During the war, the Soviets and their allies had been in general agreement that the war was not to be understood as a war of the liberation of Jews. From different perspectives, the Soviet, Polish, American, and British leaderships all believed that Jewish suffering was best understood as one aspect of a generally wicked German occupation. Though Allied leaders were quite aware of the course of the Holocaust, none treated it as a reason to make war on Nazi Germany, or to turn much special attention to the suffering of Jews. The Jewish issue was generally avoided in propaganda. When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt issued a “Declaration Concerning Atrocities” in Moscow in October 1943, they mentioned, among other Nazi crimes, “the wholesale shooting of Polish officers,” which was a reference to Katyn, actually a Soviet crime; and “the execution of French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages” and “Cretan peasants”—but not Jews. The “peoples” of Poland and the Soviet Union were mentioned, but the Jewish minority in each country was not named. By the time that summary of atrocities was published, over five million Jews had been shot or gassed because they were Jews.
In its more enlightened form, this reticence about racial murder reflected a principled hesitation to endorse Hitler’s racist understanding of the world. The Jews were not citizens of any one country, went the reasoning, and thus to group them together, went the fear, was to acknowledge their unity as a race, and to accept Hitler’s racial view of the world. In its less enlightened form, this view was a concession to popular anti-Semitism—very much present in the Soviet Union, Poland, Britain, and the United States. For London and Washington, this tension was resolved with victory in the war in 1945. The Americans and the British liberated no part of Europe that had a very significant Jewish population before the war, and saw none of the German death facilities. The politics of postwar economic, political, and military cooperation in western Europe had relatively little to do with the Jewish question.
The territory of Stalin’s enlarged state included most of the German killing fields, and that of his postwar empire (including communist Poland) the sites of all of the German death factories. Stalin and his politburo had to confront, after the war, continued resistance to the reimposition of Soviet power, in ways that made the wartime fate of the Jews unavoidable as a matter of ideology and politics. Postwar resistance in the western Soviet Union was a continuation of the war in two senses: these were the lands that the Soviets had won by conquest in the first place, and the lands where people had taken up arms in large numbers to fight them. In the Baltics and Ukraine and Poland, some partisans were openly anti-Semitic, and continued to use the Nazi tactic of associating Soviet power with Jewry.
In this situation, the Soviets had every political incentive to continue to distance themselves and their state from Jewish suffering, and indeed to make special efforts to ensure that anti-Semites did not associate the return of Soviet power with the return of Jews. In Lithuania, once again incorporated into the Soviet Union, the general secretary of the local branch of the Soviet communist party counted the Jews killed in the Holocaust as “sons of the nation,” Lithuanians who died as martyrs for communism. Nikita Khrushchev, politburo member and general secretary of the party in Ukraine, went even further. He was in charge of the struggle to defeat Ukrainian nationalists in what had been southeastern Poland, a place that before the war had been densely settled with Jews and Poles. The Germans had killed the Jews, and the Soviets had deported the Poles. Khrushchev wanted Ukrainians to thank the Soviet Union for the “unification” of their country at the expense of Poland and for the “cleansing” of Polish landlords. Knowing that the nationalists wanted ethnic purity, he did not want Soviet power to stand for anything else.
Sensitive as he was to the mood of the population, Stalin sought a way to present the war that would flatter the Russians while marginalizing the Jews (and, for that matter, every other people of the Soviet Union). The whole Soviet idea of the Great Patriotic War was premised on the view that the war began in 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, not in 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union together invaded Poland. In other words, in the official story, the territories absorbed as a result of Soviet aggression in 1939 had to be considered as somehow always having been Soviet, rather than as the booty of a war that Stalin had helped Hitler to begin. Otherwise the Soviet Union would figure as one of the two powers that started the war, as one of the aggressors, which was obviously unacceptable.
No Soviet account of the war could note one of its central facts: German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than those of any other region of Europe. From a Soviet perspective, all of the deaths in that zone could simply be lumped together with Soviet losses, even though the people in question had been Soviet citizens for only a matter of months when they died, and even though many of them were killed by the NKVD rather than the SS. In this way, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian deaths, sometimes caused by the Soviet rather than the German forces, served to make the tragedy of the Soviet Union (or even, to the inattentive, of Russia) seem all the greater.
The vast losses suffered by Soviet Jews were mostly the deaths of Jews in lands just invaded by the Soviet Union. These Jews were citizens of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, brought under Soviet control by force only twenty-one months before the German invasion in the case of Poland, and only twelve months before in the case of northeastern Romania and the Baltics. The Soviet citizens who suffered most in the war had been brought by force under Soviet rule right before the Germans came—as a result of a Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany. This was awkward. The history of the war had to begin in 1941, and these people had to be “peaceful Soviet citizens.”
Jews in the lands east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, so recently conquered by the Soviet Union, were the first to be reached by the Einsatzgruppen when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They had been shielded by the Soviet press from knowledge of German policies toward Jews of 1939 and 1940. They had virtually no time to evacuate since Stalin had refused to believe in a German invasion. They had been subject to terror and deportation in the enlarged Soviet Union in 1939-1941 during the period when Stalin and Hitler were allied, and then terribly exposed to German forces by the breaking of that alliance. These Jews in this small zone made up more than a quarter of the total victims of the Holocaust.