Moscow uses tanks, Berlin words in World War Two commemorations

May 8, 2015
Russian servicemen drive a T-14 Armata tank during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Red Square in central Moscow

Russian servicemen drive a T-14 Armata tank (front) during a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade in Red Square. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Three months ago, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna suggested that Berlin or London would be more appropriate locations than Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe. In Russia, where the May 9 Victory Day holiday is celebrated by gigantic military parades on Red Square, Schetyna’s remarks were met with scorn. Channel Five, based in President Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, hit back in a weekly news show by proposing a “grand European tour” by the Russian military.

“We have a big army. There’s enough for everybody,” an off-screen male voice said mockingly as red arrows on a map shot out from Moscow to Warsaw, Berlin, Helsinki and Prague. In computer-generated images, tanks rolled, planes took off and the Russian flag went back up over former Soviet military bases in eastern Germany. “Too bad our Western partners can’t see our Iskander missile with their own eyes since it can only be delivered by air,” the voice said, as a rocket lifted off from its silo.

Resentment and fear have overshadowed feelings of respect for the dead and thankfulness to the soldiers who defeated Nazism. Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine has led most European leaders to boycott this year’s parade. Poland hosted its own commemorations, attended largely by leaders of central and eastern European countries that fell under Moscow’s control for almost half a century after 1945. Europeans’ unity in celebrating the war’s end has been split because there is still no unanimity on its consequences — and the legacy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

In an irony of history, Germany is now the one country that has the moral authority to bridge the contradictions in remembering World War Two. Divided into two states during the Cold War, Germans experienced both democracy and communism until reunification in 1990. More importantly, postwar Germans ended up confronting the Nazi past with an honesty and contrition that won the trust, then friendship of former enemies.

For Germans, total defeat in World War Two gave democracy a chance to take hold in West Germany, which led to a self-reckoning with the depravities of Nazism. For Russians, the “great victory” — coming at an unimaginable human toll — paradoxically reinforced Stalin’s totalitarian system and legitimized the Soviet Union as a world power. Even today, more than two decades after the fall of communism, the victory is being put to political purposes.

The contrast between how Berlin and Moscow are commemorating the war’s end couldn’t be bigger: a thoughtful lecture by a 76-year-old history professor in the German parliament versus 16,000 soldiers, accompanied by 194 vehicles and 143 aircraft, marching past the Kremlin.

Taking the floor in the historic Reichstag building that 70 years earlier had symbolized the Red Army’s bitterly won battle for Berlin, historian Heinrich August Winkler held Germany’s keynote speech on the anniversary Friday. Echoing the theme of his two-volume history, Germany: The Long Road West, Winkler explained that while Germany had always been part of the “old Occident” culturally, the country’s ruling elite refused to accept the political consequences of the Enlightenment as embodied by the American and French revolutions. Adolf Hitler’s rise can’t be explained only by Germany’s tribulations following World War One, but also by a long-held skepticism toward liberal democracy, Winkler said. Therefore, the Nazis’ capitulation on May 8, 1945, was the most important moment in the nation’s history because it created the conditions for West Germany, and later reunified Germany, to become a full-fledged member of the West.

In remembering the crimes of the Nazis, Winkler said, contemporary Germans should feel a sense of responsibility, not guilt. Drawing the arc of history to the present, he condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea and appealed for more solidarity with the countries that had regained their independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union: “Never again should Poland and the Baltic republics get the impression that Berlin and Moscow are deciding something above their heads and at their expense.”

Germany’s extraordinary path from pariah to one of the most well-regarded members of the international community was long and difficult. Thirty years ago, Germany’s late president Richard von Weizsaecker told his fellow citizens that they, too, should regard May 8, 1945, as a day of liberation rather than defeat. Public acknowledgment of the past — and not silence or denial — was the key for Germans to come to terms with the most unbearable chapter of their history.

The maturity of Germany’s political culture in dealing with the past has stood out in recent kerfuffles over how to commemorate the war’s end. Earlier this week, German President Joachim Gauck paid homage to the millions of Soviet prisoners of war who died in Nazi captivity. In the same speech, without a hint of moral equivalence, he recalled that many of the POWs who survived the camps later faced execution or imprisonment as traitors in the Soviet Union. Gauck could name two evils at once without anybody thinking he was seeking to relativize or compare them.

Because of its sense of responsibility for the past, Germany’s leadership has softened its boycott of Putin’s military parade. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier traveled to a ceremony in Volgograd, once known as Stalingrad, where his Russian colleague Sergei Lavrov gushed that “Germany is our most important partner in European and international affairs.” On Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel is due in Moscow for a wreath-laying. Her office emphasized that she would stay for a “working lunch” with Putin and was expected back by late afternoon.

Fantasies by Kremlin propagandists to send tank columns across eastern and central Europe remain unfulfilled. Russia’s uninvited ambassadors to Germany’s commemorations are a handful of members of the Night Wolves, a motorcycle club close to Putin, and their local sympathizers. One part of the group was turned back at the Polish border, but a Berlin court ruled that German immigration officials had no ground to deny them entry.

On Thursday, a group of the bikers turned up on their Harleys in Torgau, where U.S. and Soviet soldiers met in April 1945 as they closed in on Hitler. Photographs posted on a regional news site showed the Night Wolves laying flowers at the war cemetery — and then heading straight for the local McDonald’s.

18 comments

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Glory to the Red Army!!! Glory to everyone that fought against the evil!!!

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Red Army died with Gorbachev. This is the sad irrelevant army of a country struggling to even re-gain Chernobyl. Russia is in disrepair. All the smart money, and all the smart people…. have left.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Stalin is dead and so is the old-style Communism. Meanwhile, Russia is in the throws of establishing a democracy with much further to go. Calling them a second-rate nation, as our President has done, shows a lack of class and breeding.

Russia knows the effects of war. The Eisenhower Institute in Gettysburg, PA talks about the Soviet Experience in World War Two: “Americans have little conception of the Soviet Union’s experience in World War II. No cities in the United States were besieged, not a single bomb was dropped by an enemy airplane on any of our 48 states, no part of our population was enslaved, starved or murdered, and not one village, town or city was completely destroyed or even heard a shot fired in anger.”

Furthermore, the Eisenhower institute extimates that at least 11,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or missing, as well as an additional 20,000,000 civilians. This compares with slightly more than 400,000 American soldiers killed and missing.

Denigration of other cultures is not a part of American culture, except for some national leaders who are little more than push-button warriors.

Former Communist countries should be allowed to develop their democracies at their own pace and direction. America is not necessarily the example to follow, since we have our own set of unique problems with the past and even more challenging concerns about our future.

Posted by neilc23 | Report as abusive

Such detailed description of celebration I have not found any news media of the west.Enjoyed reading.
The mention of Crimea is made in context of world war does not seem appropriate.Crimea was gained and salvaged as unprotected and not won by attack and that too after becoming federation.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Russia has missed a great opportunity for diplomacy here, much like the wasted effort of the Sochi Olympics, where crackdown against political opponents and new laws removing civil equality for LGBT justly overshadowed the accomplishments of Russian athletes.

The Russian soldiers who died fighting Hitler did so to keep their families alive and heir country safe not the set up a Soviet Empire/USSR.

The fascist Russian nationalism of Putin shares far more in common with the Reich than Russians care to admit – so today’s Russia has betrayed the sacrifice of the previous generation in the Great Patriotic War.

Posted by DD1Prime | Report as abusive

Ukraine shelled the civilians in the East because of language. Its own citizens. How can any nation accept that? The East didn’t start the war. Shame on the Western powers when aid from Russia sat for ten days, because no one would inspect the trucks from Russia. International organizations of any International organization could have, you could have taken the trucks apart and reassembled them in ten days. Finally the Russians drove the aid over the border to help. Putin was the only one sticking up for an abandoned civilian population shelled by its own countrymen. Where is the inclusion in that? Because of ethnic differences?
The EU, NATO bombed Serbia for doing The same in Kosovo. Exactly what Western Ukraine was doing to Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainians how was that any different? NATO and the EU seized recognized territory of Serbia that was centuries old. So much for respecting borders. The Cold War mentality like the NAZI’s policy of classification as sub-human continues in the Baltic’s, and other areas where a Russian speaking population is present. The only inclusion is to wipe them out either culturally, or push them out with selected palatable government instituted clean pogroms (such as classification as 2nd class citizens, or non-citizens outright)to achieve this.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Reuters: “Because of its sense of responsibility for the past, Germany’s leadership has softened its boycott of Putin’s military parade.”
…To distort the history of World War II; to equate the aggressor (Nazi Germany) to the winner (socialist Soviet Union); to represent as winners those, who defended mostly their colonial interests; to make heroes from collaborators, who had helped Nazi Germany during the War (and joined the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union) – that is the main goal of such publications.
It is not Ukraine, that the author is worried about, but the fact that Russia refused to serve the interests of the West, refused to go under the United States and to wait for their mercy in a queue – after Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and of course, the new Ukraine.
It is not the Russia’s aggression, that the EU leaders are worried about, but the refusal to comply the veiled orders of the financial and military elite of the USA, the NATO and the EU, thus depriving the West of cheap Russian resources, almost gratuitous labour, dumb servants and complaisant prostitutes.
And finally the most important: Russia deprived the United States, the NATO and the EU of their role as world’s legislators, prosecutors, judges and executors of punishment, so to speak, in one face of the modern imperialism.

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

Putin is stuck in an era that is long gone and the rest of the world has moved on from.

Posted by Josephvr123 | Report as abusive

I am anxiously waiting on an insightful coverage of massive V-day demonstrations and parades by people in Russia. I read that 100,000+ participated in Moscow alone. I also enjoyed reported comments by UN’s Bang Ki Moon, who, apparently having read/listened to mainstream media like reuters, had first suggested that such massive demonstrations must be anti-government. Until he realized that Putin himself participated. :-)

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

nelic23 writes: “Former Communist countries should be allowed to develop their democracies at their own pace and direction.”

Agreed. That’s why Russia should leave Ukraine and Chechnya alone. Stop interfering in the pace and direction of those former communist countries.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Russian-speaking Ukranians who want to be Russian…. should move to Russia. Its’ a 15 minute bus ride. Is Russia keeping them out? Why?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Alkaline State with your logic like a Nazi’s should dictate where people can live, speak or look like, or be born for that matter. Most Russians speak more than one language they also have a cultural heritage.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

The yearly budget that the United States of America government has allocated to their army is more than six hundred and twelve BILLION dollars. Yup, you read that right: more than six hundred and twelve billion dollars. American troops are currently deployed in nearly one hundred and fifty countries.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

americangrizzly,

It is quite apparently that you’ve sucked too long at the Russian propaganda teat. The only people firing on their relatives are the Russians that are attacking/murdering Ukrainians inside Ukraine.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Apparently pyradius the damage to your brain by insertion of only one source of propaganda has taken effect. Ukraine has always had an ethnic mix. Plus discrimination is still wrong. Read on.
Amnesty International, in its 2006 report, claimed that Russian-speaking linguistic minority living in Estonia often find themselves de facto excluded from the labour market and educational system. The report says that the current policies fail to constitute a coherent framework within which these rights can be guaranteed for such persons. Amnesty International cites as evidence the high unemployment rate — 12.9% in 2005 — among people belonging to Russian-speaking linguistic minority, in contrast to only 5.3% among ethnic Estonians during the same period.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Fact, some people can’t handle the truth. pyradius or is that Pyridium (phenazopyridine) treats pain, burning, increased urination, and increased urge to urinate. Includes Pyridium side effects, interactions and indications.) Anyways this fact remains. From the US Defense.Gov, not a Russian teat.

The U.S. military budget is $756.4 billion for FY 2015. This includes:
⦁ $495.6 billion for the ⦁ base budget of the ⦁ Department of Defense (DoD).
⦁ $85.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Funds for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan.
⦁ $175.4 billion for defense-related agencies and functions. This includes the Veterans Administration ($65.3 billion), the State Department ($42.6 billion), Homeland Security ($38.2 billion), FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice ($17.6 billion), and the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy ($11.7 billion).
That makes military spending the second largest Federal government expenditure, after
Social Security ($896 billion).

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Russia is in decline. Investors are pulling out; the smartest scientists have left for brighter places. What remains is a sad muddy mess of chest-thumping drunks.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Funny with an open border. $18+ trillion in debt, and another $118 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Some would say printing more money is wrong when so far in debt. Their are those that predict in 2 to 3 decades the US will collapse due to debt. Also the US is lagging in advanced nations in education, just above Mexico at 17th at last check.Russia has been around for just around a thousand years, the US little over two hundred. But you alkaline must be a fortune teller. I doubt Russians even when their scientists leave they go home to visit, because they do love their culture, people, and home as should any human being.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive