Red Army soldiers’ and officers’ perception of civilian casualties in World War II, including the Nazis’ mass murder of Jews, or the Holocaust, was in large measure a function of the prevailing views of society more generally.
Russocentrism and statism—the dominant trends in Soviet propaganda from 1937 on—reached their logical conclusion during the war years. The existing prewar balance between the principles of nationality and class shifted distinctly in favor of the former. As early as the first months of the war, the words “Russian” and “Soviet” became synonymous, and the concept of the “Great Russian people,” introduced into Soviet propaganda in the second half of the 1930s, became a way of signifying the special place that Russians occupied in history, including in the war with Nazism—or as Soviet discourse called it, “German fascism.”1
This Russocentrism actually proved entirely compatible with the regime’s preoccupation with ethnic minorities. On the one hand, this preoccupation was the legacy of 1920s politics, with its hypertrophied concern for the symbols of ethnic equality. On the other, it was driven by a purely practical interest in mobilizing ethnic minorities in the USSR and abroad for war with Germany and its allies. Throughout the war, Soviet discourse emphasized that the friendship of the peoples of the USSR was a central factor in successfully opposing the enemy. Moreover, in the early phases of the war the non-Russian press (Ukrainian, Jewish, etc.) created a series of its own national traditions of military valor rooted in the past, built on the [End Page 563] same model as the Russian tradition.2 As Russocentrism grew, however, the propaganda space allotted to national minorities notably narrowed. David Brandenberger has demonstrated that if the first two years of the war featured merely Russocentric tendencies rather than an explicitly articulated policy, then later—especially from the summer of 1944, when the outcome of the war was already obvious—accentuation of the Russians’ special role in the war became much more pronounced.3 Anything that did not correspond to these general trends in propaganda was terminated. Any deviation from the concept of “friendship of peoples”—particularly any reference to the heroism of one ethnic minority without reference to the heroism of other ethnic groups—was regarded as a malicious manifestation of nationalism, especially from early 1944 on.4 A similar tendency was observable in the “internationalization” of Nazism’s victims. From late 1941 to early 1942, any reference to the murder of Jews was customarily accompanied by reference to the destruction of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, and so on. Nor did published Soviet sources anywhere state that the murder of Jews was a function of a specifically antisemitic component of Nazi racial policies. On the contrary, Soviet propaganda depicted this repressive policy as a universal one, directed against all citizens of the socialist state.
The frequency of references to the murder of Jews in contemporary texts depended not only on general party policies but also on local practices, as determined by mid-level political workers and newspaper editors. Not infrequently, newspapers concealed the murder of Jews, just as documents published in order to expose Nazi crimes left out the topic of transgressions against Jews. Yet even when the decision to eliminate the Jewish component from such publications came from the highest levels of Soviet bureaucracy (as with the case of Babi Yar in late 1943–early 1944), this did not set a precedent for the complete prohibition of reference to the murder of Jews.5 [End Page 564]
Brandenberger has noted the difficulty of identifying a direct link between increasingly Russocentric propaganda and the growth of nationalist feelings among Russians.6 It is likewise difficult to determine how much that propaganda intensified xenophobic sentiments, including antisemitic ones. During the war years, the mid-level party bureaucracy experienced a notable growth in antisemitism, most fundamentally with respect to personnel policies.7 For the people at large, however, the more important issue was that the authorities, in their insistence on depicting all that occurred in Soviet society in a positive light, did not condemn antisemitic manifestations behind the front. This failure to condemn antisemitism...