Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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David Shribman

WWII revisionism sparks a word war



MOST of the world goes to war about geography. Europe goes to war about history. And while the war that broke out earlier this month in Europe wasn't a shooting war, it was a classic European dispute about the past — one that, like all European historical controversies, has implications for the future.

This latest war over history isn't ancient and half-forgotten resentments. Its subject is thoroughly modern, within the memory of most of the readers.

The principals are the usual combatants, the British, the French, and the Germans. Together they fought two world wars, and that shared history is what forms the backdrop for the imbroglio that has emerged from the archives. (I am not unmindful of U.S. participation and I am not suggesting that the blame for them is shared equally.)

Archives aren't dusty repositories of diaries and documents; they remain fertile fields of conflict. In this case, secret British government documents set out concerns British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand harbored about a reunited Germany after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. In this case of geopolitics the geo trumped the political.

Mr. Mitterand warned Mrs. Thatcher that the new Germany emerging in 1989 “might make even more ground than had Hitler.”

There were many worries about Europe's changing face in 1989. The documents released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are remarkable not for the sentiments they display — the two leaders' concerns were well-known — but for the depth of them.

The Financial Times, in a recent editorial, remarked darkly on how the records displayed Downing Street and the Champs-Elysees slipping “back into 19th-century attitudes.”

These attitudes may have been rooted in the nationalism of the 19th century, but the fears were derived directly from the two world wars of the 20th century, both of which combined Britain and France as allies against Germany. The two wars increasingly are viewed not as separate conflicts but as a long struggle for European dominance that began perhaps as early as 1898, spiked in 1914 and 1939, and ended in 1945.

One of the more intriguing notions to emerge from these documents is Mr. Mitterand's speculation that a unified Germany might end up throwing Russia into an alliance with its old World War II (and, before the Russian revolution, its old World War I) partners, Britain and France. For anything else you might say about Mr. Mitterand, do not mark him down for a failure of the imagination.

The dispute comes against the backdrop of Europe's first war over history this summer, new tensions generated by the anniversary of the start of World War II 70 years ago.

This earlier fight involved the question of whether Hitler and Stalin were moral equivalents and whether Stalin was prudent or predatory in aligning himself with Hitler in August, 1939, on the eve of the invasion and division of Poland. The Russians began to insist that Stalin, knowing that the Soviet Union was destined to fight Germany in the 1940s, played for time by siding with Hitler. The Russian argument sets forth another question of moral equivalency that found few adherents or even sympathizers in the West: Was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty signed in Moscow on the war's eve much different from the appeasement policy pursued by the Allies?

There have been many revisionist looks at World War II, and even revisions to the revisionists. But this summer has been a virtual revisionism festival. The Kremlin, in a remarkable TV broadcast, suggested that it was the Poles, not the Russians, whose conspiracies with the Nazis triggered World War II. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested the Russians had no responsibility for the war's outbreak. And then there was the mystifying assertion, in Warsaw, by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who is no one's idea of a clear-eyed historian, condemning Molotov-Ribbentrop, with asterisks, of course.

All this may suggest that in the period that was supposed to represent the end of history there was ample reason to believe that history itself was a growth industry, particularly since the Russians now argue that their dismemberment of Poland saved Polish lives. The latter may be proof that there may indeed be something new under the sun.

This is not all in the deep, dark past. The annual poll of European and American public opinion conducted for the German Marshall Fund shows divisions over how to respond to Russia, particularly on the question of NATO expansion and Europe's growing reliance on energy from Russia. We're not yet done with the divisions from the past.

But if the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have brought forth controversies this robust, we can imagine even more combat in 2014. That will be the 75th anniversary of World War II, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — and, lest we forget, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Who says there isn't a mathematics to history?

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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