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The leader with most enhanced reputation

LAURENCE REES: Whose reputation do you think, as an individual, was most enhanced by this conflict?

OMER BARTOV: It’s a difficult question. I can think of many people whose reputation will be remembered for other reasons. Enhanced positively, you would probably have to go to Western leaders for that, so you would end up saying, well, Roosevelt, Churchill, they both became great war leaders. But it’s hard for me to think of them as having an enhanced reputation within the context of what we’ve been talking about, because in some ways they’re irrelevant to that. Irrelevant in the sense of the war as such; obviously the United States plays an important role in equipping the Red Army and Britain is fighting an important war, clearly. But within this context I think that the competition is between Hitler and Stalin and their reputation is enhanced. Hitler becomes, as he always wanted to be, at the centre of the world stage, he is for a while the most important figure of the war and he remains so until today. So in some ways Hitler remains the major figure. If you look now at Russia, modern Russia today, not the Soviet Union, Stalin’s reputation has returned. Stalin is now celebrated in many circles and in Russia primarily because of World War Two, or rather because of the great patriotic war.

For me one of the most extraordinary experiences is going to Moscow and Kiev and seeing how there is always a series of newlywed couples who feel that they must be photographed in front of the monument to World Two, the great patriotic war, and not only in Russia but also in the Ukraine. And Stalin is seen by many Russians today as the man who saved Russia or the Soviet Union, and so in some ways these two men who were butchers, who were mass murderers, have come out as the most important figures of World War Two. Not in the perspective of America or of the British, but from the perspective of where much of the war actually was fought, won and lost.

LAURENCE REES: There’s a big controversy now about Roosevelt’s attitude towards Auschwitz and the question of whether or not Auschwitz should have been bombed. Is that something that you’ve taken a view on?

OMER BARTOV: Well, you know, this is not a new debate, this has been going on now for several decades. The catchphrase for that is should Auschwitz have been bombed or not? Of course, Auschwitz was bombed but not the part of it that should have been bombed if one wanted to stop the mass extermination then of Hungarian Jewry, which was the only Jewry that could have somehow been spared, at least in part, had the gas chambers been bombed. I think regarding what is happening in ’43, ’44 the ability of the Allies to do much about it is very limited. They are fighting a very brutal war and they’re not sitting on their hands, they’re fighting and dying in large numbers. If there is, to my mind, blame, the blame is in the 1930s and the blame is when millions of people were trying to escape regimes that were saying that they would like to be rid of them. And countries like the Unites States said, well, we have no room, but the United States then had half the population that it has today, so obviously it did have some room. And Hitler at the time was saying, well, nobody wants them so we’ll take care of it. That, I think, is the point. And if you want to learn anything, any sort of lesson from all that, to me there is one important lesson, that when you can identify people who are in need, who are in danger and you just shut your eyes, close your ears and say I don’t want to know about them, then you are signing a death warrant. And the price that you would have to pay to save them is not as high as it would be five years later when you have to fight a war.