“A Remedy for National Narcissism”

15 december 2015

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Alexei Miller - Doctor of History, is Professor at the Department of History, European University in St. Petersburg; Visiting Professor at the Central European University (Budapest).

Resume: National historical narratives describing the grandeur of “our” nation and its struggle for good against evil are the intrinsic ailment of history. But there are also historians who take such narratives with a grain of salt. If society prosecutes historians who lay the groundwork for critical public dialogue about the past, it will lose the only effective remedy for national narcissism.

Fyodor Lukyanov talks with Alexei Miller, a Professor of History at the European University in St. Petersburg and Central European University in Budapest, about the role of history in politics today.

– The international institutions in charge of the current world order took shape in the wake of World War II. Lately these institutions have been reevaluated not only in Europe, but also in the Far East. Does this mean that the world order established in 1945 is doomed?

– There is a somewhat different cause-effect relationship. The world order changes along with the balance of power. Our musings and assessments about the results of World War II service politics in a changed environment. I don’t think we will go as far as abolishing the United Nations and the Security Council as a club of five countries with veto power. But what initially performs a certain function as a historical memory policy eventually develops its own inertia. For example, when China suddenly becomes the main winner of World War II, this is clearly intended to solve problems inside the country and determine its positions globally. It does not matter how many times a Japanese prime minister apologizes for Nanjing, Korean women, or Japan’s actions in general. What matters is that by so doing he performs an act of contrition that puts him at disadvantage at any talks where ongoing conflicts are discussed.

– In his speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Prime Minister Abe clearly said for the first time that his country should stop apologizing and that future generations should not apologize endlessly.

– He saw the mechanism and realized that apologies did not lead to reconciliation, but only perpetuated the guilt.

– But what about Germany?

– Germany is a specific case we have not completely understood yet. The mechanisms of realization and repentance were first set in motion by the Americans, not the Germans. Actually, the occupation authorities planned to do this in a much harsher manner, but the Cold War began, the GDR came into being, and West Germany sank into oblivion for quite some time. Former Nazis were allowed to enter politics, and so on. Then 1968 arrived, bringing a new inquiry that we have come to interpret as a common opinion supposedly indicating that the Germans have fully recanted and repented. But this is a misbelief. If the issue of repentance still dominates politically, then this does not mean that everyone shares this approach. The day after Willy Brandt silently knelt down at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, many German newspapers wondered who had authorized him to do that.

In the early 1980s, a well-known “battle of historians” was fought in Germany, when historians tried to discover whether there was anything in the country’s history of which to be proud, and they eventually started debating if German suffering ought to be discussed or would that be politically incorrect. Those who thought it should be discussed were ostracized at first. But things have changed. It would be interesting to take a look at the symbols of repentance. One of the most vivid is copper plaques – stones set in the cobbled pavement in front of buildings where the Nazis captured Jews. These plaques usually contain dates and names. You can find them in some cities. But there are also other cities, like Munich, where people said the plaques would be too slippery to walk on. And there is also Bamberg with its beautiful Old Town Hall. There are three memorial plaques in the city. One honors Colonel Stauffenberg and the Germans for their “heroic resistance.” Another one says, accurate to a person, how many people were killed while on duty, how many died from bombing, and how many went missing in 1939-1945. They are all remembered. Next to it is a plaque that simply reads: in memory of the victims of the Nazis. Period. No numbers. They were never counted, even though this can be done of course. I mean the Germans have done an enormous amount of work; there is no doubt about that. But there is hardly a society that has no memory problems.

– I have the impression that as its role in Europe grows objectively, Germany is turning the page, so to speak. The Germans do not reject their past and consider its rehabilitation impossible, but they think that they have repaid their debt. And one can even sense a feeling of superiority among them, stemming from the opposite; that is, we were so bad, the worst of all, but we have coped with that, and now we have the right to teach others, including Russians. This angers and antagonizes us. But for them this is a natural process, not because they have forgotten, but, on the contrary, because they remember.

– When it became clear that Germany had a leading role in the European Union, the past became an instrument in the hands of those who wanted to reap some benefit. For example, when Warsaw was pressing for recognition in EU institutions, Kaczynski said that Germany could share its seats in the European Parliament because there would have been more Poles if the Germans had not killed so many of them during the war. He spoke with a map of 1939 in the background. The issue of retribution for Germany’s occupation is also pondered in Greece. All this irritates the Germans quite legitimately, as they appeal, relatively speaking, to Protestant ethics and the spirit of capitalism: don’t say that you live so badly because the Germans came to you in 1939 or 1941, for Germany was in ruins too and suffered just as much or maybe even more, but it worked hard afterwards. And the sides begin trading mutual recriminations. The Greeks say they are in debt because they were saving German banks instead of letting them go bankrupt, and so on. It’s a never-ending dispute in which each party has a bit of truth. But Germany will always hear claims and grumbles.

– Is there no period of limitation?

– No, because the process of reconciliation and atonement can never be completed. You will always be reminded. Either society pretends that it is ready to forget something, or it feels the need to remind someone of something, as in the case of Russia and Germany. Until recently, the prevailing view in Germany was that the two countries were natural partners, including in redressing historical wrongs. Russia has forgiven Germany, too, shall I say: the 20th century with all the evil Germans caused us was insanity, but now we are turning to the 18th and 19th centuries when the German was a person armed with knowledge, not a gun, and he came to build and do business. Just a short time ago Germany was among the three countries in the world that Russians regarded very favorably. In other words, historical reconciliation took place without anyone making special efforts. It happened all by itself. What do we see today amid the Ukraine crisis?  Germany is viewed as one of the three most antagonizing countries, even as the Fourth Reich. Germany responds to previous arguments by saying that it is time to stop this discourse, that it has yet to be seen who was victimized more, that Ukrainians suffered more than Russians, that Putin is the Hitler of our times, and conducting a dialogue with him would be tantamount to making a new Munich Agreement and appeasing the aggressor.

– You are drawing historical parallels again.

– Simply because this is the easiest way to indoctrinate the public. When you use such clearly negative symbols as Hitler, Munich, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it is hard to explain why it is not so. The image speaks for itself.

– Is our immediate reference to Nazism a response? And generally speaking, doesn’t the way we see the events in Ukraine devalue our attitude towards war?

– I think it was a spin doctor’s trick from the very beginning, old and tested schemes: Ukrainian nationalists and Bandera’s followers are easy targets because they collaborated with Hitler and killed Jews, and this is true. But then things took a new turn and Ukraine came up with a counterargument: Bandera’s followers are excellent guys because they fought valiantly against Soviet power, never touched Jews and actually saved them, and that sort of thing …

– But these are marginal views after all …

– This was written by a person who is now director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, Vladimir Vyatrovich. He wrote an entire book about that.

– Very well then, Ukraine is engulfed by revolutionary fervor, but what about the West?

– There are some well-known people in the West, mouthpieces for public opinion on these matters, who actually support the Ukrainian version. Timothy Snyder is one of them. In 2011, [nationalist far-right Svoboda party leader Oleg] Tyagnibok organized the first torch-lit march in Kiev. He also wrote an article about fascists in Kiev for The New York Times. I mean, he had one position. In 2013, Snyder signed a letter from intellectuals who stated that neo-Nazis had no part in the Maidan events in Kiev. Both sides acted in the spirit of mutual negation and escalation. Both distorted facts: Russia did so by equating Maidan protesters with neo-Nazis; the West, by claiming that neo-Nazis played no significant role in those events. And so on.

This issue first came into view not during the Maidan protests, but after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Those who had fought against Soviet power in 1943-1945 were regarded in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and parts of Ukrainian and Moldovan societies as heroes even though they had been Hitler’s allies and had taken part in acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and the Holocaust, not only in their own republics, but outside of them too. This was a very serious problem. Moscow brought it to the West’s attention, but the West, the old European Union, failed to cope with it – on purpose.

– Did it fail or did the West consider it not important enough to address?

– This is a central issue in the Western European construct of historical memory. By the time the Soviet Union broke up, a consensus had formed in Western Europe that the Holocaust was a key event of the 20th century because every European nation had been involved in it. The Dutch, the French, and all others gradually admitted that. So it appears to be a rather fruitful construct – a colossal tragedy that no one can claim to be entirely one’s own, except maybe Israel, but it is outside of Europe. All others bear their share of the blame, whether larger or smaller. So everyone’s view is that no such disgrace should ever be allowed to happen again. 

New EU members had a diametrically opposite construct of historical memory in that they saw themselves as victims. And their identity was based on that. The Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania is not about Jews, it is about Lithuanians. The House of Terror in Hungary reveals very little about the ultra-right Hungarians’ campaign of terror against their fellow citizens and Jews in Hungary and in the occupied Soviet territories during World War II, and narrates much more about the Soviet and Communist terror in Hungary.   

 It appears that the Baltic States’ elites worked very effectively with historical memory policy to place a new construct at its center and make the West’s betrayal of small European countries, not the Holocaust, its focal point. They succeeded on April 2, 2009 when the European Parliament designated August 23, when Molotov and Ribbentrop signed their pact, as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. This is what was most important.

Munich was gone, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were equated, and Estonian victims were portrayed as being no different in some sense from Jewish victims, which is nonsense, of course. This concept says: we are the victims and therefore we have the right to act in a way that goes beyond the norms adopted in this club. We can keep Russians in the status of non-citizens and subject them to discrimination because we are victims, and they are not migrants but invaders, and so on.  

Do people need remembrance days for the victims of Nazism and Stalinism? They certainly do. But should they be marked once a year or each of the remaining 364 days?

– This is not a reevaluation of the results of the Second World War, but of its causes or events...

– And roles. In European historical memory policy a person who was involved in the Holocaust could not be a hero. It was utterly impossible to image a monument built to such a person before 2004. Not anymore. Such monuments can now be found in EU or partner countries. Estonia was forced to remove a monument to the Waffen-SS soldier, but the government did that secretly because it knew that society would not approve of its actions. Bandera in Ukraine now stands on nearly every pedestal where Lenin was before, all the way to the Dnieper. What can Europeans do about that?  Put Ukraine to shame? That won’t work because it can always come back with “We suffered under the iron heel of Communism as much as you never did.” By the way, when Germany reunited, no one let East Germans make themselves victims and demand special treatment for that reason. Instead, they were told that theirs was the state of the Stasi, its citizens were poisoned by totalitarian and free loading ideology, and so they should keep quiet. All of the history teachers in East German schools and universities were fired. Every one of them! In other words, the message was: you should embrace our correct discourse completely, even though East Germany had never held Germans responsible, but capitalists.    

– Who brought the highest form of terrorist dictatorship to power.

– That’s right. All this was wiped out and East Germans began to be lectured at, not always successfully, but still. Here is the opposite. The fact that some people wore the SS uniform does not prevent them from being regarded as national heroes, or so schools instruct today. This happened in the Baltic States, and now this is happening in Ukraine.

– I have never thought about the GDR like this. It’s interesting that they could have said, albeit theoretically, that they were victims too.

– Yes, but they were not allowed to say that, because it was not a reunification, but essentially a takeover.

– This self-assertion as victims has some interesting effects. Ivan Krastev just wrote about this. Current disagreements within the European Union over the recent wave of refugees and their treatment have split it up into the west and the east. In part, this reflects the fact that people in Eastern Europe do not want to admit that there can be someone who is suffering and needs to be taken care of, because they say this niche is already occupied.

– Right. This is a deeply rooted mentality.

– This is a serious inner collision for Western Europe. Is it aware of this at all?

– It is. But Western Europe is not an integral whole. If we say that the Baltic States have found allies, we should see where they found them. These were people like Havel and Walesa; that is, renowned representatives of the anti-Communist establishment in Central Europe; former Trotskyites-turned-neoconservatives in Paris; people from Germany, initially more-or-less adhering to left-wing views, but eventually veering in the opposite direction; and Scandinavians due to historical and geographical closeness. A coalition has emerged that still dominates the minds. We can see how they treat Russia. For example, the leading German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an article this past summer called “Russia Is Not the Bear. Russia Is the Pig That Devours Its Offspring.” The words in the title were ascribed to Anna Akhmatova even though this is an inaccurate quote from Alexander Blok dating back to the time of the Civil War in Russia. What would have happened if we described present-day Germany using remarks made by German emigres in 1939 or 1943, and putting them in the title? The author did not do this, or so he assured me. But the fact that this was done by the editorial board is an even stronger indication of the prevailing attitude. Light goes out together with the mind. And this is easily waved through! It never occurred either to the author or to the editor that quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi (What is permitted to Jove is not permitted to an ox), that Russians may say such things about their own country, but definitely not Germans, who devoured twenty million of our lives. Clearly, this is the kind of reaction one expects from Russians. The fabric of relations created in recent years was based on the assumption that Germans remember, but Russians don’t, and try to make friends, and that they sort of reconciled with each other. But all this can be ruined in no time by intellectuals like these.

– Is this a deliberate policy or have they just let the dice roll? The force of analogies has led the Germans to an unconscious inference that the Russians acted in the same way they themselves did before and therefore they, the Germans, should no longer restrain themselves. Is this a policy or a change in the public mood?

– Both. The public mood has changed dramatically and has become repressive to a large extent.

– Intellectually repressive?

– Yes. Those who say that Germany should think about the share of its responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine and that Russians should not bear all the blame become the target of real intellectual harassment. This may seriously reduce their chances of getting a new position in academic circles, for example. In the early 1980s, German historian Ernst Nolte said that Nazism could partly be a product of Communism. He never worked in Germany again. He worked in Switzerland and France, but never in Germany. The same may happen to other people now. It is the atmosphere, but it is also politics.

– Does this mean that history is in danger not as a public political instrument but as a science?

– History is always in danger in some respect. Professional history has a strained relationship with memory by default. What does a historian do? He interviews a person in much the same way an investigator questions a suspect. In other words, he knows that what the interlocutor is saying is not quite true not because he lies deliberately, but because that’s how he sees things. A historian applies the same template to society: society wants to see and remember things this way because it is comfortable. But the right historian will always remind him of other things that happened too. When society is preoccupied with examining its own guilt, responsibility, and problems, historians and society may have a shared agenda.

– Like our year 1989?

– Not quite. Our year 1989 was different because there was no calm dialogue in society. If someone had ventured in 1991 to say that the number of victims of repressions cited by Solzhenitsyn was total nonsense, what would he have heard in reply? Apart from classical Zhdanovism there is also liberal Zhdanovism. Let’s coin a new term. When a historian runs with the crowd and tramples all others, it’s always a problem. The current situation is quite specific because of the political and actual capital being invested in it. For example, it is a common belief in Europe, and particularly in Eastern Europe, that Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands is the best recent book about this. The book has received lots of positive comments in public editions. There have been some bone-rattling reviews in professional academic publications though, including American and British ones, but who cares! It’s a bestseller, and Snyder is a guru. I haven’t seen his new book about the Holocaust, so I can’t really comment. But judging from the accompanying publicity campaign where it is presented as the main and most important work, I do have some suspicions.

Let me remind you that in 1984 three newspapers – Le Monde Diplomatique, The Times, and The New York Review of Books – simultaneously published an article by Milan Kundera about a stolen Europe in French, English, and German. Kundera argued that Central Europe had been stolen from present-day Europe by the Soviet Union and that it had to be rescued. Kundera also asserted that Ukraine had been stolen so long ago that it was hopeless, but that’s a different matter. One way or another, this launched the Central Europe debate. Brodsky replied to this later on, and he did it in such a way that Kundera forbade the reprinting of his text and he felt ashamed. Brodsky wrote a very strong article, “Why Milan Kundera Is Wrong About Dostoevsky.” But Le Monde Diplomatique, The Times, and The New York Review of Books never published it concurrently.

When it suddenly occurs to someone that 10,000 copies of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands in Russian should be published in Ukraine and handed out for free two years after the Ukrainian version came out, don’t tell me that this is just business, because this is in fact a very purposeful investment.

– Does this happen everywhere and at all levels, including the public level, or do the same serious guys sit calmly in their offices and conduct fair research?

– There is always room for fair research, especially in the calm of one’s own office. But then the question comes up: can you present research like that to students? Not all the time. Next question: what happens to you if you publish it? In this respect, the situation in Russia is better than in Ukraine, but still it is not entirely good. In 2004, Kaczynski came to power in Poland, and the first Maidan protests took place in Ukraine, triggering a historical memory war when every day our newspapers commented on the ugly remarks made by Poles or Estonians about Russia, and so on.  

– We sort of replied...

– We did, but in our usual manner –  “you are no better.” Then Obama and Tusk took office, the policy of “reset” was announced, and everything subsided. We set up joint commissions with the Poles and we began working together. We got some room for dialogue with Ukraine, too, after Yanukovich’s election. It turned out all of a sudden that Patriarch Kirill could visit the Holodomor memorial established by Yushchenko, and that was fine because Yushchenko was no longer there. Our commission for countering falsifications never started to work properly. Some positive things cropped up, Wajda appeared on television, and so on.  

Unfortunately, periods of relaxation in memory wars never last forever. And now everyone makes comments and savors all the malignant garbage they say about us in the West. The West has always written a lot of rough stuff about Russia. The question is whether you bring this to the center of public discourse in Russia and thus stir up negative emotions, or you let it lie and rot where it should rot. And on top of it all, everyone has suddenly become a history expert and can talk about his own vision of events. As a rule, it is ignorant, extremely biased, and underlain with the desire to fight back rather than find the truth. It’s a bad time for historians, of course, but we have seen this before. 

– Here is a concrete example. I was in Kazakhstan a month and a half ago just when the country was boiling with anger over our publication of documents that dismissed the legend of Panfilov’s 28 heroes as a myth concocted by propaganda. When Federal Archival Agency Head Sergei Mironenko published them, he naturally did not intend to hurt Kazakhstan, but as a professional historian he simply wanted to get rid of one more myth. However, people in Kazakhstan took it as a memory war act supposedly indicating that it was not their war. All my attempts to prove them wrong met with the same reaction – whatever you do, you always do it for a purpose. In other words, they think about us the same way we think about Washington. My question is, maybe we shouldn’t touch myths?

– Myths must be dispelled of course. Those who do it always think about how to do it best so as not to antagonize society. I had a talk some time ago with Arseny Roginsky. You can find it on the Internet and use it as a reference. He said he had studied archival documents and realized quite quickly that there had never been 20 million deaths in the Gulag camps, that the actual number of victims was much smaller. He did not write about this for several years, because he understood that his reference group would not accept it. He did eventually write about it, but only after others had done so. Documents on Panfilov’s Guardsmen were not a secret, and Mironenko had published them several times before. So, the blame should be directed not at him, but at those who fueled further debate around this topic, at our liberal Zhdanovites who squealed right away that if Panfilov’s heroes were a myth, then the entire Great Patriotic War was a myth. This is what we are fighting now in the first place, dispelling everything persistently, including the Immortal Regiment, the St. George ribbon, and the like. Those in Kazakhstan who had always fanned anti-Russian sentiment simply got a new pretext.

I can say when all this began. Speaking at one of his annual “direct line” press conferences, Vladimir Putin, in responding to a question, said that we might as well have won the war without Ukraine. He also said that almost 75 percent of those who died in that war were Russians.

– Is this true?

– It is true. Whether it is offensive or not can be discussed forever. But, strictly speaking, this does not mean anything, because much depends on what those remaining 25 percent were like and where they fell… it was a bad way to put it. That’s actually when different countries started dividing the war. He could have said that the Russian people had suffered the heaviest casualties and cited statistics, but who had advised him to say that we could have won the war without Ukrainians? Why? From the political viewpoint he shot himself in the foot. Such unprofessionalism begins when the Minister of Culture tells Sergei Mironenko, who has a doctorate degree: You are the director of archives and your duty is to carry your folders around, so mind your own business.

Actually, this is nothing other than trolling. When Polish Foreign Minister Schetyna, who is a historian by education, starts speculating about the liberation of O?wi?cim by Ukrainians, this is deliberate trolling. It has nothing to do with ignorance; it is an intentional act to provoke a scandal. We can see this happening everywhere.

This will continue until we say that historians are untouchable. They find documents and study them with a critical eye. And then it is up to you to decide what is to be done with them. But if you say that there are politically educated people who decide whether they should be published or not, then you will destroy the fundamentals of the historical profession. 

– But historians must also live up to these high standards and be completely unbiased and impartial …

– Historians are not saints, many of them give in to the temptation, praising one nation and vilifying others. National historical narratives describing the grandeur and losses of “our” nation and its struggle for good against evil are the intrinsic ailment of history. But there are also historians who take such narratives with a grain of salt. If society cracks down on historians who lay the groundwork for critical public dialogue about the past and if society prosecutes and drives them underground, it will lose the only effective remedy for national narcissism.

} Page 1 of 5