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.