Anne Applebaum on What VE Day Commemorates

Anne Applebaum’s latest column in today’s Washington Post makes a point worth repeating:

Try, if you can, to picture the scene. A vast crowd in Red Square: Lenin’s tomb and Stalin’s memorial in the background. Soldiers march in goose step behind rolling tanks, and the air echoes with martial music, occasionally drowned out by the whine of fighter jets. On the reviewing stand, statesmen are gathered: Kim Jong Il, the dictator of North Korea, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former dictator of Poland — and President George W. Bush….

[I]f we are to avoid turning the anniversary of the end of World War II into a celebration of the triumph of Stalinism, more should be done. To begin with, Congress should vote on a resolution proposed this month by Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.), which calls on Russia to condemn the Nazi-Soviet pact as well as the illegal annexation of the Baltic states. “The truth is a powerful weapon for healing, forgiving and reconciliation,” the resolution states, in a burst of unusual congressional eloquence, “but its absence breeds distrust, fear and hostility.”

Bush, too, should show that he understands what really happened in 1945. Every recent U.S. president has visited Auschwitz, and many have visited concentration camps in Germany, too. Perhaps it’s time for American presidents to start a new tradition and pay their respects to the victims of Stalin. This is made difficult by the dearth of monuments in Moscow, but it isn’t impossible. The president could, for example, lay a wreath at the stone that was brought from the Solovetsky Islands, the Soviet Union’s first political prison camp, and placed just across from the Lubyanka itself. Or he could visit one of the mass-execution sites outside of town.

Of course these would be nothing more than purely symbolic gestures. But a war anniversary is a purely symbolic event. Each commemoration helps all of us remember what happened and why it happened, and each commemoration helps us draw relevant lessons for the future. To falsify the record — to commemorate the triumph of totalitarianism rather than its defeat — sends the wrong message to new and would-be democracies in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the rest of the world.

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