In January 1945, the soldiers of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death factories. Those inmates who had managed to survive the inferno greeted Soviet forces as liberators. But as I heard recently in Latvia’s capital Riga and across contemporary Europe, viewing the Red Army in such positive terms is primarily a Jewish preoccupation.
I was in Riga in May to participate in a panel discussion at NATO’s 2022 StratCom Dialogue. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has struggled for relevance. However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the alliance has regained a clear sense of mission and purpose. Proving the point are Finland and Sweden, which after decades of neutrality, now seek NATO membership.
This new resolve is especially felt in the three former Soviet Baltic Republics – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – and in former Warsaw Pact member Poland. For these countries, and for many others across Eastern and Central Europe, the Russian military is synonymous with the imposition of Soviet domination that followed World War II.
From this perspective, the Red Army’s victories over Nazi Germany did not bring liberation but instead established yet another foreign tyranny. The occupations by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are often looked upon as identical twin evils, with neither considered preferable to the other. A minority even elevates the anti-Soviet struggle above all else, sometimes leading to the condoning of Nazi collaborators.
The Red Army’s victories over Nazi Germany did not bring liberation but instead established yet another foreign tyrannyMark Regev
The Jewish perspective on the Red Army
I was born and raised in the Jewish community of Melbourne, Australia, where the ubiquitous presence of Holocaust survivors, many of whom were liberated by Soviet forces, nurtured appreciative attitudes toward the Red Army.
My German-born father, Martin Freiberg, was a Holocaust survivor, as was our Polish-born neighbor, Michael Weinstein. Yet, while my father had been a child during the Second World War, the man who lived next door had been a warrior.
At the start of the war in 1939, Michael presciently fled east from his native Poland into the USSR to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 ending Soviet neutrality, Michael’s desire to fight the Nazis finally had an outlet, and he was accepted into the Red Army’s officers school where he was selected for a command in the Armored Corps.
Michael was part of the army that drove the Germans out of Russia, liberated Poland and ultimately entered Berlin for the final destruction of the Nazi empire. Awarded medals for bravery and leadership, Michael was luckier than many. Although injured in combat, his only physical impairments were a missing finger and the shrapnel he carried in his body.
While justifiably proud of his service in the Red Army, Michael had few illusions about the Stalinist regime, and he fled to the West after the war was won.
MICHAEL SAW firsthand that the newly imposed Soviet satellite regimes were clearly not the “people’s democracies” of communist propaganda. It also quickly became apparent that Jews increasingly were on the receiving end of Stalinist antisemitism.
Moscow forbade any talk of specific Nazi policies to murder Jews. In parallel, communists of Jewish background were singled out in purges, notably in the 1949 Prague Trials, where party leader Rudolph Slansky was condemned for being a “Trotskyite-Titoist Zionist bourgeois-nationalist traitor.”
This sort of antisemitism did not just occur in the Soviet dominions, but also inside Russia itself, where a series of orchestrated propaganda campaigns targeted Jews. These included: identifying (most with clear Jewish names) so-called economic criminals charged with deliberately sabotaging the socialist economy; portraying Zionism as a “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in league with nefarious “American imperialism”; and, in Stalin’s infamous “Doctors’ Plot,” accusing senior physicians (once again with obvious Jewish names) of conspiracy to assassinate senior Soviet leadership.
In the final months of Stalin’s reign, rumors were widespread about a Kremlin program to deport millions of Jews to the Soviet Far East. While historians today debate the veracity of such plans, they generated genuine fear at the time.
By Stalin’s death in 1953, anyone without ideological blinders understood that the Soviet regime was no friend of the Jewish people. And in 1956, responding to the Suez crisis, Stalin’s heirs in the Kremlin implied a willingness to target the Jewish state with nuclear weapons, threatening the very existence of Israel.
Moscow’s behavior notwithstanding, a reverence for the Red Army’s World War Two exploits persisted in Israel and across the Jewish world.
Indeed, despite decades of overt Soviet hostility, contemporary Israel continues to celebrate the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In 2012, “The Victory Monument” was erected in Netanya with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Israeli president Shimon Peres attending the unveiling. In his remarks at the ceremony, Peres said, “This is an opportunity to thank the Red Army. Had it not defeated the Nazi beast then, it is doubtful we would be standing here today.”
Similarly, at Latrun, the recently established Chaim Herzog Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War Two specifically honors the 500,000 Jews who, like Michael Weinstein, fought in the Red Army – of whom 140,000 made the ultimate sacrifice.
And in January 2020, the Yad Vashem commemoration to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz paid tribute to the Red Army, with Putin present as one of the event’s preeminent international participants.
The paradox is that while across the post-communist countries of Europe there is a demand to tear down Red Army monuments, the very opposite is occurring in Israel. In fact, Israel might be the only democratic country that has been actively erecting such statues.
Unlike many of Israel’s NATO friends, Jerusalem cannot view the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as different sides of the same evil coin. For Israel, the two bloody totalitarianisms remain eminently distinguishable. The former conducted industrial-scale extermination of the Jews, while the latter played a crucial role in ending that genocide.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many believe that the compelling historic memory of Soviet forces liberating the death camps should have no practical impact on current Israeli policy.
Perhaps they are correct. Nonetheless, Michael Weinstein’s wartime service, and that of all his comrades-in-arms, deserves the Jewish people’s everlasting gratitude. Even if things are seen differently from Riga, Jews will continue to view the Red Army in World War Two as liberators. No recent developments in Eastern Europe will change that.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the incoming chair of the Abba Eban Institute. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.