One reason the Balkans was a powder keg throughout the 20th century is that every ethnic group in the region fostered a selective historical memory regarding how much land it should dominate. Serbians, Bulgarians, and others learned about the maximum amount of territory their ancestors had at some point, often centuries in the past, and came to see that as their stake. Every group wanted a return to its golden age, so one group’s territorial claims butted up against another, and the result was war.
Selective historical memory is especially dangerous when big countries still reeling from recent defeats catch it. Adolf Hitler played on this in the 1930s, and Vladimir Putin is playing on it right now. Polls show about four out of five Russians buying Putin’s line that the Soviet Union was great and its 1991 dissolution a great tragedy. This means trouble, because it’s one small step from bemoaning a change 23 years ago to taking action to reverse it, and that would mean one large leap into international chaos and perhaps war.
Some see Putin as a new Josef Stalin. Not so, because Putin is shrewder. Stalin was firmly in the camp of atheism except during the darkest days of World War II, when he desperately needed bulwarking from the Russian Orthodox Church. Otherwise, Stalin closed churches, slaughtered priests, and also fought against family and private property. Putin, though, is uniting government and church power, telling both generals and prelates that they shall be as gods once again ruling over an empire as great as Stalin’s—and selective historical memory is making that a winning appeal.
A few American social conservatives discombobulated by the gay lobby’s cultural blitzkrieg are also suffering from selective memory. Some are praising Putin because he opposes homosexuality and has embraced (and been embraced by) Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs. As some German and American anti-communists initially supported Hitler on the grounds that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so some social conservatives are saying that “the enemy of homosexuality is my friend.”
That thinking about Hitler proved clearly faulty, and some of the current irrational exuberance will prove equally embarrassing. Earlier this year Allan Carlson’s World Congress of Families in Rockford, Ill., cited, as the world’s best trend of 2013, this: “Russia emerges as pro-family leader.” But leaders who want more children so they can eventually use them as cannon fodder are not pro-family. Carlson wrote that Russia under Putin “is defending Judeo-Christian values,” but killing independent journalists like Anna Politkovskaya is not a Judeo-Christian value.
This year’s World Congress of Families conference is still scheduled to take place in Moscow in September, with some groups boycotting the proceedings but others planning to attend. They should not. Putin is the enemy of good liberties as well as sad ones, and all who remember only “good” parts of the past will find themselves reliving the worst parts.