By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
A recent report by the German news agency DPA has had me thinking ever since about various small, inconsequential matters: war, nationalism, identity, history, memory. It seems the people who manage the German gravesites of those who fell fighting the German army during World War II propose to draw distinctions among the Red Army’s dead buried in German cemeteries. They will no longer be designated simply “Soviet” or “Russian,” as has been the practice until now. If a Red Army soldier came from Ukraine—which was a Soviet republic during World War II and for 46 years afterward—they will now be written into the record as “Ukrainian.”
“We’re starting to differentiate,” Christian Lübcke, who directs the Hamburg chapter of the German War Graves Commission, said in an interview the DPA published November 14.
Let me try to get this straight. Red Army soldiers who fought the Third Reich as Soviet citizens are to be retroactively assigned an imagined nationality if they came from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic? How does that work?
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No one other than the German wire service and RT, the Russian equivalent of the BBC, appears to have covered the story. Maybe most media judged it of little consequence. Or maybe a development such as this, discriminating among the bones of soldiers and prisoners of war 75 years dead on the basis of a distinction that did not exist until 1991, came over in most newsrooms as too preposterous, too embarrassing, to write about.
In explaining himself, Lübcke cited the war in Ukraine and a Russian civil society group, the Immortal Regiment, that honors the Red Army soldiers who died in the Great Patriotic War, as Russians call World War II. The Soviet Union’s sacrifices as it defeated the Nazi regime–more than 20 million perished–are, of course, a big deal for Russians every Victory Day, May 9. But Lübcke objects that the Immortal Regiment, when honoring Soviet graves at one of Hamburg’s cemeteries, exhibits “nationalistic and partly historical revisionist undertones”—a strange thought, as I will consider shortly.
The numbers involved are not large. Red Army soldiers who died in battle or in Nazi POW camps come to roughly 1,400 out of 62,000 war dead in Hamburg’s various cemeteries. Their graves were all marked Soviet or Russian when they were buried—properly enough, given that is what they were. I cannot quite tell from the German reporting what Lübcke now has in mind–whether he proposes to alter cemetery documents or to alter the documents and chisel new gravestones. But it is clear he intends to impose a falsified past on those Soviet fallen who came from the Ukrainian republic. He also wants to go national with his idea.
Preposterous, yes, and embarrassing, yes again. But this is why it is also extremely important to consider what causes an organization dedicated to honoring war dead to think it is right to impose an ahistorical distinction between some sacrificed lives and other sacrificed lives when they fought side by side in the same army to defeat their common enemy. What sentiments, what political forces, what propaganda project, animate this stunningly disrespectful proposal? What ideological drive causes Christian Lübcke to pimp dead soldiers who, were they alive, would have no idea of the point he wishes to make?
I recall posing similar questions back in June 2015, when John Kerry and other Allied leaders joined veterans from their armies on the Normandy beaches to mark the 70th anniversary of D–Day and the impending Nazi defeat. Obama’s secretary of state thought nothing of speechifying grandly about the heroes of the war while pointedly excluding the Russians from the ceremonies. Kerry et al. had by then refused to attend the May 9 events in Moscow marking the same anniversary. Considering the very essential role and exceptional sacrifices the Red Army made to the Allied cause, this seemed to me a bottomlessly shameful thing to do.
All that was a year after the U.S.–cultivated coup in Ukraine, we should note—a year into Washington’s strategy of using the regime it installed in Kyiv as the front edge of its campaign to threaten the Russian Federation up to its western frontier.
By then I had heard the old Soviet joke many times, as some readers may have. The future is set, Soviet citizens used to say. It is the past that is always uncertain. This was a reference to all the airbrushing of photographs, the rewriting of texts, and the corrupting of archives that went on during the Stalin years.
Taking my date from the exclusion of Russian veterans and officials from the Normandy ceremonies, we have watched these past seven years as the West has become more and more Soviet in its disrespect and abuse of the past. Since the Russian intervention in Ukraine last February, this kind of inexcusable conduct has been rampant—made all the worse as Western leaders and institutions indulge in it with no compunction, no conscience, and certainly no embarrassment. It is as if human history and the historian’s discipline are deserving of no common respect and so are available as an instrument to revile others, or airbrush them out of the picture.
Last summer Latvia demolished the largest Soviet-era monument in Riga, the capital, commemorating the victory over Nazism—this as the Russian-speaking minority had to stand by and watch. Estonia soon followed suit, an exercise in its case involving hundreds of statues and other sorts of memorials. Kaja Kallas, the Estonian prime minister, explained it this way: “It is clear that Russian aggression in Ukraine has torn open wounds in our society that these communist monuments remind us of, and therefore their removal from public space is necessary to avoid additional tensions.”
I have no clue what Kallas meant with these remarks. They appear simply to reflect muddled thinking, or none. No clear thought, no clear language, I always say. So we have Christian Lübcke explaining that his obviously nationalist and historically revisionist desire to vandalize history by falsifying records and–again, I cannot tell–chiseling new gravestones is to be done in the name of opposing nationalism and historical revisionism. We have Kaja Kallas ripping wounds into the Latvian body politic in the name of salving wounds.
To state the obvious, we have to look further than Christian Lübcke, Kaja Kallas, and other such officials overseeing these projects to understand their point. And so I return to those stray thoughts I mentioned earlier, having to do with nationalism, identity, history, and memory.
Ernest Renan, the French historian, biblical scholar, philosopher, philologist, critic, and so on—people did a lot of different things before our civilization packed knowledge into silos—delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882 that has come down to us and is still quoted from time to time. He called it Qu’est-ce que une nation?—“What Is a Nation?” Among its notable passages is this:
“Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation…The essence of a nation is that all of its individual members have a great deal in common and also that they have forgotten many things.”
Renan had particular reasons for advancing these surprisingly forthright thoughts. By the 1880s, France was busily making itself a modern nation. Its regional identities and dialects—Brittany and Breton, Alsace and Alcacien, Occitanie and Languedoc, and so on—were pre-modern impediments to the project. They had to be subdued and over time removed from the national discourse, as if they were undesirable statues.
I have always found Renan’s thoughts on nationality disagreeable and diabolically true all at once. It leads us to the essential point of all the official erasures and disfigurements I have mentioned and the many more I have not. It is that histories are very often destroyed in the creation of nations and identities.
What was the point of all the old airbrushing and erasing of the Soviet Union, especially, but I gather not only, during the Stalin years? It was to construct a national story with very clean, easy-to-read lines having to do with an imaginary version of socialist harmony with which Soviet citizens could identify.
What were Kerry and the other Western leaders present in Normandy seven years ago—French, British, German, Polish, and so on—trying to accomplish? They proposed to give their peoples a version of World War II that was compelling, inspiring of national pride, and—greatly above all—devoid of the true past, the past wherein Russia and Russians were decisively present.
This is the West’s shared project now, one that rests to an unfortunate extent on forgetting. I take some comfort from the voice of Katharina Fegebank, Hamburg’s deputy mayor, who spoke on Volkstrauertag, Germany’s day of national mourning, which fell this year on November 13:
“It is our task today and every day to think of these and millions of people who have fallen victim to war and violence. We stand together here to stand up for peace and freedom, against racism, anti-Semitism and exclusion.”
Will the Katharina Fegebanks of our time prevail against the forgetting that is effectively being forced upon us, we of the West? This is our question, and I would rather not answer it just now.
In Ernest Renan’s day, a Breton or a speaker of Languedoc was supposed to become no longer a Breton or an Occitanie but a Frenchman or Frenchwoman. This project, which was in some respects forced, was a very long one and was at times bitter and bitterly resisted. In 1975 a writer and actor named Pierre–Jacques Hélias published a very fine memoir about the Breton identity, Le cheval d’orgueil, in English The Horse of Pride. It is filled with affectionate sentiment for a world that had been but was, by then, no more. Hélias wrote as a Frenchman, in French: This was in its way the unwritten coda to his story, if I read the book correctly.
The forgetting of our time is of a different order, it seems to me. It is much more insidious. The objective is to create a new consciousness, as it was in Renan’s time, but in our 21st century case this is to be done by way of a radical narrowing of our minds, a radical impoverishment of thought in the name of a neoliberal hegemony, in this way a radical stripping away of possibilities, a radical confinement within the walls of another bifurcated world order wherein neither side can see over these walls into the other side. In this world, if we collectively accept it without resistance, the future will be set and the past always uncertain.