Historical memory about WWII and the XX century is generally influenced by political powers, as signify the recent statements made by numerous European politicians. One of these statements on the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly, during the discussions on adopting a resolution about the WWII 70th anniversary, was delivered by EU representative, who said that the end of WWII brought not freedom but new crimes against humanity. RuBaltic.Ru decided to speak to Cardiff University historian Dr Toby Thacker, who studies historical memory, and to find out how people in Western European countries today perceive the events of WWII, and what tendencies can be observed in historical memories of the European community.
- Dr Thacker, how do you see the state of historical memory right now? What tendencies do you currently observe?
The first point I would like to make that memory is not something fixed. It is something, which is constantly changing, and which is often being shaped by the needs of particular individual groups of people to constructs narratives about memory that suits their purposes. And if we look at historical memory of WWII across Europe, we can observe in certain countries that memory is fairly stable and uncontested. I would give Great Britain as an example, where the memory of WWII broadly has been solid for long time now, and which is the memory of heroic struggle against Nazi Germany. It is a painful memory, but it is held by the fact that in the end Nazism was defeated. I would contrast that stable memory with what is going on in many other parts of Europe, where the map of Europe was redrawn in recent years, particularly, in Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe, where you see the emergence of new national and regional groups seeking to assert their own identity. There, the memory of WWII becomes highly contested, and new narratives appear. In the end, it is really necessary to look at each country and each region individually because these memories, then, become complex.
But I want to make one more general point: I think that during the Cold War period – roughly from 1945 to 1990 – historical memory of WWII in Eastern Europe was largely structured within the framework of the ideas of Soviet communism. Therefore, there was an overarching monolithic sense of memory that was presented by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the memory of the Great Patriotic War, the heroic struggle of the Red Army against fascism and the liberation of, first, Russia, then, much of the Eastern Europe. And that heroic memory was structured all across Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself by the building of memorials, and monuments, and museums, which very largely enshrined that narrative. These memorials were typically, almost universally built in the artistic style of socialist realism, which, again, gave a certain uniformative, monolithic character to those memories and to the narrative that was embodied in them.
Now, with the end of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new countries in Eastern Europe, we are seeing a fragmentation of that once monolithic memory and the emergence of a whole number of individual national memories of WWII, often in some contestation with one another.
- While speaking about the differences in perception of WWII, can we, nonetheless, say that, in Western and Eastern Europe, it is understood that Nazism is evil?
You are absolutely right. I think, there is one very large area of consensus across both Western and Eastern Europe that Nazi Germany is cast as something absolutely evil and abhorrent, therefore, it is a heroic and triumphant memory to the extent that Nazi Germany was defeated and Nazism was abolished in Germany after the war. Although, we see since 1945, that there have been fringe neo-Nazi movements in various countries across Europe, and we have not so far seen any really significant resurgence of Nazism, certainly not in Germany itself. So I think that that memory of struggle against something totally evil is unified in Western and Eastern Germany.
When you get into greater details, though, I think that it starts to break down a little bit, because not unnaturally each country tends to place emphasis on the memory of its own citizens and people, who were involved in the war. So I can point at very obvious distinction, that, in Western Europe, the struggles against Nazi Germany that were fought by the British army, navy and air force, American armed forces and other Allied Powers on the Western European Theatre of war, tend to be emphasized. A very good example is the commemorations surrounding the D-Day on 6 June 1944. In the Western European memory of the war, D-Day looms very-very largely as an enormously significant event. In comparison, if one looks at the Eastern Europe, there is much more emphasis on the war, which was fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. And people in the East would point out what is fairly obvious, that this is the war, which involved most soldiers, where casualties were the highest, where just on any arithmetic calculation most of the German army fought, and where most of it was defeated. Naturally, in Eastern Europe, there is much-much more emphasis on that great fight between the Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army.
- Let’s move on to concrete countries. First, let’s take the West. How do people and historians in the West view and evaluate the role of the Red Army right now? In Russia, we often hear on TV that the textbooks in Western countries and the US somehow undermine or sideline the role of the Red Army. It is true?
That is just not true, actually. There is a broad recognition in the memory of WWII in Western Europe, in Britain, in America, France, and Germany, that the struggle between the Red Army and the German armed forces, between 1941 and 1945, was on absolutely huge scale. Losses there were absolutely massive. And the contribution of the Red Army to the defeat of Germany was absolutely critical. It is certainly well exemplified in all mainstream historiography. If one thinks of the really big television programs, which were produced in Britain and America since 1960s and have been repeated since, he would be thinking about the series World at War (1973-1974) and more recent series on BBC. Always the huge struggle of the Red Army is given full emphasis, so I don’t think that it is sidelined and downplayed.
I would mention two things though. One, that, notwithstanding, there is still – and I think it is perfectly understandable – going to be emphasis on those campaigns that loom very largely on the British consciousness. I have referred to D-Day, but one might think, for instance, of the campaign fought in North Africa, which was a relatively minor campaign. But it were British forces that fought there from 1940 until the defeat of Germans in Tunisia, in 1943. Similarly, in Britain, there is always going to be a big emphasis on a very contested area of memory, the bombing of Germany, because a very significant part of the British war efforts went into the construction and the use of a huge fleet of aircraft to bomb Germany. There was a campaign lasting from 1943 to 1945 to bomb Germany from Britain, which involved millions of British people, a huge proportion of the British war effort. It killed a huge number of Germans, caused a great damage to Germany itself, and a lot of young British men lost their lives in that campaign. So from a British perspective, that campaign is always going to be a central part of the WWII memory.
I will add one more thing about the different times when different countries were involved. The Red Army fought from June 1941 until May 1945. The American army arrived in Europe only in 1943, and the American aircraft started operating against Germany around that point. While British memory lasts from September 1939 right through 1945.
And a central part of British memory and mythology of the WWII is the phase when Britain fought alone against Germany, in Summer of 1940 through the early months of 1941. Inevitably that is a central part of British mythology of the war, which will be very different from anything in Eastern Europe and the USA.
Let me give another example. If we turn to the French – they fought from September 1939, but were overwhelmed by Germany in April and May of 1940, and afterwards were occupied until June 1944. So for the French, the memory of WWII is entirely different because it is a memory of defeat, humiliation, national disunity. In France, a one way that they have tried to overcome the deep divisions, which were revealed in 1940 and sharpened during the German occupation, was to develop a mythology of resistance to Nazi Germany. Again, that very much concentrates on a particularly French experience of the WWII.
- How is Phony War and the so-called appeasement of Hitler remembered in the West right now?
I can certainly speak about the situation in Britain, where it is remembered as a very difficult and an effectively unhappy episode in British history. Typically, it is seen as a policy that was mistaken, and which went on for too long. On the whole, it is not something that the British are proud of.
And, in fact, the word “appeasement” has become something of a dirty word in English as a result.
When there are political situations today, if you accuse somebody of conducting a policy of appeasement that is seen typically as a bad thing, a policy of weakness and indecision.
- The bombing of German cities like Dresden and Hamburg during WWII is often called war crimes. How is it viewed in Britain?
In Britain is it extremely controversial. It has been controversial ever since 1945. There are different views of this, which are in play together. One view is sorrow and a feeling that this was a cruel and inhumane campaign, which needlessly killed many German civilians and cost great damage. You mentioned the raid on Dresden that is the most controversial of these raids. But the other view is that this was something that helped the Allies to win the WWII, and did great damage to the German war machine. And that it was a difficult, but also a heroic struggle, because you must remember that many British airmen got killed and injured in the bombing campaign.
But it is still a controversial aspect of WWII in Britain today. I can remember, as a child I lived in Britain in 1960s, and it was controversial back then. This is, probably, the most difficult part of the memory of WWII for the British.
- There exists an opinion that historians don’t pay enough attention to this episode. Is it a valid complaint?
No, it is not valid at all. If you look at the English-language literature and the historiography of WWII, British writers and historians have grappled with this question ever since the 1950s. I would say that every single book, which has been written about what we know here as strategic bombing of Germany – and I am familiar with the books from 1950s and onwards right up to the present day – has tackled very openly with this very difficult question of was it a morally justified policy and was it a militarily justified policy? There is no suggestion that this is being covered up or not debated. This has been a very lively subject of public debate in Britain.
- What is the position of Britain towards the issue of its input in the deaths of German civilians?
There have been very notable efforts at reconciliation. I am sure, you are aware that in the British mind this is always balanced by the fact that it was the Germans who first bombed other European countries. Before the British bombed Germany, the German Luftwaffe bombed Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Bristol, Coventry, etc. One justification that has always been put forward in Britain is that essentially the Germans started this, they did it first, and, therefore, they invited retribution. But, you see, it is very interesting to note that Coventry now is the city that is twinned with Dresden. These two cities that symbolize the destruction and attacks on civilians by air force joined in reconciliation since the early 1960s. The cathedral in Coventry was destroyed in 1940, a new one was built, and it has become a site for reconciliation and friendship, which is expressed officially between Britain and Germany. So I am not aware that this is a subject of recrimination or ill feeling between the British and the German governments any time since 1945.
It is very striking, that there is no, as far as I am aware, any great ill feeling in Germany itself about the British bombing. And I speak as someone who travelled a lot in Germany and discussed these subjects.
- Speaking about the reconciliation of the states, the Eastern European countries, especially Poland and the Baltics, constantly demand apologies from Russia for “occupation” and Katyń massacre, though many years passed. Do you think that states have a right to demand apologies from each other?
It is a very difficult question, because these are issues of contemporary politics, rather than strictly issues of memory. I offer you a comparison. I know that this question of people asking for apologies after many years have passed has become a lively one. Most recently, I believe, the British government did issue some kind of apology for the British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade of the 17-19th centuries.
- To whom did the government apologize to?
To the people all over the world, and particularly to the people of African heritage, who now live in the Americas, were descendants of slaves and were forcibly taken there by the British. Now that is hundred year ago, that is very distant in history. And you ask me, whether anybody has a right to ask for apologies. No, I don’t think, this is a question of right. People can ask for these apologies, if they so wish, and the people, of whom the apology is asked, they, of course, can think about it, whether they feel they ought to offer an apology. I think, that, if these issues are more recent, obviously, they have more impact on people’s memories. The Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and the Katyń forest massacre – those events are much closer. But these are issues of contemporary politics of the governments of Poland and the Baltic states. I am not particularly well qualified to speak about that. If you want my personal opinion, I think that if apologies for historical events would help to lead to better, more cooperative and friendly relations today, that there might be some good sense in it.
- With that said, USSR already apologized for Katyń back in 1990. Nevertheless, Polish politicians feel the need to remind about it. The same goes for the “occupation” of the Baltics – Russia, including Putin, repeatedly and unequivocally condemned Stalin’s repressions and the deportations of the Baltic nations. But the Baltic states don’t view this as apologies.
The case of Katyń opens an interesting question, to which there is a parallel in Western Europe. I don’t know, whether the Polish government has recently or is still asking for the prosecution of any individual perpetrators of the massacre. In Western Europe, there is ongoing debate about the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. These are people who may have committed very serious crimes. For instance, the law was recently changed in Britain to allow the prosecution of Nazi war criminals who had escaped to Britain after 1945. And we have seen a very small number of cases coming before the courts in Britain, just like there have been recently cases coming before the courts in Germany. I believe, as long as there are people still living, who may have played a part in historical crimes, then there are certainly legal questions to be asked about the accountability of those individuals, and whether it is right to prosecute them about the crimes committed even some decades ago.
- What is the reason behind the British initiative? Is there a public demand for the prosecution of Nazi criminals?
Yes, there is. The Simon Wiesenthal Center supplied to the British government a list with about 70 names of alleged Nazi war criminals, who are still alive and living in Britain. Most of them came to Britain in years after 1945. In response, the British government actually altered the law to allow for prosecution of those individuals. I should say that in practice only a handful men have been brought before the court, and I think, in almost all cases the prosecutions have broken down, because it is very difficult now to establish beyond reasonable doubt the nature and details of the crimes, which these men may have committed. But the principle has been conceded: if people are still alive, who committed crimes – and very often these crimes would be committed not in Britain, but typically in parts of Eastern Europe – nonetheless, it should be possible to prosecute them for those crimes.
- At the same time, in the Baltics SS legions’ veterans are hailed as heroes and participate in annual parades. For example, 16 March is the Latvian Legion Day. What do you think about this?
I have to tell you, this comes as news to me. I didn’t know this, and this has been very little reported, at least in Britain. Because, I think, it would be viewed with absolute horror in Britain. It would certainly not be accepted in Germany, where there are very strict laws about it, which were enacted during the period of Allied control after 1945. These laws were passed by the Allied Control Council. They are still valid. You can’t display Nazi insignia, Nazi uniforms and these sorts of things. If these were more widely known, in Britain and in most parts of the Western Europe, is would be view with great concern.
- In Baltic states, they dress up into same uniforms they wore in their youth. SS veterans buried and reburied with state honors. Latvian and Estonian politicians visit their graves. Can you imagine the same in your hometown?
Absolutely not. It would not be acceptable in Britain, I don’t think, it would be acceptable anywhere in Western Europe. This reminds me of occasion, when American President Ronald Reagan was in Germany, he visited the SS cemetery at Bitburg. His defense was that he was visiting the cemetery, which contained the graves of Waffen-SS men, who had served as soldiers and weren’t necessarily war criminals. But nonetheless, there was huge controversy about this in Western Europe, and a very widely expressed feeling that the American president shouldn’t do this.
With SS veterans, even men who might claim that they served with the Waffen-SS as soldiers, rather than, say, as concentration camp guards or as members of Einsatzgruppen, there would be great concern about the idea that they should be having any kind of public ceremony or that they should be awarded any kind of public recognition.
- Latvia and Estonia explain their actions that SS Legions’ servicemen at the same time were independence fighters, freedom fighters. What do you say about this explanation?
I am thinking right now how the SS veterans from Belgium, Netherland, Denmark or Norway would be treated. There were significant contingents of volunteers from those countries, who fought with the SS on the Eastern Front. You see, only the most fanatical right-winger in Belgium and Netherlands could claim that they were fighting for Belgian or Dutch independence. Clearly, in the Baltic states, there are different arguments. I can tell you only that this argument will find very little sympathy in Western Europe.
- Besides that, recently, in Latvia, a musical about an aviator Herberts Cukurs was staged. During the war, he served in the infamous Sonderkommando Arajs. According to witness accounts and documents, he personally participated in war crimes. Can you imagine a similar play staged in Western European countries?
This would have been viewed with grave suspicion in Western Europe. It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that many manes in the list, supplied by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, were of people from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Ukraine. There is a considerable number of people from Ukraine but also from the Baltic states as well, who came to the UK after 1945. They came though different routes. This is a painful chapter in British history because many of them were known in the late 1940s to have served with the SS. But the normal restrictions on immigration to the country were lifted in their case, and they were allowed to come to Britain, because in many cases the British government didn’t know what else to do with them. And it has later become clear that, of course, amongst these communities there are some individuals who were war criminals. This is now common knowledge in Britain, a part of the mainstream discourse, and the primary feeling against these people is that, if it is proved that they committed war crimes, they should be prosecuted, regardless of their nationality. It doesn’t make a big difference to people here, whether they are German, or Ukrainian, or Latvian.
- The war criminals lists are usually provided by the Simon Wiesenthal Center?
Yes, it is often done by that center and other Nazi-hunting organizations, which supply the documentation that can start one of these cases. But any case, which would have to come to the British courts, has to be initiated by what is called the Crown Prosecution Service. In all criminal cases in Britain, a prosecution can be mounted only if there is reasonable chance of a success. If a given organization, a group or historian presents evidence to the police of the government about a particular individual, that evidence has to be assessed and weighed before a prosecution is mounted.
- What reputation does the Center have? Is it regarded as a credible collector of the information on Nazi criminals?
Yes, it is. Over the years it has been very active in bringing to public attention literally hundreds and hundreds of serious war criminals from that period. So it has a very strong reputation in our country.
To be continued...