Three months ago, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna suggested that Berlin or London would be more appropriate locations than Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. In Russia, where the May 9 Victory Day holiday is celebrated by gigantic military parades on Red Square, Schetyna’s remarks were met with scorn. Channel Five, based in President Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, hit back in a weekly news show, proposing a “grand European tour” by the Russian military.
“We have a big army. There’s enough for everybody,” an off-screen male voice said mockingly as red arrows on a map shot out from Moscow to Warsaw, Berlin, Helsinki, and Prague. In computer-generated images, tanks rolled, planes took off, and the Russian flag went back up over former Soviet military bases in eastern Germany. “Too bad our Western partners can’t see our Iskander missile with their own eyes since it can only be delivered by air,” the voice said, as a rocket lifted off from its silo.
Resentment and fear have overshadowed feelings of respect for the dead and thankfulness to the soldiers who defeated Nazism. Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine has led most European leaders to boycott this year’s parade. Poland hosted its own commemorations, attended largely by leaders of central and eastern European countries that fell under Moscow’s control for almost half a century after 1945. Europeans’ unity in celebrating the war’s end has been split because there is still no unanimity on its consequences — and the legacy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
In an irony of history, Germany is now the one country that has the moral authority to bridge the contradictions in remembering World War II. Divided into two states during the Cold War, Germans experienced both democracy and communism until reunification in 1990. More importantly, post-war Germans ended up confronting the Nazi past with an honesty and contrition that won the trust, then friendship, of former enemies.
For Germans, total defeat in World War II gave democracy a chance to take hold in West Germany, leading to a self-reckoning with the depravities of Nazism. For Russians, the “great victory” — coming at an unimaginable human toll — paradoxically reinforced Stalin’s totalitarian system and legitimized the Soviet Union as a world power. Even today, more than two decades after the fall of Communism, the victory is being put to political purposes.
The contrast between how Berlin and Moscow are commemorating the war’s end couldn’t be bigger: a thoughtful lecture by a 76-year-old history professor in the German parliament versus 16,000 soldiers, accompanied by 194 vehicles and 143 aircraft, marching past the Kremlin.
On Friday, historian Heinrich August Winkler held Germany’s keynote speech on the anniversary, taking the floor in the historic Reichstag building that 70 years earlier had symbolized the Red Army’s bitterly won battle for Berlin. Echoing the theme of his two-volume history, “Germany: The Long Road West,” Winkler explained that while Germany had always been part of the “old Occident” culturally, the country’s ruling elite refused to accept the political consequences of the Enlightenment as embodied by the American and French revolutions. Adolf Hitler’s rise can’t be explained only by Germany’s tribulations following World War I, but by a long-held skepticism toward liberal democracy, Winkler said. Therefore the Nazis’ capitulation on May 8, 1945, was the most important moment in the nation’s history because it created the conditions for West Germany, and later reunified Germany, to become a full-fledged member of the West.
In remembering the crimes of the Nazis, Winkler said, contemporary Germans should feel a sense of responsibility, not guilt. Drawing the arc of history to the present, he condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea and appealed for more solidarity with the countries that had regained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “Never again should Poland and the Baltic republics get the impression that Berlin and Moscow are deciding something above their heads and at their expense.”
Germany’s extraordinary path from pariah to one of the most well-regarded members of the international community was long and difficult. Thirty years ago, Germany’s late president Richard von Weizsaecker told his fellow citizens that they too should regard May 8, 1945, as a day of liberation rather than defeat. Public acknowledgment of the past — and not silence or denial — was the key for Germans to come to terms with the most unbearable chapter of their history.
The maturity of Germany’s political culture in dealing with the past has stood out in recent kerfuffles over how to commemorate the war’s end. Earlier this week, German President Joachim Gauck paid homage to the millions of Soviet prisoners of war who died in Nazi captivity. In the same speech, without a hint of moral equivalence, he recalled that many of the POWs who survived the camps later faced execution or imprisonment as traitors in the Soviet Union. Gauck could name two evils at once without anybody thinking he was seeking to relativize or compare them.
Because of its sense of responsibility for the past, Germany’s leadership has softened its boycott of Putin’s military parade. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to a ceremony in Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, where his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov gushed that “Germany is our most important partner in European and international affairs.” On Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel is due in Moscow for a wreath-laying. Her office emphasized that she would stay for a “working lunch” with Putin and was expected back by late afternoon.
Fantasies by Kremlin propagandists to send tank columns across eastern and central Europe remain unfulfilled. Russia’s uninvited ambassadors to Germany’s commemorations are a handful of members of the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club close to Putin, and their local sympathizers. One part of the group was turned back at the Polish border, but a Berlin court ruled that German immigration officials had no ground to deny them entry.
On Thursday, a group of the bikers turned up on their Harleys in Torgau, where U.S. and Soviet soldiers met in April 1945 as they closed in on Hitler. Photographs posted on a regional news site showed the Night Wolves laying flowers at the war cemetery — and then heading straight for the local McDonald’s.