Geopolitics of identity

Torstaina, 12. marraskuuta 2009     0 kommentti(a)
Igor Torbakov

It would appear that history is becoming a hot issue once again. As I’m currently doing some intensive conference-hopping, the politics of memory proves to be one of the most discussed topics amongst historians, political scientists and IR specialists. A recent Eurozine editorial sums up the situation quite neatly: “Throughout Europe, history is ceasing to be something for historians alone. Instead, it is becoming both a public issue and an instrument of politics.” Indeed, the re-interpretation of the wartime and post-war periods has come to be in the focus of the historical controversies.

Why is it so? The recent discussions that I have been involved in suggest there are two main reasons: the EU enlargement and the resultant changes in Russia’s position in Europe.

The EU’s eastward enlargement has undermined the historical consensus that used to exist within and among the Western European countries with regard to WWII and post-war experiences. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, for the last half century, there have existed three main narratives: the West European story; the Soviet/Russian story; and the East European story. However, the historians such as Norman Davies and Timothy Snyder have long argued that the West misunderstood the East European experience. Now, the enlargement makes the accommodation of the East European perspective inevitable – as a necessary precondition for the solidarity of the extended EU. As Snyder has put it, “…even as East Europeans gained the freedom to write and speak of their own histories as they chose after 1989 or 1991, and even as many East European countries acceded to the European Union in 2004 and 2007, their national histories have somehow failed to become accepted as European. Their histories have failed to flow into a larger European history that all, in East and West, can recognize as such.”

Those East European countries (and ex-Soviet republics) which are still outside the EU follow the strategy of Central European and Baltic countries: they craft their historical narrative to re-position themselves in Europe – to strengthen their sense of Europeanness and distinguish themselves from Russia, a non-European/Eurasian power/the Other.

The wartime and post-war period is again crucial for strengthening a separate identity, giving a boost to populist nationalism, externalizing the communist past and casting a nation as a victim of two totalitarian dictatorships. The German historian Wilfried Jilge points to the tendency of eastern European intellectuals to construct “national Holocausts” and thus award their nations a victim status. “From this position of moral superiority, the crimes of one’s own nation are justified as defensive actions,” argues Jilge. “In this context, national stereotypes serve to distance ‘one’s own’ national history from ‘false’ Soviet history and thus to ‘cleanse’ ‘one’s own’ nation of everything that is Soviet.”

Russia is seriously affected by this confluence of historiographic and geopolitical changes. As some scholars suggest, Russia was the main victor in WWII, and the main loser in 1989. In hanging on to the myth of the Great Patriotic War -- the last achievement of the Soviet Union not to have been discredited -- it seeks to perpetuate a world order established at Yalta.

What is ultimately at stake is Russia’s status as a “European nation.” So long as the erstwhile historical consensus remained intact, Russia’s victory over Nazism legitimized its great power status in Europe and its sphere of influence in the eastern part of the continent. The new historical controversies over the nature of the post-1945 Soviet “liberation” – in particular, with its East European neighbors – undermine Russia’s status as the “liberator of Europe” and erode whatever symbolic capital it might claim to prop up its “Europeanness.”

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