Saturday, May 9, 2015

Reflections on May 9

"History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time. There is no single, eternal, and immutable "truth" about past events and their meaning. The unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, "revisionism"—is what makes history vital and meaningful." 
Award-winning historian James MacPherson

In retrospect, in the long view, the "victory" of the Allies over Nazism that ended WWII is starting to look like a mixed bag. The capitulation of the Nazis to the Soviet Union on May 9 even more so.  Yes, it was a triumph of good over evil. Hitler was defeated. The concentration camps were freed.  But the course of the war itself, the aftermath of the "victory,"  the ongoing anti-semitism, the turmoil in the world today, raise new questions about what was won and what was lost.

It didn't take long for another form of war, the Cold War, to emerge from the ashes of death on battlefields and from a nuclear explosion.  It didn't take long for new superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, to start duking it out.  It didn't take long, after so many millions dead, to begin a new arms race, including building nuclear weapons that could annihilate the planet.

Now, with Putin's war of aggression in Ukraine, the old fears have arisen again, the old ideologies, the ramped up propaganda, the old icons of a "victory" gone sour.  More than ever, what stands out is the triumph of Stalinism, the brutally enforced Russification and ongoing destruction of eastern Europe's cultural fabric, the "spheres of influence" mentality of two new super powers that went ballistic, the celebration of military weapons and military force.

I saw the consequences of Stalinism in Ukraine. I see it in all the countries bordering Russia that after the war came under the Soviet "sphere of influence." The Eastern Bloc.

These countries were caught in a vicious vise between the Nazis under Hitler on one hand, and the Soviets under dictator Joseph Stalin, on the other. This map of Poland illustrates the ugly struggle.  It continued, fiercely, after the war.

I am gathering the story of Elizabeth Frankowski, a 90-year-old woman from eastern Poland. She tells how World War II severed Poland. She talks about 1939. While the Nazis rounded up the terrified Jewish population and sent them to Aushwitz and other concentration camps, the Soviets rounded up thousands of ordinary Poles and sent them to the Gulags.

For Elizabeth, the Soviets became the more fearsome and loathsome enemy. To this day.  The Red Army invaded Poland, killed her father, rounded up her family at gunpoint, along with thousands of others, put them on cattle-car trains in the dead of night, and transported them to a vicious Gulag in Siberia. It changed her world forever.  She remembers it in detail, the grief and fear, the hard labor, the cold, the hunger, the diseases, the deaths.  Her mother was pregnant with her seventh child, who didn't survive. Elizabeth, then 12 or 13 years old, lost more siblings, a brother and sister, almost lost her mother, whom she tried to keep alive through the depths of hard labor, sickness, and despair. Her mother died a broken woman after the war.

The Soviet flag is hoisted over the Reichstat in Berlin, 9 May1945 (avaxnewsnet). This is the victory Russia celebrates today, as Putin displays his new tanks and weapons. 
Elizabeth's story can be multiplied several fold. I heard it in Ukraine.  I've spoken with people from Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, Hungary, Lithuania and the Baltic countries who tell similar stories.   Here's a story from Lithuania, in Yahoo news today, about murder, the Gulags, the resistance to Soviet aggression.

In Budapest, these stories are enshrined in the Terror Museum: photos, documentation, oral histories and videos, somber funereal music in the background, cellos moaning, the sounds of horror, torture and terror. Chilling. It stunned me.  The Terror Museum, in fact, is housed in the very same building that was the headquarters for the German SS during the war and for the Soviet KGB after the war. Imagine. 60 Andrassy ut. You went in, and you never left.

When I was in Lviv, in far western Ukraine, I befriended an aging but handsome officer of the Ukrainian National Army and his wife. He could still fit in his uniform, and displayed it proudly.  Bogdan and Stefa knew every Ukrainian song, every Ukrainian poem. They regaled us with song and good food. They told incredible tales of how they had fought mightily against the Soviet occupation of western Ukraine. They had fought with Stephan Bandera.  A few of the older women I met in Slavsky and the Carpatheans, respected babuskas like Maria, had survived several years in Soviet Gulags, just like Elizabeth. Every house I visited in western Ukraine featured a picture of Bandera. They had lots of stories to tell. The divide beween western and eastern Ukraine never felt so wide.

I remember thinking that a healthy dose of nationalism wouldn't hurt eastern Ukraine.  Not that Nationalism is good in itself; we've witnessed the extremism and the dangers. But Ukraine has struggled to create a unified identity, struggled to preserve its traditions. When I mentioned Bandera in the English Club, however, I noticed the reticence.  English club members did  not even know the Ukrainian national anthem.  It's how it was in eastern Ukraine.

Now friends in the east say that there is a renewed sense of national identity emerging in Ukraine since Putin annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine.  That's the good part, I suppose. I don't know.

I do know that Putin's current version of May 9 Victory Day, in the present context, smacks of a full-blown propaganda campaign rather than a true commemoration of an Allied victory.  Look at all the new weapons, the Armata tanks, the high tech guns.  Look at how Putin's biker gang is riding roughshod over eastern Europe, unwanted, some of the very mercenaries and Russian soldiers who claim victory in Crimea and in the Donbas region.  The same macho Russians who decimated and now claim pieces of eastern Ukraine as their "trophies."  Laughter. Raise the vodka in salute. Cheer the comaraderie of true fighters. Bigger, stronger, the best. Chafing at the bit to attack again, to destroy and claim Mariupol and the Azov region.

It's as if we have learned nothing from WWII.  It's as if the same old hatreds still exist, fanning the flames of war, the same old noxious nationalism that fueled the rise of Hitler, Stalinsim, and now Putin's aggression against Ukraine and his war mongering in the former Soviet republics.

The meaning of May 9 is wide open.  The day is shrouded in geopolitics. It feels more like a commemoration of the failure of our world to learn lessons from the past, than a victory.

Historians are revising the story, asking new quesstions, studying new documents from the once-closed Soviet archives. Who knows where it will lead. Who knows what our grandchildren will commemorate.

Some sources:
For one revisionist perspective, demonstrating how the events of the present influence the stories of the past:
"We have another case of history repeating itself in Russia today. Genocidal Russian leader Josef Stalin at first used the May 9th Victory Day celebrations of the defeat of Nazi Germany to create solidarity and patriotism, but after two years he decided the celebrations had served their purpose so he cancelled them. Current Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to be taking a page from his historical mentor Stalin as he is using Victory Day to whip up nationalist fervor as he attempts to rewrite history and paint a false picture that Russia is still fighting fascism, but this time it’s Europe and the U.S. who are out to subjugate Mother Russia."

New video (youtube) on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Berlin.  Berlin  was split into two, into East and West,  after the war, just like Poland was split asunder during the war, as were other Eastern bloc countries, torn between the Nazis and the Soviets, then encompassed under the Soviet Union. . 

The Soviets occupied Berlin immediately after the city fell. Ultimately, Berlin would be divided between a Soviet-allied communist regime and West Germany until 1990, when the country was finally reunified.Berlin 1945


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