Thursday, May 12, 2005

A future VE Day....

Forward to VE Day

Our memory wars will never end, but a common future is possible

Timothy Garton Ash in Warsaw

Guardian May 12, 2005

After a continent-wide round of commemorations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, it's clear that the peoples of Europe have a shared past, but not a common one.
Sixty years on, the memory of war here in Warsaw is still irreconcilable with that in Moscow. But it's also utterly different from London's low-key festival of "We'll meet again" nostalgia. Only in the recollections of former inmates of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps does British memory approach the horrors of daily degradation that are the stuff of everyday Polish or Russian memory.
For Russians, the war began in 1941; for Poles and Brits, it began in 1939. For Vladimir Putin, May 9 1945 marked the end of the Great Patriotic War, when the Red Army almost single-handedly liberated - yes, liberated - most of Europe from fascism. For most Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, it marked the transition from one totalitarian occupation to another, Nazi to Soviet.
Really, we should talk about second world wars, not the second world war. The plural applies inside as well as between countries. I am staying here not far from where the Warsaw ghetto used to be. The wartime memories of a Polish Jew and a non-Jewish Pole can still be bitterly contrasting. So can German memories. Last weekend there was a small neo-Nazi demonstration in Berlin. The former leftwing terrorist Horst Mahler, now an extremist at the other end of the spectrum, said the moment of German surrender in 1945 marked "the day of the death of Europe". But Tuesday's opening of the Holocaust memorial in the very heart of Berlin spoke for the great majority of today's Germans. They are struggling to find a just balance between a sense of collective historical responsibility for nazism and a proper respect for the sufferings of their own compatriots, including those who died as a result of Anglo-American bombing or were expelled from their homes by Russians and Poles.
Only by a great effort of collective myth-making have the French combined the memories of the resistance France of Charles de Gaulle and the collaborating France of Marshal Pétain. Step across the Mediterranean for a moment, and you find the Algerians marking May 8 1945 as the anniversary of the Sétif massacre, when a VE Day demonstration turned into a manifestation for Algerian independence, which rapidly descended into bloodshed and a brutal crackdown by French security forces.
A common past? Forget it! The memory wars began the day the second world war ended. They have continued ever since. With the entry of central and east European states into the European Union and Nato, they are being played out in a new way. Central and east Europeans are now articulating their versions of the past through the main organs of what we used to call "the west". In making Putin's Red Square victory parade a mere stopover between Latvia, the Netherlands and Georgia, George Bush has signed up to their reading of history rather than Putin's. Even the usually timid European commission issued a statement saying, among sentiments more comfortable to the Russian leader: "We remember ... the many millions for whom the end of the second world war was not the end of dictatorship, and for whom true freedom was only to come with the fall of the Berlin Wall."
On these warring accounts of the past, futures are built. "Who controls the past controls the future" was the Orwellian formula for a totalitarian regime. In Europe, we no longer live in totalitarian times - even in an increasingly undemocratic Russia and the grim dictatorship of Belarus. So today's milder version is "Who shapes our view of the past can influence the future".
What is to be done? First, we should recognise that it will always be so - even when every last survivor is dead. So long as there are historical memories, they will be contested memories.
Second, we must insist that there are historical facts. When any body politic starts denying or suppressing historical facts, that is a warning sign, like the spots indicating measles. The Soviet Union had historiographical measles for all its life. Russia after 1991 got better. Many Russian schoolchildren had access to a history textbook that taught them, as is only right, about the extraordinary sacrifices of Red Army soldiers and the civilians of cities such as Stalingrad, where, 60 years on, they are still digging up the skeletons. But it also mentioned Stalin's occupation of the Baltic states, his wartime deportations of Balts and others and the contribution made by US lend-lease equipment to the Soviet victory. Now that schoolbook has been withdrawn.
That every citizen of Europe should have full access to the facts about our barbarous past is a precondition for the political health of this continent. The interpretation of those facts is then free. Historians such as Richard Overy and Norman Davies have argued persuasively that the Soviet contribution to the defeat of Hitler has been consistently underrated in most Anglo-American treatments of the subject. But Russia does not help its own case by trying to suppress uncomfortable facts.
Thirdly, while we will never agree on a single version of the historical truth about these events, we can agree on a lesson from them. This lesson for 2005 is the promise of 1945: Never again! In order to keep that promise to ourselves, we need to shape not a common past but a common future. A Polish student from the town of Oswiecim - that is, Auschwitz - explained on German television the other day, in excellent German, that his Polish-German-Jewish bridge-building work was aimed not at the old-fashioned goal of "reconciliation", but at building a "common future". Exactly so. And that's what we are doing, with the spread of freedom and the enlargement of the European Union.
The trouble is that we Europeans are leaving it to President Bush to tell this story for us. And he spoils it, both because of the crude Manichean tones of his rhetoric, and because his advocacy associates the great story of the spread of freedom in Europe too closely with the policies of a particular US administration. So why don't we tell it for ourselves?
The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili - leader of his country's "rose revolution" in 2003 - has said we are witnessing a "second wave" of liberation, inside the former Soviet Union, starting with Georgia and Ukraine. Speaking on CNN the other day, he corrected himself, suggesting it was really a "third wave". I make it the fourth. The first wave rolled over western and northern Europe in 1944-45; the second swept through southern Europe, starting in Portugal in 1974; the third liberated central Europe, starting in Poland in 1980 and reaching the Baltic states in 1991; now the fourth wave, if wave it is, may be building in eastern Europe.
I remember seeing in Berlin, the day after the Berlin Wall came down, a fresh graffito: "only today is the war really over". Now we are waiting for the day when we read those same words scrawled on a Moscow wall, in a democratic Russia finally liberated from the weight of the past. That would be the ultimate VE Day.