February 6, 2015

World War II: A Question of European Identity

Reuters/Scanpix
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (5th R) watch the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square May 9, 2014. Russia celebrates the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany during World War Two on May 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (5th R) watch the Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square May 9, 2014. Russia celebrates the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany during World War Two on May 9.

This year will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II in Europe, and, as expected, a row has broken out over how to commemorate it. The anniversary has always been celebrated differently in different European countries, but it is an especially pompous affair in Moscow, where the leaders of countries that took part in the war usually gather.

This year everything could change. Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna has proposed that the WWII commemoration should not take place in Russia.
“Why did we get so used to Moscow being the site of the commemoration, instead of London or Berlin, which would be more natural?” he said on Polish radio.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has already condemned Schetyna’s words. If we recall, the Polish foreign minister also managed to irritate Moscow last month when he credited Ukraine rather than the Red Army with liberating Auschwitz.
Last week, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said he would invite European leaders to mark the end of World War II in Westerplatte, where the war started on 1 September 1939. There in 2009, European leaders recalled the 70th anniversary of the start of the war and then, too, Poland and Russia squabbled over the meaning of WWII.
The Baltic presidents have already said they would not be participating at the victory parade in Moscow on 9 May. That will probably make it all the more easier for them to accept Poland’s invitation to mark the end of the war in Westerplatte a day earlier.
For other leaders, the question is no longer so simple, even it is simpler than a year ago. The reason, of course, is the annexation and occupation of Crimea and Russian role in fuelling war in eastern Ukraine. Soviet and Russian historiography each proceeds from the thesis that the victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany meant peace for the continent.
That is where the conflict arises – how can the supposed emissary of peace in WWII take part if it has now itself started a war in Europe? It would be strange if Western countries that have denounced Russia’s actions travelled to Moscow and stood side by side with Vladimir Putin at the victory parade. And what should the Ukrainian president do? Travel to Moscow as well?
Gathering in Poland to mark the anniversary of the end of the war could also have the positive aspect of increasing awareness among the Western European public that WWII isn’t just about the fall of France, the battle of Britain or the landing at Normandy. The backbone of the war was in Eastern Europe, where millions suffered and where the military concentration was greater than in the west of the continent. Also important, it would instil the understanding that it wasn’t just Russians and Germans fighting it out, but many other peoples as well, including Estonians.
Academic circles in the West have acknowledged the role of Eastern Europe in World War II. But if this awareness reached the consciousness of ordinary people and politicians, we Estonians would also have an easier time of telling our story and others would better understand our foreign policy choices. Thus the row between Poland and Russia over the commemoration of the end of WWII in Europe should not be considered a routine spat between countries; it has broader import for all of European identity.
This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on Friday. February 6.

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