SECESSION est un projet sur le long cours qui se propose de contribuer à penser et façonner l’espace européen autour de la traduction, la migration et l’hybridation.
Vladimir Putin and the European Remembrance Culture
During a recent trip to Crimea that was organized in the same time when the “White Convoy”, consisting of 280 white-painted trucks, allegedly containing humanitarian aid, was about to cross the Russian-Ukrainian border, Vladimir Putin was in a nostalgic mood. He reminded his audience of the bloody battles between the “red” and “white” that the peninsula witnessed in the beginning of the 20th century. Crimea today, he said, can play a unique unifying role for Russia, becoming a symbol of reconciliation.
This great example shows how the dictionary of Russian politics has been constructed. The Europeans see themselves in it as through a crooked mirror. On the one hand, almost every key concept central in Western Europe has its equivalent here: there is not only “reconciliation”, but also “fascism” and “nationalism,” “border protection”, “multiculturalism,” and we even see condemnations of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, however, each of these concepts has been imbued with a meaning that differs from the original. That is the paradoxical, imitative innovation of contemporary Russian propaganda.
In Putin’s statements, fascism and nationalism are threats that belong to the past as much as they do to the present. They belong to the past because in the 20th century these two diametrically opposed ideologies led to a tragic war. They are part of the present because today’s EU is a place where the nationalist hydra is once again rearing its head. In the present as in the past, Russia is to act as a shield. “Our country played an important, if not decisive role in the fight against fascism,” Putin said a few weeks ago in an interview with French radio Europe 1 and the television station TF1. He expressed this more strongly at the earlier Victory Parade in Moscow: “It was our country that expelled the Nazis from their lair, led them to total defeat, and won at the cost of millions of casualties and tremendous challenges.”
From this perspective, the annexation of Crimea has a “logical” justification. While it may be true that “a policy based on expansion and conquest does not have a future in today’s world,” in a speech on the occasion of this year’s Victory Day, we read: “70 years ago Crimea was liberated from the rule of German-fascist occupiers.” Could today’s situation be analogous? Rhetorically, yes. The text of an April 17 Internet conference in which the Russian president participated gives a definitive answer: “Nationalism is flourishing in Ukraine, and neo-Nazism is being reborn.” In Kiev, “the main actors of the revolution are nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites.”
This instrumental use of the concept of anti-Semitism is the most dangerous among Putin’s ploys from the point of view of united Europe. It is, after all, difficult to disagree with the sentences he uttered not so long ago in Israel: “The Holocaust is one of the darkest, most tragic, and most shameful pages in the history of mankind. To this day, we cannot come to terms with the Nazis’ unprecedented atrocities.” But because Putin uses the word “Nazis” concurrently to describe Ukrainian politicians, the sentiments expressed by him do not merely play the role of memento and paying tribute to the past. We are dealing here with an instrumental approach to the Shoah—a crime that, as pointed out by Tony Judt, author of the monumental Postwar, is now at the center of the Old Continent’s collective memory. And as such it is at the very heart of European integration.
Putin masterfully understood the moment: today, part of European public opinion is ready to believe his word games. How did this happen? For decades after the Second World War, the language of accounting for the past, repentance, and reconciliation formed an important part of European identity. This was tied to a critical approach to the past and a wariness of all ideological blindness. But as the memory of the two totalitarian regimes—brown and red—faded, sites of the common European culture of remembrance were gradually, unobservedly colonized by completely different narratives. A dangerous syncretism appeared in the language of politicians and commentators. On the one hand, the war’s victims were still honored and perceived through the lens of the pernicious consequences of political extremes. On the other hand, mainstream discourse became permeated with discriminatory rhetoric against minority groups: the Roma, North African immigrants, European Muslims, etc. The role German economist Thilo Sarrazin has played in this discussion seems symptomatic. His theories about the supposedly biologically grounded lower IQ of Turks as compared to Germans should at most have given him the status of someone not to be taken seriously. Meanwhile Sarrazin’s books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies! They were purchased by Europeans brought up with respect for minorities and knowledge of totalitarian crimes. In France, it seems that a similar role is played by the comedian Dieudonné, who makes jokes about the Holocaust. Their success with readers and viewers gives some idea of how society’s thinking on the past has changed.
This syncretism in the European approach to the past acts in concert with the fundamental geopolitical change that took place 25 years ago. The simple duality of the politics of apologies and settling accounts reflects the bipolar logic of Cold War-era thinking. The fall of the Iron Curtain brought with it, on a political level, a mutually interactive world devoid of simple divisions. In the domain of collective memory, meanwhile, it brought a deep democratization. Neither the establishment of a European identity, nor increased self-confidence or trust in others can be numbered among the consequences of this change in either of the aforementioned spheres.
It is worth remembering that already in the mid-19th century the Marquis de Custine wrote in his famous Letters from Russia: “According to its constitutional principles, the state is supposedly an advocate for order, yet in accordance with the character of its nation, Russia would be more inclined to spread tyranny under the pretext of preventing anarchy.” It is difficult to express how dramatic the consequences would be if the Europeans do not react in time to this toying with the concepts that form the basis of their shared culture.
Translated from the Polish by Maria Blackwood