Time for remembrance and reconciliation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2005, 12:00am

The world leaders who gather in Moscow today to mark the defeat of the Nazis 60 years ago have much to celebrate.

Germany's surrender not only ended five years of total warfare in Europe - it also confirmed the collapse of a brutal regime and its unprecedented reign of terror. The Allies' victory over the Nazi forces was soon followed by the defeat of the Japanese. The second world war was over.

But celebrating the momentous military victory - and remembering those who died - is the easy part of dealing with the war's legacy. Making a clean break from the past is far more difficult to achieve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been reminded of this in recent days. And it will also, no doubt, be on the minds of two of his prominent guests for the ceremony - President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

The elaborate celebrations in Moscow are controversial. Mr Putin sees them as recognition of the invaluable contribution made by the former Soviet Union to the defeat of the Nazis. Almost 14 million Soviet troops died in a desperate - but successful - bid to drive the German forces out of their homeland and then push them back across Europe. It was a huge sacrifice, one that has not always been given the credit it deserves in the west.

But the controversy arises from the role the Soviet Union played before Adolf Hitler's invasion of the country - and after his defeat. A non-aggression pact between the two countries in 1939 allowed Hitler to capture most of western Europe, while the Soviets occupied Baltic states in the east. The Soviet Union only entered the war in 1941, when attacked by Hitler's forces in breach of the agreement.

After the Soviet victory, eastern European states were left in the grip of another dictator - Josef Stalin. The cold war had begun. It is arguable that, for them, true liberation did not come until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is for these reasons that not everyone in Europe is ready to join in the victory parade in Moscow. Three Baltic states have called on Mr Putin to apologise for past wrongs. Two of them are boycotting the ceremony.

US President George W. Bush has joined in this exercise in historical revision. He has lamented the role played by the United States in forging the end-of-war agreement that split Europe in two. This suits his recently unveiled philosophy of bringing freedom to oppressed people everywhere. But in 1945, when the Yalta agreement was struck, the priority was to bring the conflict to an end - without starting a new one. It is all too easy to criticise the Allied leaders of the time, 60 years on.

Much progress has been made in that time. The formation and growth of the European Union has reconciled past foes and acted as a force for peace. The cold war is over and Russia is engaging the west. The emphasis at today's ceremony should therefore be on reconciliation and remembrance - rather than focusing on historical wounds which have sadly not yet healed.

There is every need to recognise the wrongs of the past. Germany has set an exemplary standard. But moving on requires a determination among the leaders to work together to find common ground and to seek to resolve their differences.

The role of Russia has been thrust into the spotlight as a result of today's high-profile ceremony. But attention will soon shift back to the Sino-Japanese relationship. The 60th anniversary of the defeat of Japan is approaching. It is not yet clear whether Japanese leaders will be invited to commemorations in Beijing. There have been some signs in recent days that the two governments are making progress - after the recent plunge in Sino-Japanese relations. But big obstacles still remain.

The ceremony in Russia today has reopened old wounds. The one that will follow later in Beijing will, it is hoped, be more about healing.