History holds key to mutual understanding


WORLD VIEW:PROFESSIONAL HISTORY and public memory are separate but related aspects of culture. They are interwoven, since historians’ research gradually feeds back into popular understanding of the past. But this may take a generation to achieve and there are many barriers along the way.

Revising simplified or inaccurate historical narratives of national identity in Europe that have crystallised into ideology or propaganda and are daily reproduced in schoolbooks and media can be perilous and is often strenuously resisted.

Symbols which condense historical experience are equally resistant. It may be thought better to forge a common future, as in Spain, than to resurrect a conflictual past by deconstructing them, as in the so-called lustration policies of central and eastern European states on collaboration with Stalinist regimes. In Russia, the Duma is currently debating a law to criminalise statements and acts that deny the Soviet Union won the second World War, or claim it used poor tactics in battle or did not liberate eastern Europe. The strong state is being ideologically resurrected under the slogan “From Peter to Putin” – via Stalin.

However traumatic this encounter between history and memory is in national terms, it becomes more difficult again at the European level. Attempts to construct such a grand historical narrative usually fail because the experience is too diverse or conflictual to sustain a common memory. But that does not invalidate opening up the existing plurality of national narratives to what was always a shared space transcending national boundaries.

This was the purpose of a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, last weekend on “European histories”. It was organised by Eurozine, a network of 75 cultural journals from some 35 European states. Through its website, www.eurozine.com, it links them, publicises their work, translates selected texts and commissions original essays on topics of contemporary cultural and political interest. Through its regular reviews of their contents and discussion forums, it offers a valuable window on the cultural public sphere in Europe.

This meeting concentrated on eastern Europe. Despite all the convergence of west and east since 1989 there still exists a gulf in knowledge and understanding between the two parts of Europe, largely because of their profoundly different experiences during the last century. The west is more ignorant of the east’s history and memory than the other way round.

Several speakers addressed this asymmetry. Timothy Snyder, a historian of eastern Europe at Yale, gave a riveting account of the region’s killing fields during the second World War. Before arguments about who was historically responsible and the moral equivalence of totalitarianisms can be resolved – or appropriate common symbols agreed – one must come to terms with the real facts now being revealed by German, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian historians working in newly opening archives.

These last four countries are where most of the killings and fighting took place, largely perpetrated by the first two. Fifteen million soldiers of the USSR died, including three million prisoners of war starved to death. Half of Belorussia’s population perished. Five million Germans died in the fighting.

The Germans murdered 5.5 million Jews, the great majority of them from eastern, not western Europe (the Jewish population of Germany was small by comparison), after their swift conquests in 1941. Lithuania’s 225,000 Jews were shot by machine-gun firing parties over the winter of 1941-1942, as were Jews from the USSR and Belorussia. Most Jews were murdered by gas in the three death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, in eastern Poland – 1.75 million in Treblinka alone. In comparison 900,000 mainly western Jews were gassed in Auschwitz-Belsen.

Snyder reminded his audience that the Jewish Holocaust was a very small part of the initial German plan for eastern Europe. This envisaged expelling, killing, starving or enslaving 50 million Slavs and Jews in these four countries to create space for German agricultural and industrial immigrants to feed the new empire. Cities would be razed, rebuilt and serviced by slave suburbs. As historian Mark Mazower recalls in his fine study, Hitler’s Empire, Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (Penguin 2008), Hitler said the natives would be treated like “Red Indians. In this matter I am as cold as ice. We eat Canadian corn and don’t think of the Indians.”

Very little of this plan was achieved except the Jewish Holocaust. But in defeating Hitler these eastern European countries suffered an overlapping, dual or treble occupation by Germans and the Soviet Union, two land empires competing to erect an autarchic space in a hostile world. Neither Auschwitz nor the Soviet Gulag are appropriate symbols of this disaster, Snyder argues in his forthcoming book, Bloodlands: Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, 1933-1953. Auschwitz is too western-oriented to encompass the specific disaster of eastern European Jewry, while the Siberian Gulag does not represent these killing fields.

Irene Veisaite, a Lithuanian Jew who survived because she was protected by a non-Jewish family, explained that while the Holocaust is the first crime in the west, it is secondary compared to these two horrendous occupations in the east’s memory.

Snyder concluded that both the German and Soviet occupations were much worse than is realised in the West, but the Soviet one was the lesser evil. He hopes these histories and memories will help explain eastern to western Europe and increase their mutual understanding.