The war started 78 years ago today, in the darkness of a late summer morning on the Baltic coast, as German navy vessel “Schleswig-Holstein”, supposedly on a friendly visit, fired its guns at the Polish army positions along the aptly named Hel peninsula, north of Danzig. The German ship was likewise aptly named, after the two predominantly Danish duchies incorporated into the German empire during its first war of aggression in 1861.
It’s rather poignant remembering the anniversary of the Second World War from Europe. After all, it could more accurately be named the Second European Civil War, fought largely by European powers for the domination of the continent, and by extension of the rest of the world.
I’m writing these words on a (day) train from The Hague to Brussels. The train is rolling at a speed through the westernmost parts of the Northern European Plain, which stretches from the Atlantic coast of France to the foothills of the great Urals. For centuries, if not millennia, this has been Europe’s premier highway for the armies to roll from east to west and back again over the gentle, flat terrain interrupted only by the northward-flowing rivers – ideal for moving infantry and cavalry, and later armour, in long marches, broad thrusts, and wide flanking manoeuvres.
In May 1940, German panzers rolled virtually unopposed through the flatlands of the Netherlands and Belgium to strike into the northern France. A few months earlier, in September 1939, the same German units crossed the likewise flat borders of Poland from the Reich and the East Prussia. A year later still, they would roll in a tsunami of iron all the way to the gates of Moscow.
This is the corridor of horror along which most of Europe’s war have been fought through centuries of petty princely quarrels and grand imperial ambitions. In the Great War, it was bracketed by the largely static Western Front and more mobile Eastern one that devastated what subsequently again became Poland. In the Second it was the main avenue of carnage, from Normandy to the heart of Russia. All the ghost cities of 1945 – Rotterdam, Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin, Warsaw, Kiev, Stalingrad – were strewn along its entire length, ruins like never-ending rows of broken teeth.
Europe is a vast graveyard. It is history piled on top of each other in layers like sedimentary rocks. But it is also history that stands shoulder to shoulder – Roman temple converted into a Christian church, next door to a Medieval house with an Apple store at the front. In Europe, the past is always present, and the present always lives in the shadow of the past. The weight of history presses so heavily on the living that for centuries millions of them have sought to escape its ever presence and influence by moving across the oceans in search of a new life.
The Western Europe won’t pause today to remember that 1st of September 78 years ago. After all, for them the war started all on different dates; not as an abstraction of history books but only it got personal – with German panzers smashing through the border posts or German bombs falling onto their cities. For them, too, the war ended, at various moments in time over a year between the Normandy landing and the Nazi capitulation. Over the next several decades, Germans never really scared anyone anymore, except perhaps the Greek mendicants of the 2010s.
Not so elsewhere, or at least not so clear cut and so obviously.
Whenever I talk to people, of whatever nationality, who have over the recent years and decades visited Poland or other countries of the Central and the Eastern Europe, almost invariably there will come an observation, usually after the obligatory acknowledgment of the historical and natural beauty as well as the competitive pricing, of a tinge of sadness still hanging in the air and detectable even by foreign visitors. Often it is quite an intangible and ill-defined feeling, a vague unease rather than a shiver down the spine. One does not have to visit the Auschwitz museum or any of the many monuments to the fallen to feel it; it just is, a disconcerting stranger you glimpse out of the corner of your eye at any odd moment.
I think this sadness, this melancholy of the national spirit, of the bricks and the landscapes, of conversations and of silences, is a legacy of the war that have not ended when and how it should have had. Over one half of the continent, the genocidal Nazi tyranny has been replaced, sometimes afresh, sometimes after a brief hiatus, by another tyranny, far less deadly to be sure, but a tyranny nevertheless; one that cut the eastern half of Europe from the western half, isolated and imprisoned its many peoples, and for decades retarded their development and degraded their souls. In 1945 the Nazis lost, the Allies won, but the Eastern Europeans merely survived, only just and a feat in itself not to be scorned, but a fate not to be envied by anyone but the dead.
In some ways then, for countries like Poland, the Second World War, or at least its pernicious legacy, only ended in 1989 and 1990, some forty-five years later than it did for the Belgians and the Dutch. After May 1945, the Westerners could get on with living; the Easterners could only go on with existing. It was only with the advent of democracy and market reforms, as well as the subsequent political and military reunification of the two halves of Europe through the European Union and the NATO, that the last scars of the twentieth century have begun to heal. Hence the ghost of sadness, still haunting the east, from Berlin to Moscow and from Tallinn to Tirana and Tbilisi. Because the history is fresher, the memories rawer, and the scars redder. Blissful forgetting takes time. Even more so when the power that held them all in thrall through the post-war decades is still there, contracted back into its heartland but still present and still vaguely sinister. Germany is repentant and peaceful; Russia is angry and restive. Its post-imperial and post-communist authoritarian ambitions continue to cast a shadow of the Eastern Europe.
This is something to bear in mind as we pause today – for those of us who do indeed pause today – to remember the official start of the war. According to some historians it was not really the start, merely a continuation, after an uneasy and often violent twenty-year truce, of the great European war that commenced in 1914. For others, what might or might not have started in 1939 might not have necessarily ended in 1945 either. We only hope, though we can’t know, that in ended in 1989. History is a river, not a well-marked hiking trail.
Few of the fighters are still alive; fewer and fewer each year, until soon, like the veterans of the Great War, there will be none. A few more can still remember the horror and the privation from their childhood years, but they are in the winter of their lives now. The living memory is disappearing quietly and unnoticed. The sadness lingers longer. Let’s hope that one day not too far it too is no more, and that no fresh sorrow ever flows to replenish the deep deep wells of European suffering. On this day – as on any other – pray, and work, for peace.