Sep 24th 2009
When to give good and bad news to east Europeans
HISTORY was a long time ago, unless it happened to you. Anyone with bad news for eastern Europe forgets that at his peril. The American administration stumbled this month when it cancelled a planned missile-defence base in Poland on September 17th. That is the anniversary of the Soviet attack on Poland in 1939, which sealed the country’s fate for the next 50 years.
Poland produces more history than it consumes, so almost any day will be an anniversary of something—usually something miserable. But this was a blooper: it would be a bit like giving America bad news about its security in the Pacific region on December 7th. That (as many Poles probably don’t know) is the anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Some big dates are also national holidays, but many others are not. So here is a handy guide to days that carry heavy emotional baggage.
If modern Russia wants to reach out to Estonia, or if western countries want to offer support, February 2nd would be a good day. That is the anniversary of the 1920 Tartu peace treaty, when Soviet Russia recognised the newborn republic. It is still legally valid but presently ignored by the Kremlin. For Latvia, the counterpart is the Riga peace treaty signed on August 11th of that year.
Poland and Lithuania could settle their still-festering differences (mainly arcane wrangles about spelling) on February 2nd. On that date in 1386, the Polish parliament elected Jogaila, Lithuania’s Grand Duke, to be king, immediately after he renounced paganism and married his Polish counterpart, Jadwiga, starting a mighty dynastic union. May 3rd would also work: in 1791, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth adopted Europe’s first modern national constitution.
Conversely, if the west has more bad news for Poland, it should at all costs avoid giving it between February 4th and 11th. Those are the dates of the infamous Yalta conference in 1945, when Stalin bamboozled Franklin Roosevelt into accepting the Sovietisation of Poland. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (signed between Soviet and Nazi foreign ministers on August 23rd 1939) has similar echoes.
For the Czechs and Slovaks, August 20th and 21st are the miserable anniversary dates of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Other bad days for Czechs include November 8th, when Bohemian nobility and Protestantism were defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620; and February 25th, when a communist putsch in 1948 extinguished a brief period of post-war freedom. Be particularly nice to any Czech foreign ministers you meet on March 10th. In 1948 the most famous of them, the much-loved Jan Masaryk, died in a mysterious suicide.
Tread carefully with Hungarians on June 4th. That is the anniversary of the treaty of Trianon which in 1920 dismembered old imperial Hungary. Hungarians are also particularly sombre on November 4th, when a Soviet invasion crushed their anti-communist uprising in 1956.
Every other country in eastern Europe and plenty elsewhere, have similar dates: they are left out this article merely because of reasons of space. Readers are welcome to complete the calendar by adding their comments.
But the big question is why the anniversaries still matter so much. One reason is the feeling of suffocation during communist rule, when marking the real version of history was risky. Another is the sense that historical wrongs are not yet put right. No outsider intervening in a wrangle between Denmark or Germany would worry about avoiding August 1st, which in 1860 marked a turning point in the bitter row about the Schleswig-Holstein Question. As you go east, the wounds are rawer.