ZOiS Spotlight 23/2021

22 June: Russia Remembers the German Invasion of the Soviet Union

by Esther Meier 16/06/2021
Vladivostok, 22 June 2020. People take part in an event marking the anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II. IMAGO / ITAR TASS

On 22 June 2021, at 12:15 p.m., life stands still for a minute in Russia. The traffic stops and people fall silent. They remember the day exactly 80 years ago when Vyacheslav Molotov, the Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, informed the Soviet people in a midday radio address that the Wehrmacht had crossed the borders of the Soviet Union and that Kyiv and Minsk were under bombardment. Today, 22 June is marked in Russia as the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, albeit overshadowed by Victory Day on 9 May.

The war of annihilation against the Soviet Union

The German attack on the Soviet Union was the start of a war of annihilation which would claim 27 million Soviet lives. There was hardly a family with no victims to mourn. It was also the start of the systematic annihilation of Europe’s Jewish population. Babi Yar, a ravine near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, came to symbolise the murder of the Soviet Jews. Another strand of Germany’s prosecution of the war was its policy of mass starvation, which mainly targeted the urban population: during the two-year siege of Leningrad, almost a million people died of hunger. On the pretext of crushing the partisans, hundreds of thousands of civilians were massacred and countless villages were burned to the ground. One of the worst war crimes was the German treatment of Soviet prisoners of war: more than three million Soviet POWs did not survive their time in captivity. Prisoners of war and civilians, destined to be used as forced labour in Germany, were transported across occupied Europe. The war against the Soviet Union thus became visible to the German civilian population in factories and on farms.

Remembrance between victory and sorrow

In Russia, remembrance of the Great Patriotic War is located at the nexus between victory and sorrow. It links in with Soviet traditions, yet it is also focused on the present. Just one day after the Wehrmacht’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet daily newspaper Pravda coined the term “Great Patriotic War”, thereby drawing an analogy to Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812. In Russia and Belarus, this is still the official term for the war between Germany and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1941 to 1945. Other states in the post-Soviet space distance themselves from the phrase, however: the Baltic states, for example, interpret their history in terms of the Second World War from 1939 to 1945 and emphasise not just the German but also the Soviet occupation following the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Ukraine, too – or, to be more precise, its central and western regions – has increasingly adopted this interpretive framework since the 2014 Russo-Ukraine War, seeing itself as the victim of two authoritarian regimes.

Since 1965, 9 May has been a central element of the (post-) Soviet culture of remembrance of the Great Patriotic War. Under Brezhnev, the potential of the victory and the Soviet contribution to Europe’s liberation from National Socialism were recognised from the mid-1960s onwards as an integrative, positive element in the formation of national identity, and core rituals were created which continue to this day. 9 May, with its Victory Day Parade, and the multiple public holidays in May are of immense domestic and foreign policy significance to Russia, whereas 22 June was not adopted as a day of remembrance until Yeltsin’s time in office and is not a public holiday. This reveals the relative weights attached in official remembrance to victory and heroisation, on the one hand, and to grief and sorrow, on the other. For families, by contrast, remembrance of loved ones and the mourning of their loss have always taken centre stage. A wide-ranging discussion about the high number of victims was never seen as desirable, however, since it raises the question of the Stalinist treatment of the domestic population – a question which by no means relativises German responsibility for the mass atrocities in the Soviet Union.

“Historical truth” and pluralisation of remembrance

Over the past three decades, a gradual pluralisation of war remembrance has been observed at all levels. In a process driven by academics, social media, civil society organisations and government institutions, victim groups which received very little attention in the Soviet Union and Russia for a very long time are now being integrated into the historical narrative; they include civilians who were used as forced labour, and prisoners of war, who were collectively branded as traitors in the Soviet Union. This has been accompanied by study of the Holocaust. Russian historians are quite rightly calling this a “revolution of remembrance”. In some respects, the state is responding, through its policy on history, to civil society’s demands; this is illustrated by a German-Russian government project on the fate of Soviet POWs, launched on 22 June 2016.

At the same time, the state’s claim to determine how the history of the Second World War should be interpreted has become more firmly entrenched in recent years. This purpose was served, not least, by the 2020 referendum on constitutional reform, which resulted in the insertion of a new paragraph 3 in Article 67 of the Constitution: “The Russian Federation honours the memory of the defenders of the Fatherland and protects historical truth. Diminishing the significance of the people’s heroism in defending the Fatherland is not permitted.” Since May 2021, the Russian Parliament has, once again, been discussing a draft law that more precisely defines this “historical truth” and introduces penalties for its violation.

People have been lighting candles and remembering their war dead on 22 June since Soviet times. With the 80th anniversary of the invasion, the significance of the date on the official calendar of remembrance will increase. Among other things, it can be seen as an attempt to unify official and family remembrance and to utilise 22 June as a means to promote domestic consolidation.

Dr Esther Meier is the Academic Director of the “Soviet and German prisoners of war and internees” project at the German Historical Institute Moscow.