For the sake of peace, leave history out of politics

Klaus Segbers says since, in politics, history is often dressed up and trotted out only to justify current policies and actions, we should leave it well alone when seeking to resolve conflicts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 6:05pm

For anyone who has been raised and lives in Germany, it is quite apparent that history is a difficult commodity. Germany was involved in the beginning of the first world war (unintentionally, whether sleepwalking or otherwise), and had a fundamental role in the outbreak of the second world war. Having also experienced a period of limited sovereignty (1949-1989), and unification (in 1990) that was as unexpected as were the accompanying concerns about a potential new assertiveness, Germany's post-war history is filled with different historical analogies and narratives.

There is an emerging consensus now that German society is caught in a double bind: Never again - to war, but also to Auschwitz (genocide).

But what happens when these two road signs of Germany's post-war history clash? This was the case during the Yugoslavian collapse and succession quarrels, particularly in the case of Kosovo. Then, in 1998, the German government, a Social Democratic/Green coalition, decided to assist militarily. Ever since, the German government has taken decisions like this on a case-by-case basis.

Historical interpretations always need to be framed and, as a rule, no one frame lasts forever. So, many historical narratives are resurrected, defended and contested to serve current interests.

The second world war ended in May 1945 in Europe, and in September in Asia. It is still among the biggest disasters, if not the biggest, that humankind has had to endure. As such, it offers many different stories about how it began and ended. We can assume with some certainty that many aspects have been confused, or slightly modified, to serve current purposes.

Most politicians are not historians. The very moment they start using historical analogies, it's necessary to consider the purpose: in most cases, reaching out to past events means that someone is looking for justifications for ongoing issues and interests. The media, in particular, must watch closely, and critically assess any exploitation of history.

This year, the anniversary of the end of the second world war offers plenty of opportunities to rethink not only real-life stories and tragedies, but also often distinct and even conflicting "official" narratives about what happened 70 years ago. Two examples deserve special attention.

Let's start with Russia. Moscow has been involved in the first military conflict in Europe in direct violation of the European post-cold-war order. While the civil wars in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s could be considered domestic affairs, and the campaign against Georgia in 2008 could be seen as "peace enforcement", the annexation of Crimea was a clear violation of the 1994 Budapest Convention.

In that contract, Russia (along with France and Britain) guaranteed the inviolability of Ukraine's borders in exchange for the new Ukrainian leadership giving up nuclear weapons - a reasonable attempt to prevent nuclear proliferation in, or towards, countries too poor or inexperienced to handle them properly.

In addition, Russia now claims to have special entitlements in the former Soviet republics - now turned into independent states. And it aims to speak for Russians, as well as Russian-speaking people living in other countries. The ongoing attempts to contextualise current Russian military actions within the broader lines of 20th-century history clearly serve the purpose of legitimising current rule violations.

The Russian leadership has invited many European leaders to participate in Saturday's Moscow ceremony remembering its 70-year-old victory. Most have declined. A few, like those from Greece and Cyprus, will attend. The ceremony is intended to reconstruct a piece of Soviet history and is targeted mostly at the domestic Russian audience, but in a way that may also be attractive for Europeans otherwise sceptical about Russia.

But this tactical move has mostly failed. The link between the "Great Patriotic War" in the 1940s, where Russians suffered greatly and were finally victorious, and the post-Soviet history of stalled Russian modernisation and the West's reaction to current rule violations, works only in Russia.

China, the second example, also officially celebrates the end of the second world war. And the Chinese leadership also wants to use this date for current purposes. In this case, the most important use in exploiting history is to keep pressure on the Japanese leadership, especially its intention to become more active and, possibly, assertive in foreign and security policies.

This narrative of Japanese militarism - correct, without a doubt, for the 1930s and 1940s - is not easily supported by post-second-world-war events. Visiting the Yasukuni Shrine honouring Japanese war victims, among them high-ranking war criminals, may be tasteless, but it is - so far - not proof of an overly adventurous external policy. Rather, Japan is, next to Germany, an example of successful development of civilian power after 1945.

Besides Russia and China, a range of governments and intellectuals is trying to take advantage by resurrecting history in a certain way.

Greece, in deep trouble because of the profligate spending habits of previous governments, is seeking war-related compensation from Germany to deflect pressure from the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission to pursue economic and social reforms. Former colonies, mostly in Africa, keep asking for compensation from their former colonial masters, often as a cover-up for a lack of transparency and corruption.

Many civil wars have been fought again, both intellectually and politically, in some countries - Greece in the 1940s, Spain in the 1930s, Chile in the 1970s, and others. The racism of apartheid in South Africa and the Vietnam war in the US have yet to be overcome, and remain polarising.

In other words: history is always turned into a resource, even a commodity, to establish narratives for current purposes. Given this experience, it is probably a good idea to forget the past and avoid blame games by any means possible - as is the case in one's personal life.

If you really want to solve a current conflict, forget about history. Focus on pragmatic steps that can be achieved and leave history alone. We all know this won't to happen. But it would be worth a try.

Dr Klaus Segbers is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Global Politics at the Freie Universität Berlin