Serge Schmemann: 60 Years Later and Nations Are Still Fighting Over the History of WW II

Roundup: Talking About History

Serge Schmemann, in the NYT (3-22-05):

There was a lot of talk 10 years ago, when the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was being celebrated, that the great war was finally over. Europe was one again, Germany and Japan (not to mention Italy) were fully back in the democratic fold, the "greatest generation" was having a grand last hurrah, a new century was about to dawn. Now here comes the 60th, and suddenly the old resentments are out again in force.

First there were the rumbles over whether Germany should participate at D-Day ceremonies (it did). Now the presidents of Estonia and Lithuania have announced they're not going to Moscow for Victory Day festivities - the end of the Nazi occupation, they argue, was simply a change of totalitarian occupier. President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland accepted the invitation, but urged Russia to use the anniversary to condemn the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact, which led to the partition of Poland, and the 1945 Yalta conference, which led to the partition of Europe. Over in Asia, Japan has been taking its own lumps. China and South Korea are using the 60th anniversary to underscore demands that the Japanese publicly atone for wartime atrocities.

Why these passions over histories that are now so many years back? Why does the "battle of memory" rage on when the vast majority of the world's people were born long after the last shot was fired in 1945?

One explanation is that for so many of the countries that became entangled in it, World War II played a key role in shaping their identities, whether as liberators, victors, victims or evil-doers. With the collapse of Soviet Communism, many countries were suddenly free to liberate their narratives. Others were compelled to look into theirs again. For some, like the Austrians, it is the continuation of an unending debate: were they the first victims or the first collaborators, or both? In Russia, the "Great Patriotic War" remains the premier source of the Russians' image of themselves as a great power.

In the United States, the narrative of "saving Europe" is repeatedly invoked in the new disputes with an increasingly assertive old Continent. As for the Baltic and East European states, membership in NATO and the European Union has finally made it safe to tell Moscow what they really thought all along of the mandatory Soviet myth that they were "liberated" by the Red Army from the scourges of Fascism and imperialism. President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia announced that she would go to Moscow for the anniversary, but then she told the Russians off in a way she would not have dared to 10 years earlier: on May 9, she said, "Russian people will place a Caspian roach on a newspaper, drink vodka, sing folk songs and recall how they heroically conquered the Baltics."

The new narratives may not always be historically accurate. Bulgaria, for example, was allied with Germany, and many Balts enthusiastically collaborated in the massacres of Jews. But the longing to set out a story in which one's own people emerge with honor from the war remains potent....

The battles are bound to get nastier through Victory Day (May 9 for the Russians, May 8 for everybody else). Will they end by the 75th anniversary, in 2020? There certainly won't be many living veterans left, but national memories depend less on history than on how a people wants to see itself at any given moment.

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