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Eastern Europe still needs reconciliation gesture

June 19, 2021

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has recognized the millions of Soviet soldiers who died after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. But a gesture of reconciliation is still necessary, says Christian F. Trippe.


Steinmeier marks Nazi invasion of Soviet Union

Berlin-Karlshorst | Bundespräsident Steinmeier zum 80. jahrestag des Überfalls auf die Sowjetunion
Steinmeier commemorated the Soviet war dead at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-KarlshorstImage: Jörg Carstensen/dpa/picture alliance

Germany claims to recognize the immense moral responsibility it carries for World War II. It believes it has faced up to and taken accountability for its past, the murder of millions of Jews, and the death and destruction wrought by war.

This narrative is ubiquitous, yet reveals an inherently westward orientation. Speaking to mark the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier made clear that this lopsided narrative does not yet fully recognize the suffering of Eastern European nations during World War II.

Soviet POWs faced distrust at home

Steinmeier's speech at the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst featured an account by Boris Popov, a Red Army soldier, about the horrors of war and Germany captivity. His harrowing experience was shared by millions of Red Army soldiers.

Christian Trippe
Christian F. Trippe is head of DW's Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe departmentsImage: DW

Their plight, however, plays a subordinate role in Germany's historical consciousness. The millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who died and experienced inhumane abuse do not occupy a prominent role in Germany's collective memory. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, viewed prisoners returning from German captivity with great distrust, suspecting them of collaboration with the enemy.

A special exhibition at the German-Russian Museum dedicated to Soviet prisoners of war, unveiled on the day of Steiermer's speech, may help rehabilitate their standing. Ukraine's ambassador, meanwhile, refused to attend the event, calling the museum venue "an affront" because of its "Russian" focus and because the wartime persecution of other countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states was being "simply ignored."

Russia reframes historical narrative

This diplomatic spat reveals just how politicized and divisive history can be. After all, Russia has been busily reframing its past to legitimize present-day policymaking.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, for instance, has been undergoing a veritable renaissance in Russia. New laws have been adopted that seek to bolster a patriotic perspective of the past. Former Soviet republics, among them Ukraine, are concerned by this new, Russian grandiosity — rightly worrying it will be instrumentalized for geopolitical expansionism.

Steinmeier succeeded in delicately touching upon all these aspects, yet without losing sight of his main message: atonement for Germany's barbaric wartime actions. The president also criticized Stalinism, and warned that history must not be instrumentalized — two issues not readily acknowledged in Russia today.

Finally, in light of the bloody past, Steinmeier urged former Soviet republics to maintain amicable ties with one another.

Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand clasp hands at the Verdun memorial in 1984
The gesture between Kohl and Mitterrand at Verdun became a symbol of peaceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Eilmes

It's time for a grand gesture

And yet, we are still lacking a great gesture of reconciliation, visible to all people in the former Soviet republics today. Indeed, what we need is a gesture akin to the iconic 1984 moment between Germany's then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand at Verdun, in memory of World War I.

This image, in which Kohl and Mitterrand linked hands, soon became a symbol of peace appreciated in Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere. A symbol of this magnitude commemorating those who died on Eastern Europe's battlefields — be it Volgograd, Kharkiv or Brest, Belarus — is as yet unthinkable.

But Steinmeier's speech at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin, the site of Nazi Germany's formal capitulation, lays the groundwork for such a grand gesture. 

This commentary has been adapted from German by Benjamin Restle