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Military anniversaries

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Stephen Fallon

Australia’s annual Anzac Day this year marked the centenary of the first major military action fought by Australian (and New Zealand) forces during the First World War. This commemoration is, on the whole, characterised by the solemn dawn services that have become increasingly popular, extensive media coverage of both the courage of the Anzacs and the horrors of war, and the notion that erstwhile enemies can be reconciled and become friends, as illustrated by the famous, but perhaps somewhat apocryphal, words of Ataturk. With one notable exception (an SBS reporter reportedly sacked for tweeting disrespectful comments about Anzacs), the commemoration was widely embraced and uncontroversial.

Anzac Day memorial, Lone Pine Cemetery 6 August 2015 Attribution: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence


However, other war commemorations are far more contested and illustrate the ability of history to shape the contemporary strategic environment. On 9 May, for example, Russia celebrated its Victory Day, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Second World War surrender of Germany to the Soviet Union. In contrast to the 60th anniversary commemoration, attended by prominent Western guests including Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush, this year’s ceremony was boycotted by Western leaders, though Angela Merkel laid a wreath at Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the following day.

Western politicians, in a move that has been interpreted in Russia as an American gambit to isolate Moscow and as an insult to the war dead, boycotted the commemoration due to Russia’s activities in Ukraine. The commemoration has previously been explicitly used by Russian authorities to buttress nationalism; last year, in addition to celebrations in Moscow, Putin also attended a ceremony in Sevastopol where he conflated Russian veterans’ victory over the Nazis with its present day seizure of Crimea.

Russia’s neighbours, who suffered for decades under Soviet rule and fear that Moscow seeks to again enlarge its territory at their expense, are concerned by such rhetoric. President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania condemned Russia’s activities in Ukraine, arguing:

Grybauskaite was not the only leader to use the occasion to condemn Russia. President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland, speaking at an event in Poland held to commemorate the end of the Second World War, observed:

Articulating a Russian perspective, Putin paid tribute to the contributions of the Soviet Union’s wartime allies, Great Britain, France and the United States, but implicitly criticised the eastward expansion of NATO, stating that in ‘recent decades the basic principles of international co-operation have been ignored ever more frequently. We see how a military-bloc mentality is gaining momentum.’

Ordinary Russians interviewed by Western media were less diplomatic, accusing those leaders who did not attend of politicising an event to honour veterans who fought against the Nazis and blaming their non-attendance on their antipathy toward a strong Russia.

Russia’s Victory Day celebrations are not the only contentious commemorative event this year. Earlier this month, China hosted its own celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Japan. China hinted that Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, might be given an invitation. Abe, however, declined to attend, as did Western leaders, fearing, correctly, that it would be used as an opportunity for the Chinese Government to engage in anti-Japanese rhetoric.

Japanese leaders have suggested that China ought to move on from its obsession with Japan’s wartime actions and instead focus on improving future co-operation. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga spoke for many Japanese when he highlighted Japan’s exemplary post-war international record as ‘a nation that is democratic, protects human rights and respects the rule of law’, drawing a none-too-subtle comparison with China’s political development under the Chinese Communist Party. Shinzo Abe also recently questioned whether Japanese born after the events of the Second World War should be predestined to apologise.

China’s commemorative event also required Australia to walk a diplomatic tightrope. The Australian Government was placed in the awkward position of seeking to maintain good relations with both China, its primary economic partner, and Japan, a country to which Australia is developing increasingly close strategic ties. It resolved this quandary by sending the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Michael Ronaldson, as its representative.

Those who call themselves the conquerors and liberators of Europe have begun a new war in Europe against a sovereign state wishing only to decide its own future.

…in Europe there are still forces reminiscent of the darkest days of the 20th century, which do not respect the rule of law and civilised relations between nations… They still want to maintain ‘spheres of influence’ and they endeavour to keep neighbours as their vassal… Ukraine expressed its desire to forge closer ties with Europe, for its people to live a normal life in dignity and freedom, but its stronger neighbour responded through the use of force and changing borders.


What these events illustrate is that history, particularly in Australia’s neighbourhood, is a strong driver of contemporary foreign relations. As Arseny G. Roginsky, a Russian activist, has observed, ‘the fight for history is also the fight for the present day.’

Stalingrad, Russia during WW2, Nov. 1942. Shutterstock Image ID: 251930377, Copyright: Everett Historical