Memory

“Memory is deceptive because it is coloured by today’s events.” These words of Albert Einstein seem particularly apposite as we turn our attention, in this a year not short of events to remember, to the commemorations to mark VE day on 8th May. Because, inevitably, if rather disappointingly, today’s events are very much colouring memories, with both the Polish president and prime minster declining to attend the Victory Day parade held annually in Moscow on 9th May, decisions no doubt not unconnected with the events in Ukraine.

Instead, Poland will hold its own series of events on 7-8th May at the Westerplatte in Gdańsk, where on 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, then on a courtesy visit to the Free City of Danzig, opened fire on the Polish garrison, an event taken in Poland as the beginning of armed hostilities with Germany.

The idea for this event, when originally mooted in February, was supported by Poland’s foreign minister Gregorz Schetyna, who asked why everybody had become so accustomed to Moscow as being the place where the ending of the war is honoured (not the brightest of remarks, you might think) while conceding that it was not natural that tributes marking the end of the war should be organized where the war began (for Poland). This prompted Russia’s deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin to comment: “This is the newest in a line of clumsy attempts by the Polish politician to cast doubt upon the results of World War II, and the role of the Soviet Union as the winner in that war.” Needless to say, this outburst followed an earlier spat when Schetyna had upset Russia in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by emphasizing that it was the work of Ukrainian soldiers, although they fought as part of the Soviet Red Army.

Given the background, it is perhaps just as well that President Komorowski told Polish Radio that the commemorations in Gdańsk were not a test to see who is a friend of Poland. More important than who attends the celebrations to mark the end of the Second World War, he said, is the intrinsic meaning of the celebration and the opportunity to reflect jointly on the history of Europe. Thus the events will include speeches by historians and global policy makers who are expected to say what the end of the war meant for their respective nations and Europe as whole.

The attendees announced by the President’s Chancellery so far include the Presidents of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, the Secretary General of the UN, and the head of the European Council, former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk. Before the politicians have their say, a panel of historians, including Timothy Snyder (US), Yuriy Afanasiev (Russia), Norman Davies (UK), Georges-Henri Soutou (France), Andrzej Paczkowski (Poland), as well as Stefan Troebst (Germany) will hold a discussion moderated by Judy Dempsey, a senior associate at Carnegie Europe will moderate the discussion.

All very jolly, no doubt, but the cynics amongst you may well conclude that it will do no harm to President Komorowski’s re-election chances (already good) to be seen hosting this commemoration in Poland, surrounded by international visitors, which fortuitously falls only two days before the first round of the presidential elections on 10th May. Perish the thought – this must simply be a happy coincidence.

Be that as it may, if we are to preserve the memory of great moments in our history – and of course we should – then we should not allow the events of today to colour those memories. The Second World War resulted in death, destruction, diabolical torture, and hardship for millions and we must remember the great sacrifices of those who took part, military and civilian, to defend their homelands and to defeat unparalleled evil which went far beyond the normal horrors of warfare. It is therefore all the more important that we honour these memories unsullied by the short term considerations of the here today gone tomorrow politicians who seek to manipulate them. Whatever we may think of Putin today, do those leaders who have chosen to stay away from Moscow really punish him or do they, albeit unintentionally, dishonour the memory of the many millions of Soviet and allied citizens who struggled to save Europe?

Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori – perhaps, most folk did not have a choice in the matter – but with Aeschylus we may agree, memory is the mother of all wisdom, and a wise man honours his mother.

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