Auschwitz Museum director on root causes of Russian crimes in Ukraine — interview

Historian Piotr Cywinski came to Ukraine to witness Ukrainian organizations and volunteers documenting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, as well as testimonies of people who were direct participants in the events of the occupation, war and shelling.
Historian Piotr Cywinski came to Ukraine to witness Ukrainian organizations and volunteers documenting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, as well as testimonies of people who were direct participants in the events of the occupation, war and shelling.

Piotr Cywinski, a Polish historian and director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, talks about who actually liberated the Nazi death camp, and tries to explain why there is a complete lack of ideology in the Russian military today.

NV met with Cywinski on the sidelines of the Oral History Forum, which was recently held in Kyiv on the initiative and with the support of the Museum of the Voice of the Peaceful Foundation of Rinat Akhmetov.

Cywinski came to Ukraine to examine the documented of evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, as well as hear the testimony of people who were directly affected by the occupation, war, and bombing.

He spoke about how memory can become a hostage to propaganda, about the unlearned lessons of history, the possibilities of museumification of memory, and about the testimonies of victims and aggressors.

NV: How do you think the history and memory of the Holocaust and World War II affect the ability of societies to recognize new crimes against humanity and resist them?

Cywinski: If we compare the wars that are ongoing now with the Second World War, then, given the pain that people experienced, this will not have the desired effect. Every pain is unique. But the history of memory, if we consider the post-war period, can give a lot. If we take the Second World War, then compared to many other wars, it was probably the bloodiest from the point of view of civilians. And it caused a lot of changes that occurred after its conclusion. In different spheres – in the cultural sphere, in the political sphere, in the economic sphere, in the legal sphere, and even in the religious sphere.

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After WWII, enormous civilizational and social changes occurred. Let's take, for example, the creation of the UN or later the creation of the EU. That is, a lot of new legal concepts and social concepts appeared, like the concepts of genocide or crimes against humanity. And it must be said that this post-war period was a kind of starting point from which it all began. When someone again begins to violate the rules that were built or created in the post-war period, if they absolutely trample on the achievements of human thought that were formulated in the post-war period, then they find themselves outside the framework of this post-war justice and norms. For me personally, if someone violates these rules that were formulated in the post-war period, for example, the UN Charter, for me such a country should not be a member of this organization.

Likewise, in ecumenical dialogue, there cannot be a church that blesses such actions of a military nature. Because it was precisely in order to prevent such conflicts that the UN was created in the post-war period, and that is why such ecumenical dialogue took place.

NV: I understand you are hinting at Russia. When historians talk about the transformation of Russia into its current state, they say that communist ideology and the Soviet Union itself were not repudiated in their time, like Nazism. This did not happen in the 90s. Do you really see this as a problem and the reason for the state of Russia today?

Cywinski: I think this is only partially the case. Russia, by and large, consists of many elements that differ from each other. One, as they say, piece, one part is St. Petersburg and Moscow, which have always been an example of a kind of wealth, power, dynamism, and the system. But small provinces or small towns did not participate in any form of government as citizen bodies. This is a completely different element of Russia. These people cannot, or do not fully understand, what it means to be a citizen. They have never traveled the world; they have not seen this world.

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And there is another small Russia where these are small groups that exist, like [the Russian human rights organization that restored the memory of victims of Soviet repression] Memorial, who have experience and a sense of civic responsibility. And all these are different Russias, if you will.

Today, if we look at Russia as a state, then overall we see an apparatus that is operating, namely [Russian dictator Vladimir] Putin and his numerous services. Where are the rest of the state institutions? It seems to me that the lack of decommunization did not greatly influence the passive position of the rest of Russia’s inhabitants. Rather, it was influenced by a lack of enlightenment and education. Because no one ever told or proved to these people living in Russia that they are citizens of their state. The Tsar, the [Bolshevik] revolution, Stalinism, “Putinism” – they went through all these stages. And the big problem is that most people do not consider themselves to be active citizens, but rather classify themselves as peculiar serfs, who, being in this system, must cope and come to terms with it to survive. Therefore, condemning communism would hardly work for them.

NV: Russians are passive, and it is even more interesting how Russian propaganda works with them. It is devoid of ideology, clear goals, and does not encourage anything, unlike the propaganda of the Third Reich. All these Zs and Vs don't make any sense. And this propaganda is constantly changing, not explaining, but obfuscating the war. What is its function anyway?

Cywinski: I will talk about propaganda that is aimed at a domestic audience, and not that which is aimed at Western states. In my opinion, propaganda is not the main tool of the Russian government in relation to its citizens. The main tool is fear. In the beginning, the letter Z was not an element of propaganda. There were soldiers, without any symbols, they did not know at all why they were dying. The Russians thought that they would win so quickly that there was no need to mentally prepare the army for combat. And accordingly, after Kyiv held out and the war continued, this letter Z began to play the role of such a symbol, purely from a tactical point of view.

This indicates that there was no ideological preparation of the troops, no preparation in terms of propaganda, because they were not supposed to be the driving force. Rather, the driving force was supposed to be order and fear. And accordingly, for the Kremlin, the tiny protests were more dangerous and what caused their concern, since they were the ones who indicated that people within the country could disagree with what was happening and had no fear. And this is precisely what caused fear in them. So, what follows?

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Because the war has continued, the idea ceases to be the driving force, and here the fear of the system and the fear of being killed are already on the scales. This is already a very shaky position. I probably don’t remember a single war in recent decades where an army was so unprepared from an ideological point of view. If we take the terrible conflict between Israel and Hamas, then we see, on both sides, communities that are ideologically united into a single whole. The strength of Ukraine lies in its unity because all of Ukraine knows what it is fighting for. On the other hand, there is the Russian army, which has absolutely no idea what it is doing here. And this is very evident in the Western media.

Ukraine’s message is read and perceived by Western society unambiguously and clearly, but Russian messages are very vague, unclear, and without direction.

NV: How much has Russia today appropriated the memory of WWII and the memory of the allied victory? We see how, for example, it has been difficult for German politicians now to condemn Russia, which defeated Nazism, and perhaps this is the case in other countries. Is it possible to deconstruct this memory of WWII, where Russia is the sole victor over Nazism?

Cywinski: I think this is a rather internal construct, rather Russia’s perception of itself as the only winner. Americans have a completely different perception of these events. This is, rather, the image of a victorious Red Army soldier that the Russians are trying to impose on everyone in Europe. But to a much greater extent, they are trying to focus on this in Russia itself, considering internal needs. If we take history lessons somewhere in the West, then no one will likely remember the Battle of Kursk. As for the St. George ribbon, it did not take root at all in the West, as no one has accepted it [as a symbol of victory in WWII].

NV: That is, Russia failed to sell this construct to Europeans, despite the monuments to the Soviet soldier in Vienna or Berlin, which were interpreted as monuments to the Russian soldier?

Cywinski: It may be trying to sell it, but no one is buying it. However, this ideology of a single winner is very strong and effective within the country.

Today, Russia is really trying to demonstrate itself as the sole heir to the victories of the Soviet Union. And when I hear that they say that it was the Russians who liberated Auschwitz, I say: “no, stop.” These were not Russians, these were soldiers of the Red Army. These were specifically the military of two divisions of the so-called Ukrainian Front. Just a few years ago, a document was published in which the composition of this 50th or 60th Army of the Ukrainian Front was presented in detail. Members of all the united peoples of the Soviet Union were there. There were even a few Poles. There were almost 41% Russians, and almost 40% Ukrainians.

NV: Let's go back to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which collected a lot of evidence of the Holocaust and turned it into powerful exhibits that could change people's worldviews. What are the main features of this memorial museum that Ukraine should adopt?

Cywinski: First of all, for people who visit the museum, it is very important and very powerful that it is an authentic, real place. Because people are in the place where everything happened. The second element is the objects that are concentrated in the museum. Because, for example, you can say in words that 220 thousand children died in Auschwitz, but if a person who visits the museum sees a child’s shoe with his own eyes, then his emotions will become much deeper. The third element is very important – the stories of people who survived Auschwitz. It must be said that most of these stories were written down almost immediately after the end of the war. This was first of all done for the purpose of later using this collected material in trials, so that those who saw what happened could act as witnesses. These were the stories of only those who wanted to share information, because there were also those who were silent and did not want to tell anything.

NV: How important is it to collect the full narrative reality of the war? Not only the voices of the victims, but also the voices of the aggressors?

Cywinski: You are talking about a fundamental approach. Not everyone always understands the utility of this. It is subconscious – we always want to hear only the voice of the victim. But eventually questions arise about what caused the appearance of this evil, and how this evil was born and formed. To understand this mechanism, for example, how a young guy from Buryatia arrives, ends up in some Ukrainian village, receives the order “do what you want” and he begins to rape women and children. If he had come to the same village four years earlier as part of a tour, and they would have told him, for example, “do what you want,” he probably would not have had these thoughts and desires. If we analyze a small amount of evidence or testimony of these actors, it will be difficult for us to understand the mechanism by which they were guided in their actions, but this knowledge is important.

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In Auschwitz, we have thousands of testimonies of victims, but there are only a few testimonies of those who manned the death camp. Therefore, today it is very difficult to explain what led to these people joining the ranks of the SS. In the final reckoning, the question concerns not so much the victim as the executioner: why was such cruelty shown? There was a victim, she was innocent, she was killed. The anthropological riddle is on the other side. Without examining the fact that we are all empathetically on the side of the victims, it is very important to collect testimonies from Russian prisoners [of war]. Because we need to understand the mechanism of evil.

NV: WWII gave us the terms genocide and crimes against humanity. In your opinion, what new definitions will Russia's war in Ukraine bring us? Is this war genocidal?

Cywinski: It seems to me that the existing terminology is quite sufficient. And there is no need for new terms or definitions. As for genocide, this is a legal area. Politicians and journalists are talking about this topic today, but it seems to me that lawyers should be involved in determining the nature of this phenomenon. This is what the Hague Tribunal is doing, and I believe that it will happen. If I were a lawyer and saw what the Russian army did in Bucha, or somewhere else, then for me these are certainly war crimes and crimes against humanity. Now, this is not enough for us to talk about genocide. But when I combine this with what politicians in the Kremlin say, that Ukraine as a state does not exist, that Ukrainians are not a people and not a nation, if we combine the narratives in the Kremlin with what is happening, then this gives grounds and can indicate signs of genocide. Because there was an order from above, and we see what results it led to below.

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If we see the possibility of a holistic planned action, then we need to clearly analyze what politicians like Lavrov have said, what speakers have said, what commentators on Russian television have said, what Putin has said, and how this has been directly reflected in actions at the front. That is, then we can already assume that these are markers of genocide. If not, then we will remain within the framework of war crimes for which commanders and their subordinates are held accountable.

NV: The historical memory connecting Ukraine and Poland has both much that unites and divides. How can we reduce the latter and the emotional burden of what separates us?

Cywinski: Only through meetings, conversations, and the desire to understand each other can we reduce this tension. Today Russia is trying to instigate quarrels between Poland and Ukraine, and there is no point in falling for these provocations.

But I'll tell you one anecdote. Professor Israel Gutman, who has unfortunately passed away, was once a prisoner of Auschwitz. He studied the history of Jews in Poland and lived in Poland. He once participated in a conference in Germany: he took a second, and then a third question, when suddenly a student stood up and asked: “How do you Jews exist in Poland, since Poland is famous for its anti-Semitism?” To which Israel Gutman responded: “Both Poles and Jews, we all realize that difficulties exist. But you here at the university in Germany are the last ones who have the right to ask us about this.” I think this is also important for our people to remember when someone tries to start a quarrel between them.

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine