Friday, September 4, 2009

Selective amnesia rules as Europe marks the 70th year of start of war

Sep 3, 2009
Memories of WWII: Oh, how they differ

By Jonathan Eyal

EUROPEANS mark this week the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II, which took more than 60million lives and ushered in the worst barbarities in human history.

The main commemoration was held in Poland, the first nation to be attacked by Nazi Germany. It was a moving affair which ended on a high note when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, representing the country which started it all, spoke of a 'Europe which transformed itself from a continent of horror and violence into a continent of freedom and peace'.

Yet almost everyone who attended the commemoration still holds a different impression of that war and its implications. The battle for historic memory continues, and is unlikely to be settled for decades to come.

Russia represents the most extreme example of how the same set of historic events can be interpreted in diametrically opposed ways.

As heirs to the Soviet Union, the Russians feel proud of their World WarII achievement. Bedraggled and often barefoot, Red Army soldiers pushed all the way to Berlin, an epic march soaked at every step in Russian blood.

Unfortunately, that's only part of the story. For on the eve of the war, Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader, signed a deal with Adolf Hitler. The Soviets claimed at that time that this was merely a 'non-aggression pact' designed to prevent a European war.

In fact, under secret clauses to the deal, Stalin carved up the continent with Germany. So, as German troops marched into Poland in 1939, the Soviets took their share of Poland, and swallowed up the Baltic states and a chunk of Romania as well. The Soviets entered the war only in 1941, when they were themselves attacked by Nazi Germany.

For a brief period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Russians were prepared to accept that their country's conduct during the war had been less than honourable. But those days are gone.

For, just as the commemorations got under way in Poland this week, the Russian security services released a batch of documents which, they claim, justify the Soviet Union's behaviour.

Under the new Russian interpretation, the USSR signed the pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 because it knew that the Poles were, supposedly, plotting with the Nazis to invade the Soviet Union.

The Poles - who could be accused of many things, but never of being Germany's allies - are outraged.

'Absolute rubbish,' says historian Mariusz Wolos of Poland's Academy of Sciences, who points out that the Russian evidence does not stack up.

However, facts are unimportant in this game, for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to instil a new sense of pride among his people, and this means a refusal to admit that Russia was ever wrong. Under a new Russian law, anyone who challenges official history is committing a criminal offence.

Although Russia's behaviour stands out in this regard, almost every other European nation suffers from its own selective amnesia about some inconvenient historic episodes.

The Poles, for example, still find it difficult to admit that though they were the war's biggest victims, they were also sometimes complicit in the destruction of Europe's Jews. Few Polish children know that the last anti-Jewish pogrom in their country took place a year after Poland was liberated from Nazi Germany.

For decades, the French lapped up every story about their heroic resistance to Nazi occupation. It was only much later that stories about collaboration with the German occupiers began to emerge. Even Mr Francois Mitterrand, France's president during the 1980s, turned out to have been a former collaborator.

And the British have their own myths. Their failure to defend France during the war is often portrayed as a victory. And the carpet-bombing of German towns, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ordinary German civilians, is frequently brushed aside as mere detail.

More interestingly, however, the Germans are moving in the opposite direction, by challenging taboos that they themselves created. For over half a century, Germans did not speak about themselves, but about the crimes they committed against others. As Chancellor Merkel put it this week, her nation 'bears eternal responsibility' for what happened.

Nevertheless, the Germans now want their own suffering to be remembered. In particular, they ask Europe to acknowledge another crime committed at the end of the war: the wholesale expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe, for no other reason than pure revenge.

One historic 'mental block', however, is shared by all Europeans: a refusal to accept any responsibility for spreading their conflict to other continents. The horrors of the war in Asia are remembered only in so far as they affected European citizens and soldiers. What happened to the Chinese or Koreans - to name but two afflicted Asian nations - is no longer Europe's affair.

The fact that Europeans have a guilty conscience about their past does not suggest that responsibility for the war should be shared in equal measures among the combatants. The ultimate culprit of the war remains Nazi Germany and its manic leadership.

But the arguments are a reminder that, regardless of globalisation and decades of collaboration, historic memories still remain a strictly national affair.

One day, a common narrative of Europe's biggest tragedy may emerge. Until that happens, the continent will not be truly united. For no country that hides its past will be able to tell the truth about its future.

[Who was it who said that in War, the first casualty is Truth. And truth remains a casualty long after the guns have been silenced. It is human nature to have to believe that one is right.]

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