Interview with Liudmila Novikova and Jan Claas Behrends

L.N.: The centenary of World War I has been commemorated in 2014 in many countries across Europe. Looking back from the perspective of the centenary, how much do you think the world has changed during the past hundred years? How different are today’s relations between European countries and Russia when compared to the way they were a century ago? What, in your opinion, are the salient continuities and ruptures?

J.B.: The Europe of 2014 is a post-imperial continent. Whereas in 1914, Europe and, indeed, most of the world, was controlled by a handful of imperial powers, the continent today is defined by nation-states. Thus, it may be argued that through the changes that occurred in 1918/19 and in 1989/91, a Europe of empires has been replaced by a greater number of smaller nation-states. But European states of our time do not enjoy the undisputed sovereignty of the pre-1914 empires. Beginning in the 1950s, most of these states have voluntarily joined the European Union (or its predecessors), originally an economic alliance, but increasingly also a political power. They have surrendered a great deal of their sovereignty to the EU in Brussels. Also in matters of defence, European states are no longer divided into grand alliances; rather, with few exceptions, such as neutral Sweden or Switzerland, their militaries cooperate under the roof of the Western Alliance. This brings us to the last great change of the past century. Since 1944, the United States have become a European power. As a matter of fact, the safety of most European States relies – to a greater or lesser degree – on their alliance with the world’s military and economic powerhouse. Europe during the Cold War and after the fall of communism can only be understood in conjunction with the United States. No other single country has had greater influence on the continent: America has changed the European landscape – politically, economically and also culturally.

The United States became the greatest power in the world a long time ago. After World War I, Washington decided to leave Europe and watched the collapse of the order of Versailles from the sidelines. But what was meant to be a peace merely turned out to be a truce; under the Nazi leadership, Germany was bent on revenge and determined to subjugate the continent: coûte que coûte. Despite their ideological enmity, Berlin and Moscow turned out to be partners in the destruction of the post-1918 international order. It was only Hitler’s attack on Stalin’s USSR that created the uneasy alliance between Moscow and the West. World War II culminated in Stalin’s triumph and the establishment of a Soviet empire from the Baltics to the Black Sea. After World War II, Western Europe lived in the shadow of the US, just as the East of the continent became part of the Soviet empire, albeit in a different constellation. Following thirty years of war, revolution and genocide – 1914-1945 – Cold-war Europe was a place of uneasy stability and peace. The order of Yalta – accepted by Western powers – was eventually destabilised and destroyed, not by frequent popular uprisings against the unpopular regimes, but by the actions on the part of the centre of the Soviet empire. One may argue that communism would have fallen anyhow. But in Francis Fukuyama’s famous words, the way it fell and the rapid manner in which the USSR and its European empire disintegrated, was the work of Mikhail Gorbachev. After the end of communism in Europe, many in the West expected “the end of history”, i.e. the complete triumph of the liberal state and the market economy. More than two decades down the line, we can clearly call this pronouncement the last delusion of the twentieth century.

Russia has, in specific ways, been part of this European century. Together with Germany, Austria and the Ottoman state, it was among the empires that collapsed at the end of World War I. After the Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war, it became a pariah-state. For most of the inter-war period, the Soviet Union remained on the sidelines of European politics; only the consolidation of Stalin’s power, rapid industrialisation and the threat posed by Nazi Germany brought it back to the European arena. The overwhelming, yet costly victory in World War II established Moscow as a superpower on the world stage. However, Stalin and his successors’ dream of competing with the United States was also very expensive. Almost the entire wealth of the country was spent on the military and on maintaining the European and global interests of the USSR. Even before perestroika, many in the Soviet elite understood that such a course was not sustainable.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s “liberalisation from above” altered the USSR’s standing in Europe. The fear of the Eastern superpower quickly made way for ideas of cooperation and partnership. However, the relationship between Europe and Russia was again asymmetrical, although in a different way: Gorbachev’s USSR and Yeltsin’s Russia were perceived respectively as an impoverished neighbour and not as a great power. Thus, for many among the Russian elite, partnership with Europe and the West was tied to the defeat in the Cold War and the loss of the superpower status.

The ensuing drama of 1991 – the KGB-coup against Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s counter-coup in the autumn – left Russia with two choices: Moscow could try to build a multiethnic nation-state, or it could strive to regain as much as possible of its lost empire. For quite a time, neither option was pursued. However, from the end of the 1990s onwards, the differences between Russia and the West have become increasingly more visible: Moscow has chosen the imperial option. In terms of political language, it began with labelling the other post-Soviet states as the “near abroad” – a thinly-veiled code for “sphere of influence”. Simultaneously, the Kremlin abandoned liberal reforms and chose to return to autocracy. Thus, while Europe developed into a community of nation-states with limited sovereignty, Russia laid claim to full sovereignty and a traditional sphere of influence – in the pre-1914 or Cold-war sense of the term. By contrast to most of Europe, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Russia adheres to a different concept of international order. Europe has combined the Wilsonian principle of self-determination of nations (regardless of their size and strength) with the idea of European integration to secure peace, stability and prosperity. At the same time, Russia has developed its own Monroe Doctrine for the post-Soviet space; following the ideas of Carl Schmitt, Moscow sees itself as the sole legitimate power in this area and perceives both the presence of other powers – namely the EU or the USA – as a threat and sovereign decision-making on the part of other post-Soviet states as hostile acts. To Russia, the size and strength, that is to say, the hard power of a state, matter a great deal. While the Kremlin accepts the sovereign rights of other historically rival nations, such as France, Britain or Germany, it denies full sovereignty to Latvia, Kazakhstan, Georgia or Ukraine.

It is surely a coincidence that these competing visions of European order clashed in 2014, on the centenary of the First World War. However, this anniversary serves to remind us that Europe is not merely divided by competing visions for international order. Memory may be just as divisive as politics. The prime example of different memory cultures has, thus far, been the question of whether the Holocaust or the Gulag should occupy centre stage in national memory. Eastern European nations had accused the West of focusing too narrowly on Nazi crimes and neglecting the victims of Stalinism. This is an important debate within the European Union. Another dividing line is the memory of World War II where the nations of Eastern and Central Europe and Russia disagree about the role of the USSR. While Moscow demands gratitude for its “liberation” by the Red Army, many countries in Eastern Europe prefer to remember 1944/45 as the beginning of yet another occupation. Russia finds itself increasingly isolated due to its own cult of the “Great Patriotic War” which, just as in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, is once more the heart of the official Geschichtspolitik.

1914 as a lieu de mémoire works differently. There is a clear divide in the ways World War I is remembered by the victorious nations and by those who lost their empire as a result of the defeat. Those nations – such as Poland or the Czech lands – that (re-)gained their statehood after the war, constitute yet another case. The most vivid memory of the War exists in France and the United Kingdom, where it is still commonly referred to as “The Great War”. In French or British memory, 1918 still marks the ultimate triumph of modern nations on the battlefield. The heroic narrative is an effort to make sense of the brutal trench warfare on the Western Front. In Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Russia, memory of World War I is much less important because it was overshadowed by the catastrophes that ensued during the times of dictatorship, genocide and World War II. Still, after the decades of dealing with the consequences of Nazism and the Holocaust, the German public has seized the opportunity to reassess the causes and outcome of World War I. The debate surrounding Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and the large number of copies of the book sold, underline the fact that the historical distance to 1914 is not as great as it might seem. There is still an emotional response to the long-disputed question of responsibility for this European catastrophe.

Despite the different historical ruptures and caesuras outlined above, including the years of 1945 or 1989/91, the centenary of World War I does indeed have a special meaning for historians, not to mention the historical memory in Europe. 1914 is often taken as a starting point for our reflections about the present; in Germany, it is still considered the year that marks the beginning of Zeitgeschichte, of the history of our time. Thus, despite the past one hundred years, despite the fact that there are no living eyewitnesses of the conflict, this caesura might be closer to the European consciousness than we have surmised for some time. Not merely in the West, where it has been prominent for a while, but also – in many ways – in the whole of Europe.

L.N.: The twentieth century was, perhaps, the most violent century in the history of humankind. All European countries have a shared experience of the two world wars. At the same time, it seems that there are different national perspectives on those wars and on the lessons we should learn from them. While searching for the origins of these different interpretations, should we pay attention to politics, historical tradition or maybe some other factors?

J.B.: The twentieth century was undoubtedly one of the most horrible in European history. This has been an acknowledged fact for some time now. However, as in the case of World War I, there are striking geographical differences. While the key military events of World War I took place in the West, the defining moments of World War II occurred in Eastern Europe, especially in the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, an area that Timothy Snyder has dubbed “the bloodlands”. Today, the horrors of these bloodlands – from collectivisation to German and Soviet occupation, from the Holocaust to the war of annihilation waged by the Wehrmacht – capture historical imagination. By contrast to World War I, it is often the victims of war, deportation and genocide who are remembered. Naturally, significant exceptions to this rule may be found: Russia embraces its war heroes in the cult of the “Great Patriotic War”, whereas to many Poles, the fighters of Armia Krajowa who rose up in a futile struggle against the Nazi occupation, represent the best of their nation.

Memory of these events is still a national affair and different states promote different historical narratives about these events. For a long time, Germany has memorialised the victims of World War II with scant differentiation. There was no clear-cut distinction between victims and perpetrators and, as a rule, German war victims were much more prominently remembered. More recently, especially after the German reunification, the fate of different ethnic and social groups has received more attention within official culture. The string of memorials between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz in the centre of Berlin is a prime example of this trend.

In addition to state-sponsored memorial culture with its large monuments and museum projects, it is promising to observe civil-society projects committed to inscribing the identities of victims of the twentieth century physically into public spaces. Prominent examples of this include the Stolpersteine in Berlin and the last address project in Moscow. Both are civic projects that aim to shed light on the fate of ordinary citizens during the Nazi and the Bolshevik reign of terror. While the  Stolpersteine are embedded in the pavement and inform us about the sites of the former homes of deported Jewish residents and their respective fates, the Russian project documents the last residence of the Moscovites deported during the Great Terror.

Be that as it may, there have also been some worrying developments within official Geschichtspolitik. One such trend introduced by Germany involves creating specific laws that regulate historical discourse. While the law against Holocaust-denial was certainly well-intentioned, it sent out the wrong signals. In the following years, many other countries introduced similar laws designed to establish or defend certain taboos in their national history. Historians should unite against this trend; academia and the critical public should be able to debate history freely. The existing libel laws suffice to curtail excesses. History should be debated on the pages of journals and not before a court of law.

L.N.: As an historian, what do you think of the role of the historical profession in shaping the contemporary cultural memory of World War I and the history of the twentieth century more generally? Do historical debates and interpretations change popular understanding of past events? And if so, which of the recent debates, in your opinion, have been most influential? Does history have different meanings and different importance in Western and Eastern Europe, or in Europe and Russia?

J.B.: I think the role of professional historians is probably overrated. Our books rarely become bestsellers, our audience consists of other academics and, at best, our students in the universities. Of greater importance than universities are certainly schools and their curricula. In the twenty-first century, history is still often taught along national narratives. There are many initiatives – some sponsored by the European Union – that aim to change these national perspectives. But in the foreseeable future, the nation will remain the main frame of reference. Still, it is worth fostering international cooperation in the field of historical education. The Internet and other digital media offer many opportunities. Binational textbooks are another option: a Franco-German history textbook already exists, a German-Polish version is in the making. Transnational perspectives will generally make it harder to present one’s own nation as an exceptional case and to legitimise political regimes through historical narratives. If more nations were to allow such pluralism in their schools, this would indeed be a welcome trend.

Nowadays, the public discourse about history is dominated by TV. Each country has its own format – from the American history channel to Germany’s ubiquitous history TV-host, Guido Knopp. The historian Philipp Ther has labelled these media celebrities “memorians”, implying, that they do not engage in historical research, but that they do indeed shape national memory. TV viewers are fond of dramatic and emotional stories and ratings often take precedence over the facts presented. Movies represent another important source of historical knowledge. The bulk of the population – including professional historians – watch these visualisations of history. Studies by Harald Welzer have shown that much of the public memory of World War II in Germany – even amongst veterans who fought in the war – has been shaped by movie narratives. The same could probably be said about the Vietnam War or – in Russia – about the Afghanistan War captured in the images of films, such as Deviatia rota. Movies will continue to shape what the European public thinks about history and it will be impossible for professional historians to influence this field.

Does this mean that historians should retreat from the public and keep the historical truth to themselves? Certainly not. But we need to have realistic expectations. Historians should continue to engage, to present their research to wider audiences wherever possible. They should also use the broadsheets and other quality media to initiate or participate in public debate. Not everyone will hear them but, in the end, their expertise might sometimes just make a difference.
L.N.: During the past year, both Russian and non-Russian media have argued that the Ukrainian crisis might lead to yet another major confrontation in Europe. Particularly in the Russian media, Ukraine is, on the one hand, often pictured as a battleground of Russian political interests and moral values, yet on the other, those of Europe – or even more generally, those of the Western world. While political analysts focus on the more immediate political reasons for this crisis, what insights could you, as an historian, offer to explain the current conflict? How does the violent history of twentieth-century Europe and Russia’s historical past help us understand the different perspectives?

J.B.: I believe that “Ukrainian crisis” is a misleading term from the outset. What we have witnessed since March 2014 is a kind of hybrid war, Russia against Ukraine. Thus far, the media has played a highly significant role – especially the concerted campaign of misinformation by the Russian state media.
As I outlined at the beginning, I believe that different notions of sovereignty lie at the heart of this war. Moscow’s elite has not accepted Ukrainian sovereignty, they view their various neighbours as lesser states unable to decide their internal and external affairs without the Kremlin’s say-so. The events of the previous year underline the fact that Moscow is willing to use force and wage war in order to (re-)establish its sphere of influence.

In addition, I believe it is not primarily a conflict of values, although the European Union and Eurasianist Russia certainly promote differing, often opposing value systems. The conflict is driven by the lack of legitimacy of the Russian regime. The Kremlin is not afraid of NATO – there are no significant Western forces anywhere in Eastern Europe. Rather, the Kremlin is clearly frightened that democracy and pluralism could actually succeed in Ukraine.
From a historical point of view, the war in Ukraine poses larger questions about general trends and caesuras in Russian history and in Russia’s relations with the West. For a long time, Western observers have regarded perestroika – either explicitly or implicitly – as a turning point in Russia’s history. The West tended to view Russia as a country on an albeit long and winding road, but one that would ultimately lead to a more or less liberal order. This assumption was shared by many in the West during Gorbachev’s time in power, through Yeltsin’s rule and even during the early tenure of Vladimir Putin. Neither the war in Chechnya, nor Russia’s conflict with Georgia, nor, indeed, the internal return to autocratic rule, changed this perception in any significant way. Obama’s “reset” and Berlin’s continued Ostpolitik both favoured close cooperation and partnership with Russia.

Looking back, I would argue that, as early as the 1990s, the Russian elite had already abandoned Gorbachev’s principle of “civilising from above”. The storming of the Russian White House in 1993 and the first war in Chechnya in the following year, mark an important turning point. From then on, it was clear that the Yeltsin administration was ready to rely heavily on the army, the security services and the use of force. The build-up of independent institutions stalled and the regime tried to avoid genuinely contested elections. “Virtual politics” (Andrew Wilson) with controlled parties and a stage-managed public sphere replaced political competition. This process began long before the struggle for succession during the late 1990s.

Looking even further back, I would argue that – in some ways – the invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 and the ensuing “wild war” (Wolfgang Sofsky) in the Hindu Kush constitute an important caesura. From this point on, Russia has often been embroiled in extremely violent, ongoing conflicts on its southern borders. From the Afghanistan situation onwards, these conflicts have shaped Soviet and Russian society. Indeed, a whole generation of experts in violence has grown up in these wars. The use of force by the army has become routinised; in addition, besides the military, other structures, such as the secret services or the Ministry of the Interior, have become involved in the war effort. Prominent figures from these services played an important role in Russian politics from the mid-1990s onwards, and later these developments gained their own momentum.

Thus, in many ways, the gap between Russia and the West has been widening for some time. The annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbass have suddenly made this gap more visible. In recent years, matters have been clouded by good business relations and by the reluctance of the West to understand the nature of Russia’s political order. For the foreseeable future, uneasy relations and tension between Moscow and the West – the European Union and the United States – seems inevitable.

L.N.: Thank you very much for this very interesting conversation.