02.03.2020
Why Memory Wars Will Be More Acute, and How This Threatens the EU and Russia
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

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 Discussion Club. Research Professor, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow.

Memory wars have sharply escalated. Mutual recriminations are voiced on a practically daily basis. Their proximate cause is the forthcoming 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. But what is at stake is contemporary politics, not history as such, and it is important to understand the actual reasons that have made the issue topical today.

The Russian position has been examined on multiple occasions. The Great Patriotic War was a major turning point in Russian history, a crucible to which nothing else can compare. In the present context, it has become the only major historic event capable of uniting the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens, especially if we ignore controversial and tragic episodes that took place during this period and focus on heroic and legendary factors. All other key dates in Russian history divide people rather than unite them. Strange as it might seem, the political motivations behind memory wars in the EU do not differ much from those in Russia. 

Nobody questions the fact that the EU as a project is in crisis – one that requires not just a pragmatic “refinement” of its political institutions or the functioning of the single market, but a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of its constitutive and ideational principles.

From Ruin to Expansion

The European community was born out of World War II. The orgy of self-destruction that engulfed Europe in the first half of the 20th century forced farsighted politicians and intellectuals to think about how to avoid such cataclysms in the future. They understood that any such recurrence would mean the end of any prospects for the Continent’s future. The genius of the EU founding fathers was their ability to build a model that combined an idealistic passion for keeping the peace with an allowance for all member states to pursue their practical interests.   

The core values of the project were built on several postulates. First, “This must never happen again, we have learned the lessons of World War II.” In the last quarter of the 20th century, as the project advanced to a more developed stage following the social upheavals of the late 1960s, a new dimension was added: “We all bear a share of responsibility for the epic tragedy of the Holocaust,”  the attempted liquidation of an entire people on ethnic grounds. “All are responsible” did not signify any detraction of German guilt but allowed for the construction of a more balanced system of relationships that distinguished between postwar Germany and Germany during the Nazi era. This postulate drew upon a common interpretation of the outcome of WWII shared by all member states of the anti-Hitler coalition (including the USSR).

The end of the Cold War and the events that followed it represented not only a powerful upsurge of European integration and its spread into territories that had been closed off to it, but also a review of its fundamental principles. The dismantling of Soviet ideology broke the monolithic character of Moscow’s position and opened the way to a reinterpretation of a great many historical developments. Meanwhile, the accession of Eastern European states into the EU introduced dissonant notes into the heretofore-immutable narrative in the memory politics. The former “people’s democracies” and USSR member-states expanded it by introducing a discourse of “other victims,” that is, narratives representing themselves as victims of repression and destruction by two totalitarian regimes – the Nazi and the Soviet ones. Meanwhile, some of these countries themselves had  dubious “credit histories” with regard to their citizens’ participation in the Holocaust, but they expected their new senior partners to understand that “it wasn’t their fault, it was life.” The mechanisms by which the historical narratives degraded in 21st-century Europe have been investigated in detail by various scholars, suffice it to mention the works of Russian historian Alexei Miller (see his article The Failure of Memory).  

Why has this new version proved so powerful that it has gradually replaced the earlier interpretation (the conception of twin totalitarianisms that bear responsibility for the outbreak of WWII now stands formally adopted by the whole of the EU)? We must understand the basic political processes within the European Union. The growth of internal contradictions and tensions since the mid-2000s increasingly forces people to seek points of agreement. Russia (and in the final analysis, the debate about World War II is a debate about relations with Russia) is a topic on which consensus is easy to find. In encouraging the Eastern Europeans’ fear of Russia, Western Europeans are convinced that this is more than an acceptable price to pay for maintaining unity. They believe it won’t damage their ties with Russia, and it will calm those who are worried, thereby making them less likely to oppose their links with Moscow.

This process began 15 years ago and continues to deepen. It now involves various political developments, which further instigate the mutual alienation of Russia and Europe and aggravate problems within the EU.

The Need for “Bonds”

The ongoing exacerbation of the memory wars is easy enough to explain. Although the Brexit melodrama, which long ago turned into a farce, has finally concluded, the heart of the matter remains unchanged: for the first time the European expansion has not only halted but gone into reverse. Britain’s departure has altered the very balance of power within the Union – political, economic, and ideological – that is, the balance of approaches and worldviews. And this may result in a much greater impact than the logic of “So what, it’s only one country out of 28” would suggest.

For Europe, this is the dawning of a new period, when the entire system of relationships will be rebuilt. Not only, of course, on account of Brexit – the whole world has changed and will continue to change. It is already evident that various European capitals see the ways of adapting to these changes differently. The key issue is the relationship with the United States, which postwar Western Europe and, subsequently, almost the whole European continent viewed as its irreplaceable patron. And the key to that key is the relationship with Russia, because the reason and justification for U.S. large-scale presence in Europe after WWII was the need to protect the former against the Soviet threat.

This is the backdrop for the latest flare-up of historical polemics. It is more acute than the previous ones, because “The USSR bears responsibility for the outbreak of World War II” has seamlessly transitioned into “The USSR bears responsibility for the Holocaust.”

This is a moral and political watershed that is practically impossible to negotiate. When the argument becomes categorical in this fashion, we shouldn’t be surprised that nuances on all sides disappear. In war, all is fair.

The stakes are very high. The scope of the internal and external challenges facing the EU requires, as already stated, a rethinking of the principles of unification, as well as of its place in the world. The options are but few: 1) reanimating the classical Transatlantic scheme, in which a united Europe is a subsystem of the Global West led by the United States; 2) “strategic autonomy,” that is, distancing from Washington and consolidation of a specifically European identity; 3) a turn to the East, towards an emerging, though not yet formed, Eurasian community.

The first option is the most comfortable, because it implies merely patching up what is already there, or rather, what was there until very recently. But it is impossible without the blessing of the United States, whose priorities have now changed. The third variant suggests a real revolution in consciousness, a volte face, which for the moment appears unrealistic. That leaves the second path, although the distancing from the U.S. is taking place on account of a changing American policy, and not as a result of European choices. The scenario that scares most is the gradual unraveling of the European Union under the influence of the selfsame internal and external factors. No one has a blueprint for the necessary transformation, and it is not clear where it might ultimately appear.

In this situation, it is of utmost importance to find what in the Russian political lexicon are referred to as “bonds” (skrepy) – the symbolic indicators of unity. Historical memory is the ideal terrain for seeking them out. And counterpoising itself to Russia is a tried and true European model.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot

But there is the reverse side of the problem. It is true that the experience of World War Two is the cornerstone of European integration. But this experience presupposed a coherent conception of Good and Evil, which, aside from moral criteria, also reflected the political realities of a stable and balanced system. The latter implied certain “omissions” but had the benefit of presenting a consistent picture. The loss of balance with the end of the bipolar world meant the disappearance of this nice picture (among other things, because of the rejection of the “omissions”), and at first this seemed to strengthen the superstructure of European values.

Yet with time another unavoidable process became evident. The incorporation of countries with a different experience of WWII into the European political space demanded ever more compromise with the rigid moralism that necessitated a rejection of any collaboration with the Nazis. That which was considered by definition unacceptable in France or the Netherlands was seen differently in the case of Latvia and Ukraine – as victims of Soviet totalitarianism, they were granted the right to a “flexible” interretation of their collaboration with Hitler. But if radicals who are not at all embarassed of their ideological affiliation with the villains of WWII receive a legitimate voice in peripheral states, why can’t their counterparts in Western Europe have similar attitudes? The rise of right populist forces in practically all European countries began precisely when the attitude to the war began to take on more “flexible” forms. Clearly, their origins are completely different and the reasons for their rise are many and varied, but they all converge along one line – the strengthening of nationalist feelings,  of “blood and soil” sentiments – the things European integration was meant to eradicate.

Europeans generally prefer not to see these processes as interconnected, although a lot of scholars and politicians realize that the problem is growing and beginning to snowball. But for now, while the thrill of the confrontation with Russia develops according to its own logic, the snowball rolls on and gathers speed. The most negative scenario that one can imagine would be that memory wars may result in a profound conceptual division between Europe and Russia, which will both produce highly simplified and mutually exclusive images of the past. Thereby, the way to a common Eurasian conglomerate will be closed. But by opposing Russia the European Union will gain not unity but a fiercer nationalist internal polarization, because the “flexible” interpretations will stimulate precisely these forces. Clashes and confrontations between Europe and Russia on European soil, now impossible to imagine, will become increasingly more common.

The 75th aniversary since the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations has the potential to mark the symbolic return to the common cause of safeguarding peace. But the opposite can also happen: the jubilee may turn everyone against one another once and for all, and make them face the problems that brought Europe to the disasters of the early decades of the past century.

The World at a Crossroads and a System of International Relations for the Future
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