EYE ON THE WORLD

Skewed victory parades miss opportunity to unite

As Russia and China prepare massive military parades to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, they seem more intent on glorifying today's regimes than commemorating the dead. That's a pity.

"HOORAH, hoorah, hoorah!" With this traditional shout from hundreds of thousands of people, Russia will launch later this week a vast military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

Nothing is being left to chance: the iconic watchtower and church domes in the Kremlin palace in Moscow have been renovated specially for the occasion; new military hardware will roll through Red Square; and, in another time-honoured Russian tradition, clouds over the Russian capital will be seeded to prevent any chance of rain on the parade.

Yet very few of the leaders of Russia's wartime allied nations will be present in Moscow.

And a similar fate may await China's plans to hold a similarly lavish military parade in Beijing later this year to mark Japan's defeat and the end of World War II in Asia: the Chinese are so nervous about the possibility of no-shows that they have yet to formally release the list of those foreign leaders invited to attend.

In missing these parades, no disrespect is intended to either the Russians or the Chinese, or to the sacred memory of the tens of millions of their citizens who fought and died bravely during the 1940s; today's world will not be what it is without their sacrifice.

Rather, the reason an increasing number of leaders are keen to skip such events is that these military parades have little to do with commemorating a past; they are all about legitimising a state-sponsored and often controversial vision of the future.

Unlike World War I, which came to a sudden end in November 1918 with an unexpected armistice, the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe - VE Day, as it was called, was predictable for months before May 1945, as allied forces closed in on Adolf Hitler's Berlin bunker. As a result, governments had time to prepare for the victory parades which took place soon thereafter.

Understandably, these were raw, visceral affairs, as befits nations which have suffered years of unspeakable cruelty: the parade in Moscow featured soldiers carrying German flags which were then dramatically thrown at the feet of Josef Stalin, the Soviet leader.

But few people at that time believed that such victory parades would become a permanent feature. Even in the USSR, the key military parade each year was not in May, but in November, to mark the Bolshevik communist revolution's anniversary.

Historically, as critical events recede into history, and as the people involved in these events pass away, commemorations became smaller and more introspective; that is what happened to VE Day memorials throughout Europe.

Glorifying the living

BUT in the case of the Soviet Union and Russia, the process was reversed: the longer the time passed since the victory against Nazi Germany, the bigger the parades staged in Moscow: this year's parade is the biggest ever, involving over 14,000 soldiers. Plainly, this is not so much about marking the memory of the dead, but about glorifying the living.

The Soviet Union's regime needed to glorify its World War II victory because that was its biggest achievement, and the justification of the USSR's rise to global power status. The country proved unable to produce a television set which worked as intended and lost every economic race with the West, but it was capable of producing tanks, and it had the troops to defeat any invader.

And, for precisely the same reasons, Russian President Vladimir Putin has now revived this Soviet obsession with World War II victory parades: they serve as a reminder that, although the United States now refuses to take Russia seriously, there was a time when the world feared Russian might.

But the Russians are promoting a very partial and highly varnished view of World War II. Nobody in Moscow wants to be reminded that the war started in September 1939, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy, but an ally of Nazi Germany, and when Hitler and Stalin, together, erased Poland and the Baltic states from the European map, and took chunks out of other neighbouring countries such as Romania.

Nor are the Russians prepared to admit that they were responsible for the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of East Europeans, including all the officer class of Poland, in an effort to ensure that that country will never exist again. And few Russian politicians are prepared to admit that, by defeating Germany, they merely replaced the Nazi occupation of Central and Eastern Europe, which lasted four years, with a Soviet occupation of the same region, which lasted four subsequent decades.

In their determination to ensure that nothing interferes with a rosy view of their World War II victory, Russian leaders are even unwilling to debate the question of whether the huge civilian casualties which their country sustained may have been attributable to mistakes committed by the Soviet leadership at the time. When Dozhd TV, a local Russian broadcaster, had the temerity earlier this year to question the official history of the defence of the city of Leningrad in which over 1.5 million Russians perished, the station was threatened with the withdrawal of its broadcasting licence.

Selective view of history

A SIMILAR process is observable in China's treatment of the end of World War II. For decades after that event, the commemorations were few and not particularly significant, and China's leaders preferred cooperation with Japan, rather than raking over historic events.

No longer, however. The parade this year, also the biggest of its kind, is intended to remind the world that China was pre-eminent in standing up to Japan's aggression, as well as hinting at Japan's refusal to acknowledge its historic wrongs.

That is also a selective view of history. For, while nobody can doubt the horrors inflicted on China during the war, it was arguably not the People's Liberation Army which drove the Japanese out of China in 1945, but the Nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek which bore the brunt of the fighting and ultimately delivered the victory.

Nor is anyone in China daring to ask whether Mao Zedong's obsession with fighting Chiang Kai-shek actually contributed to China's weakness in facing the Japanese; yet again, the World War II parade is not about commemorating the past, but about modifying it to suit the present.

It's not a secret that most Asian governments privately dread an invitation to the Beijing parade: they don't want to annoy China by not turning up, but have no particular appetite for being present either.

The saddest thing about these skewed commemorations is that they represent such a wasted opportunity to enhance global cooperation and lessen existing tensions.

It is right and proper to remind today's generation that World War II was not just an accidental war prompted by causes nobody can remember now, but was a fight between the forces of light and total evil, a war which had to be fought.

And, far from creating embarrassment or diplomatic boycotts, such commemorations could actually unite nations. Earlier this year, researchers in Poland pointed out that the commander of the first Soviet military unit who in 1945 liberated the Auschwitz extermination camp - in which the Nazis murdered millions of Jews - was a certain Anatoly Shapiro, a Soviet officer from Ukraine who was himself of Jewish extraction.

Here was a moving story worthy of a Hollywood movie, of a Jew putting an end to one of Nazi Germany's biggest death factories, wearing a Soviet uniform. But President Putin angrily waved the story away, because he did not like the fact that the officer was a Ukrainian. So, an episode celebrating an act of humanity which transcends faith and nation lies unmarked.

The same applies to China's commemorations. They should serve as a reminder that, far from operating in a world shaped and ruled by the US - as some Chinese officials now complain - the world that exists today was very much one which China helped to shape at the end of World War II, one in which the Chinese were a founding member.

Teaching ordinary Chinese about this fact, reminding them that in 1945 China stood tall as part of a victorious alliance which included both Europe and the US, will do much more for the country's cohesion than a brisk parade in Tiananmen Square which reminds the Chinese about their past enemy.

And, if for whatever reasons neither the Chinese nor the Russians are willing to contemplate new approaches, they should at least accept that this year should be the last for such military parades.

History is often best left to the historians. And even they struggle to get it right.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com