The online session “International Relations and Memory of WWII Today”, organized by the European University in Saint Petersburg and the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, was held on November 23 to forward the International Conference “Memory of the Second World War – Glorification, Condemnation, Accusation, Justification, Explanation. The participants in the panel discussion, moderated by Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of “Russia in Global Affairs”, included Alexei Miller, Tony Brenton, Sergei Kislyak, Ulrich Brandenburg, and Philip David Zelikow.
Speech by Fyodor Lukyanov:
The year 2020, expected to be primarily remarkable for the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, appears to be marked by the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic. While overshadowing much of the international agenda, the epidemic has highlighted the importance of such historic events. World War II came as a powerful benchmark for the transformation of the entire international system, and today there is a feeling that the world is again undergoing a profound transformation reminiscent of the WWII era.
The narrative of WWII has never been uniform, and the conclusions and anticipations made with regard to the word’s history and future have been drastically different. In the European Union of earlier years, the narrative was largely about the crime of the crimes—the holocaust, while in the Soviet Union (and later Russia) the narrative focused on the Great Victory of the Soviet people and army. Both narratives were basically consonant in that they called for banning aggression and bringing peace to the world.
Today the European narrative seems to be more controversial. Many prefer to discuss the beginning of the Second World War, naming the Pact of August 23, 1939, signed by Germany and the Soviet Union, as the event that triggered the war, and putting the blame on both these countries (or even only one). Others discuss the events following the end of the Second World War, the Eastern European countries suffering from Soviet totalitarianism, and the Cold War. Remarkably, these two narratives got an official sanction at the international level by the September 2019 Resolution of the European Parliament, which in fact defiantly supports the idea that were it not for the August 23, 1939 Pact, the humankind would never have plunged in a second world war.
Today the main question is: How can we use the memory and legacy of WWII in a situation where international relations are strongly influenced by memory politics—as an instrument for cherishing conflicts or a potentially helpful mechanism for solving them? The ongoing debate between two opposing sides is in fact a debate about whose truth is more truthful. This debate leads nowhere, and it is destructive as it kills the possibility for dialogue.
The latest interventions of this debate have shown that it is driven by the logic of antagonistic confrontation meant to destroy the enemy, silence it, or marginalize it. Yet there is still hope that the difference in the opinion on historical and international relations matters born from the difference in political pursuits can be overcome if we avoid looking at each other as enemies and try to turn the controversy into a constructive dialogue.