Michael Bonner: The price of forgetting our past

Honouring Nazis in Parliament is just one consequence of the myth of post-history nationhood
Yaroslav Hunka, right, waits for the arrival of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press.

“We have no Boston Tea Parties, no Valley Forges, no Bull Runs to celebrate in song and story; but then we have fewer graves to tend.”

Those are the words of the late Canadian writer Pierre Berton in his 1982 book Why We Act Like Canadians. It’s an exposition of letters addressed to an imaginary American friend called Sam; and, as you would expect, the whole book seems rather hackneyed and silly now. Berton trots out one mid-20th-century Canadian cliché after another in order to explain a supposedly new sense of Canadian identity that had taken shape since the 1960s. One of the peculiar features of this new identity was, as the quotation above implies, an absence of history.

This absence of history is, of course, nonsense. Canada’s Indigenous population has been here for tens of thousands of years. The present constitutional order is at least as old as the British conquest of Quebec in 1759. New France, the original Canada, was founded in 1534, and John Cabot landed at Newfoundland in 1497, as did the Norsemen some 500 years earlier. So, by North American standards, you could say that Canada is positively ancient, and its constitution is about 200 years older than those of France and Germany. The 1867 British North America Act, which federated many of the territories that had escaped American annexation, occurred in the same year as the Compromise of Austria-Hungary, and four years before the unification of Italy and that of Germany. I could go on, but this is enough to make the point.

Nevertheless, the End of History came early to Canada; and Canadian Liberals still believe in an ahistorical national identity. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, former Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin habitually referred to Canada as “a young country.” Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff once debated historian J. L. Granatstein and argued against the need to teach history in schools on the ground that it was irrelevant in a multicultural society. In the Harper years, Conservative emphasis on the War of 1812 and the WW1 Battle of Vimy Ridge seemed to infuriate Liberal parliamentarians and pundits alike. One of them very earnestly told me in 2012 that “none of that bullshit has anything to do with Canada.” And it is surely this attitude that animates Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vision of Canada as having “no core identity” and as the world’s first “post-national” country.

The belief that you have somehow stepped outside history and left the past behind is obviously false since time and events will continue no matter what you may think about them. But the consequences of this belief are also dangerous. We had an example on 22 September, when the Liberals invited to Parliament a man who had fought for a Nazi military unit during WW2. The occasion was a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka received a standing ovation when Speaker Anthony Rota drew attention to him.

Hunka had belonged to the so-called First Ukrainian Division, also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit under the command of the Nazis. Whatever their private beliefs, members would have sworn oaths to both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS. And getting locals to fight the Soviets in Ukraine would have freed up Nazi resources for other, more horrible things. Nevertheless, members of the Galicia division have been personally accused of atrocities against Jews, Poles, and Slovaks, not to mention other Ukrainians. And, though the verdict at the Nuremberg Trials did not single out the Galicia division, it declared the entire Waffen-SS organization guilty of war crimes.

Perhaps the strangest part of the incident was the way in which Speaker Anthony Rota introduced Hunka. He announced him as “a Ukrainian Canadian war veteran from the Second World War who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians [emphasis added].” Those words ought at least to have raised a question like “Who exactly was fighting Russia, or more accurately the USSR, during the Second World War?” The answer, if it had been known, would surely have caused staff to reconsider the invitation.

So a standing ovation for an ostensible Nazi, or at least a collaborator, within the Canadian Parliament was also a propaganda coup for Russia in its efforts to associate Western and Ukrainian resistance to conquest and genocide with Nazism. And it was yet another gigantic embarrassment for Canada since the incident has been widely covered in international media. Civil society groups, like the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center, and even the government of Poland have demanded apologies. The Polish minister of education claims to have “taken steps” to have Hunka extradited to Poland in order to stand trial for war crimes. Unsurprisingly, the Speaker, Anthony Rota, has resigned; but the full damage of this incident to the Liberal parliamentary party, to Canada, and to the Ukrainian war effort is not yet known.

The difficulty in explaining the problem here is not where to begin but where to end. If I had to boil it down to one simple cause, I would call it a failure of memory. Historical amnesia has now spread beyond Canadian history into the most formative events of the 20th century. The tragic and bloody history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century has never been well known in North America. Many immigrants from that region themselves speak little of it. But now it seems that the more general story of WW2 is in danger of oblivion. No one remembered that the USSR was, for better or for worse, our ally at the end of the war. No one remembered that the USSR and Russia are not the same thing. The sinister history of the Galicia division has been ignored and forgotten, not least by its own former members and their descendants. And the story of fighting for Ukrainian independence has been oversimplified and distorted.

Russian propaganda depends on similar oblivion and distortion. Putin’s re-engineering of the Soviet past as a Russian triumph over Nazism only makes sense if you do not know what really happened. This is why the Soviet Union’s alliance with Nazi Germany (1939–1941), their partition and mutual destruction of Poland, and all other Soviet contributions to starting WW2 must be forgotten. Soviet dithering and Stalin’s attempt to escape Moscow as the Wehrmacht approached have been replaced by a uniform tale of heroism and resistance to fascism. Soviet atrocities like the Katyn Massacre and the Holodomor are forgotten, as is the USSR’s failure to stop the Holocaust even though Stalin knew about it at the time. The Putinist line is that Russia resisted Nazis, and therefore only Nazis resist Russia. And so, those who believe Russian agitprop are accordingly persuaded that the Trudeau and Zelenskyy governments contain Nazis or Nazi sympathisers—absurd claims meant to destabilise support for the Ukrainian war effort. But when such agitprop succeeds, it is because real history has been forgotten.

How did we get to this point? How did it ever seem like a good idea to forget our history? The clue is in that quotation from Pierre Berton above when he refers to having “fewer graves to tend.” His assumption is that a people without the burden of history will be happier and more virtuous than one that is rooted in the past. Absence of history would mean no national tragedies to mourn, nor any triumphs to vaunt over others, and therefore no conflict. People who are “stuck” in the past supposedly cause tension and strife, and they are afflicted by the memory of past violence and hereditary guilt. All old things are bad, and bad things are old. Islamic and Christian fundamentalists are accordingly called “mediaeval.” Experts often tell us these days that nostalgia is the root of fascism. And, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from 2014 onwards was denounced as an act of “19th-century” aggression.

Obviously, Pierre Berton didn’t originate the idea that the past is a record of error and ignorance. It is, in fact, one of the central doctrines of modern liberalism: it is the justification for the promise of individual freedom from all ancestral and historical ties. The inner logic to this process was, as John Stuart Mill (1808–1873) put it, derived from a view of the past as a perpetual “struggle between liberty and authority” in which progress, both moral and technological, was an irresistible law. Mill was building on some of the most extreme ideas of the French Enlightenment, such as that of François-Jean de Chastellux (1734–1788) who thought that all history contained nothing but unhappiness. Mankind, thought Chastellux, had greater need of forgetting than of remembering; and many contemporary Westerners seem to agree.

But the result, as we now see, is the opposite of liberal expectation. Forgetfulness of the past is more likely to produce conflict than remembering it is. Reimagining history as a Disney-like conflict between good and evil is more likely to lead you into error than facing up to it with all its unhappiness and failures. In this connection, defenders of a rules-based order, liberal democracy, and Western values need to remember that all such things are ultimately rooted in place and time. Real human experiences, many of the worst of them in Eastern Europe, taught us to establish and defend them. The reappearance of a 98-year-old member of an SS division ought to remind us that those experiences are still within living memory. Or at least they should be. And if they can be forgotten so quickly, how much longer will those values and ideals last?

A final point. Glorifying the past is, if anything, a very small part of 20th-century totalitarianism. In the case of the Nazis, if they looked back at all, it was to a mythical state of atavistic savagery. They and the Bolsheviks situated their respective utopias not in the past but in the future. Both looked forward to the End of History when the racial or class struggles of the past would finally be overcome and forgotten. The form of the utopia was the principal difference: a dictatorship of the proletariat for one, a thousand-year Reich for the other. And they would be ushered in through obscene destruction and murder on a gigantic scale. Those monstrous ideologies thrived on oblivion and ignorance, deracinated people from tradition, culture, and religion, and fobbed them off with the worship of technology and willpower. We need to remember our history, lest we fall into the same trap again.

Pierre Berton was wrong about having fewer graves to tend. Whether literal resting places of our ancestors, or more figurative burials of the past, we have more than enough graves here, and it is high time that we Canadians tended them.

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