Seventy years ago next week—at 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, to be precise—the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein began to shell the Polish military base at Westerplatte. For the Germans, for the Poles, and for the British and French, who immediately declared war on Germany, this was the beginning of World War II. The Soviet Union, having signed a secret agreement with Nazi Germany, did not declare war but was itself preparing to invade Poland and the Baltic States. Which it did, two and a half weeks later, on Sept. 17.
None of these basic facts is in dispute. Nor can they be rightly described as "current events": Two generations have passed, yet those signature events nevertheless continue to be remembered, contested, and commemorated in every anniversary year ending with five or zero. I remember joking with a friend on May 8, 1995, the 50th anniversary of the Nazi capitulation, that now, finally, we had reached the end of the anniversaries. But we had not. Next week, on Sept. 1, 2009, the prime ministers of Russia, Poland, and France; the foreign minister of Britain; the chancellor of Germany; and more than a dozen other European leaders will meet at Westerplatte to launch the cycle of 70th anniversaries—barely on the heels of the 65th. Why?
The answer cannot lie in the personal experiences of any of the statesmen involved, since none was alive at the time. It lies, rather, in the way that memories of the war have come to be central to the national memory, and therefore to the contemporary politics, of so many of the countries that fought in it.
Everything about modern Germany, for instance, is the way it is because of the war, from its pacifism and its devotion to the European Union to the architecture of its capital city. War guilt is built into the political system and becomes controversial only when it seems some Germans want to abandon it: The new wave of interest in the fate of Germans who fled or were expelled from Central Europe after the war, or the popularity of books about Allied bombings of German cities, worries many in the region. Hence Angela Merkel's presence at Westerplatte. (She was the first to confirm she would attend.) No German chancellor wants any of Germany's neighbors to doubt that Germany is still very sorry about 1939 (even if some are rather indifferent). And none wants Germany's neighbors to fear German aggression today.
For the Poles, this 70th anniversary has a different significance: It's the first time this particular event has been commemorated by a Polish government that is firmly a member of both the European Union and NATO. The British and the French will be there for the same reason—Central Europe in general and Poland in particular now have a large number of votes in European institutions and generally have to be taken more seriously than they used to be. Top-level U.S. politicians will presumably be absent because they, by contrast, have no special reason to take Central Europeans seriously. Generally speaking, the former Allies prefer to remember the bits of the war—D-Day, for example—that contribute to their memory of the 1945 Triumph of Democracy, preferring to forget that the war's initial raison d'être, the independence of Poland and the freedom of Central Europe, was not really achieved until 1989.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will attend for slightly different reasons, or so it would seem. Last weekend, Russian state television ran a long documentary essentially arguing that Stalin was justified in ordering the 1939 invasion of Poland and the Baltic states—and in doing a secret deal with Hitler—on the grounds that Poland itself was in a secret alliance with the Nazis. Putin himself probably will not defend this startling and ahistorical thesis, although—judging from an article he has written for the Polish media—he may well try to "contextualize" the Hitler-Stalin pact by comparing it with other diplomatic decisions. Lately, other Russians have lately expressed similarly positive views of 1939 in a well-coordinated attempt to justify the Hitler-Stalin pact. (If they have any views: The majority of Russians, a recent poll shows, do not know that the USSR invaded Poland in 1939.)
But from the point of view of the Russian ruling elite, such interpretations make sense: By praising Stalin's aggression toward the USSR's neighbors 70 years ago, the current leaders help justify Russia's aggression toward its neighbors today, at least in the eyes of the Russian public. Certainly, they serve to make Russia's Central European neighbors anxious—precisely the opposite effect of that which Merkel hopes to achieve. Thus can the same event have multiple meanings, thus do the Germans and the Russians express their radically different feelings about their places in Europe—and thus do the anniversary celebrations carry on, every five years, without fail.