The year 2016 already feels like an epochal moment. One way of seeing it is as the year that Europe forgot the meaning of World War II—the year when a sense of a greater European identity, forged out of the ashes of the war, fractured.

That war continues to be the most important historical event of the modern age for Europe. But its legacy, won at the cost of millions of lives, is increasingly reduced to caricature or parochial slogans.

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
More >

Two examples, among many throughout Europe, come from Britain and Russia. The idea that Britain was an internationalist European country as a result of World War II has been inscribed in the country’s postwar political DNA—even if not reflected in popular representations of the conflict. In the debate before the June 23 EU referendum, Nicholas Soames, a Conservative parliamentarian and grandson of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, invoked the big-thinking pan-European vision of his grandfather as he campaigned for a Remain vote.

Yet at the same time, a caricature of World War II in which Britain fought alone against the world was offered up to the public with some success. Nigel Farage, the then leader of Britain’s most aggressively anti-European and anti-immigration party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), used the theme from the classic World War II movie The Great Escape as he toured Britain campaigning for a Leave vote—thereby implicitly comparing the EU to a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. Farage’s party brushed aside objections by the two sons of the composer Elmer Bernstein, who said their father would have strongly opposed the purposes for which his music was being used.

Even the more respectable Conservative politician Boris Johnson caused offense with his breathtaking statement that the EU was a project of aggressive European domination. “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically,” he said. “The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” Johnson is now Britain’s foreign secretary.

For two generations, the collective memory of fascism inoculated most of Europe from the hate politics that ran riot in the 1930s. Few in Britain remember the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists marched into London’s East End in an attempt to intimidate its Jewish population. Soon after that, Mosley’s association with Nazism fatally tainted him. A party that had enjoyed a big public following in the mid-1930s was completely discredited—and, by association, so was any far-right party for a generation.

The year 2016 was when far-right politics became mainstream again. In June, Farage’s UKIP campaigned for Brexit with a poster that depicted thousands of dark-skinned refugees and migrants walking across Europe. The slogan was “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.” As that slogan was unveiled, it was as though one could hear the crack of an old xenophobic taboo breaking.

Meanwhile in Russia, an authoritarian nativist agenda is far more advanced. Again, the memory of World War II is being misused in allowing that to happen.

I was in Moscow on the fiftieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Victory Day, May 9, 1995. I strolled through a city that was sunny, noisy, and festive. I recall medal-laden veterans walking out of Red Square and how, as they cut a path through the crowds, they were assailed by happy acclamations of “Congratulations!” from younger Russians.

That day felt to me like an ending, the last significant anniversary that many veterans of the Soviet Union’s victory over Hitler in the Great Patriotic War would live to see. In the 1990s, a more balanced historical narrative had begun to emerge, in which Russians were reminded more of the staggering human cost—27 million Soviet lives—that had come with the war and heard less about a glorious military triumph. After May 1995, I thought, Victory Day would begin to fade as a big public ceremony.

How wrong I was. Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Victory Day has become an even bigger date in the Russian calendar—and a stridently political one. The Putin-era commemoration of Victory Day has again become the display of military might it was in the days of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. In 2008, Putin reintroduced tanks and military hardware into the ceremonial parade.

Surely, people will say, the Russians have always mythologized the victory of 1945. That is true, but there is one big difference now. Formerly, the presence of veterans who had endured the actual conflict—not the mythologized version of it—was a reality check on bombastic public commemorations. Now, that thread of the living memory of that conflict has snapped.

In 2012, a grassroots movement entitled Immortal Regiment began in Siberia, in which ordinary people carried simple portraits of their veteran grandparents and great-grandparents in Victory Day marches. The idea was to recover the dimension of human loss and push political agendas away from that day. Yet this year, the founders of the Immortal Regiment complained that their initiative had been hijacked by Russian politicians, who adopted the idea of carrying family portraits but then made exactly the kind of political speeches that the movement had wanted to avoid.

Historical revisionism has accompanied the Russian official nostalgia. In 2015, just after ceremonies commemorating the seventieth anniversary of Victory Day and at a press conference with—of all people—German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin even defended the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a historical necessity.

Even a few years ago, a self-glorifying nativist Russia misremembering World War II might have looked out of step in wider Europe. As 2016 comes to an end, unfortunately, Russia looks less like an exception than part of a trend.