When Sorry Is The Hardest Word

Vladimir Putin, speaking in Moscow today, paid tribute to the courage of “all Europeans who resisted Nazism.” He also stated something which for my generation seems to be simply a fact: that the war?s most ?ruthless and decisive? events had unfolded within the Soviet Union, whose sacrifice of 27m citizens had underpinned the Allied victory. Had the Stalin-Hitler pact held, the war in Western Europe would probably have looked very, very different. However, as the FT notes:

Mr Putin stopped short of issuing the apology demanded by the Baltic states for the four decades of Soviet occupation that followed the war. He also made no reference to the post-war division of Europe.

Why is it sometimes so hard to say sorry?

This question is actually a rather interesting one. I suspect that the ability of a society to criticise itself publicly is a sign of democratic maturity. In this sense Germany’s reconciliation with its Nazi past is probably exemplary.

Turkey, on the other hand, has great difficulty coming to terms with what happened to the Armenians. The Japanese are still wrestling with what happened in China in WWII. In the news today too: the Algerians are looking for an apology from France for the massacre of tens of thousands of Algerians on the very day on which Europeans were generally celebrating the defeat of Nazism.

“Le paradoxe des massacres du 8 mai 1945 est qu’au moment o? les arm?es de combattants h?roques alg?riens revenaient des fronts d’Europe, d’Afrique et d’autres o? elles d?fendaient l’honneur de la France et ses int?r?ts (…), l’administration fran?aise tirait sur des manifestants pacifiques”

This statement from Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is roughly translated:

“The paradox of the massacres of 8 May 1945 is that in the very moment when the heroic Algerian participants in the armed forces returning from fighting on the fronts in Europe, Africa and elsewhere, where they were defending the honour and interests of France….. the French administration itself was opening fire on unarmed demonstrators.”

As Le Monde reports French colonial troups chose precisely the 8 May 1945 to launch a vast land and airborne offensive against several towns in the east of Algeria, and inparticular against S?tif and Guelma, following demonstrations which lead to the loss of over 100 European lives. The offensive lasted several days, and caused, according to the Algerians 45,000 deaths. European historians put the number between 15,000 and 20,000. Whatever the actual number the irony of this tragedy should not be lost on us these days.

Amongst others who have been apologising recently is George Bush. In his speech in Latvia he accepted that the United States played a role in Europe’s painful division after World War II ? a decision which he said helped cause “one of the greatest wrongs of history” when the Soviet Union “imposed its harsh rule across Central and Eastern Europe”.

“We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability,” the president 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.”

It is not clear, however, how much of an apology this actually represents, or how much it is simply a way of (correctly in my view) putting pressure on Putin.

Lamentable as Yalta was, it is difficult to imagine any other outcome given the relative state of forces at the time. I would of course be delighted to see someone putting a coherent alternative view in comments.

That being said, isn’t it important (and here Bush has to be a bit tongue in cheek to say the least) to distinguish between when you accept injustice because you haven’t the power to change things (something we all do every day: negative denial of freedom) and the imposition of a denial of liberty by someone who could do otherwise (the case of Russia, or the French in Algeria). Hence the bitter sweet ‘commemoration’ in Moscow.

If Bush is so keen on apologising, and I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage this, as I said at the beginning I think this is a healthy trend, perhaps he could find time at some stage for a visit to Madrid, and for a recognition of the ‘mistake’ made in the denial of freedom involved in ‘learning to live with Franco’. This, it seems to me was much more avoidable.

And whilst we are on the subject, a national recognition in Britain of the longtime denial of liberty in Ireland would not go amiss either.

The full text of the Bush speech in Latvia can be found here.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

8 thoughts on “When Sorry Is The Hardest Word

  1. Has the Soviet Union or Russia ever apologized for the division of Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact? Or how about the unprovoked aggression against Finland in the Winter War?

    It’s really interesting to see how this is playing out. Bush seems to be pulling this part of the dance off reasonably well, while falling short more substantially in his treatment of Arab and South Asian countries.

  2. A plausible alternative to Yalta? Hmm, that’s a good one to chew on. I’m afraid the most plausible is one in which the D-Day deceptions did not fool the Wehrmacht and the Western Allies were pushed into the sea.

    Eisenhower had a note prepared, “Our landings have failed. The troops did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Maybe there would have been landings at Calais later in 1944; maybe not.

    That scenario takes us in two directions: Russians on the Rhine, or Little Boy dropped on Berlin. Either of those alternatives makes Yalta look not so bad. In the first case, maybe there would have been a rump Rhineland or Hanover state, something of a Holland writ large.

    On the other hand, American troops liberated Pilsen and other parts of Czechoslovakia. How far could Patton have gotten to establish facts on the ground? Would Czech and Slovakia have had a velvet divorce 45 years early?

    It’s much harder to think up a way to free Poland without fighting the Soviets directly, to say nothing of restoring the bits of interwar Poland that are now in Belarus and Ukraine.

  3. On the other hand, if the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944 had succeeded, the postwar order might have looked very different. Then the question is, would the Allies have accepted anything less than unconditional surrender? Would the Soviets have made a separate peace?

  4. A gentle reminder that from the fall of France in May 1940, the Battle of Britain for air supremacy waged until October that year. Had that battle been lost, there could have been no Normandy invasion in June 1944.

    In 1945, after the defeat of Germany, the Russians asked the Wehrmacht’s most senior operational commander, Field-Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt, which battle of the war he regarded as the most decisive. They were expecting him to say Stalingrad. What he said was: ‘The Battle of Britain’.
    [Stephen Bungay: The Most Dangerous Enemy (2000) p.386]

    “Churchill and Britain could not have won WW2; in the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940, Churchill was the one who did not lose it.”
    [John Lukacs: Five Days in London May 1940 (Yale UP, 1999) p.189]

    The Soviet-German Friendship Treaty of September 1939, when Britain and France were already at war, provided for friendly liaison arrangements across the mutual border of what had been Poland’s national territory. [Norman Davies: Europe (OUP 1996) p.1001].

    The Katyn massacre came a little later.

  5. To change topic slightly, I’m not sure that Germany has fully come to terms with its Nazi past. It has done some wonderful things in that regard, but de-Nazification laws are still in place to the extent that the inadvertant (or completely un-Nazi) publication of a swastika on goods leads them to be destroyed and heavy fines to be levied on the carriers. I’m not sure that’s a good sign of a healthy coming to terms with one’s past.

  6. Ken – I get the uncomfortable feeling that you are right. Why else is it necessary to have laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offence when we don’t find it necessary to have such laws in Britain? That’s not because Britain is rabidly antisemitic but because Holocaust deniers are simply regarded as nut cases here. For that reason, we tend to think it is much better to know who they are rather than try to brush it under the carpet, so to say.

    British troops were the first Allied forces to reach the Belsen concentration camp during the advance through Germany in 1945. We had newsreel clips of what the troops discovered showing in cinemas in Britain shortly after – I can still recall the horrific images from seeing the newsreels as a small boy then. And we have extensive archived testimonial evidence from among the troops who were there as well as from survivors who came to settle in Britain. Denials simply aren’t credible.

    Something that tends to get overlooked in this is that in 1939, at the start of WW2, Britain’s home population was almost exactly half that of the population of Germany with Austria.

  7. Who Started the Second World War?

    “It sometimes happens that the most significant historical works are virtually ignored by the mainstream press, and consequently reach few readers. Such is the case with many revisionist studies, including this important work by a former Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to the West in 1978. Even before the appearance of this book, he had already established a solid reputation with the publication of five books, written under the pen name of Viktor Suvorov, on the inner workings of the Soviet military, and particularly its intelligence operations.

    In Icebreaker Suvorov takes a close look at the origins and development of World War II in Europe, and in particular the background to Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ attack against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Since its original publication in Russian (entitled Ledokol) in France in 1988, it has been published in an astonishing 87 editions in 18 languages. In spite of its importance to the historical record, Icebreaker has received very little attention in the United States. The few reviews that have appeared here have been almost entirely brief and dismissive — a shameful treatment that reflects the cowardice and intellectual irresponsibility of a ‘politically correct’ scholarly establishment.

    According to the conventional view, Hitler’s perfidious attack abruptly forced a neutral and aloof Soviet Russia into war. This view further holds that a surprised Stalin had naively trusted the deceitful German F?hrer. Rejecting this view as political propaganda, Suvorov shows Stalin’s personal responsibility for the war’s outbreak and progression. Above all, this book details the vast Soviet preparations for an invasion of Europe in the summer of 1941 with the goal of Sovietizing central and western Europe. Suvorov is not alone in his view. It is also affirmed by a number of non-Russian historians, such as American scholar R. H. S. Stolfi in his 1991 study Hitler’s Panzers East: World War II Reinterpreted (reviewed by me in the Nov.-Dec. 1995 Journal).

    In spite of rigid Soviet censorship, Suvorov has succeeded in digging up many nuggets of valuable information from publicly available Soviet writings that confirm his central thesis. Icebreaker is based on the author’s meticulous scouring of such published sources as memoirs of wartime Soviet military leaders, and histories of individual Soviet divisions, corps, armies, fleets, and air units.”


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