Edward Lucas on memory, forgetting and self-defence
Cet animal est très méchant. Quand on l’attaque, il se defend [This animal is very naughty—when it is attacked, it defends itself]. Sometimes it seems that countries that have been at the hard end of history can’t win. Outsiders ignore their grievances, exaggerate their flaws and traduce their past. Complaining brings no relief: it is a sign that these countries are prickly, thin-skinned and self-obsessed—or even hiding guilty secrets. If you stay silent, you tacitly collude in misrepresentation.
This is a subject of great interest in countries that have only recently gained full sovereignty. They have had to grapple since 1991 with an outsiders’ worldview that ignored their version of history. It discounted their preoccupations (for example about linguistic and cultural survival). It treated them as marginal, backward and even threatening.
It took a lot of time and effort to shift perceptions. The Second World War was not a fight between two clearly defined sides, in which the Nazis were the epitome of evil and their foes were all heroic and good. Hitler and Stalin were, initially, accomplices. The Kremlin had not “granted” independence to the “Soviet Baltic Republics”. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were not run by “nationalists” or riven with “ethnic tension” involving a “Russian minority”. I spent a lot of time over the past 20 years having the same arguments (sometimes with the same people) on all these issues.
They usually started with seemingly trivial questions of terminology. Again and again I would object to the use of “gained independence”—insisting that the right term was “regained”. On the cartographical front, I would insist that the Estonian capital had two “n”s and that the Lithuanian capital was not spelled in the Russian style, Vil’nyus. The Baltic states were not “part” of the Soviet Union but “occupied”(or “annexed” or “forcibly incorporated”) by it.
I had similar arguments involving sensitive issues regarding the other “ex-communist” countries too—particularly over the Katyń massacre of captured Polish officers, which the Soviet Union (and some Russians, still) say was the work of the Nazis, not the NKVD.
I lost a few friends along the way and gained a reputation in some quarters as a partisan and a pedant. So I have a lot of sympathy with two recent outbursts—one by Poles about President Barack Obama’s careless use of the offensive phrase “Polish death camp” and the other by Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves against the economist Paul Krugman.
Though they both stem from outside ignorance and carelessness, and both raise questions of the right reaction, the arguments are of different magnitude. Speaking of a “Polish death camp” infuriates almost all Poles and their friends, who see it as a grotesque historical libel. Though deceptively simple, it carries many loaded meanings. It implies that Poland was a sovereign country at the time of the Holocaust (in fact some parts were annexed to the Soviet Union, others to Nazi Germany, and a third bit in the middle run as a German colony). It implies that Poles somehow designed, built, staffed, run and endorsed the death camps (they did none of those things). It stitches the Holocaust into a single narrative of Polish anti-Semitism, including pre-war discrimination, repression of Jewish communists, pogroms at Jedwabne and Kielce, and the systematic mass murder of millions of Jews—and no doubt the anti-Semitic purges of 1968 (that is ahistorical and unfair).
It turns victims into perpetrators: instead of the camps being places where foreign occupiers killed Poles—Jewish and Gentile alike, rich and poor, gay and straight, educated and humble, communists and nationalists, heroes and villains and the plain unlucky—they become places that were “Polish”: indigenous and endogenous to Poland.
Polish media, diplomats and groups dealing with Polish-Jewish reconciliation have rightly made a big deal of this. They have successfully persuaded the world’s main news organisations to change their house style, to make it clear that these were “Nazi German death camps in occupied Poland” or some such formulation.
So it was more than aggravating when Mr Obama used just this phrase—paradoxically in a citation while awarding a posthumous medal to Jan Karski, a resistance hero who vainly tried to alert Britain and America to the holocaust of Jews in Poland. Polish officials reacted quickly, in effect demanding that the world’s most powerful country issue a grovelling public apology. Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, wrote a tweet denouncing “ignorance and incompetence”.
The White House seemed bemused at first. It did not exactly apologise but it did issue an emollient statement that calmed down the Poles. Privately, American officials are scornful. They think that Poland over-reacted and showed a complete lack of proportion. Demanding apologies, in an election year, from a president who is already under fire for being too soft towards foreigners, is a bad idea. At worst Mr Obama was guilty of mild carelessness (and in fact it was a staffer who had blundered, not the president). A more grown-up reaction would have been to deal with the whole matter privately.
In response to that, Polish politicians say that they too have to take public opinion into account. They are under attack for being too soft and need to show that they take slights seriously.
That is true, but Poland still could have handled the matter differently. It is a powerful and successful country now. The mindset should change too. Talking to Polish officials, I sometimes feel they are still mentally fighting battles over Katyń and the Warsaw Uprising. The blazing desire to promote truth and fight lies trumps all other considerations. Whether the target is the president of a friendly country, or a loathsome apologist for the Soviet Union is irrelevant: the only thing to do is to fight, fight and fight.
I have the same feeling sometimes with regard to Estonia, though with a greater dose of sympathy. Poland may worry about its image, but it does not worry about being invisible. For a small country, the need to shout loudly to be heard at all is even greater. Had it not been for the relentless determination and great skill of people such as Lennart Meri, Mart Laar and Marju Lauristin (to name just three—I could name dozens) Estonia today might not be as well known and well liked as it is.
But it is worth remembering the reason for those struggles. The reason why Estonia worked so hard to join NATO, the EU, the euro, Schengen and all the other clubs was security—to be part of decisionmaking on the inside, rather than its victim on the outside. One of the nice things about security is that it increases your choices: if you have a good lock on your door, you do not need to sleep with a gun under your bed, and jump up every time you hear a noise in the night. Estonia now does have good locks on its doors (and windows, and the garden gate). But it is still jumpy.
It is quite right to rebut misleading and inaccurate allegations, be they about the economy, politics, history or anything else. But the effects of those rebuttals may be greater if they convey an impression of calm confidence, rather than panicky insecurity. That is the problem with Twitter: it encourages people to make short sharp statements, and leaves little room for nuance. As a journalist, I love it when politicians tweet their real feelings, off the cuff. But life is not just about pleasing journalists. Sometimes being boring is better.
So I think that both Mr Sikorski and Mr Ilves deserve full marks for attention to detail and quick-wittedness. But other things matter too, such as projecting gravitas. I suggest this for the next psychological-warfare exercise. Imagine that a foreign commentator—perhaps a Nobel prize-winner—has said something ignorant, patronising, misleading and damaging about Estonia in a short blog post. What would be the ideal response? What role should the “irregular forces” (journalists and bloggers play)? What role is best for the “regular army” (government politicians and officials). And at what level, in what tone of voice? Is this a job for the ambassador in the country concerned? What about inviting the nitwit to come to Estonia and see things for himself? Which elements in the response should be private, and which public? I don’t know the answer. All the more reason to find it out.