Monday, August 23, 2010

Remember the Holocaust and Soviet Crimes Separately

A number of European countries, under the direction of the continental wide parliament, now commemorate the crimes of the Nazis and the crimes of the Soviets together. The date designated for this is August 23, the day in 1939 when the Nazis and the Soviets signed a pact that essentially gave them the green light to gobble up most of Poland, an act which resulted in the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. This endeavor to merge the crimes of the two regimes into one common memory is deeply flawed.

Arguably, the most serious problem regarding the conflation of these two disparate histories is where the Jews fit into them. On the one hand, students of the war know that the Jews were the foremost victims of the Nazis and their partners. This is not just a matter of statistics. The murder resulted from the Nazi view of the Jews as their main and implacable enemy on racial and ideological grounds. It is an undeniable fact that the attempt to murder all Jews everywhere was helped along by not insignificant groups in the countries allied to or occupied by Nazi Germany. On the other hand in the counties that comprise the former Communist bloc, Jews are still generally regarded as the main villains who perpetrated Soviet crimes. Even though the historical record shows this to be false - for example in Estonia before the Nazi invasion of summer 1941, Jews suffered deportation under the Soviets in twelve times greater numbers than their percentage in the population - the myth that Jews as a collective collaborated with the Soviets and benefited from them at the expense of their neighbors, continues to be a truism.

The post-Communist societies of Central and Eastern Europe feel a tremendous need to commemorate their suffering under the Soviet regime and desperately want that suffering to be recognized by fellow Europeans. At the same time a minority in these societies believe they must squarely face their communities’ role in the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust era. For those, however, that would like to avoid genuine introspection the joint commemoration, of Nazi and Soviet crimes provides an extremely useful vehicle. Through such joint commemoration they feel they can admit a lesser degree of culpability in the murder of the Jews, pointing a finger at “a few extremist collaborators,” and then immediately diverting attention to the “fact” that the Jews did their neighbors much more harm than the neighbors did to them. In other words, in this line of reasoning, collaboration in the murder of the Jews was warranted.

Officially sanctioned historical distortion sets the stage for a variety of reactionary, xenophobic, racist and neo-fascist political and ideological movements to gain ground with impunity. Jobbik in Hungary is a salient example. Moreover the rise of Jobbik and similar groups represents a very dangerous trend in post-Communist Europe: the glorification without qualification of all forces that struggled for the nation and opposed Communism, and concomitantly, the denigration of absolutely everything that happened during the Communist period. The first includes lionizing those who surely fought the Communists, but often waged war alongside the Nazis as well, and even took part in the murder of the Jews. Much too frequently, such figures are seen as unadulterated patriotic heroes and their criminal acts are glossed over. By casting the Communists as an evil equal to or greater than the Nazis, no credit at all is accorded to the Soviet Union for their pivotal role in the defeat of Nazi Germany and its partners. The understanding that had the Nazis won, life under them would have been infinitely worse for the great majority of Europeans than it was under the Communists (as awful as it often was), is not only given short shrift, it is not mentioned at all. In a nutshell, fostering misshapen versions of history makes the difficult business of nurturing truly democratic and pluralistic societies in the former Communist bloc infinitely harder.

The crimes of the Holocaust and the crimes of the Soviet regime each deserve to be researched, discussed, taught and remembered. But this must be done in a way that is true to the historical record, and which ultimately serves efforts to create a better society. Thoughtful comparisons and contrasts are important for cultivating greater understanding of all historical events that have even a slight degree of similarity. Equating and merging distinct events, however, never clarifies issues. Rather the opposite is true, it obscures them under a patina of oversimplification and artificial congruity. So we must remember the Holocaust, and we most certainly should remember Communist crimes - separately - each in their own context, and with a finely tuned sense of similarities and differences, and what they mean to us.

Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries in Jerusalem, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and a soon to be published study on Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front

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