Sunday, May 1, 2005

One way of remembering the Second World War

People have different ways of remembering and commorating major events of the past.  Some of them more easily comprehensible than others: Stalin Has Foot Back on the Pedestal by David Holley Los Angeles Times 05/01/05.

Authorities in Volgograd [formerly known as Stalingrad] are planning to unveil a statue of Stalin next week as Russia celebrates the 60th anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany. The dictator's supporters see it simply as proper recognition of the key role he played in World War II. ...

Despite fierce criticism from Russia's small number of pro-democracy activists, Stalin seems to have the upper hand as the Kremlin gears up for three days of high-profile international events marking the anniversary of the May 8, 1945, Allied victory in Europe. One of Stalin's famous quotes from the war — "Our cause is just. Victory will be ours" — is featured prominently on posters for the celebrations.

At the Reading City Bookstore, a window display is filled with copies of "Stalin: Throne of Ice," a sympathetic account of the dictator. "Without Stalin, neither this Great Victory nor this country in general would have been possible," author Alexander Bushkov says. "Those were heroic times, and such people will never be born again."

That quotation sounds like stock Republican praise for Bush the Magnificent, Liberator of Peoples and Hooder of the Unrighteous.

The monument doesn't include only Stalin:

The controversial monument to be erected in Volgograd depicts Stalin with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 1945 Yalta conference. The 11-ton bronze, which has already been cast at a workshop in St. Petersburg, is to be unveiled May 9 in front of the Battle of Stalingrad museum, said Boris Usik, its director.

"We find it quite hard to understand all this latest turmoil around the monument," Usik said. "For us, the monument will symbolize an important event in the history of our own country. It is not that we are burning with a desire to swear allegiance to the past."

But Usik added that he thought Stalin's period compared favorably with the last 15 years in Russia, particularly in terms of economic development.

"People do not tend to link Stalin's name with a dictatorial regime and repressions," he said.

The polling figures on people's image of Stalin in Russia might come as a surprise to many readers.

Biographies of Stalin and histories dealing with his regime are often heavily laden with a cold War ideological agenda of some sort.  One of the best histories on the period that I've encountered is Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1992) by Adam Bullock.  I remember thinking that this was the first "post-Cold War" history that I had read.

Given the prevailing foreign policy rhetoric of today, I really wonder how many Americans can really process historical fact of the alliance of the US and Britain with the Soviet Union against the Axis powers in any kind of sensible way.  Or how many people are aware that the loss of life in the Soviet Union during the Second World War far exceeded those of the Western powers.  A 1970s documentary series on the Soviet war against Germany, which was released in both the US and the USSR, was called The Great Patriotic War there.  In the US, it was called The Unknown War.

I had thought that with all the "greatest generation" hype and all the attention given to the Second World War in the media in the 1990s that many Americans might be rediscovering the history of that war and its lessons.  But the fact that so many people were cheerfully ready to accept the notion of "preventive war" and the Republicans' scorn for international law has made me more cynical about how much people understand or care about the Second World War.

But, for people who really are interested, there is a wealth of good historical writing available on the subject.  And more is coming out all the time, quite apart from the more superficial versions.

No comments: