The act of remembering, of honouring the memory of those who went before us is as often as much about the future as it is about the past. That act is also a challenge as by recognising one achievement, one sacrifice or another, we cannot but draw a comparison with today’s world. We can hardly avoid asking how we have used the opportunities, the gifts bequeathed by those whose lives were defined by trauma and upheaval all but unimaginable - even today - to anyone who did not live through them.
This weekend, as curtailed but curiously dignified ceremonies to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe continue, it seems appropriate to reflect on what went before; how versions of history are used to advance one cause or another; and, probably most importantly, have we learned and can we apply the simple lessons that ensured the defeat of genocidal fascism.
That we are on the cusp of the centenary of our own national trauma - the Civil War - and the events that will bring is another good argument for mixing memory and reason, a challenge that can be far more difficult and culturally demanding than imagined.
No country marks the milestones of WWII as vividly, or with such justification, as Russia. Pre-pandemic, Russia had planned a huge celebration of ‘Victory Day’ when a military parade through Moscow’s Red Square would have preceded the March of the Immortal Regiment which allows millions of Russian civilians honour those who saved the world from Hitler. How else might it be?
The WWII Red Army had suffered eight million deaths, most of them Russians, as were the majority of the 16-17m Soviet civilians killed. The war swept away 15% of the Soviet Union’’s population and 30% of its wealth.
That toll is, naturally, a huge influence in how Russia sees its place in the world today. It is behind assertive nationalism and the absolute determination never to be so vulnerable again. It is also behind, as Prof Geoffrey Roberts points out on these pages, President Putin’’s unsuccessful efforts to build consensus on common economic, security and environmental issues. These are complex issues and mutual trust in not, for many good, hard reasons, abundant. Even so, the idea of Putin as a bridge builder is counterintuitive.
Putin is not the only leader to use the memory of WWII to steer a population. Britain’s Brexiteers invoked the memory and spirit of wartime Blighty to advance their cause indifferent to the reality that the great achievement of WWII is European peace and unity - no matter how increasingly rickety it can seem.
That collegiality today faces its greatest challenge since the guns fell silent 75 years ago. How sad, how deaf to history, it would be if WWII’’s greatest lesson - the undeniable power of common purpose in a good cause - could not be brought to bear on a pandemic bringing such heartbreak to a continent still in the shadow of catastrophe.