The war for memory

‘Anniversaries all too quickly become a substitute for clear thoughts about the present. As the victors of the war, for example, we have written our part in its history in rose-tinted ink’

Anniversaries are political currency. They highlight our triumphs and others’ misdeeds. So brace yourself in the second half of this year for—among many others—commemorations of the shameful Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939, of the Austro-Hungarian border picnic which marked the end of the Iron Curtain, of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of the great demonstrations in Prague which toppled communism in the then Czechoslovakia.

Particularly for those of us old enough to remember those events, it will be tempting to spend six months bathing in happy nostalgia and self-righteous anger. The screenplay was written long ago. Our job is to boo and cheer as the scenes change.

That is too easy. For a start, anniversaries all too quickly become a substitute for clear thoughts about the present. The collapse of communism presented us—the victors of the Cold War—with unparalleled chances. The only rival to Western democracy, capitalism and the rule of law had just imploded. Hundreds of millions of people, from east Berlin to Vladivostok, yearned to live as we did. Thirty years on, more of them—around 230 million—live under corrupt authoritarian regimes than under democracies (170 million).

Maybe they were naive, and their rulers power-hungry and ruthless. But we botched the chance too, by being complacent and greedy. We assumed that capitalism would bring only democracy, not the turbo-charged corporate Leninism of modern China. Our offshore finance system mushroomed: a boon to kleptocrats, and destroying the West’s moral standing in the eyes of Russians and others. The people who thronged the streets of east European capitals in 1989 to overthrow the Soviet empire did not think their efforts would enable the new elite to among other things stash its ill-gotten gains in London mansions owned by anonymous companies.

We overlooked hard questions about the way communism collapsed (where did the money go?), and the effects of a competitive new economic and social system on the most vulnerable. The fall of the Berlin Wall is little comfort to many Germans living in the former east who still feel like poor relations in the new order. Similarly, many Poles regard 1989 not as a triumph, but a sleazy stitch-up in which the old elite slickly bargained its survival. That may be a myth, but such resentments help explain why the prickly conservatives of Law and Justice rule the country now.

We also ignored warnings from people in many of those countries that it was far too early to write off the old Soviet elite, particularly the KGB and its successor organisations. It took us 20 years to wake up even partially to the dangers posed by Kremlin mischief and meddling in its neighbourhood—a problem that predates Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Now we have to deal with a resurgent Russia that uses a skilful mix of money, intimidation, propaganda and cyber-attacks to intervene in the heart of our own democratic life. We thought only money mattered; now we are defenceless when adversaries attack us using money.

Anniversaries are not bad in themselves. They sharpen our recollections, focus the mind and lift the spirits. In politics, they are a weapon in the war between memory and forgetting. The butchers of Beijing would like everyone to forget what they did on June 4, 1989. The 30th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and untold numbers of atrocities elsewhere in China, is our chance to show that those crimes are not forgotten or forgiven. Seventy-five years after the D-Day landings we had our last chance to show gratitude to the surviving veterans of the allied assault on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall for their service and sacrifice.

But anniversaries risk turning complicated, three-dimensional events into comic-book stories. They remove agency, turning real people into actors: flag-waving heroes to the left, jackbooted villains to the right. Real life is more complicated. Anniversaries should be not for self-indulgent commemoration, but a spur or a deadline for other activities: the completion of a museum, for example, or for the publication of new research.

In particular we need to beware selectivity. As the victors of the war, for example, we have written our part in its history in rose-tinted ink. Our backslapping commemoration of VE Day on May 8 next year will not include the events of the 28th of that same month in Lienz, Austria. That was when British forces used clubs and whips to force Cossacks—anti-communist Russians—onto trains that would take them to torture, rape and death at the hands of Stalin’s NKVD. Many thousands more would follow—though some killed themselves and their families rather than submit to the fate that awaited them. The soundtrack to that, and much else, is a harsh and discordant one, which does not involve the poignant strains of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again”. 

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