reede, juuni 22, 2007

Historical Convergence

The catchall word for the European Union these days is convergence. There's economic convergence, political convergence, and then the muddy waters of social and ethical convergence. In this last category, you find overt convergence -- gay pride parades in Tallinn -- and then the less overt historical convergence, which taints all three layers of converging.

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.

"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."

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.

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.

8 kommentaari:

space_maze ütles ...

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.

Bingo - an apology would be cheap and tacky anyways - how can you apologise for something you had no part of?

But an acceptance of history is important for international relations. Poland, in general, would have a lot harder a time sitting there beside Germany, silently, if Willy Brandt had not fallen to his knees in Warsaw in 1970. This in no way can be seen as an apology, considering that Brandt himself was a fugitive of the Nazis, and only survived the war years by going into hiding in Sweden.

It's a pity that Russia is going so far off the Brandt path today. In the early 90s, one could have believed that Russia was slowly coming to terms with its history. Today .. imagine Putin doing something like this. Not too bloody likely.

As Germany has not had any such "reawakening" of warm and fuzzy feelings towards its own murderous past, I can't see Kaczyński as anything but childish here.

Kristopher ütles ...

Not an apology, nor extraditions of the last 90-year-old Soviet war criminals, but Russia owes Estonia and the Baltics a few billion dollars in damages. And that is one demand that should not be allowed to expire.

LPR ütles ...

Kris, forget the "slave reparations", that is demeaning. (If I was a russian, I'd laugh at it too).
Even blacks in U.S. don't do it.

The best revenge is living well. This is what we, Estonians, must and can do. Revenge them by living well.

Do we know how to live well? That is the real question.

space_maze ütles ...

Not an apology, nor extraditions of the last 90-year-old Soviet war criminals, but Russia owes Estonia and the Baltics a few billion dollars in damages. And that is one demand that should not be allowed to expire.

It'd be justified, but the thought is just silly when one considers how much better life is in Estonia at present compared to Russia.

Juan Manuel ütles ...

Well, banning Polish girls from lying topless at the beach, as Poland wants to do, will not help them to have more children :D

Kristopher ütles ...

Actually I do support reparations for African descendants; it is a hell of lot less demeaning than affirmative action, which is being practiced. Nor do I support it as a substitute for atonement, or out of white man's guilt. Rather one day, when they have truly "overcome" and are fully accepted as equals in American society, I think blacks would then be perfectly justified in saying, "Now, about this money you owe us". So I agree with George Herbert quote about the best revenge being living well. (Too bad about Bush Sr. stealing this 17th century philoospher’s first two names BTW.) In the case of the Baltics there is still environmental damage and many other things that are beyond the capacity of Baltic governments to clean up. Chemicals at airfields with longer half-lives than 15 years. A Latvian thinktank did the math and came up with a specific figure a few years back. I know the Russians need every kopeck just so they can clean a weapon from time to time and their conscripts don\t starve to death. But some Russian individual can foot the bill.

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Germans and Polands. When the "Deutschbalten" arrived in the Warthegau 1939 (Poland), leaving Estonia behind cause of the Hitler-Stalin treaty, they were given left and empty houses, Jews and Polish people were sent to nowhere instead, away from their own property. What did the German Baltics do? They stayed. Until the war reached the place in 1944. The Baltic Germans survided, not all, but what about the Polish and the Polish Jews? I never got the number.

Anonüümne ütles ...

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