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Russia/Germany: Analysis From Washington -- Three Anniversaries

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Three anniversaries this week highlight the crimes of 20th century totalitarianism, the insatiable human quest for freedom that no power on earth can ever extinguish, and the difficulties many still have in dealing with both of these realities.

By an accident of the calendar, the world this week marks three different but interrelated events. November 7th is the 82nd anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, an event that brought to power Lenin and the Bolsheviks and led to the establishment of the archetypical totalitarian regime of our time.

November 9th is the anniversary of the other two, one of which anticipated the Nazi Holocaust and the second that represented the end of totalitarian pretensions in 20th century Europe. These are the Nazi-sponsored attacks on Jews in 1938 in a nationwide pogrom that has passed into history as the "Kristallnacht" and the fall in 1989 of the infamous Berlin Wall, which for 28 years had symbolized the division of Europe.

Each of these anniversaries and the ways in which they are being commemorated has already drawn a great deal of attention. Yesterday, a few thousand communists gathered in a few cities across what was once the Soviet empire to mark the anniversary of the Bolshevik putsch. Almost no one else even marked an event that during the years of Soviet power attracted hundreds of thousands if not millions of demonstrators around the world.

Moreover, with a symbolism that few of the participants appear to have appreciated, the elderly Russians commemorating this event assembled in Moscow not in Red Square near the Kremlin but in front of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the long-dreaded Soviet secret police. But few commentators used the occasion to reflect on the meaning of the Soviet regime and on the ways in which its consequences can be overcome.

Instead, most Russian coverage simply noted the anniversary and then treated the Soviet period as something so historically distant that it simply isn't relevant to the lives of Russians today, now that the Soviet system has been supposedly safely consigned to the dustbin of history.

The other two anniversaries are being commemorated in a fundamentally different way. Across Europe and indeed across the world, people and governments are organizing to mark the anniversary of "Kristallnacht" not simply as an historical tragedy that led to the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust but even more as an occasion to reaffirm that such crimes must never happen again.

Organizers of meetings, conferences, and demonstrations to mark the anniversary of this crime against humanity are self-consciously including discussions of other crimes against humanity, including some that are going on now. Indeed, if their theme is that the world must never forget what the Nazis did to the Jews, their message is that the world has a responsibility to act now and in the future to prevent all crimes against humanity.

And in a variety of places, governments and peoples are set to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that marked the triumph of the human spirit and presaged the collapse of communist regimes with their totalitarian pretensions across Eastern Europe and beyond.

The German government in particular has announced plans for a variety of celebrations of an event that allowed the two Germanies to again come together as one. Because of its larger implications, other world leaders are scheduled to speak out on this event as well. And in most of their remarks, the message is likely to be that everyone must work to ensure that Europe will remain not only united but free.

What is striking about these three commemorations is that in the post-Soviet states, some still look back with nostalgia to Soviet totalitarianism, while most simply appear to believe that they can safely ignore and thus do not need to struggle against the continuing impact of that system on their lives and the policies of their governments.

But in Western Europe and the United States, those who remember both the horrors of totalitarianism and its inability to destroy the human spirit are pledging themselves not to allow any repetition of this century's crimes against humanity in the future but rather to do everything possible to allow human freedom to spread to ever more people around the world.

And thus the ways in which these anniversaries are being marked inevitably recall the oft-cited words of the American philosopher George Santayana: "Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it."