The big issue in the narrative of historical convergence is "the war." No, not the Great Northern War, not the Boer War, but the "Great Patriotic War." You think I am joking by putting all these conflicts together in one sentence. I'll explain later why I am not.
But first, the reason that it is such an issue now is that the generation in power was born after it happened. The childhood world of the Angela Merkels, Jaroslaw Kaczynskis, Vladimir Putins, and, dare I say, Toomas Hendrik Ilveses of the world was colored by a menacing cartoon-like storm called World War II.
The pre-war generation of Chiracs, Yeltsins, Prodis, and Kohls, who experienced conflict first hand, saw it as their mission to avoid and move beyond that conflict. They simply wished never again to revisit the troubles of their childhood. The Putins and Kaczynskis are different. These young children were brought up by parents that no doubt had an opinion about the great maelstrom of death they had endured as young adults, and passed those opinions on to their children at the breakfast table. The young Putin learned that Estonians were fascist betrayers. Can anyone wonder why Russia now sees Estonia in the light, even though to most of us the concepts -- fascist? betrayal? -- seem like some farfetched dialog from a bad movie.
Merkel has no doubt inherited a sizeable amount of post-war German guilt and shame; Ilves has perhaps retained the quiet angst of Estonia being sold out by just about everybody, including some of its own, in WWII. And then there's Jaroslaw Kaczynski who today used the past as a cudgel to defend Poland from what it sees as the rise of a potential Fourth Reich in the EU.
The problem with Kaczynski's outburst is not that it's necessarily wrong, but that it's not actually productive. I mean if you lived between the cold-blooded Germans and the compulsive-liar Russians, you'd be paranoid too. Yes it's true that Germany and Russia tore Poland to pieces in the 1940s. But it's also true that after the Great Northern War there were about 250,000 people left in Estonia, no thanks to the imperial clashes of Stockholm and Petersburg. And that's sort of the point that Kaczynski and Putin and all of Europe's post-war babies need to understand: the past is most often awful, and the actions of the past cannot really be rationalized or defended. They can only be acknowledged.
"It was the Germans who inflicted unimaginable injury, terrible harm, on Poles - incomprehensible crimes and Poles like Germans, while Germans do not like Poles," he said.
"We are only demanding one thing, that we get back what was taken from us.
"If Poland had not had to live through the years of 1939-45, Poland would be today looking at the demographics of a country of 66 million."
We must see World War II for what it was: a territorial war, no different from the First World War, no different from the Boer War, or the Great Northern War, or the American Civil War. Like most conflicts it was about land and who gets to control it and for what purposes. Hitler did not expand into Poland because he wanted to get his hands on the Jews and Romas there, he did it because he wanted Germany to be bigger. Stalin did not seize Riga, Tallinn, Vyborg, and Kaunas because he wanted the fishermen of Klaipeda to feel the wonders of Marxism-Leninism, he did it because he wanted ports in which to put his war ships because the Soviets believed that it was their manifest destiny to paint the world red in giant cyrillic lettering.
So let's stop kidding ourselves. War is terrible and illogical. For all the blood each side spills, the rewards are instantly diminished. No one alive today is responsible for the great territorial war in Europe of the 1940s. Molotov is dead. Stalin. Dead. Beria. Dead. Even Joseph Mengele died in the disco years in Brazil after having a stroke while swimming. It's over. Merkel, Putin, Kaczynski -- none of these leaders bear responsibility for those crimes. Moreover, those of us who are even younger should do our part to put history where it belongs -- in books and museums.
That's why Russia doesn't really owe Estonia an apology for the 50 years of occupation. But it does owe Estonia an acknowledgement of what happened along with a strong expression of empathy. Therefore, the best bet for Angela Merkel is to simply acknowledge the grains of truth in Kaczynski's statement, but to move ahead by telling us what we all know -- that we cannot dwell on the past, nor live on it, and the only route we collectively have is forward. That would be the stateswomanly thing to do, and it would be to the benefit of Europe.