Why it's hard to rely on historical memory
The 21st century has not started well. But we can’t be accused of forgetting how bad the last one was. Recently, even as we have witnessed both a glut of violent crises, from Syria to Ukraine, we’ve also seen a surge of public commemoration. The same month that the head of the United Nations refugee agency stated that the agency “has never had to address so much human misery in its 64-year history” also saw momentous worldwide observation of the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Still, there’s memory and then there’s memory. Just because the past is commemorated doesn’t mean it’s settled. In fact, the Auschwitz anniversary was the occasion for an inept tussle between Poland, Ukraine and Russia over who exactly liberated it the most. Between a peak of refugee distress and using Auschwitz for politics, the hope that remembering the past will improve our future is clearly embattled — literally.
Behind this brawl over the largest Nazi death camp is the grim war now raging in eastern Ukraine’s wintry fields, Europe’s — and perhaps the world’s — most dangerous hotspot since the end of the Cold War, where geopolitical strategies collide and memories clash. As to geopolitics, the stakes are high and rising. Russia denounces western encirclement; the West condemns Putin’s aggression. Hopes for growing cooperation — still alive, it seems, only yesterday — are dead. So are over 5,350 fighters and civilians. German intelligence sources have leaked an estimate for military and civilian casualties of 50,000, implying that Ukraine’s official figures are misleading. The dead, in any case, form only the tip of a swelling iceberg of the wounded, crippled and displaced. Russian planes and ships prod NATO provocatively. Some western experts, commanders and publicists demand weapons for Ukraine, which, Russia says, might lead to “catastrophe.” Mikhail Gorbachev, crucial in ending the Cold War, is now warning of a hot war between the West and Russia.
With a present that alarming, what use is there for the past?
Alas, too much. The row over Auschwitz was symptomatic: tragedies of the past have become positions in memory wars. It’s not only the Holocaust, but also World War II and the horrendous, policy-induced Soviet famine of 1932-33, which killed millions of victims in Ukraine (and beyond). The scale of these catastrophes partly explains their resonance. Globally, the Second World War brought violent death to more than 60 million people, the majority civilians. The Holocaust meant the mass murder of 6 million. In what was then Soviet Ukraine, that regime-made famine killed between 2.6 and 3.9 million victims; counting beyond Ukraine adds millions. Moreover, behind these numbers loom the long shadows of modern Europe’s totalitarian behemoths — of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union, of violent ethnic nationalism, of Communist authoritarianism beyond Stalinism, and of Europe’s long Cold War division.
Between 1945 and 1989, the continent was split not only by walls and barbed wire, but also by different ways of remembering and forgetting its brutal and often — as eminent historian Istvàn Deák’s new Europe on Trial reminds us — shameful past. While in the current crisis Ukraine’s internal divides or cohesion are debated, its uncanny power to bundle Europe’s anxieties not only about the future but also the past stems from this larger division. In Europe’s Cold War East, it was almost entirely forbidden to openly name the crimes of Communism or mourn its victims, while the crimes of Nazism — and the victory over it — became a cornerstone of official memory. Yet the Holocaust, while not denied, was also downplayed. The victims were often posthumously deprived of the Jewish identity for which they had been murdered. Also neglected were the perpetrators’ special anti-Semitic motives and the facts of local collaboration in hunting, plundering and killing Jews.
In the West, meanwhile, at least in the later postwar decades, a tendency developed to make the Holocaust a symbol of the crimes of Nazism in general. Facing the Soviet Union as a potential adversary, it was certainly not forbidden to name the crimes of Communism, including the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany between 1939 and 1941 and the subjugation of Eastern Europe after the war. Yet many western Europeans chose, deliberately or inadvertently, to be less interested in Communist crimes and their victims. With regard to Communist crimes, one half of Europe was not allowed to talk about them, the other was not always eager to hear about them.
When, one generation ago, the Cold War was suddenly over, Europe faced a challenge: East and West shared what is, historically speaking, a new and unusual state of mind: the conviction that a recent, deeply compromised past was crucial to who they were. But they did not see eye to eye on the meaning of that past.
Now the war in Ukraine is turning into a catalyst for accelerated paradigm shift. Insisting on understanding World War II solely as the valiant fight against Nazism to which the Soviet Union contributed decisively at horrendous cost, Putin’s regime, fond of crude propaganda, seeks to exploit its idea of a Good War as cover for its current aggression. This strategy tends to credit only Russia with Soviet achievements and to trump up even Stalin as a symbol of patriotic statesmanship, glossing over his breathtaking record of violent despotism. Unfortunately, it has popular appeal as a recent poll shows. Meanwhile, post-Maidan Ukraine and its supporters, particularly among the former Soviet satellites, emphasize the collusion between Nazism and Stalinism, the evil of Soviet imperialism, and the fact that the sacrifices of defeating Nazism were not borne by Russia alone, but also by the other nations making up the Soviet Union, prominently including Ukraine.
There’s an irony here: A generation after the Cold War ended, with new confrontation looming, Europe’s foundational memories have received a violent jolt from the East pushing them toward convergence. Putin’s blunt armed aggression is likely to permanently tilt important segments of public opinion in western Europe not only against his regime, but also against its version of history.
This is not a simple happy end, for two reasons. First, it is tempting to confuse Putin and Russia and forget that the latter is a part of Europe too. In the long run, Europe cannot consolidate a shared memory by making Russia its abhorred foil. Secondly, no memory is flawless, and that also goes for the one favored by Ukraine and its supporters. In Ukraine, World War II nationalism, a proudly authoritarian and violent movement with strong anti-Semitic features that engaged in ethnic cleansing, is now officially presented as nothing but a noble national liberation effort. Yet there is no principal difference between whitewashing its leader, Stepan Bandera, into a mere “patriot” in “hard times” and doing the same for Stalin. Indeed, in the name of national unity and to make use of those volunteer fighters who are extreme nationalists and even Neo-Nazis, the Ukrainian government and media are now often turning a blind eye to the far right. Supporters of Ukraine do it no favor by abetting this bias. The present is an intensifying tragedy with a growing potential for catastrophic escalation, also beyond Ukraine. Putin is mobilizing manipulated memories as a weapon. Tacitly condoning a tit-for-tat response in the West offers us nothing except another way to raise the stakes. In a shooting war, memory may not strike us as the most important factor. Yet memory wars will only make finding peace harder.
Tarik Cyril Amar, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Columbia University, has lived and worked for five years in Ukraine. He holds degrees in History and International History from Oxford University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Princeton University. His book The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv: A Borderland City between Nazis, Stalinists, and Nationalists will be published this fall by Cornell University Press. He comments regularly on the crisis in Ukraine.