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Mention the war

  • 2004-07-28
  • By Ben Nimmo
The slanging-match between Russia and Latvia gets messier by the day. The Russian Foreign Ministry is pressuring international organizations to condemn Latvia's treatment of its minority. The Latvian president has accused Russia of interference in Latvia's internal affairs. Vladimir Zhirinovsky has threatened to invade (again). Latvia's blacklist of unwelcome Russian politicians resembles the Moscow phone book. And, in the midst of the debate, the chairman of the international affairs committee of the upper house of the Russian Parliament's, Mikhail Margelov, has weighed in accusing Latvia of wanting to rewrite history.

"There is one subject that we will never discuss with the Baltic states - that's World War II. Nobody debates it in either Russia, Brussels or Lisbon," he declared on June 5, apparently forgetting that Portugal took no part in the war and, consequently, doesn't have much to debate. "Historians can write what they wish, but statesmen may not unveil monuments to SS men."
His comment passed almost unnoticed in the orgy of mud-slinging, but it goes right to the heart of Latvian-Russian relations. In this part of the world, the war isn't the last thing politicians should talk about: it's the first thing.
Anybody claiming that the West doesn't talk about the war must have slept through May 1. Western Europe has been doing little else since 1945, especially when England plays Germany at soccer, and the EU owes not only its eastward expansion but its very existence to WWII. The European Coal and Steel Community was founded for the sole purpose of making sure that such a war could never happen again. One major argument for EU expansion was that it would heal the war's divides. For both these reasons, every one of the EU's 450 million inhabitants lives in the war's shadow.
To create that ground-breaking community, the politicians took a revolutionary step: They accepted their common responsibility for the war. In 1919, Britain and France crippled and humiliated Germany with their demands for reparations and thereby created the conditions for Hitler's rise to power. After 1945, by contrast, they began a process not of reparations, but of reconciliation. In essence, Germany said "sorry," and the rest of the West said "That's all right, there were faults on both sides."
Without that basic understanding, there would be no EU. Any good marriage guidance counsellor would tell you that for an argument to be resolved, both sides have to be willing to admit their mistakes. It's the same in international politics.
But now the EU has moved East, and one of the borders it's passed is the line where history changes. In the West, there's broad consensus on how the war began: Britain and France put too many demands on Germany, the Germans elected Hitler, Hitler decided that he needed a bigger living-room, and the Wehrmacht marched into Poland. It may not be the most penetrating analysis, but at least everyone agrees on it. East of the Oder, it all gets more complicated. For 50 years the communist authorities banned any meaningful debate on WWII. The establishment line was that the Nazi "bad guys" wanted to take over Eastern Europe, and the Soviet "good guys" stopped them. The dissident line, propagated underground and in exile, was that the Nazis and Soviets were both bad guys trying to destroy the Eastern European good guys, and the Soviets won.
With the revolutions of 1990 - 91, the dissidents became the new establishment, and the conflicting views of history swapped places. Neither side has yet found it profitable to suggest looking for the truth in between.
That good guys/bad guys mentality lies at the root of the whole Latvian-Russian debate. In the capitalist world - and particularly in the new EU states, who suffered most from Moscow's domination - the Soviets were tyrannical aggressors every bit as bad as Hitler. In Russia, the Soviet Union was a victim, fighting to protect the workers' paradise against fascism, and Latvia's current attitude to its Russian minority is an act of rank ingratitude from a nation of Nazi sympathizers. In trying to reconcile Russia and its former satellites without addressing their mutually hostile views of history, the EU is forgetting its own beginnings. Unless politicians on both sides are willing to take a long, hard look into the past, regional reconciliation will never stand a chance. Seen in that light, Mr. Margelov's Basil Fawlty-like refusal to mention the war is the most alarming comment of all.

Ben Nimmo is a traveler-writer
who has written two books on his travels.
He recently moved to Riga
and is currently working
on his third book.