Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hypothetical history and double memory

This is the English version of a long lecture I gave in German in Berlin earlier this month.

Let us leave history to the historians. Well if only we could. You can do that if you are discussing German reunification, or the 100 Years War. But when it is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or indeed anything to do with World War Two, or most of the Cold War (just to take some examples from Europe alone), then the historians have little chance of keeping the argument into the world of archives, methodology and academic inquiry. Henry Ford may have said “History is bunk” and Francis Fukuyama may have said history has reached an “end” but the reality in eastern Europe is that history is alive and well and living in the present.

To illustrate this I would like to put forward three historical analogies, commonly used in present-day political arguments, and then look at their strengths and weaknesses.

The first comes from an article in a recent Financial Times by Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia and now an advisor to the Georgian government. He is writing to protest about the de facto annexation of two provinces of Georgia by the Russian Federation. These two regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have maintained an unrecognised but de facto statehood since the early 1990s. Russia has propped them up with energy and military support, but stopped well short of recognising them. Now that is changing, with recognition from Russia at least on an official bureaucratic level, if not on a formal diplomatic one. So how does Mr Laar describe this?

Vladimir Putin, the outgoing Russian president, on Wednesday accelerated Moscow's creeping annexation of Georgian territories to sweeping annexation. This is a victory for hardliners who pressed Mr Putin to give the order before he moves from the Kremlin to the Russian White House as prime minister. It comes as Georgian proposals for peaceful settlements in the territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, languish.

The west must shake off its torpor, condemn Mr Putin's gambit and support the Georgian proposals. Ignoring Moscow's Soviet-style land-grab would intensify strife in the south Caucasus.According to Mr Putin's "instruction", Russia will open "representations" in the two territories to protect the interests of Russian citizens there and to foster co-operation. Russia will claim that it has many citizens to protect in the two Georgian territories, after it illegally distributed its passports to anyone remaining after the civil wars and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.

"Those who cannot learn from history," said George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, "are doomed to repeat it." In 1937, Hitler agitated for the rights of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia; in 1938, he annexed Sudetenland into the Reich, purging it of non-Germans.

In Abkhazia, most Georgians, Armenians, Estonians, Greeks and Russians – perhaps 500,000 in all – are already gone. Russia recognises Georgia's international boundaries, but its actions belie its words.Russia's "representations" will be less than official consulates, although consular services will be offered from offices in neighbouring bits of Russia. "Representation" is a euphemism to soothe western fears that Moscow may recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in tit-for-tat retaliation for western recognition of Kosovo.

However, in Moscow's insidious gambit, the "representations" will be among the final steps toward annexation of the two Georgian territories.


"The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion," said Winston Churchill just before Munich – we should have learnt the lesson 70 years ago.

Another analogy, from an opposite point of view, goes roughly like this

Imagine that the Cold War had ended not with the triumph of the West but its collapse. Imagine that it was the capitalist, not the communist system which had proved impossibly inefficient, and that it was NATO that dissolved in a shambles, not the Warsaw Pact, and that it was America that broke up, not the Soviet Union. Imagine that a new government comes to power in Washington, determined to import the best features of the socialist system and to learn from the mistakes of the past. Imagine too that the overwhelming majority of Americans regard the Soviet Union as a friendly country.

Then imagine that instead of consolidating this huge shift in its favour, the Kremlin maintains the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance, and brings first Mexico and Canada in as members, and then the states of New England. It also bombs Nicaragua to dislodge a regime there that it doesn’t like. Now it is considering bringing Texas and Florida in too. The result, predictably enough is to squander the goodwill of the American people and to encourage the administration in Washington to reconsider the goodwill policies of the 1990s and take a much more hawkish line towards Moscow.

That is pretty much what the West has done to Russia. At the end of the Cold War we had a historic chance to make friends. Instead we expanded our sphere of influence, and maintained NATO in existence—using it to bomb Russia’s ally Serbia. Then we expanded NATO to include first the countries of central Europe, and then the former Soviet Baltic republics. Now we are even proposing to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. What folly, what hypocrisy!

And here is a third analogy, also based on “hypothetical history” but taking a radically different line.

Imagine that the Third Reich had not perished on the battlefield in 1945, but had instead survived for decades. Imagine that Hitler had died in the early 1950s like Stalin, but then given way to a Krushchev-like figure and a “thaw” in which the holocaust was admitted. Then imagine that the thaw gave way to a long period of stagnation under a German version of Brezhnev, only for the Third Reich finally to disintegrate in the late 1980s, as a “reform Nazi” (call him Michael Gorbach for the sake of argument) tries to reform the unreformable with a mixture of “Öffenheit” and “Umbau” (which the Russians would call “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”.

Then imagine that the Third Reich collapses in 1991 and the once-captive nations of Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria return to the map of the world from which they were obliterated in 1938-40. A shrunken state joins them—the German Federation—still with a Nazi party, but professing to be democratic and friendly to its neighbours. That staggers on for nearly a decade, until a former SS colonel (call him Waldemar Puschnik for the sake of argument) becomes first prime minister and then president.

The outside world might feel rather uneasy about this, particularly if he moved swiftly to limit media freedom and control the political system. But we might feel that what the people of the German Federation really wanted was stability, that it was not our business to interfere. We might argue that the SS in the 1970s and 80s, when Col Puschnik joined and served in it, was not the same as the SS in the 1930s and 40s. We might even argue that Col Puschnik was a member of the elite foreign espionage division of the SS, and was therefore not involved in its domestic misdeeds. That would be pretty much how the West reacted to former KGB Lt-Col Vladimir Putin becoming president of Russia.

But then imagine that our Oberst Puschnik says that the Anschluss and the Munich agreement were “legal” (Just as Mr Putin does about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). That the Dutch and the Danes should be grateful to the German people for their independence, and should keep German as a second official language and allow automatic citizenship to all settlers who moved there during the occupation era. (that is pretty much what the Kremlin says to the Baltic states now).

And then imagine that in a German government newspaper we were to read that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. That would be truly alarming, and even nauseating. (That is how the Poles feel when they read, in five mainstream Russian news outlets in the past eight months, that the Katyn massacre was the work of the Nazis and not of the NKVD).

Each of these historical analogies has strengths and weaknesses. The first one risks sounding lazy and simplistic. It is easy to compare almost anything that one doesn’t like to the 1930s. The bad guys are behaving like Nazis. We are as weak as Neville Chamberlain in not standing up to them. It is not necessarily wrong, but it risks being ineffective. Godwin’s law states

As a Usenet [an early version of the internet-EL] discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."

It is often elaborated to a simpler principle: the first person in a discussion to call his opponent a Nazi has automatically lost.

Secondly, Santayana’s statement is nonsensical. It is simply not true that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Huge chunks of history are forgotten, and have absolutely no bearing on the present. Hugely traumatic events such as Hundred Years War, or the Wars of the Roses, or the War of the Spanish Succession, are forgotten to the general public and rightly so. The idea that a jealous God of History punishes inattentive pupils through excercises in repetition sounds like a variation of the plot of Groundhog Day; it does not have any bearing on real life. Moreover, remembering history does not mean that the lessons that can be drawn from it are unambiguous or pleasant. Hitler remembered the massacre of the Armenians, and concluded that genocide is soon forgotten. A Chinese reader of the Economist wrote to me recently saying that his country’s mistake in Tibet had been to be too soft: had we treated them the way you treated the Tasmanians, he wrote, we would have long since solved the problem.

Thirdly, such historical analogies also risk alienating the people they are trying to convice. For all its faults, Putin’s Russia is not the Third Reich. For all its virtues, Saakashvili’s Georgia is not like pre-war Czechoslovakia, a democratic and blameless victim of external aggression. The frozen conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are much more complicated than the future of the Sudetenland. It is much better to make historical analogies ingenious and thought-provoking than hackneyed and simplistic.

The second one certainly meets those criteria, but falls short on another: moral context. The states of New England were not forcibly incorporated into the United States at gunpoint, nor were their elites deported in cattle trucks to Alaska. Nor did the American government in the 1930s provoke an artificial famine in Texas that cost millions of lives. A more accurate analogy might be to imagine that Hawaians had fled in their thousands to freedom and safety in Russia to escape American imperialism, and that the archipelago state seized its chance to restore independence after America’s collapse. The stance of such a putative independent Hawaii towards the victorious Warsaw Pact might well be highly favourable.

In other words, seeing history solely in terms of power politics and geography distorts the picture.

The third analogy is loaded with moral context, if in a rather one-sided way. Many Russians, particularly those who take a pro-Kremlin view, find any linkage of Soviet and Nazi history offensive. Their struggle against fascist aggression in the Great Patriotic War is deeply embedded in the Soviet/Russian national identity. Stalin’s crimes are mere details compared to the titanic struggle of the Russian (or Soviet) people.

Secondly, the analogy is flawed because Third Reich was so closely bound up with the person of Adolf Hitler. Soviet apologists were able to denounce Stalin while venerating Lenin, the true inventor of the Red Terror. A selective reading of Marx and Engels provided an ideological infrastructure independent of the Soviet state’s founding fathers. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine a Nazi Khrushchev managing to denounce the Holocaust while praising the principles of National Socialism. Though he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “geo-political catastrophe of the century”, Putin is not a neo-Communist.

It is also questionable whether Germany’s post-war Vergangenheitsbewältigung [Coming to terms with history] can be held up as an exact template to be followed by modern Russia. Nazism lasted barely a decade; Soviet power in Russia lasted for 70 years. That leaves much deeper traces and it is unfair to expect them to disappear overnight. Moreover, Germany was first defeated and occupied, and then run by anti-Nazis such as Konrad Adenauer and Willy Brandt. Russia lacked a similar cadre of credible political leaders uncontaminated by history. If Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who spent decades in the Communist Party, can be counted as morally admirable reformers, what are the grounds for utter hostility to Mr Putin’s KGB past. The moral difference between the KGB and the Communist Party needs careful elaboration.

It is also easy to overstate the significance of Soviet echoes. Germany in the 1950s and 1960s was infested with ex-Nazis in prominent positions. Revanchist sentiments among the populations deported from Central Europe were intense. If modern Russia had a movement anything like the Bund der Vertriebenen of the immediate post-war years or refused to recognise the eastern frontiers of the Baltic states and Ukraine, that would be far more alarming than the current position. Remarks by senior Kremlin figures about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact may be deplorably tactless, but they fall a long way short of “Schlesien bleibt unser”. Similarly, Russia is not officially renouncing its acknowledgment of Katyn, however tasteless the quibbles and distortions in some media outlets may be. Even in historically conscious Germany it is possible to find mainstream figures who object, at least privately, to the “demonisation” of all aspects of the Nazi regime and feel that the “Holocaust lobby” is cynically extorting money from a country that cannot defend itself.

That is not to say that analogies of this kind are useless or wrong. The sanitisation of Stalinism in official Kremlin propaganda is sinister, and the use of history as a political weapon is real. By saying that the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact are legal, Russia is mounting a profound if subtle political attack on the Baltic states. Their policies on language and citizenship are justified, and justifiable, if you accept that these three countries have historical continuity dating from the interwar era, and were occupied territories during the Soviet era. Settlers who moved there during the Soviet era did so against international law, and it is reasonable for the Baltic states now to set some rules for those wishing to naturalise.

If, by contrast, the Baltic states were legally part of the Soviet Union from 1940, then they were indeed “liberated” and not “occupied” by the advancing Soviet forces in 1944. When they became independent in 1991 it was in the same way as Belarus or Ukraine, as Soviet Socialist Republics. If so, then an attempt to divide the population into Übermenschen and Untermenschen based on ethnicity would be discriminatory and unfair.

The difficulty is in getting the argument on to these tracks. A provocative historical analogy may deliver the necessary jolt. Or it may simply arouse such hurt feelings that no further discussion is possible..

It is therefore particularly important to avoid self-righteousness. The great temptation in this kind of political argument is to cherry-pick the precise intersection of history and geography that makes your favourite people look good, and your least favourite people monstrous, silly, or both. Here is the real “Doppelgedächtnis”: my history is my business, but your history is my political football. A useful principle is to start from the view that it is unlikely that any country or people are solely victims and never perpetrators. Poles, for example, are Olympic champions in recalling their own suffering, particularly because those recollections had to do constant battle with the communist lie machine. But it can sometimes be difficult for Poles to appreciate that their eastern neighbours, such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians, do not view history in quite the same way. Estonians and Latvians readily recall their own traumatic suffering under Russian and German rule; the story of the violent and sometimes murderous expropriation of Baltic Germans landowners in the early 1920s attracts little attention. Life in interwar central Europe and the Baltic states may have been a paradise compared to what came afterwards, but it was better for some than for others: Jews, Communists and Trade Unionists in particular may remember that era less fondly than those with roots in other parts of the political or social spectrum. Righting one set of wrongs usually involves creating new ones, especially when it is done in a hurry: the continuing arguments in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic about the Benes decrees illustrate the point well.

Playing a game of historical “tit for tat” is pointless. History does not provide convenient starting points, like the start of a football game, where the score is nil-nil and it is possible to see who scored first and who committed the most fouls. It would be equally mistaken to adopt a position of total moral equivalence, where everybody is equally guilty for everything and all crimes cancel out. This is the position increasingly taken by the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, who argues that Stalin was doubtless a bad man in many respects, and did some bad things—but don’t forget Hiroshima.

The best way to start the discussion is to be provocative while avoiding self-righteousness.

Although the fashion for making public collective apologies for past ills is open to criticism for being merely empty rhetoric, it seems to me that it is still better than not showing contrition. The fashion in most of Europe for denigrating every aspect of the age of Empire, and ascribing every modern African ill to the legacy of slavery, colonialism and exploitation may be over done. But it is certainly better than simply asserting, as many Russians do, that the effect of imperial rule on their dominions was “civilising”. The approach taken by New Zealand and, lately, Australia towards their aboriginal populations would be utterly unimaginable in the context of their analogues in Russian republics such as Mari-El, Chukotka or Khantsy Mansiisk.

From a British or even Anglo-American point of view this means in particular taking a bleak view of the sentimental and self-righteous approach in which the Second World War is remembered. It is sometimes easy to get the impression that the TransAtlantic historical consciousness sits happily on the political contours of films such as Casablanca and the Sound of Music. I wish they would read Norman Davies instead. The comforting portrayal of the war as a welltimed one-dimensional struggle between good and evil, featuring neatly framed episodes such as the Blitz, the Battle of Britain and D-Day, is both toxic and misleading. Uncomfortable questions are skated over. Why did we declare war on Finland? What was the communist penetration of the SOE and what effect did that have on our non-communist allies in the Balkans? How honourable was our treatment of Poland? Why did we repatriate the Cossacks and the Cetniks? I am not arguing that Britain was wholly wrong in the decisions it made, or even that attractive alternative existed that were not taken. But without a thorough and knowledgable exploration of the darker corners of the West’s wartime history, any attempt to challenge the current interpretations of the 20th century in countries such as Russia risks looking hypocritical and onesided.

Given the urgent need to do exactly that, and the consequences if we fail, it is imperative to make the case with both the maximum clarity and the maximum moral authority. As with so many other features of what I describe in my book as the New Cold War, the biggest and hardest tasks are at home.

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