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As many wars as nations

The myths and truths of World War II. By Adam Krzeminski

The Second World War is still being fought. Sixty years after it ended, almost every anniversary stirs up arguments and emotions: D-Day, the Warsaw Uprising, the liberation of Auschwitz, the bombing of Dresden, Yalta, the taking of Berlin, and Potsdam. There can be no single version of this war. When the heads of state stand side by side at the ceremony in Moscow on May 9, each of them will be remembering something different.

The war destroyed not just countries, but the whole edifice of traditional myths that supported the identity of the European nations before it began. Meanwhile, the effort to create some new myths fell foul of the shocking reality: millions of people had been killed or murdered, there was immense material destruction, and Europe had been politically and morally degraded. In 1945 only the USSR and the USA could be triumphant without restraint. All the other nations and societies – including not just those that openly participated in the war – were deeply torn apart. People had been divided by various political options and moral choices; firstly, there was the resistance movement, which provoked repressions inflicted by the occupying forces, secondly there were the collaborators who supported them, and thirdly there was the passive majority just trying to survive. Although the Third Reich was well and truly crushed, for many countries occupied by the Red Army the end of the war did not mean peace, but the imposition of Soviet hegemony, civil war and governments that relied on Soviet tanks.

To all intents and purposes there were as many Second World Wars as there were nations. Only for the Poles and the Germans did it start on 1 September 1939. Actually, that was when it started for the Swiss too – it’s true!, and they are proud that they announced mobilisation that very day, to defend their Alpine redoubts. For the British and the French, the war formally began two days later, but in reality not until 8 April 1940, on the same day as for the Danes and the Norwegians. For the Russians, it began on 21 June 1941 (the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 and the cold war with Finland have been pushed outside the definition of the "Great Patriotic War"). For the Americans it began on 7 December 1941, and for the Bulgarians not until 1944, when they broke their passive alliance, and the Bulgarians and Soviets became brothers in arms.

Apart from that, among the truly victorious powers, only Great Britain and the USA did not change front during the war, which does not mean they did not change their attitudes to Poland. Moreover, with the exception of Poland most of the countries involved in the war actually changed sides, above all France, which under the Vichy governments withdrew from the war, considerably augmenting German military capability. Until 1941 the USSR was allied to the Third Reich; to some point so were Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and Finland.

In today's Europe there are some states that owed their foundation to Adolf Hitler, including Slovakia, Croatia, and others that lost their independence for a long time as a result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And finally there were some neutral countries – Sweden, Switzerland and Spain – that collaborated to an equal extent with both the Reich and the Allies, who are proud of their resistance and at the same time ashamed of or annoyed by accusations of dealing in stolen goods or handing over refugees.

From this mishmash we can already see that a common European version of the Second World War is not exactly probable. Each nation had a different experience, each one has fostered and exposed its own war myths, as recorded in photographs, memoirs, novels or films, changing with the passage of time and often internally contradictory. First of all, the versions told by the two main victors dominated. It was they who imposed their view on the war. The superpowers not only won the war and dictated the terms of peace, they also had the mass media to disseminate their triumph.

Only against this background could the individual European countries start to establish their own myths, as a nation united in its resistance to the Nazi invader, even if, as in the case of Finland, Slovakia or Bulgaria, that invader was for some time an ally, patron or friendly ruler.

These myths of playing an independent part in the victory were illustrated by various icons. The picture of General de Gaulle at the head of an ecstatic crowd under the Arc de Triomphe was designed to erase the image of the Wehrmacht parading in the same spot four years earlier. Even if the role played by the French Resistance and the Free French in the Allies’ ultimate victory was symbolic (even in 1945 the French were not yet in a position to take Strasbourg on their own), the pictures were meant to restore national pride. A photograph of the Polish flag hoisted for a few hours on the Victory Column (the Siegessaule) in Berlin was supposed to testify to Polish participation in the defeat of Germany and to obscure the Lublin-based government's dependence on the USSR. Pictures of Tito's partisan units were meant to record the self-liberation of Yugoslavia, and the photograph of Mussolini hanging by his feet represented the self-liberation of Italy.

Only the ghastly parade of the Soviet-controlled Kościuszko First Infantry Division in ruined, depopulated Warsaw could hardly be regarded as self-liberation. It would also be hard to treat the Bulgarian partisans entering Sofia as independent victors, so their picture was soon replaced by the icon of Grigori Dimitrov, who in 1933 at the trial of the Reichstag arsonists had come up against Hermann Goering, and in 1945 returned to Bulgaria from Moscow as a Comintern agent and persuasive proof that Bulgaria had been on the right side from the very start…

In countries where the self-liberation myth was especially hard to believe, such as Hungary, it was replaced with the myth of the happy crowds greeting the Soviet soldiers as their liberators. A classic example is the 1952 oil painting by Sandor Ek which shows a tank with a red flag in the foreground against the ruins of Budapest, and some cheering Hungarians standing to one side – with none of their own national symbols. This staged version of the gratitude of the liberated nation was reproduced in all the countries occupied by the Red Army, and a T-34 tank on a pedestal became the standard liberation monument – and reminder of the military presence of the USSR.

Besides the tanks, there were also some plainly religious monuments to the Soviet soldiers as liberators and protectors, combining the images of Saint George killing the dragon with Saint Christopher carrying a helpless child across the river. The classic model, designed by Yevgeny Vuchetich in 1948, is the Monument to the Soviet Liberator in Berlin’s Treptow park, which features a Soviet soldier holding a child in his left hand and a sword in his right, using it to smash a swastika that lies sprawling at his feet. Located in Berlin, this metaphor of liberation also allowed the Germans, obedient to the victor, to cosy up to their protector like a little girl who has lost her parents, and to be warmed by his saintly halo.

In the GDR two monuments illustrated the founding myth of the "first worker-peasant state on German soil": the monument at Treptow and the mausoleum at Buchenwald, which features on a 1960 poster with the GDR emblem, a compass with a hammer in the background. The meaning of the poster was explained by a caption that read: "The GDR is the realisation of what the anti-fascists were fighting for". This myth of liberation and self-liberation was recorded by monuments, novels and films, among which a leading role was played by "Naked Among Wolves" by Bruno Apitz, the story of how a child in Buchenwald was saved by the resistance movement and how the camp liberated itself before the American forces got there. The message was very clear, but not true. When the documents were examined after the reunification of Germany, it turned out the resistance movement in Buchenwald had in fact saved a child, but only for others to be sent to the gas chamber instead. So the resistance also came into contact with collaboration…

Some convenient, though different myths also helped the West Germans bridge the gap into the post-war period. Once the Allies had condemned the criminals and de-Nazified the innocent parties, it was possible to get down to reconstruction and start to feel sorry for themselves. It was just the Nazi gang that had dragged the fundamentally genial German race into the abyss; the Germans had suffered during the war, and after it they had undergone the terrible ordeal of expulsion from the east and the vengeance of the victors. Fortunately, the British and the Americans recognised the importance of Germany as a barrier against communism and allowed them to build democracy in the Federal Republic. The past was over, long life the future!

The war also remained as a family educational myth. The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the wartime generation have been shaped by the memory of the war. In the Polish People’s Republic after 1956, boys cut out cardboard models of the Polish destroyers "Burza" (Storm) and "Błyskawica" (Lightning), read "Stones for the Rampart" by Aleksander Kamiński and "303 Squadron" by Arkady Fiedler, and played games in the yard based on popular television serials about heroic Polish soldiers. In Britain they used to imitate the squeal of Spitfire engines, and in the USA they played board games where they stormed the Pacific islands. In the USSR they eagerly read the tale of a real fighter pilot who lost a leg in a dog fight, but through sheer willpower was soon flying again.

For six decades in Europe, the USA and Israel, monuments and mausoleums have been built, films have been made, and posters and postage stamps have been printed. Heroic tales of war heroes who "ducked the bullets" have been written, yet at the same time some of the legends began to be debunked very early on. Books that were praised one day were thrown on the rubbish heap the next. Monuments erected earlier were demolished, and heroes were scorned, while those who were once regarded as traitors were rehabilitated.

The quarrel with the hero myths probably began earliest in Poland. On the one hand it was extorted by the terrible price of the Warsaw Uprising, while on the other by a cold look at the horrors of war. The cynical realism of Tadeusz Borowski's stories about Auschwitz, written in the 1940s, was a revelation; they described the prisoners' murderous competition for survival and were unequalled in the whole of European concentration camp literature, which is also why they aroused such violent opposition from those who had built up the myth of the unyielding moral resistance of the anti-fascists.

Not until ten years later did myths about nations united in their resistance to the Nazi aggressor began to crumble in the rest of Europe, first of all in Italy, after the death of Stalin (1953), and in the West after the trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961).

The debunking of the secrets and lies of Stalinist propaganda, as well as of the privately fostered hero myth erupted soonest in Poland, first expressed by a derisive wave in Polish cinema, and then by absurdist and satirical literature. Andrzej Munk's film "Bad Luck" is in some ways a prototype for Roberto Benigni's parody "Life is Beautiful", which was made almost fifty years later. Andrzej Wajda's films "Ashes and Diamonds" and "Kanal" were on the one hand a revival of the hushed-up Home Army myth, and on the other an argument with it, and so was Miron Białoszewski's "A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising". At the same time, not just the Home Army and the role played by the Polish armed forces in the West began to return to public memory, but also – in the novels of Jerzy Krzysztoń – the fate of the Poles who were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia from 1939 onwards.

Towards the end of the 1970s, as the democratic opposition grew stronger, a famous essay by Jan Józef Lipski initiated not only the revision of the official Gierek-era thesis about the moral and political unity of the nation, but also the exposure of some blank pages in Polish history, including Stalinist crimes against the Poles, Polish anti-Semitism, the expulsion of the Germans, and some paternalistic attitudes towards the Ukrainians, Belarussians and Lithuanians. This revision intensified after 1989, when there was direct talk about the end of the romantic code, and reached its peak in 2001 during the debate about Jedwabne. Next, as if provoked by the shock of this loss of innocence, came a backlash of renewed hero-making and, in the debate about the Berlin Centre Against Expulsions, a return to a confrontational, rather than a cooperative attitude towards our neighbours with regard to the war.

In the USSR, the thaw undermined the Stalinist myths but did not entirely destroy them, except that from 1956 onwards it was not Stalin, but the top commanders, such as Zhukov or Koniev, who were the centre of attention, and the simple soldiers, whose heroism came at the cost of psychological injury (e.g. in the film "The Cranes are Flying"). In the Brezhnev era, when despite severe re-Stalinisation the figure of Stalin was still not acceptable as a symbol of victory, the persona of Mother Russia grew to gigantic proportions as the goddess of victory with her raised sword – at the Mamayev Kurgan museum in Stalingrad, renamed Volgograd, or as a replica of a 1941 poster known to every Soviet citizen, on which a stout woman in a red shirt, with a stern expression on her face sent the men to the front – "The motherland is calling", urged the caption. This poster appeared in various versions on the covers of books and was the motif for a series of monuments.

To a vast extent the USSR fell apart because of history. In the 1980s, when glasnost and perestroika gradually began to lift the Soviet lid, the bubble of the "Great Patriotic War" finally burst, and not only in the Baltic countries, which began to document their own national history during the war, from the Soviet occupation of 1940, through the German – what? liberation? re-occupation? – to their next annexation by the USSR, accompanied by repressions and deportations.

In free Latvia, state money has been used to restore cemeteries where Latvian SS soldiers are buried, and museums recording the occupation from 1940 to 1990 have been established. They have also begun to foster the memory of the 70,000 Jews who were murdered in Latvia with the help of Latvian collaborators. So too in the Ukraine: in the west, the Galizien SS division is being honoured, while in the east the myth of the "patriotic war" is still intact. Since the victory of the Orange Revolution this fundamental conflict within Ukrainian memory has been exposed at full force. In turn, in Russia a dilemma has arisen over how much their victory in the Second World War was a Soviet triumph, and how much a Russian one. And if it was Russian, to what extent were Stalin's crimes a binding legacy too, and incidentally, what should be done with the Russians who collaborated with Hitler, if only those led by General Vlasov? As it would appear from the planned scenario for the event to be held in Moscow on 9 May, President Putin is trying to restore the Soviet myths and combine them with the myth of the Russian empire, but without accepting any responsibility for past crimes.

In Western Europe, the defence and revision of the myths have run along different tracks. After 1968, the myth of the nation united in its resistance against the Nazi occupier began to fall apart, as the focus shifted to questions about collaboration, first in France, and then in the other occupied countries – Belgium, Holland, Norway, Denmark, and finally the neutral countries. Since the 1970s, thanks to the American series Holocaust, the focus of public memory of the war has been the industrial genocide planned by the leaders of the Third Reich and to a large extent concluded by them and their collaborators.

Over the next dozen years or so, the Holocaust put national versions of the war into perspective, becoming, as some people think, the universal founding myth for a re-unifying Europe, the main warning for the twenty-first century.

So too was the message of the exhibition entitled "Myths of the Nations. 1945 –Arena of Memory", held at the German Historical Museum in Berlin from October to the end of February. In a space a thousand square metres in size, 400 exhibits were on display, including heroic pictures and photographs, posters, sets of postage stamps, cult novels and reportages, and also clips from fifty feature films and television serials that shaped the popular image of the war. The organisers did a superb job of demonstrating the muddle of national myths in Europe, the USA and Israel, myths embodied in a liturgy of state ceremonies, in the symbolic meaning of sites of remembrance, in films and literature.

The exhibition began with the famous photograph of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Next came some Soviet and American iconic images of victory, such as Yevgeny Khaldey's photograph of a Red Army soldier hoisting the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag or, similarly, the picture of the American GIs hoisting their flag at Iwo Jima. But photographs don’t tell the truth. Nowadays we know that Khaldey had to airbrush out one of two trophy watches the soldier was wearing on his wrists.

In the shadow of the big ones, the smaller leaders also stylised themselves as the unambiguous victors. This ritualised form of remembrance soon began to wear thin. In any case, it had little credibility compared with the real experiences and memories of ordinary people. This "other memory", as Pierre Nora puts it, was a more emotional, sensitive and painful attitude to the past. It did not concentrate on heroic exploits, but traumatic memories. It sanctified the victims and vilified the perpetrators, the Nazi leaders, their eager sidekicks and the German civilian population too. The Nuremberg trial was proof of legal justice, while Germany's loss of its eastern territory and the resettlement of Germans to the west were an expression of historical justice. But Hitler's allies and collaborators in the occupied countries were also worthy of condemnation and contempt. The thesis was simple: only a small minority of renegades had acted against their own nation. After the war they were punished, and now, united in reconstruction and the memory of their heroic fight, the nation could look to the future.

The official memory of the war had a stabilising significance for the nations of Europe, and this version took root even in countries that only seceded from Germany very late on or, like Austria, were actually part of the Reich. For example, after 1945 Austria fostered the myth of having been the first victim of Nazi aggression, as if Hitler was not an Austrian and as if crowds of Austrians had not been fixated on him in 1938. The GDR too regarded itself as a new, better Germany, liberated by the Red Army and governed by anti-fascists who had survived the Third Reich in concentration camps or in exile. Like this, Nazism was just a mistaken episode in German history. The German masses were not just innocent, but had been seduced by the Nazi clique.

Unlike the neutral countries: here the obligatory myth involved armed neutrality on the one hand, and humanitarian aid on the other. This was symbolised by the Red Cross, or the activities of the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who issued Swedish passports to Hungarian Jews, and later perished in the Gulag.

The victors' war myths were important, but were not adequate for long. The Berlin exhibition reveals that every single nation, including the Germans, fostered the myth of their own sacrifice and resistance, sometimes actually changing the role of perpetrators and victims after a certain period of time. Tito's partisan army, the Slovak uprising, the Bulgarian partisans, and in Poland the People's Army (AL), the National Home Council (KRN) and of course the Kościuszko First Infantry Division, were supposed to legitimise communist power. Post-war Austria presented itself as the first victim of Nazi aggression, regarding the Catholics and Social Democrats who had been imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps as their founding fathers. The unmasking of the other, Nazi side of the Austrian past only began in the 1970s, to erupt as the Waldheim scandal, when the Austrian president and former UN Secretary General was reminded of his past as a Wehrmacht officer.

In the western countries occupied by the Third Reich, the myth of steadfast resistance, propagated immediately after the war, soon began to crumble too, all the faster since estimates of the point where resistance ended and collaboration began were not at all clear. Was the Belgian king, who in 1940 stayed in his occupied country in order to protect it, a collaborator? That is how the left-wing leaflets presented him: as a traitor chatting with Hitler, and playing golf while Belgian prisoners of war languished in the camps. Yet in a 1952 referendum the Belgians voted in favour of keeping the monarchy. Nowadays a similar debate is under way in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. Was King Boris III a collaborator or a hero? How should we evaluate the policy of Father Hlinka in Slovakia, Romania’s King Carol II or Hungary’s Admiral Horthy? What should we say about the anti-Jewish pogroms committed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross (more), or the pogroms organised by the Romanian Iron Guard (more)?

History is re-encroaching, destroying the post-war myths. However, as not just the organisers of the Berlin exhibition claim, it is apparently not the case that in the twenty-first century the Holocaust has settled in the memory of nations as the one and only myth uniting all parties, the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. Memory of the Second World War will continue to be divided into national segments for a long time to come, and those too will remain divided into opposing options that cannot always be unambiguously classified in terms of morality. How for example should we evaluate the attitude of the Finnish government? They turned to the Third Reich for military aid in order to regain territory lost to the USSR in 1940, and handed over some Jewish refugees to the Gestapo, while at the same time Finnish Jews were fighting at the front alongside the Wehrmacht. Later on they withdrew from their alliance with Germany and began to negotiate with Stalin.

The only Second World War myth that can be kept intact is the American one. As the title of an American best seller puts it, it was “A Good War”. Fixed to Franklin D. Roosevelt's wheelchair, beside Winston Churchill, is the symbol of America's invincible will and power. For over half a century the Second World War has been a living Hollywood myth ("Private Ryan", "Pearl Harbor", "Windtalkers"), telling how the GIs saved Europe from the brown-shirted Evil Empire, and the Pacific zone from Japanese colonial ambitions. That war is also the founding myth for America's global power and moral mission, as fulfilled on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, but also in the courtroom at Nuremberg (more), and later during the Cold War.

At the same time, if the Holocaust has become a metaphor for the Second World War anywhere, it became one in Israel in 1967 after the six-day war, and soon after in the USA as well. The organised genocide of the European Jews is nowadays the symbol of absolute evil in the USA, giving the absolute superpower the authority to take absolute, preventative action anywhere in the world.

The Second World War changed Europe completely, but to this day there is no single European version of it. The war experiences of the individual nations are too different and internally contradictory. At first glance the 1939-1945 war was one of the founding myths of the European Union, or rather the European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the EEC. The union of Western Europe was meant to be the best lesson learned from the catastrophe of war. At its core was the reconciliation and cooperation of the two main losers in the war, (West) Germany and France, which had only symbolically – with the grudging agreement of Britain and America – been promoted to the rank of an occupying power. In fact, however, it was not so much the Second World War that was the founding myth of the EEC, but the Cold War – awareness that Western Europe, which in 1933-1940 had suffered a defeat in its confrontation with the Third Reich, could not repeat the same mistakes in a confrontation with Stalinism.

In turn, in Eastern Europe the Second World War was presented by the propaganda as the founding myth for the camp of "people’s democracies", countries liberated from German fascism by the Red Army and threatened by American imperialism and German revisionism. In fact, however, this propaganda myth was just a cover for the imperial aspirations of the USSR. Its repudiation was an essential part of the emancipation of Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony.

Today's European Union is divided not only by different experiences of the Second World War and the Cold War, but also of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. This event has not become the founding myth of the new, expanded EU, although the overthrow of communism was a condition for the former people's democracies to enter the EU and NATO. The year 1989 has still not yet imprinted itself on the awareness of Western European societies. It has not been accepted as an inseparable part of the common European heritage, just as the war experience of Poland and the Baltic countries, not to mention Ukraine, has never been accepted within European historical awareness. And whenever it is articulated, as recently by the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, who refused to take part in the Moscow celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, or Poland's objection to the return of Putin's official Russia to the Stalinist interpretation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the Warsaw Uprising or Yalta, it meets with little understanding in the West.

Europeans will go on living with competing memories and competing myths for a long time to come. What is new is that these competing myths are no longer being fostered in confinement, but in constant dialogue between neighbours, besides which in each country as well as being fostered they are also being debunked. Time will tell if this clash of national myths will ultimately engender a common European view of the Second World War, without dropping the national experiences. Already in many countries the Europeans are gradually ceasing to be victims of autism, exclusively fixated on separate images of the past.


The article was originally published in Polish in Polityka on 23 March, 2005 and in German in Perlentaucher on 6 April, 2005.

Adam Krzeminski, was born in West Galicia in 1945 and has been editor of the magazine Polityka since 1973. He is one of Poland's leading journalists and chairman of the Polish-German Association in Warsaw.

Translation: Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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