Ukraine Rethinks Complex World War II Past

Nataliya Gumenyuk (head of Hromadske.TV and Visiting Fellow 2015/2016 of the Berlin-Brandenburg Ukraine Initiative at the Forum Transregionale Studien) spoke to Andrii Portnov (Ukrainian historian and initiator of the Berlin-Brandenburg Ukraine Initiative) and Jan Claas Behrends (German historian at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam) in May 2016.

On May 8th, 1945 Nazi Germany surrendered its armed forces, officially marking the end of WWII. The date would later be known as Victory Day in Europe. However, seeing as how the surrender came into effect late in the night, in Moscow it was already the next day, May 9th. To this day, Russia and many former Soviet republics celebrate Victory Day a day later.

For the second year now, Ukraine will hold two different commemorations of the end of the WWII. In 2015, the Ukrainian Government adopted the May 8th holiday, also known as a day of remembrance and reconciliation; celebrated in many European countries. The did not, however, eliminate the celebrations of May 9th, a holiday also known as Victory Day in countries in the former Soviet Union.

According to Andrii Portnov, Ukrainian historian of the“ Berlin Brandenburg Ukrainian Initiative, “The very existence of those two dates shows that at least the Ukrainian Government understands that Ukrainian society is a society in transition, is a society with a variety of social experiences… There are a lot of people, millions of people who do need the 9th of May to be celebrated on the state level… So now you have both holidays.”

When referring to the well-known WWII picture of a Soviet flag flying from Berlin’s Reichstag (Parliament), German historian, Jan Claas Behrends, speaks about the mysteries of official Soviet memory culture “It’s funny that people in the Soviet Union perceive it as a symbol of Nazism, which really it isn’t. Not at all…When it was conquered by the Soviets soldiers it was actually a very meaningless building. Hitler didn’t want a parliament.”

Portnov believes that Ukrainian memories from WWII are quite complex as they include a variety of topics, from the Holocaust, to the deportation of Crimean Tatars, to the Ukrainian collaboration with Nazis: “In case of Ukraine, all those stories could not be just reduced to one single narrative. And that’s actually what we see on political, social, cultural level in Ukraine,” he says.
In Germany, however, the narrative is closely related to the European narrative.
“The whole Soviet story doesn’t really fit in,” says Behrends on Russia’s construction of positive past narratives. “You invent something to make it sound, to make it look a part of a glorious national past,” he adds.

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Citation: Nataliya Gumenyuk, Ukraine Rethinks Complex World War II Past. Interview with Andrii Portnov and Jan Claas Behrends, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.5.2016, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/4229.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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