October 21, 2008

The First Lady of the Baltic “Memory Offensive”

The politics of history pursued by Vaira Vīā·e-Freiberga is not another manifestation of a pathology unique to Eastern Europe, but a phenomenon typical of the current stage of the post-colonial identity construction process of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe as a whole.

The politics of history pursued by Vaira Vīā·e-Freiberga is not another manifestation of a pathology unique to Eastern Europe, but a phenomenon typical of the current stage of the post-colonial identity construction process of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe as a whole.


Maria Mälksoo

The First Lady of the Baltic “Memory Offensive”

The politics of history pursued by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga is not another manifestation of a pathology unique to Eastern Europe, but a phenomenon typical of the current stage of the post-colonial identity construction process of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe as a whole.

Although it is perhaps yet premature to give a balanced account of the diplomatic feats of Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, who concluded her service as President of the Republic of Latvia on the magical date of 07.07.2007, we can nevertheless begin to sketch a rough outline of her legacy as the first lady of Latvian diplomacy. Vīķe-Freiberga forcefully brought the controversial Baltic question to the fore on the European arena, asking not only the West European countries, but also the Baltic states themselves to give a fair judgement on the historical twists and turns of the Second World War. Moreover, as President of Latvia, she mounted an all-out Baltic offensive on the European memory front, touching upon many principal differences of opinion in the current history-political arguments between the East and West of Europe.
‘Our history is your history too’
Both political and academic circles often treat the tendency to dwell on the past rather than to look forward as a symptom of some notorious East European syndrome. In accordance with the Orientalist  logic typical of Western Europe, this interpretation ignores the fact that ‘remembering’ and its antithesis ‘forgetting’ form the natural counterparts of the identity of every cultural and political community. Due to the historical fluctuations after the Second World War, the memory-political wakenings of Eastern and Western Europe have taken place at different times with different intensity. Hence, the disdain of Western Europe for the ever faster unravelling of the memories of Eastern Europe is merely the superiority an older brother feels over his younger brother still going through his growing-up pains. The energetic attempts of Vīķe-Freiberga to enlighten the European political circles about the complicated predicament of the Baltic states during the Second World War follow the self-assertive history-political struggle of the former Eastern bloc and condemn West Europeans for their complacent ignorance of their neighbours’ history. Indeed, she has been one of the front-line ‘new’ Europeans who are trying to reinforce the role of the Second World War experiences of East Europeans in the collective memory of Western Europe and to plant these experiences in the common European historiography, which has so far displayed a significant preference for remembering and canonising the recent history of the West European countries.
Even though Vīķe-Freiberga’s Baltic offensive on the European memory front was based on the understanding that ‘nobody can change the past,’  her diplomatic efforts directed at the ‘old’ Europe highlighting the special situation of the Baltic states during the Second World War, were guided by a sound memory-political instinct. She felt intuitively that history and historiography constitute a battleground of competing narratives, thus she deliberately created and promoted her own narrative which was opposed to the clean-cut history of the ‘united’ Europe. Among the leaders of other former Eastern bloc countries who hammered at the European ‘collective memory’ she, along with Ví¡clav Havel, Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves, was one of the most vigorous activists. She kept on criticising Western Europe for its disinterest in the sufferings of Eastern Europe during the Second World War, and claimed consistently that the war experiences of the East European states and their current attitude towards Russia are inevitably connected. Of course, it has not been a memory-political one-woman show. Vīķe-Freiberga’s efforts have formed a part of the Baltic and Polish foreign policy along the axis of Europe-Russia-the US after the dual enlargement of the EU and NATO. Her initiatives have been thrust into the limelight probably because of her political capital and position.
Of course, the Latvian ex-president’s calls for incorporating the eastern countries into the ‘European mnemonical map’ were not merely driven by an abstract ideal; she also sought actual support from the EU and the Council of Europe in condemning the crimes of communism and in urging Russia to reassess its history.  As one of the strongest champions of the former Eastern bloc, Vīķe-Freiberga suggested that the treatment of European recent history should be more open to the experiences and interpretations originating from Eastern Europe, because the ‘European history’ of the 20th century has tended to ignore its East European component, resulting in a ‘one-sided, one-legged or one-eyed’ chronicle of the recent past in Europe, as Norman Davies ironically puts it in his emotional collection of essays Europe East and West.  In addition to that, the crimes of the communist regimes have hardly received similar academic attention to those of Nazism   – especially as regards Holocaust studies which have by now even reached the levels of meta-criticism. Vīķe-Freiberga has bravely proceeded with the search for the ‘body’ of Communism which Lennart Meri started at the beginning of the 1990s – in other words, the pursuit of genuine international condemnation of the crimes committed by the upholders of the ideology which was declared dead after the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.
Unfortunately, finding the legal rectification of the criminality of Communism has turned out to be more complicated than condemning Nazism, partly due to the fact that the end of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe did not bring about an unequivocal purification process like the massive campaign of de-nazification and ‘re-evaluation of all values’ which was carried out under international leadership after the defeat of Nazi Germany. While the collapse of Nazism made it possible to finally settle the score with the regime embodying this ideology, by declaring the Nazis responsible for practically all the evil that befell Europe during the Second World War and thus burying the ‘body’ of Nazism, the relatively peaceful and non-violent end of the Communist regime paradoxically prevented the East European countries from doing away with its legacy. Compared to the other East European politicians generally busy distancing themselves from the Communist past, Vīķe-Freiberga stands out as a former exile who had not personally experienced the pressures of the Communist regime, and perhaps that is why she could be more impartial and categorical in drawing the line between the Communist past of Latvia and its present state of affairs.

Between the West and Russia
The European ‘war of interpretation’ over the outcomes of the Second World War culminated with the commemorative celebrations held in Moscow on May 9, 2005. This war of words concerned different ways of representing the past and made the Baltic states realise their vulnerability on two fronts: both the West and Russia pressurised the Baltic states and Eastern Europe as a whole to ‘work’ on their memory to produce a suitable interpretation of the consequences of the Second World War. While according to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov the aim of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Second World War was to reinforce on the global stage the ‘right’ lessons learned from the war, Vīķe-Freiberga actively opposed such an attempt. She was very outspoken in her statements and claimed that the victory of the West over Nazi Germany was de facto only a partial victory as for Western Europe the end of the war meant liberation, but for Eastern Europe ‘it meant slavery, occupation, subjugation, and Stalinist terror.’  At the same time, she continued to remind the Western countries how they ‘sacrificed the fundamental values that they claimed to stand for in favour of a simplistic realpolitik and an ultimately elusive security,’ and how they ‘accepted without protest the subjugation of Eastern Europe by the totalitarian communism of the Soviet empire.’
The fact that Vīķe-Freiberga took part in the commemorative festivities in Moscow demonstrated Latvia’s resolute desire not to be ousted from significant international and political meetings any longer.  Her clear objection to Russia’s definition of the beginning of the war should be also emphasised: while the Russian official historical narrative equates the beginning of the Second World War with that of the Great Patriotic War, Vīķe-Freiberga kept on emphasising that by concluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the seeds of the war were already sown. She urged the West not to fail to mention Hitler and Stalin ‘by name,’ lest the world forget the responsibility that ‘these two totalitarian tyrants’ bear for beginning that war.  As a skilful rhetorician, she managed not to diminish the meaning of the victory over Nazism while seeking condemnation of the crimes of the Soviet state. In order to do so, she cunningly contrasted two dates: May 8 and May 9. She aligned the Latvian approach with the official European interpretation of the end of the war (May 8) and underlined the importance of May 9 (on which date Russians celebrate Victory Day) as Europe Day which commemorates the anniversary of the signing of the Schuman Declaration. In this way she clearly differentiated the Latvian and European historical traditions from those of Russia.
Thus she deliberately attempted to broaden the meaning of the Second World War in the collective historical consciousness of the West, powerfully emphasised the dark side of the victorious Soviet Union and asked the West to encourage Russia to unambiguously condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Stressing the right of the defeated to their own history, Vīķe-Freiberga actually pointed to the fact that it is not only the content of memories, but also the community which shares them that matters. In other words, aspirations to belong to a certain ‘memory community’ also indicate a willingness to take part in the shaping of the history of that community.  Hence, in her memory-political attempts to find a sympathetic audience for the Baltic narrative of the Second World War, she pushed for the equal treatment and inclusion of Eastern Europe in the making and writing of European history.
For the reason that ‘no wound can truly heal if it is festering beneath the surface,’ Vīķe-Freiberga continued to urge Russia to express ‘its genuine regret for the crimes of the Soviet regime,’ and for the occupation of the Baltic states in particular; otherwise Russia would ‘continue to be haunted by the ghosts of its past.’  Although her memory-political offensive on the Russian front was not very successful, as was to be expected, she earned the title of Lady der Vergangenheitsbewältigung in the German press.  As Vīķe-Freiberga showed solidarity with other European leaders in accepting the invitation to the commemorative festivities in Moscow, Latvia could at last – according to Marju Lauristin’s witty remark – rightfully sense the solidarity of the European countries with regard to its past sufferings.
Pathological behaviour of East Europeans?
The politics of history pursued by Vīķe-Freiberga is not another manifestation of some pathology unique to Eastern Europe, but a phenomenon typical of the current stage in the post-colonial identity construction process of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe as a whole. On the one hand, the intense presence of the past in the (foreign) political discussions of Latvians and Estonians reflects an archetypical outburst of the repressed collective memory against the official mnemonical canons violently applied by the Soviet regime. In addition to that, it is also an attempt to exercise one’s own ‘right to remember.’  West Europeans could ‘start again’ right after the Second World War, selectively forget the horrors of the past, and make a clean break with it, whereas East Europeans had to wait for decades before they could unravel their past which had been doctored by Communist ideology. Of course, this does not mean that the ‘fresh start’ was easy for France or Germany either: myths and ‘false memories’ which justified wartime activities were fabricated en masse in order to restore a positive self-image and to create a temporal ‘buffer zone’ for the construction of a new identity after the war.  Hence, there has been a fundamental temporal mismatch between the phases of freezing and thawing of war memories in Western and Eastern Europe. In fact, the war memories of East Europeans were kept out of the public eye and sidestepped in critical analyses for more then four decades by means of ‘organised forgetting’ and ‘communicative silencing’ as the control mechanisms of the Soviet regime.  Even though an analogous postponement process of war experiences occurred in Western Europe right after the Second World War – which Henry Rousso has, using the example of France, colourfully described as the ‘Vichy syndrome’ –, West Europeans nevertheless followed it through more or less on their own terms.  In this context, the patronising attitude of Western Europe towards the East European ‘memory boom’ is blatantly hypocritical.
At the same time, Vīķe-Freiberga’s campaign to incorporate the Baltic war experiences into European history books provided yet another indication of Latvia’s self-identification as ‘Europe but not (yet) true Europe.’ After all, her crusade reflects the tragic vision of security characteristic of the Baltic countries, the mentality of those who have been victimised and betrayed, and their pessimistic view about the international system’s ability to dispense justice.  On the other hand, Vīķe-Freiberga’s forceful pushing for the right of the Baltic countries to have their own ‘narrative’ in the context of the Second World War and its aftermath shows that the East European countries have cast off the restraints the West had applied on their ‘memory work’ during the enlargement process of the EU and NATO. The candidate countries had to keep a low profile in certain areas during the enlargement: they were, for instance, not supposed to contradict the euphemistic ideas the West had about Russia at that time.  But when they had obtained the membership, they could stop holding themselves back in criticising Russia. Thus the definitive statements of Vīķe-Freiberga – especially in the context of the commemorative festivities held in Moscow in 2005 – constitute a brave uprising against the Western ‘mnemopolitical authority’ over the shaping and recording of the recent history of Europe. The ‘memory war’ led by the Latvian ex-president marks the beginning of an extensive ideological decolonisation of Eastern Europe in the post-enlargement phase of the European structures. Moreover, she tried to increase the literal diversity of such umbrella terms as ‘European history’ and ‘European identity.’
The question about the extent to which the ‘old’ Europeans are actually interested in the historical narratives of the ‘new’ Europeans is still open for discussion. It is altogether questionable whether it is possible or even desirable to have a coherent and consensual ‘European historical narrative’ which incorporates the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ perspectives without the suppression, concealment or intentional omission of certain sub-narratives in order to ensure the domination of others. People will never stop arguing and fighting over which things should be remembered and which ones forgotten. Thus the institutionalised and officially sanctioned collective memory is unavoidably a product of a political selection process which pushes some narratives through and represses others. Memory is by definition constantly in the making. Therefore, endless negotiations about what should be remembered and how are conducted at all levels – from a temporary consensus to further deconstructions and a new ‘truth’ emerging from them. Thus the composition of a collective memory does not so much relate to the past as to the present and the future. Our present-day problems tend to determine the nature of the past we remember, if we remember it at all, and the way we remember it.  Or as Orwell put it in his apocalyptic 1984: ‘Those who control the past, control the future.’
In this context, it is quite remarkable that Vīķe-Freiberga’s Baltic offensive on the European memory front, i.e. her efforts to use the Baltic ‘counter-narratives’ to shake the foundations of European historiography which had been quite indifferent to the experiences of East Europeans during the Second World War, was in fact motivated by an approach that supported the classical development model of the EU, which promoted integration in order to enhance security and prevent divisions and the ensuing confrontations between the ‘good old enemies’ of Europe.  Thus Vīķe-Freiberga’s appeals for greater coherence in European historiography as a precondition for solidarity within the enlarged Europe reflect the view according to which the amalgamation of different past experiences and memories would, as if by magic, avert the disintegration of Europe as a mental construction. The search for the European collective memory is therefore typical of the Western striving for absolutes and universality by means of common constructions, be they mental or material. Against this background, Vīķe-Freiberga’s Baltic offensive on the European memory front has been an interesting curiosity: on the one hand, she clearly defined the status of the Baltic countries in Europe as exceptional, thus opposing the remembrance of the Second World War sanctioned by and biased in favour of the ‘old’ Europe; and yet she considered the creation of a common and coherent European historical narrative of the war events still feasible.

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