You can ignore history only if it has not bitten your country recently. I vividly recall an episode I witnessed in Vilnius at a vital juncture of the independence struggle in early 1991. The country had just declared the restoration of its pre-war independence, established in 1918 and ended by Soviet occupation in 1940. A visiting American television crew were collecting short clips from Lithuanians. And the producer was insistent. “No dates!” The local fixers were distraught. The Lithuanian interviews were baffled. How could you make sense of the present if you could not mention the past? 

But the American newsman was adamant. He knew his audience. His viewers did not like dates. Or any of what he called “old stuff.” What they wanted was telegenic youngsters waving flags and uttering platitudes about freedom, against a drumbeat of threats and menace from the bad guys. Television news is closer to comic-books than textbooks

My colleague did not, I suspect, read the book that Francis Fukuyama published the following year. But he would have liked the title. The end of history was in the air. The events of 1989, 1990, and 1991 were — seen from the outside — an uprising against the grim geopolitical certainties of the past in favor of a fun and flexible future.

For the Lithuanians, like the other captive nations of eastern Europe, it was exactly the other way around. The way to that bright future led through the ventilation of the long-stifled past. The beauty of Vilnius, the bravery of the demonstrators, the drama of the besieged parliament, and the looming tragedies and then triumphs were plot twists and stage scenery. The real story was that history was in the making, and the unmaking, after five decades, of lies enforced by mass murder. 

Historical truth had survived, but only because it had been preserved in secret, passed on at great risk with dangerous stories told across the generations, with short-wave radio broadcasts and smuggled books. Finally, Lithuanians were able to tell their story to the world. The Grand Duchy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the interwar republic, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the catastrophe of 1940, the deportations, the war in the woods, and so much more 

And the world said, “no dates.” 

We appear to have won that battle. History is at the heart of the argument about security and freedom in modern Europe. What really happened in 1991? Was it the end of the Kremlin’s empire, or just the political and economic system that sustained it? What, if anything, did the West promise to Gorbachev about NATO? Are Ukrainians Nazis? Are Russians behaving like Nazis? 

Yet it is not quite true to say history is back. To be more accurate, history never went away, for those paying attention. Many in the neighborhood shivered when the Kremlin adviser Sergei Karaganov proclaimed his eponymous doctrine in 1993. This created a new political category of “Russian speakers” deserving of Kremlin protection. A year later, the then Estonian president Lennart Meri issued a withering condemnation of Russia’s amnesia towards the crimes of the Soviet past, in a speech in Hamburg on February 25th, 1994. 

Why does the new, post-communist Russia, which claims to have broken with the evil traditions of the USSR, stubbornly refuse to admit that the Baltic nations — Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians — were occupied and annexed against their will and contrary to international law, in 1940, and once again in 1944, and subsequently brought to the limit of their national existence through five decades of sovietization and russification? 

Meri went on to highlight that a deputy foreign minister, Sergei Krylov, had just stated publicly that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had joined the Soviet Union “voluntarily.” This, he said, “is little short of the statement that tens of thousands of Estonians, including my family and myself, had “voluntarily” let themselves be deported to Siberia by the Soviets.” 

It is worth noting that this mild admonition provoked the head of the Russian delegation to lead his colleagues in a walkout, slamming the door demonstratively behind him, before they had a chance to eat dinner. That official, at the time the head of the St Petersburg committee for foreign economic relations, was to become better known in later years. His name was Vladimir Putin. 

As president of the Russian Federation, he gave a revealingly thin-skinned response to a simple question from the Estonian journalist Astrid Kannel in 2005, about Russia’s failure to apologize for the occupation of the Baltic states under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In 1918, an increasingly angry Putin explained, “Russia and Germany did a deal under which Russia handed over territories to German control. This marked the beginning of Estonian statehood. In 1939, Russia and Germany did another deal, and Germany handed these territories back to Russia [and] they were absorbed into the Soviet Union. Let us not talk now about whether this was good or bad. This is part of history. This was a deal, and small countries were the bargaining chips in this deal. Regrettably, this was the reality of those times . . .”

The “reality of those times” is not the reality of these times. The Putin who said “let us not talk now” about historical wrongs is also the man who wrote a 5,000-word essay justifying his war in Ukraine on historical grounds: one of these stretches back centuries, drawing the roots of common statehood back to Kyivan Rus and beyond, including to the supposedly sacred Crimea, which he likened to Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The verdict of history, in this view, is that Ukraine is a fictitious entity, a Western creation, a puppet state of no legitimacy. 

The other historical argument is more recent, centering on east-west relations in the past three decades. Russia, from this standpoint, has been systematically encircled by NATO, which has proved itself to be both aggressive and untrustworthy. 

More broadly, a politicized interpretation of the past is the battering ram of Putinist ideology, particularly fetishizing the Soviet victory in 1945, 

But two can play at this game. History is also central in the opposition to Putin’s war. The idea that Putin’s ethnonationalist policies echo those of Adolf Hitler towards the Volksdeutsche of the Sudetenland 80 years ago used to be shocking. Now it is commonplace. In 2008, the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism put Nazi and Soviet crimes against humanity into the same category of 20th-century disasters that had blighted the European continent, though it also said that each system of terror should be judged separately. This breached several taboos: some thought it undermined the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Others thought it was an attempt to smear left-wing politics as essentially totalitarian. And those who venerated Soviet sacrifice against the Third Reich found it, to use a favorite Russian word, “blasphemous”

Yet this discourse has not just survived but thrived. Every year since then has seen new signatories, initiatives, declarations, and commemorations. Countries that had for decades regarded the Soviet Union as a wartime ally began to recognize the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols, and to see that the death toll under Communism rivaled or exceeded that of Nazi butchery. 

But they were not willing to draw the most important lesson. That Russian blindness to the crimes of the past spelled war in the future. Perhaps the most interesting question for future historians is why, given all these efforts, and warnings about Russian imperialism dating back to the early 1990s, Putin’s history-led war in Ukraine was not foreseen and forestalled.

Get the Latest
Sign up to receive regular emails and stay informed about CEPA’s work.

One answer is epistemic privilege. The agenda-setters in the West were more powerful than the Cassandras in the east. The efforts of Meri, and his counterparts Václav Havel (Czech Republic) and Vytautas Landsbergis (Lithuania) and others were enough to get Western countries to rethink the past, but not to rethink its relevance to the present. 

But this privilege alone was not the problem. It was the mindset behind it that did the damage. This was afflicted by seven sins. Ignorance, arrogance, naïveté, complacency, stubbornness, cowardice, and greed. 

It starts with ignorance. One of the effects of the Iron Curtain was that elites in Western Europe and North America typically had only the haziest idea of the languages, history, and culture of the captive nations. What they did know was Russia: an undoubted cultural superpower. When you have read War and Peace, listened to Tchaikovsky, and gazed at Kandinsky, you have little time left over for Estonia’s great writer AH Tammsaare or the Lithuanian composer and artist MK Čiurlonis. The countries of Eastern Europe were backward, muddy, cold, and even comical. Their languages were incomprehensible and unpronounceable. The epitome of this attitude is the Borat films, with their mockery of Kazakhstan’s language, culture, history, and statehood.

Ignorance begets arrogance. Westerners believed that it was their version of democracy and capitalism that had won the Cold War. Easterners should be grateful, both for their liberation and for the chance to join Western clubs. And they should be quiet. Nobody is interested in your neuroses. Raking over historical wrongs only stirs up resentment. Complaining about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is as pointless as demanding compensation and apologies for the Spanish Inquisition or the Counter-Reformation.

Arrogance begets naïveté. When you do not understand what is going on, and do not want to understand it, you risk being cheated. The epitome of the naïve approach to Russia was the Obama-era reset of 2009. Let’s treat interim president Dmitri Medvedev as if he is a serious reformer. What can go wrong? A lot, as it turned out. 

Naïveté begets complacency. The assassination of Anna Politkovskaya? An internal Russian matter. The poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko? A rogue intelligence operation. Dozens of other murders in Western capitals? No reason to panic. The cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007? A one-off. The war in Georgia in 2008? Saakashvili started it. 

The more the warning lights flashed, the more stubbornly Western decision-makers insisted that their big picture was still correct. Russia was a nuisance, not a menace. It was still possible to make money there. We need the Russians on nukes and climate change. Don’t push them too hard. Behind the stubbornness lurked an intellectual and moral cowardice. Accepting that the Western line on Russia had been dramatically wrong for decades would mean taking responsibility for errors. It would require costly changes in policy, on defense spending, and on energy security. It might even mean apologizing. 

Underlying all these sins was greed. It is hard to persuade someone of something when his livelihood depends on not understanding it. Most of the people dealing with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union had a personal financial stake in things going well. Being hawkish or gloomy was a career killer. The pipers followed those who were paying for the tunes. As the Moscow correspondent for the Economist in the late Yeltsin and early Putin years, I recall all too well how the Western bankers, lawyers, accountants and diplomats would berate me for my cynicism and scaremongering. I wonder where they are now. 

Perhaps the most striking example of this is Germany, which has elevated greed, sanctimony, sentimentality, and dithering to an art form. Older members of this audience may remember the mystifying infatuation of “Gorbymania” in the late 1980s. What followed was worse. Germany shunned the new eastern democracies in favor of lucrative bilateral deals with Moscow, notably the two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines across the Baltic Sea. German decision-makers repeatedly ignored warnings from me and others about the dangers of Russian hybrid warfare tactics — the cocktail of disinformation, economic coercion, subversion, espionage, and threats of force that Russia uses against its neighbors. Russian spies, crooks, and thugs to run wild, stealing secrets, assassinating critics, and building bastions of influence in Germany. 

Germany’s approach represents the overlap of historical, geographical, and geopolitical blind spots. These are linked. Allergic to nationalism because of its abuse by Hitler’s Nazi regime, Germans flinched at the role that patriotic sentiment played in overthrow of communism. East Europeans were “nationalist,” Germans muttered disapprovingly (though Russian nationalism, a far greater and more toxic force, was conveniently ignored.) Credit for ending the Cold War, Germans told themselves, was really due to their own Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) of the 1970s and 1980s, which focused on rapprochement and confidence-building with the Soviet bloc. Moreover, the Soviet Union had given the nod to German unification and pulled its military out of the former East Germany: Gratitude, not skepticism, was the appropriate response. 

In the modern world, German policy wonks piously intoned, problems should be solved by dialogue, not arcane confrontation. The way to avoid conflict was to boost trade and investment. Russia would never attack its customers. We see now how that worked out. 

Germans wallow in guilt about their country’s Nazi-era crimes, but are barely aware that Soviet Ukraine suffered immeasurably more than Soviet Russia during World War II. And even as they claim to have learned the right lessons from their history, Germans maintain a self-satisfied ignorance about how those lessons might apply to other crimes and dangers. Germans remain so stuck in the uniqueness of their own history that they refuse to apply the lessons they say they have learned.

Sins are grave, but virtues deserve scrutiny too. Chief among them is righteousness, which can easily turn into a self-defeating and self-satisfied self-righteousness. We suffered. We were vindicated. Don’t question us now. That, of course, is all too visible in the Putin system, with its fetishization of the Soviet defeat of Nazism. But we see it in other countries too. Selectivity about the errors, wounds, and misdeeds of the past is still all too often a hallmark of national discourse in the ex-captive nations. I recall vividly the attitudes to the interwar leaders of the Baltic states, Konstantin Päts (Estonia), Kārlis Ulmanis (Latvia), and Antanas Smetona (Lithuania), in the early 1990s. These men are our heroes and martyrs, my local friends insisted. We heard plenty about their mistakes, real or imagined, under Soviet occupation. Let us not waste any time on criticizing them now. 

The righteousness narrative is particularly seductive when it involves analogy. The point of using these thought experiments is to drive home that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. To illustrate this, I will use two that are common in our discussions about east-west relations. The first is one that I myself have used on many past occasions, particularly in the years when I was trying to alert a complacent world to the danger we faced from the Kremlin. It goes like this. 

Imagine that the Third Reich had not perished on the battlefield in 1945, but had instead survived for decades. Imagine that Hitler had died in the early 1950s like Stalin, but then given way to a Khrushchev-like figure and a “thaw” in which the Holocaust was admitted. Then imagine that the thaw gave way to a long period of stagnation under a German version of Brezhnev, only for the Third Reich finally to disintegrate in the late 1980s, as a “reform Nazi” (call him Michael Gorbach for the sake of argument) tries to reform the unreformable with a mixture of “Öffenheit” and “Umbau” (which the Russians would call “Glasnost” and “Perestroika”.)

Then imagine that the Third Reich collapses in 1991 and the once-captive nations of Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria return to the map of the world from which they were obliterated in 1938-40. A shrunken state joins them — the German Federation — still with a Nazi party, but professing to be democratic and friendly to its neighbors. That staggers on for nearly a decade, until a former SS colonel (call him Waldemar Puschnik for the sake of argument) becomes first prime minister and then president.

The outside world might feel rather uneasy about this, particularly if he moved swiftly to limit media freedom and control the political system. But we might feel that what the people of the German Federation really wanted was stability, that it was not our business to interfere. We might argue that the SS in the 1970s and 80s, when Col Puschnik joined and served in it, was not the same as the SS in the 1930s and 40s. We might even argue that Col Puschnik was a member of the elite foreign espionage division of the SS, and was therefore not involved in its domestic misdeeds. That would be pretty much how the West reacted to former KGB Lt-Col Vladimir Putin becoming president of Russia.

But then imagine that our Oberst Puschnik says that the Anschluss and the Munich agreement were “legal” (Just as Mr Putin does about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact). That the Poles. Dutch and the Danes should be grateful to the German people for their independence, and should keep German as a second official language and allow automatic citizenship to all settlers who moved there during the occupation era. 

And then imagine that in a German government newspaper we were to read that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. That would be truly alarming, and even nauseating. (That is how the Poles feel when they read, in five mainstream Russian news outlets in 2008, that the Katyn massacre was the work of the Nazis and not of the NKVD). Imagine that Oberst Puschnik writes a lengthy essay on the historical unity of Germany and Austria, decrying Austrian statehood as a Western invention. 

This hits all the buttons. Putin is like Hitler. Russia is like Nazi Germany. We are like Czechoslovakia, or possibly the Jews. We are righteous, they are wicked. Surely this a story to awaken the world to our plight? 

A second analogy, perhaps more controversially for this audience, comes from those who believe that Russia has received a raw deal at the hands of the West. It goes like this:

Imagine that the Cold War had ended not with the triumph of the West but its collapse. Imagine that it was the capitalist, not the communist system which had proved impossibly inefficient, and that it was NATO that dissolved in a shambles, not the Warsaw Pact, and that it was America that broke up, not the Soviet Union. Imagine that a new government comes to power in Washington, determined to import the best features of the socialist system and to learn from the mistakes of the past. Imagine too that the overwhelming majority of Americans regard the Soviet Union as a friendly country. 

Then imagine that instead of consolidating this huge shift in its favor, the Kremlin maintains the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance, and — despite explicit promises to the contrary — brings first Mexico and Canada in as members, and then the states of New England. It also bombs Nicaragua to dislodge a regime there that it doesn’t like. Now it is considering bringing Texas and Florida in too. The result, predictably enough, is to squander the goodwill of the American people and to encourage the administration in Washington to reconsider the goodwill policies of the 1990s and take a much more hawkish line towards Moscow.

That is pretty much what the West has done to Russia. At the end of the Cold War we had a historic chance to make friends. Instead we expanded our sphere of influence, and maintained NATO in existence — using it to bomb Russia’s ally Serbia. Then we expanded NATO to include first the countries of central Europe, and then the former Soviet Baltic republics. We even attempted to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. What folly, what hypocrisy! Can we be surprised at what has followed? 

Each of these historical analogies has strengths and weaknesses. But for a start, it is not true, as George Santayana stated, that those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Huge chunks of history are indeed forgotten, and have absolutely no bearing on the present. Traumatic events such as Hundred Years War, or the Wars of the Roses, or the War of the Spanish Succession, are unknown to the general public and rightly so. The idea that a jealous God of History punishes inattentive pupils through exercises in repetition sounds like a variation of the plot of Groundhog Day; it does not have any bearing on real life.

Moreover, remembering history does not mean that the lessons that can be drawn from it are unambiguous or pleasant. Hitler remembered the massacre of the Armenians, and concluded that genocide is soon forgotten. A Chinese reader of the Economist wrote to me once saying that his country’s mistake in Tibet was to be too soft: had we treated them the way the British treated the Tasmanians, he wrote, we would have long since solved the problem.

Secondly historical analogies may entrance our own side, but also risk alienating the people they are trying to convince. For all its faults, Putin’s Russia is not the Third Reich, any more than the Soviet Union was. The Third Reich was inseparable from the personality of Adolf Hitler. Soviet apologists were able to denounce Stalin while venerating Lenin. A selective reading of Marx and Engels provided an ideological infrastructure that predated both of them. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine a Nazi Khrushchev managing to denounce the Holocaust while praising the principles of National Socialism. Though he described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “geo-political catastrophe of the century”, Putin is not a neo-Communist.

Overstating the case risks weakening it. Post-communist frozen conflicts — in Transnistria, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in the Donbas — are much more complicated than the future of the Sudetenland. If we are to use historical analogies, it is better to make them ingenious and thought-provoking than hackneyed and simplistic. 

A third point is moral context. The states of New England, which play the role of the Baltic states in my pro-Putin analogy above, were not forcibly incorporated into the United States at gunpoint, nor were their elites deported in cattle trucks to Alaska. Nor did the American government in the 1930s provoke an artificial famine in Texas that cost millions of lives. A more accurate analogy might be to imagine that Hawaiians had fled in their thousands to freedom and safety in Russia to escape American imperialism, and that the archipelago state seized its chance to restore independence after America’s collapse. The stance of such a putative independent Hawaii towards the victorious Warsaw Pact might well be highly favorable.

Self-righteousness may fuel patriotic sentiment, but it blunts the edge of our arguments. The great temptation in this kind of political argument is to cherry-pick the precise intersection of history and geography that makes your favorite people look good, and your least favorite people monstrous, silly, or both. This is what Germans might call Doppelgedächtnis: my history is my business, but your history is my political football. 

A useful principle is to start from the view that it is unlikely that any country or people are solely victims and never perpetrators. Poles, for example, are Olympic champions in recalling their own suffering, particularly because those recollections had to do constant battle with the communist lie machine. But it has sometimes been difficult for Poles to appreciate that their eastern neighbors, such as Ukrainians and Lithuanians, do not view history in quite the same way.

Estonians and Latvians readily recall their own traumatic suffering under Russian and German rule; the story of the violent and sometimes murderous expropriation of Baltic German landowners in the early 1920s attracts little attention. Life in interwar central Europe and the Baltic states may have been a paradise compared to what came afterward, but it was better for some than for others: Jews, Communists, and trade unionists, in particular, may remember that era less fondly than those with roots in other parts of the political or social spectrum. Righting one set of wrongs usually involves creating new ones, especially when it is done in a hurry: the continuing arguments in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic about the Beneš decrees illustrate the point. 

Playing a game of historical “tit for tat” is pointless. History does not provide convenient starting points, like the start of a football game, where the score is nil-nil, and it is possible to see who scored first and who committed the most fouls. It would of course be equally mistaken to adopt a position of total moral equivalence, where everybody is equally guilty for everything and all crimes cancel out. This readily descends into “whataboutism,” a rhetorical practice that was at the center of Soviet dialectics. Asked about one thing, you respond with a question about another. It was epitomized by the Soviet-era Russian phrase “А у вас негров линчуют” (but in your system they lynch negroes.) The tactic is alive and well in the modern Russian verbal arsenal: raise the subject of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and a Russian propagandist will immediately point out that other countries also had their non-aggression pacts with Nazi Germany. Why single out the Soviet Union, and forget to criticize Poland, Britain or for that matter Estonia?

Although the fashion for making public collective apologies for past ills is open to criticism for being merely empty rhetoric, it seems to me that it is still better than not showing contrition at all. The fashion in most of Europe for denigrating every aspect of the Age of Empire, and ascribing every modern African ill to the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation may be overdone. But it is certainly better than simply asserting, as many Russians do, that the effect of imperial rule on their dominions was “civilizing.” The approach taken by New Zealand and, lately, Australia towards their aboriginal populations would be utterly unimaginable in the context of their analogs in Russian republics such as Mari-El, Chukotka, or Khantsy Mansiisk. 

From a British or even Anglo-American point of view this means in particular taking a bleak view of the sentimental and self-righteous approach in which World War II is remembered. It is sometimes easy to believe that the transatlantic historical consciousness sits happily on the political contours of films such as Casablanca and the Sound of Music. I wish they would read revisionist historians such as Norman Davies instead.

The comforting portrayal of the war as a well-timed one-dimensional struggle between good and evil, featuring neatly framed episodes such as the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and D-Day, is both toxic and misleading. Uncomfortable questions are skated over. Why did we declare war on Finland? What was the Communist penetration of the SOE and MI6, and what effect did that have on our non-communist allies in the Balkans and elsewhere? How honorable was our treatment of Poland in 1939, and at the end of the war? Why did we repatriate the Cossacks and the Četniks? In their righteous and justified condemnation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, do Britons also remember the disastrous Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935, under which the Royal Navy withdrew from the Baltic, consigning the region to the binary choice between the hammer and the anvil? 

I am not arguing that my country was wholly wrong in the decisions it made, or even that attractive alternatives existed that were not taken. But without a thorough and knowledgeable exploration of the darker corners of the West’s wartime history, any attempt to challenge the current interpretations of the 20th century in countries such as Russia risks looking hypocritical and one-sided. 

Given the urgent need to challenge Russia on exactly that, and the consequences if we fail, it is imperative to make the case with maximum clarity and the maximum moral authority. As with so many other features of what I described back in 2007 in my book as the New Cold War, the biggest and hardest tasks are at home. 

Edward Lucas is a Non-resident Senior Fellow and Senior Adviser at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. He has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region. A graduate of the London School of Economics, he was posted as a foreign correspondent to Prague, Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, the Baltic states, and Washington.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Read More From Europe's Edge
CEPA's online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
Read More