In his recent trip to Europe, President Donald Trump criticized NATO, expressed a willingness to accept Russian annexation of Crimea — calling it a Russian-speaking area — and failed to challenge Vladimir Putin’s support of separatists in eastern Ukraine where 10,000 people have died and a civilian airliner was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile. Critics were quick to say that the president’s lack of historical knowledge and impatience with background briefings means that he doesn’t understand either NATO or Russia (even if we put aside the grave suspicion that Trump is somehow controlled by Putin). Yet Trump, many of his critics, and most Americans share the same inadequate understanding of that past and so misunderstand the present.
Crafting an effective American response to current tensions in Europe requires familiarity with the tangled history of Russia’s relationship with its Eastern European neighbors, its role in the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the long legacy of that costly victory. Most of us view this history as two separate stories of American triumph: World War II as the “Good War,” and the Cold War as a victory over communism. However, separating the stories distorts the role of the U.S. in both conflicts and makes it difficult to understand current tensions in Europe. Comparing museums in Europe and the U.S. dedicated to World War II makes clear the importance of connecting these two stories, why Americans fail to make these crucial interconnections, and why it matters.
America’s Good War
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, opened in 2000, tells the Good War story, giving a starring role to D-Day as a moment of enormous sacrifice which turned the tide of the European war. Entirely omitted is the Eastern Front and the decisive role of the Soviet Union in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which cost 8.7 million Soviet military deaths. In contrast, 416,800 American soldiers died in World War II, 2,499 of them on D-Day. Nothing can or should minimize the sacrifice of those brave Americans, but on average over 6,150 Soviet soldiers died (2.5 D-Days’ worth!) daily for four years. Through this effort, by D-Day, the Red Army had decisively broken the back of Nazi Germany, forcing Germans out of all Soviet territory. I asked a museum official why the Eastern Front receives no mention in the museum. He replied that the focus was on the U.S. and its Allies. We have forgotten that the Soviet Union was our ally, in the museum, and in our collective memory. Indeed, the decisive role of the Soviet Union challenges the “good” of the Good War, given the millions of citizens of both the USSR and neighboring countries murdered by Stalin before, during and after the war.
The Good War story requires ignoring the Eastern Front, since only by ignoring the Soviet Union and the tens of millions of civilians killed by all sides can World War II be seen as a simple morality play in which the United States rescues Europe from Nazi Germany. Of course, given the prominence of American anti-communism, the evils of Stalin and the USSR are well-known, but only as part of the story of the Cold War which also ended with triumph over another Evil Empire in the 1990s.
Ukraine’s Never-ending War
Nations caught between Hitler and Stalin tell the story of World War II and the Cold War quite differently. In Kiev, what had been the Museum of the Great Patriotic War under Soviet rule is now the redesigned Museum of the Ukrainian People in the Second World War. Here the war’s timeline starts not with the rise of Nazi Germany and Pearl Harbor, but with Stalin’s genocidal starvation of millions of Ukrainians between 1920-1932. It ends not with Axis surrender in 1945, but continues through 50 years of Soviet domination of Ukraine. In its timeline the war does not really end; the first exhibit a visitor encounters chronicles the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing conflict with separatists in Eastern Ukraine. In a striking counterpoint to the American museum’s failure to include the Eastern Front, Ukraine’s museum scarcely mentions the U.S. D-Day is ignored entirely.
Poland: World War II as Tragedy
The new Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, focuses on the war’s impact on civilians. Only a few rooms are devoted to the battles and military artifacts which dominate other war museums. D-Day and Pearl Harbor are mentioned, but only alongside other important military campaigns. Highlighting civilian suffering means scarce mention of the U.S. since, while 1,700 American civilians lost their lives, approximately 18 million Soviet and 15 to 20 million Chinese civilians perished. The unique evil of the Holocaust is confronted, but we are shown that cattle cars also took millions of frightened men, women, and children of many ethnic backgrounds from Poland and elsewhere to labor as slaves for the German and Soviet war efforts. Other exhibits chronicle the simmering ethnic tensions unleashed by the war, resulting in pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder perpetrated by ethnic, religious and nationalist groups, including Poles themselves, shown as both victims and perpetrators. The defeat of the Nazis is clearly connected, in the Polish story, to the brutality of a Stalinist regime able to absorb the deaths of millions of its own citizens. The strength and sacrifice of the Red Army left Britain and America unable to safeguard their promises of self-determination for postwar Eastern Europe. These tragic political outcomes remain central to the story of the war for those who endured decades of Soviet domination and now struggle against Russian expansionism.
How We Tell These Stories Matters Today
The Polish and Ukrainian museums reveal the distortions inherent in the way Americans tell the stories of World War II and the Cold War. If the Good War ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, and NATO is part of the Cold War which ended with triumph over the Soviet Union, that alliance might well be obsolete, as President Trump has suggested.
The president brags about his ability to take the measure of dictators in face-to-face meetings, first with Kim Jong-un and now with Vladimir Putin. FDR believed the same. After meeting Stalin he thought he could work with the dictator. The failure of this personal connection to alter Soviet plans for territorial expansion is one reason that World War II continues to be seen as a tragedy in so much of Europe.
Seeing World War II and the Cold War as part of the same story rules out any simple solutions for resisting Russian expansion. The president’s statement that most Crimeans speak Russian is factually true, but results from Soviet policies that starved millions and replaced them with ethnic Russians. The inability of the U.S., at the height of its power and prestige, to persuade or force Stalin to honor Allied commitments in Eastern Europe reminds us of the limits of unilateral action. Understanding World War II and the Cold War as part of the same story also reminds us of the importance of multilateral strategies for opposing Russian expansionism, especially as embodied in NATO.
Finally, visiting the Polish and Ukrainian museums, or, for that matter, museums in Britain and France, challenges Americans to confront the immorality of understanding a tragedy that left between 50 to 80 million people dead as a triumphant Good War.
Bruce A. Williams is the Ambassador Henry J. Taylor and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His two most recent books are After Broadcast News: Media Regimes, Democracy and The New Information Environment (with Michael X. Delli Carpini), Cambridge University Press, 2011 andThe New Media Environment: An Introduction (with Andrea Press), Blackwell, 2011. His current research examines the role of media in shaping the way Americans (mis)understand modern war.