On Wednesday the 22nd of June, seven decades will have elapsed since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. In the build up to the anniversary in Germany, the Berlin Philharmonic will perform Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” while publications such as Der Spiegel have redigested the repercussions of the invasion of the Soviet Union. In Russia, the event will likely be commemorated on a solemn official note, as is customary of the occasion, and the main television channels broadcast films reliving the terror and anguish of the early Blitzkrieg advances of Hitler’s forces.
The titanic struggle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1945, has become deeply ingrained in the national conscience of the successors to the two, particularly in the case of the former. The significance of the “Great Patriotic War” to Russia, a country which many believe lost as many as 30 million of its own from the fighting, and where few families were spared from personal tragedy, is impossible to succinctly describe. In Germany, a sense of guilt for the atrocities on the Eastern Front, and their lasting effects upon the later developments of the war, has overwhelmingly prevailed over the decades. My family history is one that has been deeply intertwined with the history of those years, and as a form of personal commemoration days before the anniversary, I visited the German-Russian Museum in Karlshorst. Best known as the site of the unconditional surrender of the German armed forces on the 8th May 1945, the venue has for the past 16 years hosted a permanent exhibition on the relations between Russia and Germany from the First World War to reunification in 1990.
The place itself was a pleasant novelty to myself, for so long accustomed to a historical and commemorative discourse in Russia squared against the “fascists,” providing in large part a meticulous and balanced account of the two nations’ recently shared history, acknowledging even wartime and post-war faults of the Soviet Union. What is truly unique of the German-Russian museum, however, is that it is the work of intergovernmental collaboration. A history as catastrophic as theirs, with the obvious sensibilities on either side, has been dealt with at this venue by a bi-national institution supported both by the German and Russian governments, a unique precedent. A board of trustees comprised of an equal number of Russian and German institutions, also inclusive of Bielorussian and Ukrainian historians, is dedicated to what is described as the “critical analysis of history and how it is remembered” in a site “where understanding between Germans and Russians can take place.”
Such example of an historical understanding forged by the efforts of two governments, though exceptional as it is, may be of actual lesser significance for wider historiography. In Russia, historians may be no less likely to steer away from the national narrative of triumph over Nazi Germany, and focus perhaps a little more on the misdeeds of the Soviet Union in its Great Patriotic War. As the last living connections with the war fade away, coupled with the evolutionary and occasionally turbulent nature of German historiography in the last decades, it is difficult to predict with precision the historical trends of the coming years in Germany. Nonetheless, the German-Russian Museum in Karlshorst is an important symbol of relations between the two countries as they stand today. Russia considers Germany to be its most important political and economic European partner, likewise seen by Germany as a country of large trading significance. Germany is the largest exporter to Russia, its industrial expertise highly valued in an economy striving to modernise, and is reliant on imports of Russian natural resources, especially natural gas. Though relations have cooled since the chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder, Angela Merkel more prepared to question Russia’s human rights record and vent her frustrations at the near-annual disruption to gas supplies through Ukraine, the relationship remains the foundation upon which relations between the European Union and Russia have developed for the past decade. Furthermore, the cultural links between the two are profound, evidenced by a booming migration to Germany since the collapse of the USSR which has made Russians the country’s largest ethnic group alongside the Turkish population, and the prevalence of links in East Germany from the days of the GDR. In turn, Russia has a large ethnic German population and is encouraging the learning of German at school level.
The Russo-German axis has for the past three centuries been an important element upon which the the development of European history has hinged. This past century, immersed in the two world wars and Cold War, it resulted in bloodshed and hardship on a simply unimaginable and unaccountable scale. Nearly seventy years from the moment that it last took its last abrupt and catastrophic turn, the axis today lives an existence of shared necessity, helping provide the long-sought stability to Europe that was so lacking in those June days. An effort to writing and publicly projecting a common historical interpretation of those four years of immense suffering, no matter what its real influence is, is an appropriate sign of how far the relations between Russia and Germany have come to this day.