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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 April, 2005, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
War memories blur 60 years after
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe is being marked not just with commemorations - in Russia there are moves to rehabilitate Stalin and in Germany a debate has developed about how far Germans were victims as well as perpetrators.

Josef Stalin whose reputation some want to mend
Stalin's war role is being played up by Russian revisionists

Two generations after the war, reputations are being re-evaluated, memories are being re-assessed and history is being re-written.

It was on 15 April 1945 that the Red Army launched its assault on Berlin. Germany signed its final surrender on 7 May.

The council in the western Russian city of Oryol, which itself suffered badly during the war, has called for Stalin's name to be restored to streets and for monuments and statues to him to be re-erected.

"The 60th anniversary of victory obliges us to support widespread calls to restore historical justice with respect to the historical role played by the commander-in-chief Josef Stalin," a resolution said.

One regional official was quoted by the newspaper Izvestia as denying that Stalin was behind the purges that killed and imprisoned millions.

"It is not a simple issue. Stalin was not really responsible for the repressions. In all official documents the orders are from the NKVD [the predecessor of the KGB], military tribunals. A system of repression existed and functioned by itself," she said.

Stalingrad again?

There is also a movement in favour of restoring the name Stalingrad to the city where the German advance in the southern Soviet Union was halted. It was renamed Volgograd by Nikita Khrushchev, who led the anti-Stalin criticism after the dictator had died.

Veterans who fought there had hoped the old name would be restored in time for the anniversary of the German surrender in 2003, but accepted that the procedure would be "unpredictable" because Stalin was still a "controversial figure."

These suggestions appear to be motivated in part by nostalgia for a strong leader at a time when post-communist Russia is still suffering economically and feels marginalised on the world stage.

German debate

In Germany, the debate is about the extent to which German guilt should be applied to the population as a whole.

"Germany has faced up to its past, but since 2002 there has been some backsliding, " said British historian Antony Beevor, author of books on the siege of Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin.

"The process is called 'normalisierung' and it is slightly alarming though it is not universal in Germany. It started in reaction to the way in which guilt was rammed down the throats of generations which came after the war.

"Compared to Austria, however, one should keep a balance over Germany. Austria has presented itself in an astonishing way as the first victim of Nazism. And Japan has refused to face up to anything."

Red Army soldiers hoist flag on Reichstag
Berlin saw one of the bloodiest battles in history

Antony Beevor pointed to a couple of books in Germany that were very important in this re-assessment. Crabwalk by Gunter Grass described the loss of civilians on a refugee ship torpedoed by the Russians while trying to escape from Danzig in January 1945. Der Brand (The Fire) by Jorg Friedrich dealt with the carpet-bombing of German cities and called on Britain to acknowledge that it, too, had committed war crimes.

These books opened up the issue of Germans being victims, something not much discussed by the immediate post-war writers. Indeed, not long before he died in 2001 the German writer W G Sebald, who lived in England, complained about this. He suggested that even the survivors had participated in this silence.

The issue of whether the air war "could be strategically or morally justified," he wrote in Air War and Literature, "was never the subject of open debate in Germany after 1945, no doubt mainly because a nation which had murdered or worked to death millions of people in its camps could hardly call on the victorious powers to explain. It is also possible that quite a number of those affected by the air raids, despite their grim but impotent fury in the face of such obvious madness, regarded the great firestorms as a just punishment".

'Downfall'

No longer. The current German film Downfall, about the last days of Hitler and his entourage in the Berlin bunker, is part of the normalisierung phenomenon. It has gone down well in Germany, perhaps because it shows heroism by some German officers, including SS officers (as well as an appealing and brave young boy) in the face of the advancing Red Army.

Bruno Ganz as Adolf Hitler in Downfall
Germany is remembering its Nazi past like never before

Hitler, brilliantly played by Swiss-born Bruno Ganz, is humanised, though, in my opinion, not romanticised. He is shown both as a charismatic and at times even courteous leader (who can command the affections of Eva Braun) as well as a ranting maniac who rails against Jews and traitors.

"Four or five years ago, this film would have had a different reaction in Germany," said Antony Beevor.

"The problem is that film is a dangerous way of portraying history. The priorities of cinema are different. There has to be a comparison of characters, so some unpleasant people like SS General Wilhelm Monke are shown as better than they were. "

SS soldiers under Monke were responsible for a massacre of about 100 British prisoners near Dunkirk in 1940. In the film, he is simply shown as a noble defender of the last Berlin redoubt.

"The other issue is that you do not see cause and effect in the film. You see the claustrophobia of the bunker but see nothing of the civilian suffering which Hitler's madness brought about," said Beevor.

As for Russia, he said: "A whole orchestra of drums is being banged in a quite extraordinary way for the 60th anniversary celebrations of what is still called the Great Patriotic War. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union suffered the worst casualties of the war but nobody is prepared to face up to the dark side of Stalinism or indeed communism.

"There is a rehabilitation of Stalin to a large degree. I am surprised that Volgograd has not already been renamed."


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