(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When the U.K.’s Leave.EU campaign posted a meme on Tuesday calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel a “Kraut” who shouldn’t be allowed to “push around” the winners of two world wars, I couldn’t help but think of the lasting trauma winning World War II has inflicted on some nations. Britain and my native Russia are prime examples.
Leave.EU and its founder, the Brexit campaign funder Arron Banks, apologized and took down the tweet after it was condemned as racist, including by cabinet minister Michael Gove, a leading Brexiter. But the use of the word “Kraut” wasn’t the only problem with it; the invocation of the war victories was equally egregious.
In 2002, an anti-euro campaign in the U.K. ran a commercial featuring comedian Rik Mayall as Hitler agitating for “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Euro” (“One people, one empire, one euro”). It was roundly criticized as tasteless, but it found a defender in a Conservative backbencher named Boris Johnson. He wrote a column in the Daily Telegraph insisting the ad was “harmless” and “light-hearted” — and he claimed Hitler had “everything to do with the euro” because he wanted the occupied countries of Europe to function as an economic union.
There’s not much ideological distance between that column and declaring that the U.K. won’t be “pushed around by a Kraut.” There’s a direct line from it to Conservative legislator Mark Francois’s recent promise not to “submit to bullying by any German” because his father, a World War II veteran, never did, and to former Brexit Secretary David Davis’s assertion that the British civil service “can easily cope with” Brexit because it coped with World War II. Attempts by Johnson’s allies to blame Merkel for the likely collapse of the Brexit deal talks are part of the same cultural framework.
As a Russian, it’s all quite familiar. After Europe’s leaders, led by Merkel, condemned the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and imposed sanctions, a piece of graffiti left by a nameless Russian soldier on Berlin’s Reichstag — “We Could Do It Again” — became a popular sticker in Moscow. A pro-Kremlin commentator described this as a “defensive reaction to the external pressure Russia is facing.”
To boost the patriotic “Crimea consensus,” President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine stepped up its promotion of the cult of the World War II victory. Putin’s opponents have described it as “pobedobesiye”, or victory madness. As the winner of World War II, the thinking goes, Russia saved Europe and the world. Last month, as Europe commemorated the beginning of World War II and the Russian occupation of parts of eastern Europe, the Russian Foreign ministry tweeted:
In Britain and Russia the references to war glories are used to justify disastrous actions by modern leaders, such as Brexit or Crimea. It’s as if linking them to 1945 makes them smart by association.
One could argue that the victory represents the last flash of true historic greatness for both nations. Both have seen their empires disintegrate, both have been stripped of superpower status, both have “lost the peace.” That makes it natural to want to reach back to the uplifting memories of 1945 — and to look with apprehension at Germany’s return as the central force in the European Union. Margaret Thatcher’s British government fought against the country’s reunification to prevent this resurgence; Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom she sought to ally on this, needed German money for the collapsing Soviet economy, and the humiliation of accepting that money wasn’t lost on nationalistic Russians.
Memory is a potent factor in politics. Deep-seated resentments can’t just be waved away. They are impervious to logic and pragmatic considerations.
But even from a purely emotional point of view, there’s an important flaw in the Russian and British appeals to the World War II experience. Neither country won the conflict by itself. They won as part of an alliance. The glory was shared, and, until ideological differences interfered, the allies celebrated and set up the current global system of rules and governance together.
The problem is when you try to claim all the glory for one country and ignore the role of teamwork, of overcoming major differences to fight a common enemy, of accommodating partners and allies and treating them as equals. The victory was not about going it alone.
That, paradoxically, is what Germany has learned well as a loser. Instead of pushing for leadership, it has consistently sought multilateral compromises and joint positions. Modern Germany is capable of going against its economic interests to look out for allies. That’s something Britain’s Brexiter politicians constantly fail to understand about Merkel’s position on the U.K.’s departure, and that’s what Putin underestimated when the Europeans united to sanction Russia.
Winning big wars can, in the long run, hurt countries. Losing them can help. Once the physical wounds of a war are healed, learning the right lessons becomes more important than the historical outcome.
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Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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