The Butscha massacre is shocking, but experts like Eastern Europe historian Jörg Baberowski are less surprised. In the interview he explains which problems of the Russian army contribute to such atrocities. The professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University is one of the best experts on the subject. He is one of the leading experts on Stalinism. His study “Scorched Earth” was awarded the Leipzig Book Fair prize. The Federal Agency for Civic Education publishes his publication “Der Rote Terror”.
ntv.de: What we saw in Butscha is reminiscent of atrocities in World War II. How can something like this be possible in Europe in the 21st century?
Jörg Baberowski: We forget that in the 21st century there were wars in Syria, Libya and other parts of the world, and millions of people fell victim to appalling atrocities. Why should that be anything else? We suppressed the fact that there was a war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, “ethnic cleansing”, rapes and massacres. It is not for nothing that the Srebrenica case has now been brought up in connection with the murders in Butscha. Rightly so. They are evidently recurring patterns of warfare that show themselves whenever armies cannot win, when their soldiers are frustrated. This is actually nothing new. A depressing realization, no doubt, but it’s a recurring pattern found in all wars. We who live in peace believe in the process of civilization, believe that the return of atrocities is impossible. And yet they keep coming, in Africa as well as in Europe. War is part of the human condition. And where there is war, the possibility of massacre must always be reckoned with.
Western armies also make fatal mistakes, such as bombing civilians, but they do not commit such massacres, at least not in the recent past.
There seems to be evidence that Russian soldiers are responsible for this massacre, although investigations are ongoing. But we do not know if there was a central order to kill these people or if the massacre was carried out by the soldiers of their own accord. It is true that such massacres would now be unthinkable in the armies of democratic states. But who actually remembers the terror regime of the French in Algeria, the massacres of the US army in Vietnam or the torture prison in Abu Graib? In Abu Graib, the American state left it to private contractors to police a prison and turned a blind eye to the worst excesses there. Where the space is opened up for violence, and where soldiers feel that what they are doing is legitimate, atrocities are more likely to occur. Even the armies of democratic states are not protected from this.
What role could it have played that there were no rules for the Russian soldiers in the place?
The soldiers received inadequate food, had no accommodation and had to face fire from the Ukrainian army. The soldiers not only subsisted on the village, but also robbed and raped its residents. Apparently, military discipline could no longer be enforced under these circumstances. As far as we know, Chechen mercenaries who are feared for their brutality have also been in this place. But we don’t know if there was an order to loot and kill villagers.
Why are the Chechens so feared?
Because the Chechen regiments are paramilitary units that do not belong to the Russian army, their fighters are mercenaries who kill for money. The Chechen fighters have a clear mission: to conquer places and spread fear and terror in them. The Russian soldiers, on the other hand, were not at all prepared for the war, they were not even told that they were going to Ukraine. Their violence therefore follows a logic that results from the immediate combat events. It would be interesting to learn what role these different units played in the unfolding of the massacre.
For you as a Stalin expert – does the massacre in Bucha remind you of his terror regime?
It reminds me less of Stalinism than of the culture of violence that is rampant in the Russian armed forces. Of the ruthlessness with which people and material are sacrificed, of the complete indifference to the fate of their own soldiers. The belief that this inhumanity will pay off in the end is shocking.
Has nothing changed in the past 80 years?
Not really. The wars in Chechnya followed the same pattern. In the end, the Russian army razed the capital Grozny to the ground, there were rapes, massacres and abuse. The violence feeds on their own humiliation. Soldiers who are being humiliated are tempted to process their own experiences in ways that humiliate other people. Unfortunately, this is a continuum in the Russian history of violence. The Russian army is a prison. It doesn’t surprise me that there is such brutality.
To what extent is Putin following in Stalin’s footsteps?
Not at all. Stalin’s rule was a dictatorship of totalitarian proportions that killed millions. In 1937 and 1938 alone, 680,000 people were shot, hundreds of thousands were in prison camps, were deported or starved to death. This has a completely different dimension than Putin’s authoritarian rule, which suppresses dissent but does not resort to terror.
How is it that Stalin is still held in high esteem in Russia today?
There is no education in Russia about the Stalin era. In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s crimes were hushed up. Even later it wasn’t an issue. Today, most Russians do not praise Stalin for his cruelty, but for his victory in World War II and for being the creator and keeper of a great empire. Once you understand that, you might understand why a tyrant like Stalin is held in such high esteem in today’s Russia.
As a historian, what do you think of Putin’s activities as a historian?
Oh, why do you even take it seriously? Putin has not acted as a historian, but as a politician who historically legitimizes his imperial claims. One may find much of what he says absurd, such as his claim that Ukraine is not a nation. But as a historian I still have to ask: Why is he doing this? He refers to history as he understands it because it is popular with large sections of the Russian population. Putin is not a historian who studies sources, but a politician who knows how to use history strategically for power. When Crimea was occupied in 2014, he did the same, and most Russians loved it. Today they no longer rejoice because they, too, apparently view this war with mixed feelings. I hear from my Russian friends that it’s quiet in Moscow and Petersburg. It’s all different from 2014.
Can Putin overthrow this war?
If he loses the war, then the bill will also be presented to him in his own ranks. So far, his followers have flocked to him because they too would fall if Putin fell. Because they engage in crime, because they took money, because they are corrupt. So the crisis works for those in power. If he really loses this war, even his friends will try to abandon the sinking ship. But the war is not yet lost for him. If he ends up keeping Donbass and Crimea, then he can sell that as a victory at home.
Is there a perspective that Russia, too, will continue to democratize and liberalize and stand on a common foundation of values with Europe?
Do the countries of the EU really share a common set of values? What about the Kaczynskis and the Orbáns of this world? Democracy means that what has been decided by a majority applies, but that does not mean that democracies are liberal orders. Voters may prefer an illiberal order at the ballot box. Ukraine will be a different country after this war, possibly democratic, but also liberal? I have doubts. In Russia, too, after free elections things could get worse than they already are. I wish Russia would be different. In the liberal, enlightened milieu in Moscow and Petersburg you can see what Russia could be. But does that also apply to the rest of the country? I don’t believe in that.
Volker Petersen spoke to Jörg Baberowski