EDITORIAL: The War of Memory

Is it possible to reconcile the Polish and Jewish memory? Jewish and Lithuanian? Lithuanian and Russian? Russian and Czech? And is there even such a thing as common memory? Yes, we have the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland and its counterparts in neighbouring countries. These institutions, as the name suggests, are engaged not only in historical research, but also, perhaps primarily, in creating a canon of collective memory, consistent with the interests of the state. This interest is defined by politicians (and there is no shortage of historians among them, of course). In other words, memory is a political issue and this is why—contrary to declarations of people professionally involved in its study—it divides rather than unites people, not only of different nationalities, but also—or perhaps above all—of the same nationality. It is obvious to anyone who has tried to speak about politics or history at a Sunday dinner.

Historical policy, practised both by world powers and the smallest countries, still plays an important role in domestic and foreign policy. Russian television recently aired a film about the Prague Spring in 1968, the mendacity of which would put to shame even the propagandists of Brezhnev. On the anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (1410), a historical (sic) Russian website presented it as a victory of Russian troops, aided by Polish and Lithuanian forces. The Poles traditionally diminish the contribution of Lithuanian troops in the common victory over the forces of the Teutonic Knights: in a screening of the battle made half a century ago, the director showed the Lithuanians as a bunch of half-naked savages, jumping from tree to tree. In the same period a film about the Battle of England was produced in this country, and Polish pilots from Squadron 303 (the most effective in the entire RAF) are presented there as a group of insubordinate morons, who do not know a word of English. Tit-for-tat. The list could go on for a long time, we would certainly not run out of examples. Each nation has its own book of complaints.

All the more important is the role of education and research. Historians, sociologists, demographers, and even literary critics and journalists make it their objective to investigate the historical truth and they believe that their mission is to pronounce this truth, even when it is not consistent with the dominant interpretation, collective stereotype, or simply with the views of the majority. Freedom of intellectual debate is not only a privilege, but also a precondition of the survival of democratic societies. Therefore we can never have too many places where dialogue across boundaries is possible.

“Aspen Review” is such a place—in our magazine intellectuals and scholars from various parts of Europe and the world, with differing views and backgrounds, share their reflections and sentiments on the most important questions with their readers, for the benefit of us all. Of course, controversies are unavoidable when you write about foreign policy, economy, or cultural mores. But the most dangerous minefield is memory, because it constitutes the foundation of our identities.

In this issue of our magazine two of our particularly esteemed and accomplished contributors argue (pp. 116–119) about the past of an important figure from the Lithuanian national pantheon. The only evidence in this dispute is—in the absence of other material— the memory of witnesses. And it is a memory which divides. Frankly speaking, what we have here are two completely different and incompatible memories. I have the greatest respect and trust for both Laima Vince and Peter Jukes. Laima Vince has published a number of essays devoted to the difficult 20th century history of Lithuania in Aspen Review. Peter Jukes has reviewed for us books by Madeleine Albright (Prague Winter) and Artur Domosławski (Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life). I hope that the controversy will help to deepen our understanding of the issues related to World War II, the Holocaust, the Nazi and Soviet occupation of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the attitudes of the wartime residents of the “bloodlands,” as well as the memory and remembrance of the tragic past in this part of Europe.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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