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At Long Last, Farewell : Half a century after the war, the final Russian troops are leaving Europe

Nazi Germany, which Adolf Hitler swore would last for a millennium, was dust and ashes after only a dozen years. The foreign armies whose combined power rolled back Hitler’s aggression have remained on German soil more than four times as long. This week the last legatees of the Red Army that conquered Berlin in 1945 are departing. At the same time the last of the Russian troops in the Baltic states are finally taking their leave.

Their presence in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania dates to 1940, when the three republics were forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. At the time Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were, if not exactly bosom allies, then at least eager conspirators in plans to dismember Europe. That lasted until mid-1941, when Germany turned on the Soviet Union and set off what became the costliest conflict ever waged between two nations. The map of Europe was revised again after World War II and redrawn yet again when communist control over Eastern Europe collapsed and the Soviet Union imploded.

Few people in the countries that were their unwilling hosts are sorry to see the last Russian soldiers head home. Under their protection a ruling elite was able to commit terrible crimes, just as their masters in the Soviet Union had. Memories of that long, repressive and brutal period should never be allowed to fade. At the same time the courage, suffering and endurance of those ordinary citizens of the Soviet Union--soldiers and civilians--who were among the chief victims and ultimately in the forefront of the victors over Nazism deserve also to be remembered and honored.

Germany, nearly half a century after Nazism was crushed, is a proud and solid democracy and one of the world’s strongest economies. Russia, less than three years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, struggles to achieve stability, create democratic institutions and establish an effective market economy. None of this could have been predicted when victorious Soviet troops raised their flag over Berlin in 1945. Nor can the political future be predicted today, as the departure of the last Russian forces from Europe brings an era to a close.

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