either to advance with a possibility to survive or retreat and die. The German historian believes this is the explanation for the frantic fight of Stalingrad defenders.

 

Many years ago the joint commission received an instruction from the top state level — to eliminate blindspots in the history of Russian-German relations in the XX century. The work is ongoing and there seems to be no end to it. However the book we are announcing today is the third and final part of the textbook for Russian and German teachers. The first two have not been written yet. If we look at distant past we shall see there were times when Russians and Germans did not fight but closely cooperated instead.

 

The commission deals with research of unstudied problems in Russian-German relations in the XX century and believes it is appropriate to begin the textbook not with the year of 1900 but with the XVIII century when interaction of our peoples and interlacing of cultures paramounted to extreme heights. When the project is over the readers will have an opportunity to read it all and obtain a more or less integral picture.

 

In this connection the idea of our German colleagues is very interesting but difficult to accomplish. They suggest to illustrate the cover of each of the three volumes with portraits of two historic personalities who would jointly reflect their century in relations between Germany and Russia and personify them. For example, for the XVIII century they can be Peter and Catherine, for the XIX century - Bismarck and Shuvalov. The question is which personalities should be chosen for the cover of the XX century book. It is difficult to select a proper pair equal in significance for both sides. Various options are offered: Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Heinrich Boll, for example. I can even accept Lev Yashin and Franz Beckenbauer. Or should we print the ruined Berlin Wall as it is not only a German symbol?

 

The Russian-German commission has existed for over fifteen years. It is likely the oldest bilateral commission in which Russian historians work. Mr. Ishchenko, you are directly related to most of the professional forums. Which place does the Russian-German commission occupy among them? Is the format a universal solution?

 

No, it is not. However all possible partners are ready for it. In Russia we also do not have enough experts on each country. It is important that a new generation of historians grew up in countries which used to be a part of Russia or the USSR. The young people look at our common history differently. I will cite two examples. We held a summer school for young historians from the CIS. One class was devoted to the Great Patriotic War. A post-graduate from Tashkent said she would not participate as "it was not our war". She claimed Uzbekistan did not participate in the war. I asked her: "What did Uzbekistan do from 1941 to 1945?" "We participated in World War Two", she replied. She was at a loss when I asked whether Uzbekistan was a sovereign state and which norms of international law were applicable to it? Last year a staffer of the History Institute from Moldova began his lecture at a similar class with a sensational claim that one of the most significant days in Moldova's history was June 22, 1941 when the German army brought independence to the country.

 

These are sad modern realities which have to be taken into account in the development of international scientific cooperation.

 

As for commission role... If we compare it to others it is the leader by the output of academic products. However it is not an objective criteria. For example, we have a Russian-Austrian commission which properly operates. However which comparable list of issues or comparable volume of historic material can be in focus of joint research with Austrian colleagues? And Moldovan? But that does not mean such commissions are inefficient.

One aspect is very important. Historic developments are often used for political purposes. Elites in post-Soviet countries often do that in order to construct and solidify national identity. Bilateral commissions of historians promote rapprochement between public conscience and scientific perception of the past. In this connection the Russian-Ukrainian commission should be mentioned. Ukrainian commission members set an example to their counterparts of a balanced academic approach to common history with Russia: there are documents and here is our interpretation, let us discuss it. Russian participants also provide documents to partners which we believe to be important and offer our interpretation. Analysis of the sources and professional dialogue are underway.

 

Which blindspots are still out of reach of the Russian-German commission?

 

It's a tricky question… Here is an example of such a blindspot. There were two Germanies from 1945 and up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and there was also a love triangle between the USSR and two German states. There is a whole space of collisions. The Soviet Union had to behave pragmatically both with West and East Germany and at the same time maintain its ideological image. It is naturally a blindspot. We had to balance and they as well. We have just signed an agreement to jointly research the issue of the USSR and Two German States in 1949-1955. Sources from German and Russian archives. The problem has never been researched at such an angle. Moscow-Bonn and Moscow-Berlin relations have been studied as well as related aspects in the history of the Warsaw Treaty and NATO. However historians have never studied how the Soviet Union balanced two policies. Neither German-German ties in the context of relations with the USSR have ever been properly reflected in scientific literature.

 

Moscow developed relations with West Germany on a pragmatic basis. Quite often the pragmatism and active Soviet foreign policy on the West German avenue triggered jealousy from Berlin. Moscow had to do something, trim sails and build up a system of checks and balances. We are only beginning to research the issue. But I am convinced the result will produce numerous interesting texts. The chronological framework for the proposed collection of documents was determined by the fact that 2015 will mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic of Germany. Therefore, we shall limit ourselves by 1955 for the time being. And we shall live and see, as they say.

 

The commission will stay in the XX century, won't it?

 

Yes, there are numerous blindspots. I have mentioned the Warsaw Treaty. It would be interesting to analyze how Soviet-West German relationship developed because of Soviet commitments to the Warsaw Treaty and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance as well as integration in Western Europe. Practically all modern European history and well-known aspects of global history are linked to the relations between Russia and Germany, Russias and Germans. Therefore, I do not think the blindspots which our commission has to eliminate would disappear in foreseeable future.

 


 
 
 
 
 
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