Seventy years ago next week — at 4:45 a.m. Sept. 1, 1939, to be precise — the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein began to shell the Polish military base near Gdansk. For Germans, for Poles, and for the British and French, who immediately declared war on Germany, that was the beginning of World War II. The Soviet Union, having signed a secret agreement with Nazi Germany, did not declare war but was itself preparing to invade Poland and the Baltic states. Which it did, two weeks later, on Sept. 17.
None of these basic facts is in dispute. And two generations have passed since the war ended. Nevertheless, all of its signature events continue to be remembered, contested and commemorated in every anniversary year ending with 5 or 0. I remember joking with a friend on May 8, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the Nazi capitulation, that now, finally, we had reached the end of the anniversaries. But we had not. On Tuesday, the chancellor of Germany and the prime ministers of Russia, Poland, France, Britain and 20-odd other European countries will meet near Gdansk to launch the cycle of 70th anniversaries — with those of the 65th barely over. Why?
The answer cannot lie in the personal experiences of any of the statesmen involved, since none was alive at the time. It lies, rather, in the way that memories of the war have come to be central to the national memory and, therefore, to the contemporary politics of so many of the countries that fought in it.
Certainly everything about modern Germany is the way it is because of the war, from its devotion to the European Union and its pacifism to the architecture of its capital city. War guilt is built into the political system, and it only becomes controversial when some Germans seem to want to abandon it: The new wave of interest in the fate of Germans who fled or were expelled from Central Europe after the war, for example, or the popularity of books about Allied bombings of German cities, worries many in the region. Hence, Angela Merkel’s presence in Gdansk (and she was the first to confirm): No German chancellor wants any of Germany’s neighbors to doubt that Germany is still very sorry about 1939 (even if some are rather indifferent). And none wants Germany’s neighbors to fear German aggression today.
For Poles, this 70th anniversary has a different significance: It’s the first time this particular event has been commemorated by a Polish government that is firmly a member of both the European Union and NATO. The British and the French will be there for the same reason — Central Europe in general and Poland in particular now have a large number of votes in European institutions. By and large, they have to be taken more seriously than they used to be. Senior U.S. politicians presumably will be absent because they, by contrast, have no special reason to take Central Europeans seriously and increasingly don’t mind demonstrating that fact. Generally speaking, the former Allies prefer to remember the bits of the war — D-Day, for example — that contribute to their memory of the 1945 Triumph of Democracy, preferring to forget that the war’s initial raison d’etre, the independence of Poland and the freedom of Central Europe, was not really achieved until 1989.
The Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, seems to have rather different reasons for attending. Last weekend, Russian state television ran a long documentary essentially arguing that Stalin was justified in ordering the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Baltic states — and in making a secret deal with Hitler — on the grounds that Poland itself was in a “secret alliance” with the Nazis. Putin will probably not defend this startling and ahistorical thesis himself — judging from an article he has written for the Polish media — though he may well try to “contextualize” the pact between Hitler and Stalin by comparing it to other diplomatic decisions. Lately other Russians have expressed similarly positive views of the events of 1939 in a well-coordinated attempt to justify the Hitler-Stalin pact. (That is, if they have any views: The majority of Russians, a recent poll shows, do not know that the Soviet Union invaded anybody that year.)
But from the perspective of the Russian ruling elite, such interpretations make sense: By praising Stalin’s aggression toward the Soviet Union’s neighbors 70 years ago, they help justify Russia’s aggression toward its neighbors today, at least in the eyes of the Russian public. Certainly they serve to make Russia’s Central European neighbors anxious — precisely the opposite of the effect Merkel hopes to achieve. Thus can the same event have multiple meanings, thus do Germans and Russians express their radically different feelings about their place in Europe — and thus do the anniversary celebrations carry on, every five years, without fail.