Rethinking The Memory Of WWII: Key Messages From European Intellectuals

May 18, 2020
75 years after the end of WWII, European intellectuals discussed why it is important to rethink the war’s memory today, and how it shapes the present. UkraineWorld recapped some of the most important messages from the international Peace and War TV marathon broadcast in Ukraine on 8 May.
Photo credit:

While each country remembers WWII from its own perspective, for some nations the war didn't end in 1945. This is even more the case for Ukraine, which has been reaping the consequences of the Yalta Conference in its ongoing war with Russia in Donbas. Below are some reflections on narratives, repentance and the postwar justice by internationally-respected historians and thinkers.


Serhii Plokhii, the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard and the director of Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute:

Ukraine remains a battlefield as it was during WWII. It is a battlefield for the memory of war. In my point of view, there are several narratives about WWII clashing today. The one on the surface is connected to the "Great Patriotic War" and "the Great Victory." The other one is national and nationalistic that is connected to the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. There is also a progressive liberal European narrative linked to the integration of Ukraine into the context of WWII memory, which relates to many European countries.

The only way to integrate Ukrainian memory of the events of 1939-1945 into the world narrative is to attempt to compromise, and thereby merge the liberal European narrative and the nationalist narrative that exists in Ukraine today.

Olena Styazhkina, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Ukrainian History in the Second Half of the 20th Century at the Institute of History of Ukraine, National Academy of Sciences:

As with every postcolonial state, we [Ukraine] came to an understanding of history and our place within it with some delay, as compared to other European countries. In [the Soviet] myth [of the Great Patriotic War], Ukraine was a blind spot, on one hand, and bore a label of Ukrainian-German nationalists - minions of fascism - on the other. Against this backdrop, it is natural that we are starting to talk about the war only now.


Yaroslav Hrytsak, Ukrainian historian from Lviv, Doctor of Historical Sciences and professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University:

Using the metaphor of Joseph Conrad, we [Ukraine] were "in the heart of darkness", and it inevitably led to having a traumatic historical memory.The trauma is healed not so much by narratives but by precise actions. First, we [Ukraine] should try our best to get out of this zone of geopolitical conflict and internal collapse.

To stop being a Palestine [a local conflict with worldwide importance], one path is towards Ukrainian agency. We should not let someone else write our history, but rather do it ourselves.

Reform is the best advice, but it is a task Ukraine has not yet dared to complete. Another suggestion is for Ukraine to leave this zone [of geopolitical conflicts] by entering a space where wars are not possible. Obviously, this cannot be the Soviet Union or Russia. As we know, the only thing Russia is good is exporting military conflicts, from Abkhazia and Chechnya to Crimea and Transnistria. For me, this space would be the European Union [where] wars between two major states are impossible.

The question of European integration is not only about Ukraine's political and economic success, it is a question of overcoming historical memory and historical trauma that Ukrainians need.

Yosyf Zisels, Ukrainian dissident and the head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine:

Seventy five years have passed and we are still moving towards the truth about this war. The aggressors, namely the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, have paid for the war. The other nations that suffered in WWII paid for peace. But have they gotten this long-awaited peace?

For some nations [like Ukraine and the Baltic states], foreign occupation was prolonged by another 50 years. Not until 1991 can we consider this re-making of the world by the winners to have reached its real end.

[After WWII], Eastern Europe found itself in the space of the Eurasian identity -- a non-democratic, authoritarian identity, which for many years was totalitarian and based on lies, propaganda, and violence. Of course, it is naive to expect that the perception of WWII in this part [of the world] would be the same [as in the West]. The Soviet regime did not allow this to happen. Instead, it forcibly imposed a sort of victory fever on those nations that were enslaved after WWII, by force, torture, and security service repressions. The Baltic countries had something to remember in 1991, since they had their own countries [up until 1940] and had taken the first steps in building a democratic society - democracy in the Baltic countries was spoiled by the Eurasian identity. However, Ukraine and Belarus had nothing to remember. There was no fixed term of democracy in their history.

Ola Hnatiuk, Polish researcher in the field of Ukrainian studies, professor at the University of Warsaw and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy:

[For Central-Eastern Europe] the price of the agreement in Yalta turned out to be no less terrible than the price of the war. From the perspective of a Central-Eastern European resident, be it a Ukrainian, Lithuanian, or Pole, one totalitarian regime was replaced by another totalitarian regime.

It is important to widen the scope, and see that it was not only Poland which paid a great price, but other countries in the socialist camp and countries that found themselves in the Soviet Union, starting with Ukraine.

The post-war reconciliation brought neither peace, security, nor stability. Even worse, the carriers of the war's memory were cruelly exterminated by the communist regime.

It was a devaluation of democratic values, of human life and dignity. It was cruelty that continued at full scale until the beginning of the [Khrushchev] Thaw, and lies that lasted until the fall of the USSR (the Katyn massacre is an example).


Myroslav Marynovych, a Ukrainian dissident, co-founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and Amnesty International Ukraine, Vice Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv:

Memory is the basis of today's conflicts in the world. Right after the war, Europe unanimously proclaimed "Never again." Seventy five years have passed, and in international politics we already hear all-but-shouted-out "Let's do it again." The reason lies in the time bomb planted in 1945 at Yalta. Yalta's system of European security neglected to account for the fact that it took two to tango the devil's dance of September 1939 -- both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR. They both started WWII, but only Nazism was punished for it.

However, there was something important hidden behind the curtain of the victor, which was almost 30 years of bloody communist dictatorship. That's why the crimes of Auschwitz and Buchenwald remain pulsing in human memory, while the crimes of the Gulag and Holodomor seem to have no culprits. And the apocalyptic evil turned into the saving good. Upon this ideological formula [...] the whole post-war system of world security was built.

It has turned out that a crime can remain in the past if it was condemned and repented. Unrepented crimes remain in the body of a society as poisonous seeds that germinate again into new tragedies. The most evident [proof] is the reincarnation of Putin's regime in Russia, for which Stalin's regime is a role model.

The country's odious victory fever is vital for the Kremlin to prevent people from thinking about where their current relapse into despotism came from.

Galia Ackerman, a French-Russian writer, historian, journalist, and the author of the book The Immortal Regiment: Putin's Sacred War:

The idea of [the WWII] victory in the Russian interpretation is that Europe owes Russia because it sacrificed so much. That Russia has a right to its own geopolitics and defence of its interests because it deserved it. Together with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the entire inconvenient memory is denied and history of the whole Soviet period is rewritten. The only memory that is kept is the great victory. It is a militarization of consciousness. Today we see how all this construction has been shaken by a new, totally unexpected enemy in COVID-19.

There is a fundamental difference between Ukraine and Russia. Russia totally justifies the whole Soviet experience and totally denies the possibility of comparing two totalitarian regimes, namely Nazism and Communism.

[Ukraine] has condemned both regimes as totalitarian and inhumane. In this sense, Ukraine has gone far ahead of many other European countries.

Adam Michnik, Polish historian, former dissident and editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza:

For me, the only answer to Putin's propaganda is the truth. Even more so now, because in my country, Poland, this truth is being falsified, though in a different direction than in Moscow. In Russia, they use Stalin's version of WWII, while in Poland they say that Poles were always innocent and always aggrieved, so we cannot be accused of anything. If anyone recalls the pacification of churches, of Ukrainian villages, or the ghetto benches for Jews, he immediately becomes an enemy of Poland and is proclaimed anti-Polish. But this is Putin's way of thinking.

In Polish-Ukrainian relations, history is often used as an instrument for nationalistic-chauvinistic politics which harm Polish interests, as Polish interests require  friendly and good relations [with Ukraine].

Instead, if we constantly say that Ukrainians should ask for forgiveness for Bandera, Volyn, the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] and who-knows-what, this is not the language of reconciliation but of conflict.

Karl Schlögel, German historian,professor of Eastern European history at Viadrina University, Frankfurt/Oder:

Ukraine's example has pushed us towards [rethinking WWII]. Perhaps not at the beginning of 90s, perhaps not even during the Orange Revolution, but certainly during the occupation of Crimea and the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine in the East of the country. It was a powerful impetus to rethink what we knew and understood about Eastern Europe, and what we absolutely did not understand.

The events in Ukraine have shown us, at least in the West, things which had not been not on display. That war came back to Europe and it was a defence of the state sovereignty and entity by the Ukrainian nation.

All this was back. Naive ideas and illusions of the happy post-war Europe faded away. The annexation of Crimea was an important moment for rethinking [WWII] in Germany. And [Germans] are still in the process of transforming that thinking.

You can watch the full TV marathon in Ukrainian here:

The TV marathon was organized by PEN Ukraine and the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and broadcast on the Ukrainian TV channels Pryamiy, Channel 5, and Espreso on 8 May. Internews Ukraine and UkraineWorld were information partners for this event.

Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine