Second World War was the deadliest, the most disastrous conflict ever in the history of humankind. It started in 1939 and lasted 6 more years, directly involving more than 100 million people from 30+ countries. Nobody knows for sure, how many people lost their lives during the war - today, they believe the number of fatalities to be between 70 and 85 million. It also marked a significant development of the weapon industry, resulting in mass destruction technologies like powerful artillery, reactive rockets and nuclear bombs.
Europe was the hottest spot on the map during the conflict, and even here some countries took it worse than others. Germany had to cope with all the post-war destructions, division of the country, moral trauma and responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. Soviet Union had the biggest amount of victims among participants of the war. Historians estimate the number of soviet lives lost in the war to be from 20 to 27 million people. I some republics of Soviet Union loses were extremely severe - in Belarus, for example, 25% of the total population was killed in the war.
This conflict had a huge impact on the whole history of our world, and the consequences of it are still present and influential in our lives nowadays. This, sometimes, creates barriers between people because every country has its own part of the story to tell. That’s how the volunteering study camp “Coping with the Past” appeared to be held in July this year, gathering in total 13 people from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Our purpose was not to find people with an academic background on WWII history, but rather those, who pay close attention to it and is an active member of civil society in the country of theirs. As the camp coordinator, I was very lucky to have a group of motivated, interested and open-minded people in the end.
To begin with, we started with discussions on how we remember the war in our countries and why is it so different. Trying to replicate a typical lesson of history, we soon discovered how far we are when we actually talk on the same subject. German history classes focus on the rise of the Nazi regime, it’s crimes and especially - Holocaust. Russian school class is full of the names of battles, generals, heroes, the whole turn of the war with the frontline moving from one side of the map of Europe to another. Ukraine has a pretty similar approach, but what’s different is a recent attempt to change the perception of WWII from the concept of “great victory” like it was in Soviet times to the concept of “great tragedy” like it is perceived in Europe today.
We agreed, that even without adding great lies each country can show a very different picture of the war just because their narratives are different these days.
Participants from Russia agreed, that for Russian people Second World War is very special - it even has a different name, the Great Patriotic War. In schools, they learn that the war started in 1941 after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and completely ignore the fact of so-called “Molotov-Ribbentrop pact”, according to which the Soviet Union also took part in the division of Poland. The Russian narrative is pretty much the same that was built in the Soviet Union - the war was disastrous and many brave people lost their lives, but thanks to their courage and self-sacrifice they have stopped the Nazis and won the war. Russian remembrance of WWII almost ignores the role of Allies and sometimes they are even accused of coming too late to join the war. The warfare in Africa, Italy, Eastern Asia plays almost no role in official historiography. The day of remembrance for them is the 9th of May, and it is one of the most important holidays with a huge military parade and thanksgivings to the veterans of war.
In Germany, the warfare itself is not that important - instead, everyone knows from the school how wrong and ugly were the ideas behind the Nazi regime and what terrible crimes they have committed. They know the war has started by Nazi provocation on the Polish border in 1939. For many Germans the post-war trauma is so great, that even now one has to be very careful with public discussions on the topic - people are really ashamed of the past and therefore, super-suspicious to things like national pride or patriotism. One bright spot in the remembrance is different Resistance movements - no matter how tragic was their fate and how controversial some of them might be, they prove that not every German under Nazi regime was evil racist - some people were so smart and brave they risked fighting the regime from the inside. They have the day of remembrance on the 8th of May as the rest of the European countries.
Ukraine, however, is very complicated. Since 1991, the concept of WWII in the country was the same as in Soviet times, however, school program started to change towards world-recognised facts, like mentioning the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In the recent years, the country is very split around the topic - some people still follow the “great victory” concept, while others say it’s very political and we should remember this event as the greatest tragedy in the history of the humankind. Ukrainians also don’t learn about Second front or Pacific Front so much, as well as don’t they know a lot about the existence of Resistance in Nazi Germany. Another hard topic is a role of Ukrainian patriotic movements, which were anti-communist in their nature and started to cooperate with Nazis at the beginning of the war but ended up fighting on 2 fronts with Wehrmacht and Red Army when they realised Nazis won’t allow independent Ukrainian state to exist.
Of course, it’s impossible to conclude everything we discovered and discussed for 2 weeks in one article. We agreed that all those differences are connected to official political narratives our countries have today and based on the fact we have very different knowledge on this very sensitive topic, it splits us and prevents young people from the constructive, stereotype-free dialogue. Such projects allow us to take a look at the well-known events under a different angle and focus on something that we’ve been missing to understand where others stand. And maybe, with some effort from our sides and readiness from people to hear the others’ story, we could later overcome those barriers of misunderstanding and actually learn the lesson of WWII - it must happen never again.