Putin and Trump’s Ominous Nostalgia for the Second World War – The New Yorker

By the measure of the past decade, this year's celebration of Victory Day in Moscow, on May 9th, was subdued. Vladimir Putin met with a group of surviving veterans of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War--the four years of the Second World War when the Soviet Union was at war with Germany--and raised a toast. The Russian President is not much of a drinker, so this was an indication of the importance of the occasion.

Separately, Putin took part in a procession in which people carried portraits of their relatives who fought in the war--he marched with a picture of his father--and he oversaw a military parade in Red Square. Thirteen thousand troops participated, but there was no air show, because of inclement weather; the parade was over the top, but no more so than parades of recent years. Victory Day is undoubtedly Russia's most important, most grandly celebrated, and most political holiday.

It was not observed in the years immediately following the Second World War, in which the Soviet Union lost an estimated twenty-seven million people; it became a holiday a generation later and gained in prominence as the U.S.S.R. unleashed less righteous battles abroad, one after another. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia stopped commemorating Victory Day with a military parade. The sabre-rattling resumed in 1999, the year of the American-led NATO bombing of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia.

Under Putin, Victory Day has ballooned. Months before the holiday, people start wearing--on their clothes, on their bags, on their cars--an orange-and-black ribbon designed to emulate a Second World War-era military decoration. This year, a mammoth likeness of this ribbon, measuring more than twenty thousand square feet, was laid on the ground in front of the Ostankino television tower, in Moscow, the tallest free-standing structure in Europe.

Victory Day is a festival of superlatives. The holiday has grown as the story of the Soviet victory in the Second World War has become central to Russia's national identity. The Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov once told me that victory in the war made for the perfect myth because "it shines its light backwards and forwards." It illuminates the prewar past in such a way as to justify the Stalinist terror that came before the war.

It illuminates the postwar past in such a way as to explain how the Soviet Union became a superpower and to justify the terror that followed the war. There is a national longing for Russia to reclaim its superpower status, and the narrative of the Second World War renders this a righteous desire. Leaders who have staked their legitimacy on the promise of making their countries great again apparently have a way of alighting on the same points of reference.

Last month, during a meeting with a small group of veterans of the Second World War, Donald Trump previewed the Army's new uniform, which is a radical style departure from the uniforms of the past sixty years--and is almost an exact copy of the Second World War-era uniform. The Times reported[1] that the Army wanted to reach back to the last war that it fought with the full support of the American public, and won. Speaking about the uniform, Trump also assured his audience that it was not cheap: "And, if you think those uniforms were inexpensive, they were very expensive.

They were very. But they wanted it, and we got it." The assurance that no expense was spared goes along with Trump's repeated claims that his Administration is bringing power and respect back to the military after (imaginary) neglect by previous Administrations. "We're rebuilding our military like never before," he said[2], at the April event. "Brand-new fighter jets.

Brand-new ships of all kinds. Every soldier has the best equipment. In the Army, we're even getting new uniforms."

There is something particularly insidious about these two men, Trump and Putin, claiming to be restoring the glory of victory in the Second World War at this moment, when the Western world's understanding of the war seems to be crumbling. This understanding has shaped European politics for seventy years. It's not just that it created a united Europe; the Second World War showed humanity what it was capable of.

Like totalitarianism, the Holocaust was a twentieth-century phenomenon: the result of the combination of human cruelty and modern technology. Following the war, societies that chose (or were allowed to choose) democracy had to reckon with their own potential for destruction. Nations devised stories about themselves in the aftermath of the war.

Germany's story was, in effect, that it had sunk to the bottom of its national soul and had to fight to prevent such a thing from happening ever again. Countries that had been occupied by the Nazis valorized the resistance and minimized the role of collaborators. Sweden, which was neutral during the war, focussed on the one indisputably good thing it did: accepting nearly two hundred thousand refugees, including Danish Jews who were fleeing the Nazis.

These stories shaped the political identities of many European countries and their behavior. Germany pursued a policy of de-Nazification and criminalized Holocaust denial, for example; Sweden fashioned itself as a humanitarian superpower and a haven for refugees. In the countries that the Allies handed over to the Soviet Union, history was different, and simpler: there was no Holocaust.

Children of the Soviet Bloc learned that the Nazi concentration camps were for "antifascists." Books about the Jewish catastrophe were banned. With the Holocaust absent from their historiography, these countries' narratives were not influenced by a fuller understanding of humanity's potential for destruction. That understanding itself would have been a challenge to totalitarianism.

In the past few years, as the politics of isolationism, nostalgia, and resentment have claimed electoral victories throughout the Western world, those postwar stories have started falling apart. Sweden has seen a sudden, violent backlash against its policy of welcoming refugees. Germany's far-right party[3] has adopted a posture of shrugging boredom in response to talk of Germany's extreme historical legacy.

An association with the Nazi past is no longer a death sentence for a political party. The reality behind the transformation--or the rejection--of the lessons of the Second World War is that people who actually remember the conflict are nearly all gone. Their story is being reframed, with breathtaking speed, as one of glory, or at least of warring armies rather than as a story of humanity's darkest hour so far.

Instead of serving as a warning, the Second World War is becoming the source of nostalgia for greatness. To be sure, America has always had the luxury of remembering the Second World War as its greatest triumph, but this historical narrative has also always included the Holocaust, at least as a warning against anti-Semitism--in this, the American view of history was vastly different from the Russian one. But the Trumpian spin on the war is all MAGA, which makes it essentially the same as Putin's.

Meanwhile, humanity is hurtling toward its next catastrophe. Climate change, too, is a function of our boundless callousness in wielding the awesome weapons of technology. It's no accident that Trump and Putin are united not only in glorifying the military triumph in the Second World War but also in their disdain for climate policy.

Willful blindness to our own destructive potential is integral to the glorification of the past, and to turning our backs on the future, whether it's in a choice of uniform, in an obsession with restoring military greatness, or in a denial that our actions are killing the planet.

References

  1. ^ reported (www.nytimes.com)
  2. ^ said (www.armytimes.com)
  3. ^ far-right party (www.theguardian.com)

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