Monday, May 09, 2005

One war, two legacies 

Interesting contrast between two countries and their attitude towards events more than half a century ago. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin is aiming to once again redefine Russia in terms of its role in the Second World War; meanwhile in London, Germany's ambassador Thomas Matussek is pleading with the British public to finally, 60 years on, let his country go from the prison of the past:
The British behave as if they had conquered Hitler's hordes single-handedly. And they continue to see us as Nazis, as if they have to refight the battles every evening. They are enchanted by this Nazi dimension...

We have to make a distinction between clich├Ęd stereotypes that are outright funny - like in Dad's Army or Fawlty Towers - and something that goes a little deeper. The humour stops when I hear that German children are regularly beaten up and abused by British youngsters who don't know what Germany's about...

Like the conquering of the West is part of the American myth, so it is the same with the British and the defeat of Nazism... We Germans confront the guilt and shame of our past daily, and more thoroughly and obsessively than probably any other nation on earth.
It's indeed an interesting contrast between Russia which never quite came to terms with its totalitarian past, and Germany which has been trying to do so remorselessly for six decades now.

Not surprisingly, the attitude towards the war today is very different in Berlin and Moscow, because their war experiences have been so different. After all, Russia was the winner and Germany the loser, so Russia rejoices and Germany reflects. But it goes deeper than that - Russia is quite desperate to remind the world of its role as the vanquisher of Nazism who sacrificed 28 million of her people to that end - she wants the experience of those four year between 1941 and 1945 to overshadow all that came before and all that came since, because deep down she knows that it was the only heroic, good and decent thing she has done in the whole of the twentieth century. For Russia, these four years from Barbarossa to Berlin are the Golgotha, the national crucifixion, the sacrifice that would redeem the country in the eyes of the world, the blood of those of her own killed by the Nazis wiping away the blood of countless millions of others she had herself spilled with a wild abandon.

By contrast, Germany's dark twelve years of the Thousand Year Reich are a neverending source of deep shame and national depression. Germany wants to move on from the war for the same reason that Russia keeps returning to it - because it was an exceptional time which distorted everything that happened before and after, and as the Ambassador says, it still makes many forget that there is and ever was so much more to Germany than the Hilterian madness. Germany has an understandable grievance that for a country with such a rich and varied history, including cultural and intellectual history, she seems forever reduced to a brutal and monstrous caricature. Suddenly, the contrition and self-reflection of the last sixty years might sound like a bad bargain if they merely serve to continually remind the world about the past. Contrast this with Russia's unapologetic attitude towards its own long dark totalitarian night last century. Putin doesn't seem to care, and he knows that most others don't seem either.

That's why Bush's intrusion into Latvia, Georgia, and Russia herself is so unwelcome. Not only is the President intent on reminding Moscow about its failure to deal honestly with the past, but he is also implicitly arguing that this very failure of retrospection is at least partly responsible for Russia's ongoing failure to develop as a mature and normal state.

The war does still cast shadow over the world sixty years on, but it's not because some 5,000 neo-Nazis are trying to march through Berlin (and are confronted by twice that number of anti-fascist protesters). It's the fact that the war's winner still fails to acknowledge that for its many neighbors the war didn't really finish until 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, as John Rosenthal writes, the United Nations is remembering the anniversary of the end of war as only the United Nations can - by calling for "remembrance and reconciliation" - presumably with Germans as people, not Nazis. Although they also want you "to pay tribute to all who lost their lives in that War", and that presumably means both the Jews and their SS executioners.


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