This week marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. Whether one marks VE Day on 8 May, as do the Western Allies, or Victory Day on 9 May, as is done in most post-Soviet countries, this is meant to be a time for commemoration of the dead and celebration of survival for the living. Crucially, this could be a good time to reflect on what it means for Europeans to be engulfed by violence, what makes it possible for neighbours to turn against one another, and whether the Second World War has taught us any of the proverbial ‘lessons of history’ so we do not repeat them.
While the first two questions have been the focus of some ground-breaking monographs such as Jan T. Gross’s Neighbours or Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, the answer to the last question can be found in current affairs: not only has the memory of the Second World War failed to protect us from a return to the violence of the past, it has become an efficient instrument in the wars of today.
In 2014, Kostiantynivka, a small industrial town in eastern Ukraine was captured by Russian-backed separatists. Some of them decided that it would be a good idea to start an old Soviet tank that had stood on a plinth in a local park and served as WWII monument for decades. Their idea was to use the IS-3, named after Iosif Stalin, to fight the Ukrainian Armed Forces who were trying to take back control of the town. While the tank’s military value can be disputed, its symbolic worth should not be underestimated. By awakening this ghost of the past, the new enemy was being equated with the old, i.e. with Nazi Germany.
This fusion of past and present went far beyond Kostiantynivka’s tank-enthusiasts-cum-separatists. In the same year, on 24 August, Ukraine’s Independence Day, and 75 years almost to the day since the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were marched through the streets of Donetsk (a large city in eastern Ukraine some 70 km away from Kostiantynivka) in a deliberate attempt to recreate a 1944 ‘parade of the defeated’ in which German prisoners of war were forced to march through Moscow. Here too, the memory of the Second World War became a shortcut for the justification of today’s violence: the prisoners were labelled fascists, and, by the same logic, those who had captured them were presented as anti-fascists. Since the start of the war in Donbas, the pro-Kremlin media has referred to the Russian-backed separatists as opolchentsy, using a historic term for organised people’s militia that fought alongside regular armies, including in WWII, and to the Ukrainian troops as karateli (executioners), the word that was used to refer to Nazi death squads that terrorised the population of the occupied Soviet territories.
Instrumentalisation of history is not new, nor is it unique to Russia and the separatists it supports. The Ukrainian state has also drawn parallels between WWII and the contemporary war, presenting the current conflict as another phase in Ukraine’s continued fight for its statehood. Yet the ongoing war in the Donbas demonstrates that this instrumentalisation can be taken to another level. As Julie Fedor et al. wrote in a volume on War and Memory in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, ‘In the current Russian–Ukrainian conflict, we are witnessing the emergence and in some cases, the cultivation of what amounts to a new temporality in which elements of past and present are fused together, and linear historical time collapses.’ Rather than simply reviving old memories and using them for political gain, this merging of past and present have created a new reality.
In the current Russian–Ukrainian conflict, we are witnessing the emergence and in some cases, the cultivation of what amounts to a new temporality in which elements of past and present are fused together, and linear historical time collapses.– Julie Fedor et al. (War and Memory in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus)
Such uses of the history of the Second World War were not invented with the start of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. The victory in what is still referred to in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945 (thus discounting the role of the USSR in the division of Europe in 1939-1941), has been celebrated on a huge scale in Putin’s Russia. It is a day that serves to exercise national unity, to show off Russia’s military might, and to remind Russians who the historic and current enemies of Russia were/are. The Victory Day is a whole industry. Its merchandise contains t-shirts and car stickers that include mottos such as ‘To Berlin for German women!!!’, ‘Tank tours around Europe! Fuel is ours experiences are yours’, ‘1941-1945: thank you, granddad, for victory!’, ‘If you want, we can do it all again.’
The year Putin came to power, Russia was marking the 55th anniversary of the end of the war. In his speech at the parade that harked back to Soviet times, Putin said: ‘We are accustomed to winning. This habit has entered our blood; it has become the key not only to military victories. It will be useful in civilian life too.’ This year, Putin would have presided over the 20th Victory parade since he came to power, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has prevented Russia from displaying its tanks—old and new—on Red Square, allowing more than one world leader to, perhaps, sigh with relief for not having to make that tricky decision: to accept Putin’s invitation to attend the parade or to risk annoying him by rejecting the privilege. But the celebrations are not cancelled, they are merely postponed. As Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press spokesman stated: ‘This holiday is sacred for us all, it’s sacred for our President.’ Russia will not miss a historical PR opportunity in the year of a historic oil price drop.
As the war in eastern Ukraine has entered its 7th year, its estimated casualties stand at over 13,000 people. Even before news coverage became dominated by the rising death toll of the lives taken by the outbreak of COVID-19—the fight against which has consistently and often misleadingly been compared to that of a military conflict—this war that is being fought in Europe has become completely forgotten. Forgotten too is the instrumentalisation of WWII history that has fuelled the conflict right from its start in 2014. If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, what happens to those who do not remember about the present?