European Recent Past in Dispute

Conflict of Interpretations between the Western and the Central and Eastern European Perspective.

Publisched: Jan Malicki and Leszek Zasztowt: East and West. History and Contemporary Stateof Eastern Europe, Warsaw 2009, pp.227-288.

The 20th Century, torn by tragedies, doesn’t want to leave as fast as we could wish. It haunts us, with the past still living on.  The memories of the Second World War and of Communism, instead of fading, have recently become a subject of fierce disputes. This is related, among others, to the widening of the sphere of freedom in Europe and widening of civil liberties.  As a result, the historical experiences of the new EU-members, and the experience of such countries as Ukraine, which has not yet accessed the EU but has regained sovereignty, enter into the main stream of the pan-European debate.  Different narratives concerning the 20th Century – West-European, German, the Holocaust, Central European and Russian – are entering into a dialogue and   dispute.

In this debate, two traits are inseparably bonded together: the issue of the accountability for Communism and the issue of how the Second World War should be interpreted.

A good example of how complicated is the re-assessment of Communism is provided by the discussion surrounding “The Black Book of Communism”. Translated into many languages (German, Polish French, etc), it has triggered debates, which are – interestingly – of very different natures. In France the debate has led to the condemnation of the political Left, for its blindness towards Communism and its indifference to Communist crimes. In Central Europe „The Black Book of Communism” has not caused such controversies but has served as a valid confirmation that this part of the continent fell victim to two hostile powers, one of which was the Soviet Union. In Germany, however, the debate on „The Black Book” took the different direction and was concerned, accordingly to some commentators, mainly with the question of the German identity.  [1]

An example of the dispute on the related issue of conflicting interpretations of the Second World War, is the controversy surrounding the 60th anniversary of its ending, organised in Moscow in 2005. The celebrations deliberately harked back to the Stalinist and imperial tradition. As a matter of fact, this dispute began not at 2005 but already in 1945 and was started not by historians but by Stalin himself.

The Soviet-Russian narrative

The Stalinist ideology of “The War for the Motherland” was an integral part of the totalitarian and imperial doctrine. The Soviet Union presented itself as the “nation”, which had carried the heaviest burden and, supposedly, was the chief contributor to the victory over Hitler. The politics of Stalin consisted of presenting himself as the most consistent enemy of Hitler. Such an approach, despite sharing the war effort with the West, was meant to leave room for anti-Western and anti-Capitalist propaganda.  Fascism was supposed to be a product of Capitalism („Fascism as the last stage of imperialism” accordingly to the ideological preaching). Therefore, the Capitalist West could not have been such a consistent enemy of Hitler as, by definition, was the Communist Soviet Union.

Stalin also used the ideology of „The War for the Motherland” to justify his conquests in Central and Eastern Europe.  The Soviet propaganda and the related historical policy presented all independence movements in Central Europe as dangerous manifestations of aggressive nationalism, often in alliance with the Nazi Germany. The national movements in Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania, following the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the ensuing Soviet occupation, were broadly depicted in the Soviet propaganda as sympathetic to the Third Reich, a deception  which was possible because of the  ignorance of the Western public opinion.

The Western Narrative

The presentation of the Second World War in the West did not clash with the Soviet-Russian interpretation. The most common interpretation was that both sides defeated the Third Reich and later came into conflict during the Cold War.  Central European countries behind the „Iron Curtain” were, to all intents and purposes, invisible and their voice was practically inaudible. The military history of the Second World War, taken on its own, supported in some manner the Soviet interpretation. Stalin appeared never to fight along Hitler against the West – such „episodes” as the September of 1939 notwithstanding. At the same time, the gigantic battles of Kursk and Stalingrad impressed many and led to conceding that the Soviets bore the biggest war effort. Russia seemed to be not just an unquestionable ally, but also the biggest contributor to victory, even though not universally liked. Without a pause for thought, the figure of 20 millions of „Soviet wars victims” was accepted, with nobody asking how many of them were Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, or how such statistics were created with reference to Lithuanians, Latvians or Estonians. Nobody dared to ask such questions or to inquire into the nationality of the dead. It would have been treated as an act of aggression against the sacred symbols of the Soviet power, unnecessary and unrealistic in the period of the Cold War and politically inappropriate during the détente.

Central Europe is taking the floor

These interpretations, the Soviet one and different Western versions, were developed in absence of Central Europe as the rightful participant in the European discourse. So it should not be surprising that after the revolution of 1989, when Central Europe regained the sovereignty, new narratives entered into European debates on the 20th century, chiefly  the Second World War and the related issue of re-assessing Communism. How different was the historical experience in this part of Europe?  What new paradigm in the collective European memory is needed, to include the Central European experience? [2]

The fundamentally different historical experience of Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe provides a backdrop to the differing memories. The historical processes in both parts of the Continent flowed differently and this is the cause of differing attitudes to the past, not to mention the obvious conflict with the Soviet version.

          Above all, the Second World War in Central and Eastern Europe was incomparably bloodier and claimed considerably more lives  than in the West. The mass atrocities and suffering experienced by Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Roma could not even be imagined in France or Netherlands.

The important question is: who were the perpetrators? West European suffered atrocities committed by the Nazi Germany. Central and Eastern Europe suffered atrocities committed by the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Russia. Peoples of Central and Eastern Europe were victim not only of the war started by the Nazi Germany, but to the same degree, and often even to a higher degree, of Communism and the Soviet Russia. Western societies did not experience such repressions and, in part, succumbed to the illusions of the Communist utopia.

         Forty post-war years only helped to deepen these differences and, at the same time, strengthen reliable stereotypes inherited from the 19th century.  Above all, Central Europe again lost sovereignty. The West did not have sovereign partners in the capitals of the region, and – because of the Soviet dominance and on purely pragmatic grounds – concentrated its attention on Moscow. For the considerable section of the West-European Left, reports of the Stalinist crimes were manifestations of „abnormal anti-communism”. For peoples of the Soviet block the same stories represented the concealed truth.  During the period of détente hardly anyone wanted to annoy Moscow with bringing up the inconvenient historical facts. Only after 1989 the difficult issues were reopened.

How hard it is, even today,  to raise such matters is exemplified by the dispute provoked by a speech made by a former Latvian Foreign Minister, Sandry Kalniete, at the opening a Leipzig Book Fair in 2004.  She said:

After the Second World War the Iron Curtain which cut across the European Continent, not only enslaved nations of Eastern Europe but also wiped out their history from the European history. Europe was just freed from Nazism and it was quite understandable that after the blood bath of war few people had enough strength to see the truth. People did not have strength to face the reality that terror was still reining in half of Europe and that behind the Iron Curtain the Soviet regime was still perpetrating the genocide against peoples of Eastern Europe and against its own nation.

For 50 years, the history of Europe was written without our participation. The history written by the winners of the Second World War divided all along the lines of the good and the bad, the correct and the incorrect. Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain, researchers finally gained access to archives and to curriculum vitaes of the victims. And this data is confirming the truth, that both totalitarian systems – Nazism and Communism – were equally criminal. [3]

In spite of the „anti-totalitarian consensus”, which Jurgen Habermas proposed in the debate on re-assessing of the Communist East Germany, the Kalniete speech was difficult to accept.

Today, crimes committed by Moscow are known to historians. These are equally crimes of war and of genocide. However, it is politically difficult to refer to them in the absence of any wider debate on re-assessing the past within Russia.  However, if we want to see Russia in Europe, should we not expect that Russia accounts for its own history, in a similar fashion that re-assessment are carried out in Germany and in many European countries? Such demands are made today on Serbia and Croatia. In a different context, a re-assessment of history is expected of Turkey. The Russian democratic elite strongly feels the need of such a re-valuation.

The „anti-totalitarian consensus” means that the Second World War should be seen, to a large extent, as trilateral. Why trilateral? Let us ask some important questions. During the war, was Stalin on the same side as the Western democracies? Where the goals of the war identical for Stalin and the democratic West? Until 1941 Stalin was the „best ally of Hitler”. Later he became the ally of the West but from 1943 onwards there were serious anxieties about his loyalty. Was it not, in fact, a trilateral war of two totalitarian systems and the democratic West? At least Churchill was frightened of a prospect of a separatist peace between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. The factual material gathered in this area is huge. But the image of history will not change unless the underlying fundamental notions, dominant in the public opinion, change as well.

Symbols are also important. We all know „cemeteries of Soviet soldiers”.  Each grave is adorned with a red star. No cross, no sign which would tell us the religion or the faith of the dead. And how many of them were Orthodox, Catholics, Uniates, Muslims, or Jews? Even after their death their religious identity was denied to them. What a European cemetery for soldiers of the Second World War should look like?

The need to manage the historical experience of new EU-members does not have just the Russian dimension. There is also the German dimension. In many respects, interpretations formed during the period of the cold war must be reanalysed and broadened. In this context, a reviewed interpretation of the Hitler-Stalin pact is of fundamental importance. The pact is often mentioned, but the date when it was made, the 23rd of August, has not become a reference point in the European history of any significance or impact. The consequences of the Hitler-Stalin pact are not properly appreciated, despite the fact that the pact did not just provide a springboard for plunging Central and Eastern Europe into the chaos of war, but also determined its fate for several decades after the was ended. It reality, its consequences were removed only after 1989.


Memory of  the Holocaust, the Assessment of the 20thCentury  age, the Reconciliation and European integration

In the centre of the contemporary German culture of remembrance, there is the Nazi era, but – first and foremost- the Holocaust. [4] – wrote correctly an outstanding German historian.  His statement can have a more general application. The Holocaust is and it should be in the centre of the European remembrance culture.

Undoubtedly, the history of the Holocaust contributed to the fact that the Second World War is being viewed increasingly from the perspective of its victims, and not just as a military struggle or a in terms of political history. The memory of the Holocaust does not leave room for heroization of the war effort as it was a common practice in national historiographies. Only history written with victims in mind can serve the reconciliation process, because victims on all sides suffered equally. The awareness of this suffering is supposed to bring people together and to reconcile the opposing sides. [5]   The unique dimension of the suffering of the Jews is of singular importance.

It should also be noted that the Soviet-Russian interpretation of the Second World War stands in an almost open conflict with the memory of the Holocaust. This interpretation involves its own different hierarchy of who were the victims and a complete different manner of speaking about them. In the Eastern bloc, and particularly in the Soviet Russia, the atrocity committed on the Jewish community was not presented as something exceptional, because it would provide a competition for the war martyrdom of the „Soviet nation”. The manner of presenting the dead was also completely different. The monumental post-war propaganda painted the heroes in the solemn and exalted pose, whilst the victims of the Holocaust were, above all, defenceless and exposed to death. [6]

The re-assessment of the “bad history” seems to be a main theme in European historiography and a requirement for collective historical awareness in the majority of European societies. The 20th century tragedies, war crimes and the genocide make this re-valuation a universal issue, touching the entire continent, with the Holocaust providing the most important motif in the contemporary historiography, still provoking questions about causes of a „civilization failure”.

This general and universal re-appraisal of the 20th Century history has differing manifestations in different national narratives. Great Britain never had to re-assess its history in the same manner as Germany had to. For the French, the Vichy problem, even though important, is not so essential extent that it cannot be passed over in silence, despite such episodes like the Pappon’s process. For the Swiss, the matter of gold robbed from Jews and kept at their banks, creates perhaps a painful irritant, but without a fundamental importance.  This also applies to Italy, despite the Fascist period between 1922 and 1943. Societies of Italy, France, Great Britain or Belgium can occasionally deal with the re-assessment of  some fragments of their own past e.g.: with the history of  colonialism. Yet, these are not the issues which could pose fundamental questions about their own identities. [7]

The situation is entirely different in Central and Eastern Europe and in Germany. This is where the re-assessment has a far grater significance and a more important role. In Central and Eastern Europe and in Germany, the re-assessment is directly linked to arguments about the collective identity.

The German model of re-assessment and the German capacity for self-criticism provide some universal guidelines. Whilst it is difficult for the Germans to come to terms with their history, their approach provides them with the best certificate as a political community which is ready to bear responsibility for the burden of the past. [8] Additionally, the East German experience of 1945 to 1989, creates a bond of common fate with the Eastern part of the continent.

In Central and Eastern Europe the reviewing of the past primarily concentrates on listing their own victims and atrocities suffered from the hands of different sides.  But self-criticism is also needed here, as victims can also be perpetrator on different occasions. This complicated and difficult re-assessment concerns the period when nations of Central and Eastern European had neither sovereignty nor a possibility of acting collectively as political communities. This re-appraisal is aimed at the regaining of the historical memory, filling in of the “blank spaces”, i.e. tackling issues which were not allowed to be raised under the imposed governments, and reclaiming the memory which has been hidden in various social niches, concealed in a literary metaphor, or confined to individual recollections – bringing into the open the memory of individuals, families, closed circles.

One of the prestigious western dailies published the following meaningful comment: The European integration has created a possibility for admitting some shameful deeds, of varying degrees, committed by various nations, and thereby, step by step, approaching a common  historical target point (..) This is absolutely correct. But it reads on: This is however hampered by some statements coming from the East Europeans. [9]  Is this a justified opinion?

From the perspective of the successful integration of Germany into the West European structures and in view of the German-French reconciliation, the German commentator may consider that digging deep into the history of the Second World War or into the history of Communism is unnecessary and inconvenient. The debate on the role and the responsibility for Communism, especially in the Russian context, is often seen as an unnecessary irritant in the relations with Moscow. But Central Europe, having regained sovereignty and the possibility of shaping its own public opinion, wants to -, has to -, and cannot afford not to discuss its historical experiences, openly and without the imposition of censorship. The „common historical target point” is placed further than the West European commentator thinks. By breaking the taboos created by the Communist propaganda, filling the „blank spaces” and recounting its own historical experience – for the first time in this part of the continent in an unhindered manner – the Central and East Europeans do not disturb the peace but are contributing in the most significant fashion to the European integration. The European conflict of remembrance also paves the road to the European reconciliation.


[1] Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin: Das Schwarzbuch des Kommunismus. Unterdrückung, Verbrechen und Terror. München, Zürich 1998. Patrz też: Möller (1999) Horst (Hrsg.): Der rote Holocaust und die Deutschen. Die Debatte um das „Schwarzbuch des Kommunismus“. Kowalczuk Ilko-Sascha: Aufklären, Mahnen, Gedenken. Aspekte der historischen Aufarbeitung in Deutschland Ost und West seit 1945,  http://www.havemann-gesellschaft.de/info11.htm

[2] Por.: Kazimierz Wóycicki: „Ofiary czy współwinni. Nazizm i sowietyzm  w świadomości historycznej”. Wstęp. Warszawa 1997. Gdy chodzi w tym samym kontekście o historię długiego trwania warto przede wszystkim zwrócić uwagę na Piotr S.Wandycz „Dwie wolności”, Klaus Zernack  „Rosja i Polska”.

[3] Pełny tekst przemówienia Sandry Kalniete: http://www.die-union.de/reden/altes_neues_europa.htm. Sandra Kalniete minister spraw zagranicznych Łotwy Sandry Kalniete i następnie komisarz tego kraju w UE Urodziła się na Syberii, gdzie jej rodzice zostali deportowani przez stalinowskie  władze.

[4] Faulenbach Bernd: Diktaurerfahrungen und demokratische Erinnerungskultur in Deutschland; w: Kaminsky (2007) Anne: Orte des Erinners. Gedenkzeichen, Gedenkstaetten und Museen zur Diktatur in SBZ und DDR. S.16.

[5] Holzer Jerzy: Europejska tragedia XX Wieku: II Wojna Światowa

[6] Wóycicki Kazimierz: „Holocaust w niemieckiej i polskiej świadomości” w: „Polacy i Niemcy. Historia-kultura-polityka”, Poznań 2003.

[7] Z kolei przypadek rosyjski, serbski czy chorwacki stanowi całkowicie odrębny rozdział. Na temat rozmaitych przypadków debaty rozrachunkowej patrz: „Amnestie oder die Politik der Erinnerung in der Demokratie”. Hrsg. Gary Smith i Avishai Margalit, Frankfurt am Main, 1997.

[8] Kazimierz Wóycicki:  „Niemiecki rachunek sumienia. Niemcy wobec swojej przeszłości 1933-1945”. Wrocław 2003,

[9] FAZ 18. Februar   2006.

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