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Fintan O’Toole: A grotesque historical re-enactment of the second World War is in progress

Putin pretends to be fighting Nazis when his troops are murdering and raping Ukrainians

The first film I remember my father ever taking me to was The Longest Day, a dramatisation of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. I was four or five.

I vividly remember the scene of the Germans manning the coastal defences as dawn is breaking. The officer looks out at a calm sea through the slit in the bunker. Nothing.

He comes back again to scan the horizon. We see, as though through his binoculars, the grey, still ghostly, shapes of the vast invasion fleet looming in the distance. Beethoven’s fifth symphony plays over the scene: dah/dah/dah/dah!

In recent weeks, that scene has been coming back into my head. It feels eerily of the moment. Nothing on the horizon – until we look again and the incomprehensible vastness of the second World War is coming towards us, grey and ghostly.

It is one of the tricks of time that the older I get, the more recent the second World War seems.

This is not a good feeling.

When I was born, the end of the war was only as far away as Barack Obama’s first inauguration or the invention of bitcoin is now. It was, for most living people, not history but memory.

Although, I was growing up in one of the countries of Europe least affected by the war, two of my father's brothers and one of his sisters had, like a lot of working-class Irish people, taken part in it as members of the British forces.

And yet that made it all seem, not closer in time but more distant. The D-Day film was no different to Robin Hood or an American western – it was all costume drama set somewhere in the time before now.

The idea that my uncles and aunt had been part of it did not make it seem near to me. His brothers and sisters were even older than my father, which is to say downright ancient.

That scene in The Longest Day, with the German officer's look of utter stupefaction, stays with me because it dramatises a truth that will not go away

It was only when I was in my early 20s and travelled to Berlin, to Moscow, to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) that the obvious truth came home – that the greatest cataclysm in human history could not have ended neatly with the German and Japanese surrenders. How could it be past and gone?

Even in a formal sense, there is much to be said for the idea that the war really ended only on August 31st, 1994, when the last Soviet troops pulled out of Berlin. "Today," the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin announced, "is the last day of the past."

But the past doesn't do last days. Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin has seen to that.

Unimaginable magnitude

The great problem of the second World War is its unimaginable magnitude. It comes in numbers that defy our capacity for comprehension.

That scene in The Longest Day, with the German officer’s look of utter stupefaction, stays with me because it dramatises a truth that will not go away. The fleet that has loomed from nowhere into his line of vision is too large to exist, too impossible in its scale to be credible.

Like so many of us now, I keep looking at the maps of western Russia and eastern Ukraine. My eye always snags on a place name just on the Russian side of the border: Kursk.

Preposterous

All I know about it is that the Battle of Kursk, fought in July and August 1943, was the largest tank battle ever fought. The scale is so large that it blurs into the preposterous: 6,000 tanks, 4,000 aircraft, two million troops, perhaps three-quarters of a million casualties.

And these are only the battles. In and around the war, Stalin’s terror campaigns and Hitler’s relentless butchery of Jewish and Slavic Untermenschen consumed 10 million non-combatants.

Such gargantuan monstrosity cannot really be processed. It is a past that fractures into different forms: memory, history, myth and propaganda. The first two deal in witness and evidence. The other two deal in self-glorification and, increasingly, in self-pity.

By triumphing over the Nazis, Britain and Russia earned the right to be great powers. How unjust that one lost its empire in the 1950s and the other in the 1990s

We had a relatively harmless (though in our little world, momentous) example of this in the strange mentality that created Brexit. That distinctly English spectre, “the Dunkirk spirit” – a ghost of 1940 – haunted the whole project.

At its core was a feeling that England somehow never got what it deserved for winning (in the more fantastical versions, single-handedly) the second World War. The Germans, having failed to defeat Britain in battle, had sneakily constructed the EU to achieve, by other means, Hitler's ambition to dominate Europe. They had lured poor gullible England into its trap.

Toxic mentality

Brexit is negligible when compared to Putin’s war on Ukraine, but the deployment of this self-pitying version of the second World War should have been a warning of how toxic this mentality could become.

For Putin, too, is obsessed with the same grievance – Russia also did not get what it deserved from victory in the second World War. It too was robbed of the fruits of its triumph.

At the heart of this self-pity is the entitlement to greatness. By triumphing over the Nazis, Britain and Russia earned the right to be great powers. How unjust that one lost its empire in the 1950s and the other in the 1990s.

This grievance-mongering requires a rewriting of history. In Putin’s case, though, much of this was already done for him. For even during the war, Stalin was shaping it as a crusade in defence of the Russian motherland.

This narrative played down two awkward truths. One was that the war did not begin in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. It began in 1939 when Stalin joined with Hitler in the invasion and dismembering of Poland. This alliance of the two great mass murderers had to be forgotten.

And so did the fact that the Nazis didn't actually get all that far into Russia. The real killing fields were in eastern Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The bulk of the victims were Jewish and Christian inhabitants of those unlucky lands.

These distortions were given full voice in Putin’s Victory Day speech in Moscow last week, when he cast the second World War as a struggle for the Russian Motherland, for Russia’s “different character” and “our faith and traditional values, our ancestors’ customs”.

Not a word, of course, about the immense suffering of Soviet Jews and of the non-Russians who lived, whether they liked it or not, in the west of Stalin’s empire and died in larger numbers than any other Europeans. To acknowledge those truths would be to remind everyone of the barbarism that is permitted by the very idea of superior national character that Putin is invoking.

Putin pretends

So here we are, back in a world where Putin pretends to be fighting Nazis when his troops are murdering and raping Ukrainians, where the American “lend lease” programme is disinterred from the archives of the 1940s and restored to life, where the British government throws around Hitler analogies with unseemly relish.

The real second World War is receding from memory but it is becoming, not history, but a grotesque historical re-enactment in which the guns fire real bullets. The suffering of tens of millions of people – including millions of Russians – is being parodied and dishonoured. The past comes close enough that we can smell the blood.