Memory Politics Across and Beyond Central Europe

World War 2 ended 75 years ago – A panoramic view of memory politics in Central Europe

In Western Europe, 8 May while in most former members of the Soviet Union 9 May is celebrated as Victory Day, the day when World War 2 ended. Nazi Germany was defeated, extermination and concentration camps were liberated, and the victors created a new world order. 75 years have passed, but the evaluation of events is not uniform within Eastern and Central Europe. This is so because the region immediately came under Soviet domination. Can we celebrate liberation if it was coupled with occupation? On the other hand, in the region, not every state felt they were defeated. Yet, none of the societies had a chance to experience the catharsis of victory.   

Victory Day – Europe between history and myth

In May 1945, the total war ended in Europe.  The post-war landscape was beyond words. Tens of millions died. Europe lost as many people to the demons of war as if every single French citizen had died. Tens of millions were homeless and about ten million were deported during and after the war. Between 1939 and 1945 violence was a part of everyday life l even if the actual degree varied across countries. Instead of the frontlines that are familiar from history textbooks, there was a chaotic war in occupied Europe. Myths still veil that World War 2 was the war of everyone against everyone else. Peace also had blood on its boots and wings. It was Stalin’s army that put an end to the unprecedented hell that Auschwitz-Birkenau was. This army plundered and it raped hundreds of thousand women as it marched across the countries of the Eastern and Central part of Europe. Yet, 1945 meant relief but it was neither liberation nor the victory of justice over injustice.

May 1945 constitute a milestone in European history. It brought the hope of a new democratic beginning, even if this hope was a frail one. If this was not so István Bibó’s essays would have been irrelevant. They are not. Still the “Victory Day” is a cover story from Paris to Moscow via Prague to Vienna and Belgrade. Makeshift anti-Fascist memorial tablets cannot stop histories of collaboration from falling out. De Gaulle’s “eternal France” does not erase the Vichy-syndrome, that is, just as many people fought along with the Germans as against them in France. In 1940, Francois Mitterand was Pétain’s and Laval’s colleague even if he was to become the hero of the historic victory of the Socialists at the election in 1981. Mussolini's battered corpse and Bella Ciao, the big hit that was first presented in the World Youth Meet at Prague in 1947, covered up the Italian civil war of 1943-45: German-occupied Northern Italy held onto its Fascist past just as much as to its Christian Democratic and Communist future. In Germany, silence lasted for decades and even those that did introspection carried a heavy burden: Günther Grass, the literary leader of the Left had revealed the Nazi elements of his early life only shortly before he passed away. In the Netherlands, it also took a long time until it became clear that tolerant Dutch, too reported their Jewish neighbors. If it had not been the case Anna Frank’s diary would not have ended in such a tragic way. Austria was first seen as a victim of Anschluss. Yet, many members of the new and cheerful generation of politicians, including Kurd Waldheim, discovered and shaped the neutral and Austrian identity of their country after they had folded and put away their SS uniform that they had carried with pride earlier.   

The film industry and propaganda were eager to sell the history of the end of World War II as a cathartic period. However, it is the words of János Pilinszky, a Hungarian poet, that contain the fallible truth that should be the guideline for historical research: “hunger was down on all fours, […] it revolted, then, it gave up.” 

From victory to defeat

In Poland, the question is a relatively simple one. Although the Soviet army pushed out Nazis in the course of 1944, they did not give a chance for freedom to Poles, Ukrainians, and Belarussians that lived in the territory.

            This history began at the time when the war broke out. The Soviet Union occupied the eastern part of the Republic of Poland between 17 September and 28 September. The inhabitants of this area were declared Soviet citizens and between 700 000 and 1 million Poles were deported to the interior of the empire. In June 1941, Germans launched their military campaign against the Soviet Union, therefore, troops kept marching through this same area. The second Soviet occupation began in January 1944. At that time, however, the Red Army did not stop at the boundary that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact designated. Instead, they occupied the entire territory that was within the borders of pre-1939 Poland. At the same time, they created a puppet government and political police that were also subjugated to the Soviets. Then, they arrested the leaders of the Home Army that fought the war as a large resistance movement loyal to the Polish Government-in-Exile. The latter leaders were convicted in 1946 in the infamous staged “trial of the Sixteen”. There were no democratic parliamentary elections held. By 1948, against the will of society, Communists secured their position in power with Soviet backing.

            The word liberation could be applied for the expulsion of the German army if it was not carried out by the army and police of another totalitarian empire and if the objective of their operations was liberation.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the symbol of liberation. After the Soviets had liberated the most infamous extermination camp of the world, they brought cameras and made a recording in order to show the horroristic deeds of the Nazis and also to make themselves celebrated as liberators. However, they kept silent about the other camps they liberated. In Buchenwald and Majdanek they let (Jews, Polish, and other nationalities) prisoners free, but only to replace them with members of the Polish Underground resistance. Ravensbrück was a similarly sorry place with 120 000 women (40 000 were Polish) and 30 000 children kept there: they were not liberated. Soldiers of the Red Army raped these emaciated prisoners on a mass scale. Subsequently, the Soviet army used one of the commanders’ buildings until 1977.

            In Poland, Victory Day was a public holiday and followed the Soviet example between 1945 and 1950. After that day, it was a memorial day and not a holiday. In 2015, as the 70th anniversary approached, 8 May was declared “Victory Day” based on the examples in Western Europe. After the systemic change, public monuments celebrating the Soviet army were removed, however, tombs of Soviet soldiers that died in Polish territory are under protection.

There are several other memorial days that are related to World War 2. 1 March is the day of “excommunicated soldiers”, 24 March is the day of Poles that saved Jewish people during the German occupation, 13 April is the day of the victims of the Katyn massacre, 14 June is the day of the victims of German concentration camps, 1 August is the day of the Warsaw Rising and 17 September is the day of the victims of Soviet aggression. None of these are public holidays.

The war began with Sovietization – memory in the Baltic states  

The Baltic states were subjects of the division of Eastern Europe that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact sanctioned on 23 August 1939. Thereafter, the three Baltic states experienced the kinds of pressure that the Soviet Union was able to exert. At first, it meant the closeness of the Soviet army only limited their sovereignty. After the summer of 1940, the pressure took the form of military occupation. While Nazi Germany completed the invasion of France, Sovietization began in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Although Western powers did not recognize the annexation of the three countries, after the short interval of the German occupation it went without saying that the Baltic states would be part of the Soviet Union. 31 000 Estonian, 110 000 Latvian and 72 000 Lithuanian citizens took refuge in the West before the arrival of the Soviets. Moreover, as the Red Army appeared, a widespread anti-Soviet resistance began. A lot of people were aware that if the Soviets won the war, their hard-won independent statehood would come to an end. Sovietization, bringing peasant farms to ruin and attacks against Estonian-Latvian protestant Church and against the Lithuanian Catholic Church increased resentment. Armed groups persisted (partisans called Forest Brothers) until the mid-1950s. In order to break the resistance, deportations continued after World War 2. Between 1948 and 1952 60 000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia.

            Until there were Estonian, Lithuanian and Latvian Soviet Socialist Republics, 9 May was celebrated as the day of liberation. Although, apart from exiled former political leaders, the USA did not recognize the annexation, for decades it looked like there was no chance for splitting away from the Soviet Union. In the history of the movements for independence, the 675-km-long human chain formed on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a crucial step.

            After these countries regained their independence, the issue of 9 May was an example of the tension that arose from the fact that there was now a sizeable Russian population in the territory of Estonia and Latvia. It is not only that even though 9 May stopped being a national holiday in the Baltic countries the Russian minority kept celebrating 9 May as Victory Day even after 1991. This difference went so far that the memorial at Riga, which was erected in 1985, became one of the centers of political activities of Russians.

            In Vilnius, the Museum of the Victims of Genocide Victims (now the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fighters) opened in 1992 at the former headquarters of the KGB. A year later, the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia was inaugurated in Riga. In Tallinn, the Museum of Occupations and Freedom opened in 2003. Thus, the memory of the Soviet occupation plays a central role in historical memory in the Baltic states. 9 May became a divisive occasion since the majority associates the day with Soviet occupation, while Russian communities celebrate it as a victory.

The Slovak memory of the victory over Fascism

Slovak memory politics differs from both the Polish and the Baltic case. In Slovakia, “Victory over Fascism” is celebrated as a public holiday on 8 May. This is so despite the fact that Tiso’s Slovakia took part in the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939.

            Official events do not commemorate the start of the war. They focus on the Slovak National Uprising that began on 29 August 1944 with the participation of 130 000 Slovaks and 8400 foreigners. In the same period, there was heavy fighting between Germans and the Red Army in the eastern part of the country. Moreover, 50 000 Slovak soldiers fought in the army of the USA and there were Slovaks involved in the resistance movement in the territory of the Czech Protectorate. Jozef Gabcik, one of the members of the unit that assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, was one of these Slovaks. In 2018, he was among the 10 most famous Slovak that the successful television program called “The Greatest Slovak” nominated.

            Heroes and victims of the Slovak National Uprising and heroic resistance constitute an important part of “national history” in Slovakia. The political elite and the major part of intelligentsia identify with this vision. Throughout Slovakia, one finds monuments and tablets commemorating resistance.

            Yet, there are those that oppose official memory politics and assess Jozef Tiso’s activities and the functioning of the Slovak state during World War 2 positively. One of the parliamentary parties, “Our Slovakia People’s Party” led by Marian Kotleba, is among these revisionists.  

Unfortunately, the fact that during the war 12 000 km2 of present-day Slovakia was part of Hungary, led to cases of omissions and paradoxes. The current Slovak memory politics enforces a past upon certain localities of Southern Slovakia that never was. At the same time, regional events fade into oblivion. The geographical location of the village (Bős) that was renamed Gabcikovo in 1948 - commemorating Jozef Gabcik - is a good example: it is situated in a southern district along the Danube.  It is also a symptom that, in 2016, the Holocaust memorial at the synagogue of Lučenec (Losonc) contained 70 000 memorial stones that correlate to the number of people deported from wartime Slovakia, however, the town was part of Hungary in the period. Thus, designers and the officeholders that inaugurated the monument left out those people that were deported from present-day Southern Slovakia (cc. 30 000 people) and the town itself (1500 people).  

Liberation or occupation in Czech memory

 While fighting virtually ended in the European war theatre by May 1945, Prague was still a venue of heavy fighting. On 5 May the Czech resistance launched an anti-German rising that resulted in bloodshed and there was a risk that Germans would completely destroy the city. However, the Russian Liberation Army (ROA) formally under the command of General Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov that had been fighting on the side of the Germans for some time, defected yet again and this time saved Prague and the uprising. He did not wait for Marshall Ivan Stepanovich Konev’s Red Army units that eventually liberated the city. This was despite the order from Moscow that the advance of the US army should be slowed down by not liberating Prague.

On 5 April 1945, there were hundreds of thousands of German soldiers in Czech territory when the new Czechoslovakian government declared its program. According to this, the new Czechoslovakia would depend on the Soviet Union, and internal policies were altered to the extent that ethnic cleansing was not ruled out. Although there was a coalition of parties in the National Front, the influence of communists significantly increased. After the election of May 1946, they took key positions in the government. This process culminated in the communist takeover in 1948.

            The erection and demolition of monuments shed light on the complexities of the 20th-century history of Central Europe. Each of these acts carries a message. In the Czech Republic, the latest example of this is the removal of the statue of Marshall Konev and the international debate around it.   

Triple anniversary in Romania

When the representatives of Nazi Germany signed the document about surrender at the Soviet headquarters, Romanian leaders might have thought that they managed to finish the war on the right side, yet again. At that time, the Romanian army had been fighting for the allies for half a year and it supported the Red Army in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Moreover, King Michael – pressurized by Romanian communists and Soviets - installed a government dominated by communists. This opened the way for the return of Romanian administration to Northern Transylvania. However, Romanian politicians were disappointed since the allied powers treated Romania as a defeated country.

            This was so even though up until the system that the treaties of Versailles established collapsed in 1939-40, Romania was an ally of the UK and France in the region. However, this proved insufficient since relations between the Soviet Union and Romania remained hostile throughout the interwar period. As a result, Romania joined Germany in its “anti-communist crusade” on 22 June 1941. At that time Ion Antonescu had two objectives: taking Bessarabia (and Northern Bukovina) back on the basis of the secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and maneuvering Romania into a better position in the new German order. Romania never gave up the territory of Transylvania that Hungary occupied thanks to the Second Vienna Award. This concern remained the dominant factor after the battle of Stalingrad when the predictable outcome of the war reversed, and the German defeat was a matter of time.

              The Romanian elite could not repeat the feat of 1918 when they gained Bessarabia and Transylvania at the same time and had to put up with considerable losses. Yet, they avoided the catastrophe. Following 23 August 1944, the Soviet Union occupied Romania (army units stayed until 1958), began the Sovietization of the country, and kept the territories it annexed in 1940. At the same time, Stalin backed Romanian claims for Northern Transylvania against the another defeated country, Hungary.

            The way Victory Day is celebrated in Romania reflects this mixed outcome. Until 1989, 23 August, the day of “social and national anti-fascist and anti-imperialist revolution” was the most important national public holiday in Romania, and 9 May was also commemorated as the victory of anti-fascist forces. Under the rule of Ceausescu, the role of the communists and the army in bringing the war to a close in 1944-45 were highlighted. After 1990, 1 December became the new national holiday. Along with efforts to rehabilitate Antonescu, the anti-Soviet discourse of grievances strengthened. The latter gained momentum also because of the issue of Moldova/Bessarabia. Although Romanian politicians – along with Russia and other Eastern European countries - commemorate Victory Day on 9 May, they link it to the “Day of Europe” (Robert Schuman’s declaration also took place on 9 May in 1950.) and to yet another historic event, the declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire on 9 May 1877.

The dark side of victory – memory in the successor states of Yugoslavia     

World War 2 and its bloody aftermath cause rift in public opinion in all the successor states of former Yugoslavia. In Croatia and in Slovenia they are central themes in the rivalry between representatives of the two poles of the political space. Victory Day is a public holiday in Serbia In Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a holiday in the Serbian part, but it is a working day in the Federation with Croatian and Bosnian majority. The Serbs organize spectacular military parades while other nations that constituted the former Yugoslavia celebrate in more a toned-down manner while linking the day to the Europe Day and, thus, to European integration. In Slovenia and in Croatia the day is mostly about former members of anti-fascist organizations recalling the events. Participants often warn about the perils of revisionism. In Croatia, this debate flares up every year as Victory Day approaches. Leftist politicians and intellectuals demand state-level commemoration of the events stressing that Croatia managed to keep Dalmatia and the Međimurje (in Hungarian: Muraköz) only because it sided with the victors. At the same time, right-wing commentators highlight the war crimes committed against the population that flew from the partisans at the end of the war. Tens of thousands were murdered without trial and Yugoslav authorities purposefully tried to cover up traces of the massacres at the sites and, subsequently removed the evidence. These mass murders were taboo in Socialist Yugoslavia. The issue was first raised in the late 1960s by Slovenian intellectuals. The wider public became aware of some of the details in the mid-1980s. Historians began to explore the events after the systemic change. Some of the mass graves were exhumated. However, there is no consensus about the chain of events and their evaluation. The four years of bloody war, mass murders that local allies of Nazis and crimes that partisans committed constitute the largest trauma of 20th century Slovenian and Croatian history. Yet, around the days of commemoration, there are voices that say that questioning the relevance of the communist liberation movement is unwelcome revisionism, while others relativize collaboration.     

The Second World War and Hindu Nationalist memory politics in India

 Looking at memory politics of an area that seems distant in our imagination, such as India, sheds light on the distance between historical research and memory politics. If we apply a postcolonial approach to World War 2, the war began on 7 July 1937 with the onset of increasingly large-scale clashes between Japan and China in mainland China. Consequently, it ended with Japanese surrender in the Chinese theatre on 9 September 1945. Contemporary British India (that included today’s Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, but no longer Myanmar as Lower- and Upper-Burma were administratively separated in early 1937) was in a particular position as it was part of both the Asian and the European war theatre. Although bombing and direct invasion reached only its Eastern fringes and the islands in the South-East, the territory provided vital supply to allied forces in Europe and China as well. If Allied forces had lost India it would have triggered a crisis in either the Italian front, in North-Africa or in Burma and China, depending on which moment we look at. Altogether two and a half million soldiers fought against Axis forces. However, tens of thousands of soldiers from British India took up arms against the Allied armies following the collapse of the British army in Singapore.

The memory of World War 2 revolves around several events, but these do not have equal weight in public. Since 2014, the Hindu nationalist government aims at creating a new hegemonic social-political. In the process, reworking historical memory is an important step. In these efforts, discrediting Jawaharlal Nehru is a top priority. It follows that incumbents try to highlight the importance and virtues of those contemporary figures that were opposed to Nehru or may be presented in that light. That is why Subhas Chandra Bose (who received the honorific Netaji from Indian soldiers fighting on the side of Germans), the political leader of the so called Indian National Army that fought in Japanese and German alliance, has a new museum apart from several statues. Characteristically, the position of his grandnephew, Chandra Bose, within the governing Bharatiya Janata Party is one of the factors that determine the current weight of Subhas Chandra Bose in memory politics. The campaign against the wartime leaders of the Congress Party and the issue of Partition – which would require a separate analysis – put other aspects of the memory of the Second World War into brackets. Thus, the Bengal Famine of 1943-44, contemporary Hindu-Muslim violence, and the experience of Indians fighting the war have been pushed back to the realm of academic research. In that space, they trigger lively debate.