Sixty years ago, Nazi Germany was defeated. World leaders gathered in Moscow this week to commemorate that victory over evil. Many will wonder why that celebration was held in Moscow. That such a question could be asked is a stark reminder of the speed with which the past is receding. It is reveals why so many Russians feel lost and angered at their place in the world.
It took a global alliance of nations to defeat Nazi Germany. All countries suffered during the conflict, but none more than the Soviet Union. Some 27 million Soviet citizens died during “the Great Patriotic War,” as it is known today in Russia. That country assumed the burden of the Nazi onslaught.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech during the celebration, “grief came to every family, every home.” Today many Russians still wonder whether their allies delayed opening a second European front so that Berlin and Moscow would weaken and wear each other out.
The Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of the Nazis laid the basis for Moscow’s claim to great power status in the postwar world. The Red Army’s progress expanded the borders of the Soviet Empire as well. When Germany surrendered, the Soviet military provided the bulwark behind which Moscow installed sympathetic governments and established the cordon sanitaire that insulated the Soviet Union from future invasions — and condemned its occupants to lives of drudgery and communist tyranny.
Mr. Putin commemorated the high points of the history in his speech. For him, as well as many — if not most — other Russians, the Red Army liberated the nations of Eastern and Central Europe. They refuse to accept the view of those nations’ citizens that one occupier was merely traded for another. Most Russians share Mr. Putin’s opinion, spelled out in another recent speech, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest political catastrophe of the 21st century.
That nostalgia is fueled by the Russian struggle to find its place in the world. Moscow finds itself squeezed between dynamic Asia and rapidly integrating Europe, the latter incorporating many former Soviet states and becoming increasingly vocal about Russian misbehavior.
Yet the readiness of 57 world leaders, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao among them, to join Mr. Putin is a sign that Moscow’s greatest days are not necessarily behind it. But the discord that marked the day’s celebrations — complaints by former Soviet satellites that they will not accept Moscow’s reading of history — is a warning to Russia’s leaders that they cannot revive the past — nor should they try to do so.
Our world is much different from that of the Cold War. And while some bemoan the many uncertainties that exist, two positive changes have occurred: Freedom is now enjoyed by millions of former Soviet citizens and the fear that the world could end at any time in a nuclear holocaust has dissipated. The tragedy is that the world had to wait some 50 years after the end of World War II for that to happen.
Rewriting history is not merely a Russian predilection. In a speech in Riga, Latvia, delivered the day before he arrived in Moscow, Mr. Bush had harsh words for U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, criticizing him for agreeing at Yalta in 1945 to a division of Europe and, by default, the oppression of many of its citizens. “We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” Mr. Bush said. “We have learned our lesson; no one’s liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others.”
Such words, of course, are intended to be inspirational — and to provide a perspective for U.S. policy in the Middle East — but they are ahistorical as well. FDR was a pragmatist. He knew that the U.S. was in no position at the time to challenge the Soviet presence in Europe. More significantly, he recognized that the U.S. needed allies to fight its real enemy, Hitler’s Germany. A military needs far more than ideological certitudes to fight and win. The U.S. administration would be well served by such pragmatism today.
Anniversaries such as these provide an opportunity to celebrate victories and to commemorate losses. They should inspire more than the reflexive search for the “feel good” moment; they should drive us to understand the forces that wreaked such havoc. Adolf Hitler was evil, and he had to be defeated, but he was the product of political, economic, cultural and historical forces that must be understood in all their complexity if the world is to avoid his kind again.
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