12 May 2005

Timothy Garton Ash on Europe's Memory Wars

Timothy Garton Ash writes from Warsaw in the 12 May Guardian about the fractures in Europe's memories of VE Day.
After a continent-wide round of commemorations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, it's clear that the peoples of Europe have a shared past, but not a common one.

Sixty years on, the memory of war here in Warsaw is still irreconcilable with that in Moscow. But it's also utterly different from London's low-key festival of "We'll meet again" nostalgia. Only in the recollections of former inmates of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps does British memory approach the horrors of daily degradation that are the stuff of everyday Polish or Russian memory.

For Russians, the war began in 1941; for Poles and Brits, it began in 1939. For Vladimir Putin, May 9 1945 marked the end of the Great Patriotic War, when the Red Army almost single-handedly liberated - yes, liberated - most of Europe from fascism. For most Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, it marked the transition from one totalitarian occupation to another, Nazi to Soviet....

The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili - leader of his country's "rose revolution" in 2003 - has said we are witnessing a "second wave" of liberation, inside the former Soviet Union, starting with Georgia and Ukraine. Speaking on CNN the other day, he corrected himself, suggesting it was really a "third wave". I make it the fourth. The first wave rolled over western and northern Europe in 1944-45; the second swept through southern Europe, starting in Portugal in 1974; the third liberated central Europe, starting in Poland in 1980 and reaching the Baltic states in 1991; now the fourth wave, if wave it is, may be building in eastern Europe.

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