The Paramilitarization of Memory
Felix Ackermann describes how modern, East European democracies look to post-war guerilla fighters for what often turns out to be problematic inspiration.
We're speaking a lot about memory and how it surfaces again and again – especially when we haven't resolved (or come to terms with) a violent past. And violent pasts don't like being shaken off so easily. Take monuments, for example – but whether a monument is enough to process collective memory is a whole other question. Their meanings can shift with the times, or they can be used for completely different purposes. Or, as we've seen recently in the States, groups with different social interests apply a selective meaning of the past not unlike a trump card.

"Take the bell," our speaker, Felix Ackermann, says. "The one on the Oder. The Frankfurt side."

It was made as a peace bell, built by the Christian Democrat Party in 1953 when East Germany was already thoroughly Communist. It serenely marks a border (the German-Polish one) that was wrenched westward by a war the twentieth century itself couldn't outdo. Frankfurt Oder and Slubice were one city, we are told. Once. And the language near the bell itself: PEACE DRIVES BACK WAR (or something like this). In spots like these, even the language of peace takes a violent, military posture.

This, our speaker says, is militarization. This is what Pelle (the organizer of the a set of peacemaking exercises, Baltic Glory, that I took part in a week before this) would call the enemy. But what exactly do we talk about when we talk about militarization?

In the academic language our speaker uses, militarization is "a reflection of the internal logic, practices and the symbolic sphere of military thought/patterns/ sentiments/action, as well as the relationship it has with broader society and public discourse." In simple English: we're talking about the way military language and thought impacts society at large. It's not about whether tanks are on the streets so much as the toy tanks on the shelves. Or how ideas of war/the army can influence parts of our lives that are very much non-military. And for our speaker there are five main ways this happens.
Political Militarization
This is the classic example – people in politics use military language in political campaigns (we need to take a person down, we need to besiege the other candidate) or even create military-like power structures within the party itself. Maybe the politicians see everything in terms of enemies or allies, which could prevent folks from finding other solutions. Think seeing the other side as a foe to be defeated. And then glorying in their defeat.
Economic Militarization
These are long-term policies that change economic structures in favour of military or defense spending. Countries like Germany stopped producing weapons after the war, but ones like Russia and Ukraine didn't. Or think about America's military spending habits and the kind of rhetoric that's necessary to justify it.
Social Militarization
This could be defined as the organizing of social life to make participation in the military easier. Think obligatory military service, or conscription in times of war. There could be initiatives, like we saw in post-2014 Ukraine, for non-military contributions to military action.
Cultural Militarization

There's a theory about 'cultural capital', and it basically means that certain things we do culturally can give us status or influence. If a society is militarized in a cultural way, then there's a lot of cultural capital orbiting military and war. Think of ways certain people promote history as an ongoing (or heroic) fight, and of the glorification of our (good guy) fighters. Think about the links made between men and particular kinds of valour or, again, heroism. Or the anxiety to identify enemies and traitors in our midst.
Temporal Militarization

Some call this one militarization of memory, but our speaker prefers to call it temporal militarization. This is the way that we talk about the past or future in military ways, like glorious campaigns or battles to be fought. This usually means having a selective reading of the past, one that's used to create a limited interpretation of the present or future. Think narratives about the clash of civilizations and whatnot. People are usually referring to these kinds of dynamics when they speak about memory wars.
We definitely see a rise in patterns of militarization during armed conflicts, but they happen outside direct confrontations too. Think the Cold War: there wasn't any outright war between the USA and USSR (not counting the proxies) but new narratives were formed on either side. Bells could be made to signal the strength of new world orders (marked by new borders) as well as particular concepts of peace reinforced by violence. Other narratives were frozen, such as the independence struggle in the Baltic regions or the touchy events surrounding the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (when Hitler/Stalin agreed to divide Poland up between them).

Memory even under the best of circumstances is selective, but doubly so when new narratives have to contort the past into shapes that would be politically acceptable. And then even more so when there are militarized narratives involved – they often have some sense of a heroic and/or victimized past. Emotions get caught up into all these things, making it more difficult to process whether or not our relationship to the past or public memory actually holds up when we poke it.

We see in some post-Soviet countries something different happening: instead of a classic militarized narrative (the glory of the army, the suffering of our raped nation, the justice and responsibility to claim victory) we see paramilitarized narratives. As in, people romanticising the actions of irregular fighters in or after WWII, especially in Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other countries in the region. The speaker's just focusing on Poland/Lithuania today, but why Ukraine matters will come up later.

In Lithuania there was something called the Forest Brothers, groups of young men with shoddy weapons living in the forest and fighting against the NKVD and the KGB. When the Red Army came through East Europe on their way to defeat Hitler, they happened to take control of the entire region – while locals were liberated from the Nazis they now had to deal with Soviet totalitarianism. Lithuanian and Polish fighters were seen as comrades if they were resisting Hitler, but less so once they turned their attention to the Soviet occupiers.

Narratives like these were complicated during the Soviet Union. The official story was that the Red Army selflessly liberated Europe from the Nazis, and the Soviet Union itself (now expanded to include parts of Poland and the entire Baltic region) was a brotherhood of nations. The grievances of individual people, like Lithuanians (now Soviet citizens) or Poles (in a Soviet-controlled satellite state) were ignored or suppressed to make room for a new era of togetherness. Obviously it's not as simple as that, but this gives an idea of some of the tensions involved.

So when the Soviet Union collapsed at the start of the 90's it was like these older memories/narratives were defrosted and thrown back into the public sphere. Since these irregular fighters (ie, the paramilitary forces) became romanticised as national heroes (replacing the image of the Red Army), you could say this was a paramilitarization and not just a militarization of memory. The 2014 revolution in Ukraine only microwaved these tensions even more (the West painting Russia as an imperial aggressor, Russia painting the gov't in Kiev as a fascist collaborator), making them very visible aspects of government narratives today.

We see this in both the Polish and Lithuanian gov'ts now, and this creates tensions between them and western members of the EU. With Germany in particular. Because while certain eastern countries still operate with a very much heroic model, many western could be called post-heroic. Dying for one's country, in the West, isn't seen as anything positive or noble. There was a cultural demilitarization (think a decoupling of war deaths from war), often paired with a reluctance to discuss it at all. When Stephen Motz, a Russian-German, was the first from that country to die in the Soviet-Afghan war it was very much pushed under the rug. Even whether or not to use the word 'died' or 'fell' was a big deal. They hadn't used language like that since Hitler's day.
Obviously it isn't just an east/west thing, there's obviously a mix of heroic/post-heroic models in each country, but it can be a helpful frame to think about when we talk about our attitudes towards war. For example, hybrid war is a western response to post-heroism: use different tactics/methods in war (drones, information, training, media) so you put less of (your) soldiers' lives directly at risk.

For people in East Europe, though, the ability to be detached/hybrid in war was a bit of a luxury – with the annexation of Crimea, the Baltic countries were worried it could happen there. Between Lithuania and Poland is something called the Suwalki gap, a very narrow piece of land that separates Belarus and Kaliningrad (part of Russia), and if Russia ever decided to close that gap then the Baltics would be effectively cut off from the rest of the continent. While some would describe talking about Suwalki this as alarmism, some wonder if there needs to be preparation. Anti-Russian rhetoric bloomed, and the memories of these irregular, paramilitary, anti-Soviet fighters took on a new cultural significance.

With these feelings of threat, both countries are investing a lot in the heroization of these fighters on a very institutional level. And these create very weird situations: historical bases present in Lithuania now are romanticised as continuations of the paramilitary bases of the Forest Brotherhood – the awkward problem is that the Soviets built those bases as a way of maintaining control over the region. Plus, both of these states have centralized right-wing governments that somehow, as part of new national myths, are celebrating dissent and rebellion. This has some people very confused about what kind of message is being sent – romanticising fighters who were outside gov't control while cracking down oneself on internal opposition. And all that.

Another hint that's a bit disturbing is that partisans (paramilitary fighters) like the Forest Brothers and the Polish irregular forces only ever fought in a state of emergency. And if you want to compare yourself, as a government, to heroic partisans then you start tapping into this discourse of extra-legal measures that make you accountable to no one.

One powerful way that romanticised partisans make some people uncomfortable is linked to a thinker named Carl Schmitt, a German political scientist who wobbled between supporting or rejecting the Nazi's back in the day. His thought is based on three ideas:
Politics is a process of splitting people into friends and enemies. This creates a black-and-white approach that some feel causes way, way too many problems in the modern world.
The leader of a country is empowered (by the democratic people) to make even radical changes in the law. These changes tend to bypass the checks and balances of a healthy, democratic system.
The partisan is the last true remaining political fighter. He's the last hope of occupied countries after official armies capitulate.
Leaders like Kaczynski, the de facto head of the Law and Justice party (and supposed power behind the Polish president), admit that Schmidt is important to him, as is Machiavelli. Which is worrying for some because the memory of these paramilitaries has become connected to an agenda that allows for anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian (or at least problematically-nationalist) tendencies to surface at a high political level. And so a set of dirty, hungry, doomed soldiers fighting what proved to be a last, exhausting battle happened to become very, very important chess pieces. Which makes any attempt to resist this public, selective memory an act of betrayal or suspicion (see the story of the Polish museum from yesterday).

In the past, says Felix, it was mostly football fans who promoted irregular fighters as a symbol of heroism and nationalism. But since 2016, at least in Poland, the state took up the job and introduced official commemorization into public institutions. The irregular fighters were portrayed almost exclusively as protectors of the people, rescuers of Jews and so on. But, like in Ukraine (where independence fighters had, for a time, collaborated with Hitler), there are dark parts of that history that are neither recognized nor dealt with. And when another country (Russia, for example) knows those dark bits and still sees 'democratic' gov'ts propping them up as heroes, then they call the West out on their bullshit and use it as propaganda for their own purposes.

But that's all the time we have today – we're about to head out on an excursion. People complain that Slubice and Frankfurt are a little ugly. "Yes that's true," Felix says, "but remember this is the result of war and border changes. It's not just a place struggling with memory, but with the reality of war." There was a beautiful medieval town once. It was bombed: we're looking at a place built up from scratch. With little a bell installed on the riverbank dedicated, in 1953, to peace. But meanwhile, in forests thousands of kilometres to the east, the last partisans were still fighting and still dying. And badly at that.

But luckily their ghosts were preserved in a freezer only to be proved, in our day, very useful indeed.