Apologies for All

poland090209.jpgAngela Merkel is about as gracious as they come.  During the Danzig Summit, there seemed no crime of WWII that she was unwilling to accept responsibility for:  “I pay tribute to the 60m people who lost their lives in this war unleashed by Germany.

Merkel’s encompassing and compassionate speech was important and underrated, perhaps even taken for granted given the tidy (and deserved) historical dustbin that the Third Reich has been consigned to.  Vladimir Putin, though his comments to Gazeta Wyborcza were commendably open, did not see any reason to go quite so far to denounce the conduct of Joseph Stalin, as he doesn’t believe that the Russian leader should occupy that same category as Hitler in our collective memory and understanding of that terrible war.

Aside from the fact that Merkel, who was born in 1954 and grew up in the GDR, and Putin, who was born in 1952, had no personal much less political control over any given event of the war, I don’t necessarily disagree with Putin’s reluctance to grovel.  But we would do well to try to understand it.

In 1939, Stalin made a terrible mistake in his judgment; an “immoral” – as Putindescribes it – decision in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop protocol.  Onthe other hand, Stalin was attempting to buy time in the face of theNazi menace, and one would be foolish to somehow fail to acknowledgethat Russia sacrificed more than an entire generation – bearing some65% of the casualties of the Allies – in their instrumental and pivotalrole in stopping the march of fascism across the continent.  Europewould be an entirely different place today were it not for bravery, forblood, and for bravado of Russian men and women – and its theirsacrifices and those of their families that should be remembered above any and all opportunistic leaders.

Stalin of course deserves his very own historical dustbin among the world’s most bloody genocidal leaders.  Much of his finest work came in the early 1930s.  We had Holdomor, the collectivization famines (Kazakhstan), the great purge and terror, the show trials, and so much else.  Outside of the Soviet Union’s pre-war borders, the crimes were deeply serious (it is unthinkable to continue lying about Katyn, attempting to blame the massacre on the Nazis) – yet the biggest victims by far of Russia’s infamous dictator were Russians themselves.  Stalin, for all the blood on his hands, cannot be blamed for the outbreak of WWII.

I often wonder why it is that Russians, who have suffered a dozen Katyns at Stalin’s hands, would not have an equal interest in seeing the truth? 

Nonetheless, it is the suspicious perception on behalf of some Russians that Europe and the West fails to acknowledge their role in ending fascism, or somehow discounts the innumerable lives sacrificed on the battlefront as inferior in value … it is this repugnant idea which I believe fuels the fire of Stalinist revival, history commissions, and other nationalistic instrumentalization of history that we are seeing in today’s Russia.  I can understand how a Russian, if at some point told that their grandfather died a deserved death befitting of a Nazi war criminal, how quickly he would sign up for Dmitry Medvedev’s absurd history commission.

This is not a culture which bears shame with grace, but one that values pride at very high costs of logic.  I myself am not one for these kinds of apologies – so much blood has been spilt in so many places, that sometimes we just need to move on.  What we should pay attention to is not the nitpicking extent of Putin’s expressions of regret, but rather the outright distortions going on back home, as outline in this Denis MacShane piece published in the Independent (for example, using Molotov-Ribbentrop as precedent for spheres of influence).

At the end of the day, Putin took an enormous step forward with his statements on Monday, but was decidedly not a big enough man to go further the next day at the summit.  I do fear, however, that the implacable attitude with which his efforts were met will mean that it will be a long time before we see Russia take a step toward the center on these historical questions.

Perhaps in the future we can do better to stop playing these inadvertent roles which make it easier for the Russian leadership to revive the Stalinist cult of personality.  It may be ugly and dangerous, but unfortunately it is working.