The corona pandemic in 2020 upset plans for commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Gabriele Woidelko explains the variety of topics of digital remembrance activities and the chances of digital formats on the basis of the work of the Körber Foundation.
The great state ceremony held in Berlin, the traditional military parade on the Red Square, the symbolic wreath-laying ceremony under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris - many political events which had long been planned in Europe for the beginning of May to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II were either cancelled or could only take place in a considerably altered form. The coronavirus has not only shaken up everyday life, politics, and the economy at global level, it has also scuppered all plans envisaged for the important commemorative year 2020, which is now nearing its end.
Indeed, there has been great and justified disappointment expressed at all the events that had to be cancelled, at all the lost opportunities to hear from the last contemporary witnesses and to address all the necessary societal issues which only seemingly were not debated. Nevertheless, a closer look back at this year reveals how the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny was in fact commemorated in a highly diverse, innovative, and collaborative manner in another area: the digital arena.
For years now Körber-Stiftung has, of course, been using digital means and platforms to facilitate the exchange of information, project work and understanding as part of its programmes on history policy, commemorative culture, and history teaching. In the commemorative year 2020, the coronavirus situation has allowed new digital formats to provide different forms of remembrance and has prompted a new way of critically analysing the history of WWII. In December, Körber-Stiftung is collating a selection of these works under the hashtag #revisiting1945. Here are some impressions of what the collection will comprise.
The starting point will be a virtual journey to the past and present-day city of Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg with its Habsburg, Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian influences. Biographies and historic events make this the perfect digital place to delve into the major issues of the 20th century like its history of violence and the emergence of international law.
Other points on the digital agenda for the commemorative year 2020 included how many issues were still unresolved 75 years after the war had ended, which issues, despite intensive research into them, still remain »white spots«, and how controversial the interpretation of WWII history has become once again in some political spheres. It began with a dispute over the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new interpretation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact at the start of 2020. In his address he unduly attributed blame to Poland for the outbreak of the war. The protest movement, which emerged following the presidential elections in Belarus in August and is still active today, also raises difficult questions for Germany linked to the Nazi crimes on the »killing fields« of the east. The experiences suffered by well over 200 million people in Europe under German occupation during WWII have yet to reach centre stage in debates at national level in Germany. This is reflected in the long struggle to establish appropriate forms and places to commemorate the victims of the Nazi occupation, which was illustrated by two Bundestag motions in autumn 2020.
The »future of remembrance« is attributed a particularly important role when it comes to teaching teenagers and young adults about memory culture and the past. One example of how productive it can be when young Europeans use digital spaces for their own remembrance initiatives is the European Instagram-Museum »Silent Stories 1945«, which opened its doors in May 2020. The individual life stories exhibited in the museum document the fault lines and grey zones between victims and perpetrators, the victorious and the defeated, and remembering and forgetting.
So, was 2020 the commemorative year that never happened? Many events could not take place as planned but the coronavirus also provided a great deal of fresh impetus in the digital analysis and debate surrounding the historical, political, and societal legacy of the Second World War. Digital formats of remembrance will not replace the importance of having authentic places and authentic meetings for discussing these issues. But, ideally, the learning curve that was the year 2020 will allow innovative digital forms of remembrance to be even better integrated into analogue formats for future commemorative events. Particularly with regard to transnational projects and initiatives, which are generally highly politicised, the intertwining of digital innovation and face-to-face dialogue on difficult aspects of our joint European history offers great promise.