Week V: Between Amnesia and Hypermnesia – Victory Day 75 Years Later

On 8/9 May of this year, the end of the Second World War will see its 75th anniversary. Due to the corona pandemic, outdoor celebrations will be reduced to a minimum. The memory war about the interpretation of the event will, however, go on.

In the USSR, the first Traditionally, the 8/9 May commemorations have provided an opportunity for the international community to confirm its shared values. In 2015 however, Western leaders had boycotted the ceremonies in Moscow because of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine. This year, Putin’s invitation policy has caused even more headaches for Western politicians on whether to go or boycott. The Guardian quotes an Eastern diplomat: “’It is not appropriate for western leaders to honour the army in uniform that still occupies part of Ukraine, and paying tribute to some of the same units who are killing people in Idlib’ (…). Western attendance could also be used by Moscow to suggest acceptance of its revisionist version of Second World War history, which airbrushes away (…) the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which lasted until 1941 and by which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved up Poland.” That the parade is now postponed will not spare Western politicians the dilemma.

During the last months, at various occasions, including the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in January 2020, Putin has repeated and sharpened his re-interpretation of World War II and the roles of its protagonists, now blaming Poland and its western allies for its outbreak.


How to make sense of this memory war? Why is it that memory is divided again between east and west? Why is there a backlash in the efforts to establish a shared European history?

The end of the Soviet Union and of the polarized world order had made the hegemonic narratives of World War II and the Cold War obsolete over night in both western and eastern Europe.

For the nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, what had been celebrated on Victory Day as their liberation from fascism, in their view was just another occupation. One of its consequences was the Soviet oppression of their specific national histories and sufferings. Only after 1989 these countries were free to tell their own – very differing and often contradictory – stories and reconnect with their pre-war histories and with the West. The imposed history of the liberation gave way to the liberation of history. In the following years, these countries embarked on coping with their difficult pasts. What we observe today in some of them is, however, a growing trend to re-nationalize their history.

In the beginning, also Russia opened its archives and started to address painful questions about the Soviet past (see for example Juri Afanassjew, “Gedächtnis und Geschichte in der Sowjetunion “, in: Transit 2, 1991, S. 125-139). But this was soon stopped by the ambition to make Russia great again by re-integrating it into a long imperial tradition, from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union to today’s Russian Federation. For this purpose, continuity with the past had to be restored and the narrative of the “Great Patriotic War” to be kept intact. Today, history and historiography in Russia are subordinated again to political priorities.


It was in 1991 that a group of historians from both sides of the former Iron Curtain came together at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna in order to think about how to (re-)write European history after the end of the division of the continent. From this emerged the research project Rethinking Post-War Europe, that was pursued from 1993-1998 at the IWM under the guidance of the English-American historian Tony Judt. It marks a paradigm change in the historiography of the 20th century. In an article resuming his project Judt wrote, that the task since 1989 was to

„bridge not only the divide between East and West Europe, or the divide between pre  and post 1945, but also the most damaging chasm of all. This is the canyon of ignorance between national histories that works against the emergence of any new common understanding of the shared European past. In time, we may hope for a new account of the recent European past that is both faithful to the distinctive stories of separate countries and regions, while fully grasping the ways in which they share certain common pasts. Just what this new history will look like is unclear.“ (in: Transit 15, 1998)

With his meanwhile classical work Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (Penguin Books, 2006) this history has taken shape, and a new generation of historians is working on it.
One of them is Timothy Snyder who in 2008 established the research focus United Europe – Divided History at the IWM and who with his book Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) offered a radically new approach to the history of World War II and the Holocaust.


On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, this Weekly Focus offers articles that emerged in the context of the long-standing research in contemporary history at the IWM, some of them addressing the challenges of re-writing 20th century history, others dedicated to the reflection on its political uses. Most of these articles appeared in the Institute’s journal Transit and in focal points curated in cooperation with the Eurozine network.

It is worthwhile to read again two programmatic articles by Tony Judt, the first published 1993 in Transit 6 under the title “Die Vergangenheit ist ein anderes Land. Politische Mythen im Nachkriegseuropa“, and the second, “Europas Nachkriegsgeschichte neu denken, 1998 in Transit 15, summarizing his research project.

In 2001 the IWM organized a conference entitled Das Gedächtnis des Jahrhunderts. In his contribution “Mesomnesie – Plädoyer für ein mittleres Erinnern”  (Transit 22), Timothy Garton Ash, member of the IWM’s Board of Trustees, addressed the post-Cold War challenges of coping with the past and made the case for a moderate form of remembrance, between forgetting and „hypermnesia“. In the same Transit issue (Nr. 22, 2002), Charles S. Maier asked “Why does the black book of Nazism remain, in the consciousness of so many of those preoccupied by the history of the twentieth century, blacker than the black book of Communism?” (“Hot Memory … Cold Memory. On the Political Half-Life of Fascist and Communist Memory”). For the same issue of Transit, East European historians were invited to respond to the question “What is to be done with the communist past?”. It is interesting to read today what the Russian historian Alexei Miller wrote in 2002, after these beautiful introductory sentences:

“At the beginning of Leo Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina the author notes: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is  unhappy in its own way.’ The same is true for states and nations, and Russia with its communist past is certainly a very special case.” (in: Transit 22, 2001/2002)

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University and IWM Permanent Fellow, has been a most astute observer of how post-Cold-War Europe dealt with its divided history. In a seminal article published at the occasion of the 60th Victory Day 2005, Snyder adresses the challenges of “Balancing Books” for the freshly enlarged Europe. This article inaugurated the first Eurozine focal point on European Histories. As the editors stated, “the comfortable historical consensus long obtained within and among western European countries has been undermined by the eastern enlargement of the EU. Europeans are still far from an all-embracing ‘grand narrative’”.

In his 2007 article “Equally Criminal? Totalitarian Experience and European Memory”, Claus Leggewie wrote that one difficulty with a European narrative lies in paying due respect to the memory of the crimes both of National Socialism and of Soviet totalitarianism while avoiding a hierarchy of competing victim groups. In the same year, Jan-Werner Müller reflected in „Europäische Erinnerungspolitik Revisited“ on possible paths towards a common European politics / culture of memory.

An exemplary analysis of the difficulties with finding a common narrative is offered by Philipp Ther in his article “The burden of history and the trap of memory” (2006). It outlines the background of the conflict between Germany and Poland on how to deal with the expulsion of Germans, the reasons behind the paradigm shift from culprit to victim in the German view of its history, and the enduring and very different Polish memory of the German occupation.

Two years later, in 2008, the political scientist Aleksander Smolar, member of the IWM’s Advisory Board, gave an extensive account on memory politics in Poland. It appeared in Transit 35 and is highly instructive to read today. Smolar stressed the importance of a shared memory for the future of the enlarged European Union. That this memory still lacks has its deeper reason, he claims, in the dominant foundational myth of the European Union which excludes Eastern Europe. At the end, the author alerts his readers to an alternative memory / history politics emerging in his country, mainly promoted by the Law and Justice party. As we know today he proved to be right, more than he might have imagined at the time: meanwhile a cleansed and affirmative narrative of Polish history, covering not only the period after 1989 but the whole 20th century, has been successfully institutionalized.

Looking back at the first two decades of dealing with the past in post-Cold War Europe, the editorial to the second Eurozine focal point on European Histories (2011) warns that it would not only be futile but also dangerous to try to prescribe to the Europeans a hegemonic narrative that should fit all contexts and account for what is in fact a multitude of social, political and historical experiences. Much would be gained if the existing plurality of narratives could be put up for discussion in a communal space transcending national boundaries, a space where different narratives can be negotiated, and where historical, social and cultural accounts that pretend to be universal can be put in question.


The memory wars in the post-Soviet space can be dated back to 2005, when the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany turned into a loyalty test for the politicians of the neighbouring countries. In 2014, in response to the Maidan in Ukraine, the memory war that had been going on between Russia and its former neighbours left the realm of soft power. The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas were legitimized with historical arguments. These developments overshadowed Moscow’s 70th celebration of Victory Day in May 2015.

In her article “Russia’s never-ending war against ‘fascism’: Memory politics in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (2015) Tatiana Zhurzhenko (former IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue)  wrote:

As both Russia and the West celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, the conflict over Ukraine puts decades of stability and peace on the continent into question. Some observers see Russia’s conflict with the West as a clash of values. More than that, it is also a clash of different visions of the past, different cultures of remembrance. While in Europe the Ukrainian Maidan protests were seen as the country’s delayed ’89 moment, a popular movement for democracy and human rights, Russian officials and media presented the demonstrators as radical nationalists and ‘fascists’ – direct heirs of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators defeated by the Soviet Army in 1945.”

Also on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Victory day, Timothy Snyder stated:

As Russia continues its invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has chosen to rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began the World War II. In speaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as good foreign policy, he violates both the long Soviet taboo and adjusts his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral”. What might he have in mind? What is it about the alliance with Hitler that is appealing just at the present moment? What does this revision of the history of World War II mean as Russia revives the tradition of wars of aggression on European territory?“ (“Putin’s New Nostalgia”)


And the story goes on. As Andrei Kolesnikov wrote this week, “Putin has taken a personal interest in the story of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He repeatedly condemned  a resolution  by the European Parliament of September 2019 which stated that the pact and its secret protocol had played a decisive role in starting World War II.”

The president’s new target is Poland. Turning history upside down, he claims that Poland was not the first victim of the pact but in fact is co-responsible for the outbreak of the war. With this attack he creates a dilemma for the other EU member states, as these, while opposing Moscow’s historical revisionism, are increasingly concerned about Poland’s own nationalistic memory politics (see for example Timothy Snyder, “Poland vs. History”, 2016).

Putin thrives on dilemmas like that, and he will add more of them: European leaders will soon have to decide if to take part in the the postponed Victory Day parade in Moscow. In any case one can expect that Russia’s president will use the opportunity to further elaborate on his new vision of 20th century history.

Klaus Nellen, IWM Permanent Fellow emeritus; former editor, Transit – Europäische Revue

Vienna, May 7, 2020

Weekly Focus V:

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