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East European Perspectives: January 26, 2000


26 January 2000, Volume 2, Number 2

Part III D: Radical Politics In Post Communist East Central Europe

By Michael Shafir

X-Raying Post-Communist 'Radical Minds'
D) Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism

Concluding the introspection of radical mind mentalities, this final subchapter focuses on the reasons behind the emergence of interwar radical-right leaders and policies as "models" in post-communist East-Central Europe.

There is a direct link between conspiracy theories and the "externalization of guilt," both of which have been discussed in earlier parts of this study. Both Aurel Braun and Vladimir Tismaneanu deal with this aspect. Braun, I believe, has the better conceptual construct--Tismaneanu, who speaks of "national self-pity," the more focused, and hence better, approach. "It is both fair and accurate," Braun writes, "to contend that the majority of the people in all Marxist-Leninist societies in the region were victimized by the political elites." At the same time, awareness of this past presents dangers to the democratization process and "facilitates and more likely fuels the rise of political extremism in a number of ways." Thus, a "victimized majority" tends "to absolve itself from the need of normal political intercourse and compromise." Whether that majority be a parliamentary or an ethnic one is immaterial, though usually the latter is reflected in the former. "The crucial element is attitude--a kind of self-righteous-victim category" (Braun, 1997, p. 150). According to Tismaneanu, "recollection of the times of oppression under the communist regimes is used to bolster a sense of uniqueness. Suffering is often exploited to justify a strange competition for the status of most victimized nation" (Tismaneanu, 1999, p. 70).

This is, indeed, a "strange competition," but one that can be explained by the no-less strange mutual ignorance of each other's history. In their quest to "prove" (above all to themselves) that they "belong to Europe" rather than to some despised and nebulous "not really European" geographic entity dominated by Turkish and Russian influences, most people in the region somehow manage to perceive "Europe" as ending at their own eastern or southern historical borders. To many a Hungarian, Romanian suffering under the communists would anyhow not count, since Romania would not be "Europe." Romanians would similarly be genuinely surprised if they were to learn that Bulgarian Gulags under Vulko Chervenkov could easily compete with their own under Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej. They would proudly, after 1989, state that "their" armed-resistance to Sovietization in the form of partisans in the Carpathian mountains has been "the longest" in the former bloc, and would not even have heard of Lithuanian resistance. Tismaneanu renders the same, from a different angle of analysis: These nationalist parties and movements have a tendency to indulge in self-pity: we Poles (or Slovaks, or Ukrainians, or Serbs, or Croats) have been the ultimate victims...According to this self-preserving philosophy, no other nation has ever suffered as much as the one of the speaker (or writer, or historian), who cannot understand why the outer world is so insensitive to his or her nation's unique plight...Polish historians, for instance, frequently describe their Poland as the "Christ of nations," always victimized, attacked and persecuted by its neighbors. Serbs and Romanians speak about their national destiny to rescue civilization from Ottoman invasions. According to these mythologies, suffering under communism bestowed on the speaker's (or writer's) nation a special, universal destiny. Each ethnic group indulges in its own martyrology, frequently regarded as the most atrocious, and the most conducive to moral regeneration (Tismaneanu, 1999, p. 84).

Against a background where many of the early communist leaders were Jewish and/or belonged to other ethnic minorities (for the purpose of "guilt-externalization" it is best if they can be proved to have been Russian Jews or Hungarian Jews in Romania, Russian Jews in Poland, and so on) the "victimized majority" mentality blends itself splendidly with conspiracy theories, as the book by Neagu Cosma mentioned in the previous section of this chapter demonstrates. There are innumerable "Cosmas" in the region. Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, whom Braun interviewed, speaks of the mentality as leading to a "blind-anticommunism" that can endanger the rules of the political game itself. It was, however, another Pole, Adam Michnik, who best rendered this danger when he spoke of "anti-Communism with a Bolshevik face" (Michnik, 1993).

That parties of radical return would embrace that stand is, perhaps, natural. But that parties of radical continuity--such as the Greater Romania Party (PRM)--embrace these postures can only be explained in terms of the linkage existing between the "victimized majority" mentality, the "externalization of guilt," and conspiracy theories.

As Braun rightly points out, the mentality is contributing extensively to "the dearth of political introspection of any objective re-examination of the past" (Braun, 1997, p. 151). It is important to emphasize that this lack of introspection impacts radical minds of both left and right persuasions. Braun brings the example of the former East Germans, whose selective memory generates nostalgic attitudes for a past perceived to have been one of personal and collective security. There is a similar "Ceausescu nostalgia" in Romania, as has already been mentioned, and Braun's discussion of the East German case confirms my own insistence on the centrality of "relative," rather than absolute deprivation. Radical continuity formations like the Czech Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, and the PRM, the Socialist Labor Party (PSM) and the Party of Romanian National Unity (PUNR) in Romania, can thrive against this background.

But it is what Braun calls the "glorification of a precommunist past," whose "dangerous romanticizing" can "inhibit the development of a democratic political culture" (Braun, 1997, p. 152), as well as the effects of the "majority as a victim" approach on the civic/ethnic cleavage (Braun, 1997, pp. 152-55), that make up the core of the radical return ethos, while at the same time providing "justification" for the ethnocrats. Once more, the sense of deja vu is there, and, once again, the former regimes largely contributed to making it possible.

In some cases, the contribution was one by omission: by refraining to deal with a recent past that would have rendered their claim to be the "vanguard" of popular democratic attitudes in the population null and void--by, in other words, "putting to sleep" or greatly distorting the legacy of the interwar period--those regimes made it possible for the proponents of the radical return alternative to resurrect it with an "untainted" past. Ever since Georgi Dimitov's 1935 Comintern report, communist-watched historiography presented fascism as having been "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital" (Dimitroff, 1974, p. 7)." That was explaining fascism "away," by carefully avoiding to reveal the overarching support that fascism, Nazism, and authoritarian forms of government had enjoyed among all social classes (Gregor, 1997, pp. 128-78). If fascism and its derivatives were nothing but finance capital in power, then the restoration of capitalism can (or should!) lead to restoration of its "superstructure."

Furthermore, communist-watched historiography had carefully avoided dealing with the atrocities committed by those regimes and with their racialist character, even when it purported to do so. This was what Shari Cohen called "state-organized forgetting" (Cohen, 1999, pp. 94-95). And "organized" it was indeed, as attested by the contributions to a volume edited by Randolph Braham after the demise of those regimes (Braham, 1994). Again, one deals here with a contribution "by omission," but one that is directly linked with the "externalization of guilt." There was either no mentioning, or a reduction to the bare minimum, of the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust, not to speak of collaborationism. The "Judaization" of all-and-any enemy finding its expression in the robot-portrait of the "generic Jew" earlier discussed, paradoxically enough also rests on the "de-Judaization" of Holocaust victims by communist regimes. Due to Yevgenii Yevtushenko, the case of Babi Yar, where Soviet authorities constantly sought to blur the record of the Jewish identity of the victims, acquired world notoriety. When, in 1961, Yevtushenko bewailed the fact that "no monument stands over Babi Yar," little did he know that "no monument" was better than "any monument." The one finally erected on the site of the massacre in 1976 specified that the Germans had executed there between 1941 and 1943 "over 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war." No trace of specific Jewish suffering (Korey, 1994, p. 210-12). Similarly, not Jews, but Poles were exterminated at Auschwitz. And if there was any large-scale extermination of Romanian Jews, this was done by the Hungarians in Horthy-occupied northern Transylvania, not by the regime of Ion Antonescu in Transdniester, according to Ceausescu-time historiography (Eskenasy, 1994, p. 191). Why should, then, Codreanu and Antonescu, Horthy and Ferenc Szalasi, Andrej Hlinka and Jozef Tiso or Ante Pavelic not re-emerge as "model figures" of national heroes whose only fault rests in their having (nilly rather than willy) supported or allied themselves with those who were fighting the enemy of their nation? Why, furthermore, would even lesser historically-tainted figures such as those of Roman Dmowski or Jozef Pilsudski in Poland, Ljotic in Serbia or Alexander Tsankov and Ivan Donchev in Bulgaria, not re-emerge as the valiant defenders of their nations at a time when the entire region is undergoing an "identity crisis"? For "transition," as is well known, indicates what is "left behind" (socialism or so-called socialism) but not what lies ahead. Unlike parties of radical continuity, other formations do not benefit from "organizational continuity," to come back to Waller's argument. In their search for legitimacy, they appeal to "historic continuity." And why should the gentlemen mentioned above not figure prominently in this endeavor, since the communists have taken care that they can hardly be reproached with any evil-doing? Furthermore, those among them who were executed by the communists as war criminals before the new rulers had embarked upon "past-cleansing"--Antonescu and Szalasi and Tiso--can re-emerge as genuine "martyrs"--for radical return (Romania, Hungary, Slovakia) and for radical continuity (Romania) as well (Szayna, 1997, pp. 130-31; Shafir, 1997, p. 358).

In the latter case one deals with a communist legacy that was by commission rather than by omission. And "commissioned" it was indeed. Marshal Antonescu's rehabilitation in all but name started under the Ceausescu regime. But for a start, a Romanian exile, Iosif Constantin Dragan, was commissioned by the regime to launch the process with "selected" (carefully, indeed) documents supplied from archives of the communist party or party-supervised research institutes (Eskenasy, 1994, pp. 192-94 and 1997, pp. 278-82). The same Dragan, now honorary chairman of the alleged "cultural," but in fact nationalist organization Vatra romaneasca, and patron of extreme-nationalist publications, would claim in 1993, in a letter addressed to the U.S. president and the U.S. Senate, that Antonescu had been the "protector and savior of Romanian Jews, of whom nearly 500,000 live happily in Israel." A few years later, Raoul Sorban, a faked "Righteous Among Nations" octogenarian with links to the radical continuity PSM, would tell that party's vice chairman, Adrian Paunescu, in an interview published in January 1996, that Antonescu had personally "saved Romania's Jews" (Shafir, 1997, pp. 349-50; Braham, 1998, pp. 95-240).

But again, nothing is singular under the "transitional" East-Central European skies. In Slovakia, Tiso is credited with saving between 10,000 and 40,000 Slovak Jews by granting them the status of "essential" for the country's economy. It is even claimed that Tiso personally opposed the deportation of Jews and tried to protect as many of them as possible (Vago, 1994, p. 196; Cibulka, 1999, pp. 121-22; Cohen, 1999, pp. 68-9, 210n). Stanislav J. Kirschbaum, who makes the same claim in a history of Slovakia published in London in 1995, is the son of Dr. Jozef Kirschbaum, the secretary-general of Tiso's Party of National Unity, and has an understandable personal stake in making the claim (Cohen, 1999, p. 207n). Similar claims are made in Croatia by the daughter and son of Ante Pavelic, in an interview published under the headline "He was building the Croatian State from Kopar to Boka Kotorska, did not hate Jews and did not build concentration camps" (cited in Grdesic, 1999 p. 180n). It takes, however, more than cynicism to go beyond denial, and claim that Jews have actually themselves perpetrated extermination in wartime concentration camps. But this is precisely what is done by the late Croatian president and would be historian Franjo Tudjman in his book Wastelands of Historical Truth, in reference to the infamous Jasenovac concentration camp (Milentijevic, 1994, pp. 234-36).

Commemorative plaques and statues of the interwar radical-right leaders are being unveiled, and streets are being named after them in Slovakia and Romania, sometimes with the participation of government officials (Cibulka, 1999, p. 112; Shafir, 1997, pp. 351-53, 364-66). In Hungary, ministers in the Antall cabinet were present at the 1993 ceremony of reinterment of Horthy's remains, and Antall himself later visited the grave (Brown, 1999, p. 90). Not that Antall (the son of a "Righteous Among Nations") could be suspected of anti-semitism (Deak, 1994b, p. 119), or that Horthy's rather ambiguous legacy on anti-semitism and the physical annihilation of Jews should be placed in the same category as that of the Szalasi's Arrow Cross. Yet no less than 565,000 Jews were exterminated in "Greater Hungary," most of whom perished before Horthy was deposed in October 1994 (Braham, 1981). Even if the extermination had been long-delayed and even if Horthy had personally played a role in that delay (Deak, 1994a), when it occurred (mostly after the German occupation of the country in March 1944), it did so with astonishing efficiency. Still, 64,000 Jews had perished before that date, not to speak of the anti-Jewish legislation enacted and implemented under the Horthy regime (Braham, 1999a). In 1998, after a visit to Auschwitz, conservative Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban decided the permanent Hungarian pavilion, built by the communists, will have to be reconstructed. The plans submitted in 1999 by a commission headed by a well-known right-wing museologist, were little else than what Randolph L. Braham, the world's leading historian on the Holocaust in Hungary, called "a clearly pro-Horthy apologia designed to sanitize the Nazi era in general and the Hungarians' involvement in the Final Solution in Particular" (Braham, 1999b). But if the "traditional right" to whom Antall belonged and Orban belongs, is ready to play that game of legitimacy-search in "historic continuity," why should the likes of Csurka hesitate to do the same? By November 1999 Csurka was demanding the judicial rehabilitation of Laszlo Bardossy, Hungary's premier in 1941-42 who was executed for war crimes after being sentenced to death in 1945 (interview on Hungarian Television 2, 19 November 1999).

As in Romania, Hungarian radical return "historiography," popularized or otherwise, passes on responsibility for the Holocaust to the Germans or, at best, reduces it to the short-lived governance of the Szalasi's Arrow Cross. A plaque commemorating Horthy's notorious gendarmes was unveiled in Budapest in 1999, triggering strong protests from the Jewish community (RFE/RL Newsline, 29 October 1999). Not Csurka's MIEP, but Viktor Orban's FIDESZ-FKGP coalition was in power as the plaque was unveiled. And it was a high official of the same coalition, Orban advisor Maria Schmidt, who shortly thereafter again triggered the community's protests, after stating in Le Pen-like manner that the Holocaust had been but a "marginal issue" of the history of World War II. Yet Orban issued a statement largely exonerating Schmidt and expressing his "full confidence" in her (Magyar Hirlap and Hungarian Radio; RFE/RL Newsline, 16 November 1999). Not that Csurka is in any way hesitating to call anyone hinting to Hungarian responsibility to the Holocaust otherwise but as "traitor." In his opinion, the sole purpose of these "traitors" is to brand the Hungarian people as a whole as "fascist" and thus victimize the entire nation (Karsai, 1999, p. 139).

Precisely these are also the words heard from Romania's Holocaust deniers, whether of radical continuity (PRM, PSM, PUNR) or radical return (Coja, 1997) vintage. Former President Ion Iliescu never acknowledged during his presidency any Romanian responsibility for the Holocaust, as his successor, Emil Constantinescu, would eventually do. But Iliescu's participation in ceremonies at the Bucharest Choral Synagogue marking the Holocaust, and his subsequent participation in the inauguration of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, was enough to bring on him the wrath of his (then de facto) allies in the PSM and PRM (Shafir, 1993). Paunescu took Iliescu to task for not having condemned in his speech in Bucharest "the so-called guilt of the Romanians...and the so-called Holocaust that Romanians had allegedly committed against Jews." In so doing, Paunescu said, the president had "humiliated" the Romanian people. Tudor and his then two deputies--who have since passed away--Eugen Barbu and Mircea Musat, made public an "open letter" to Iliescu accusing him, as Paunescu did, of a "lack of dignity when confronted with the endeavor of world Zionism to make states and nations appear culpable, with the aim of being able to lead mankind unopposed." Giving vent to the same accusation that Tudor would launch at Iliescu upon their 1995 "divorce," the PRM leadership wrote to the president: "The Jews brought you to power, the Jews [are those] who call you to order [and] keep you there, [all at] the price of Romania's being wrecked at its very foundations." Better still was the reaction of PRM member and editor in chief of Europa, Ilie Neacsu. The blend of conspiracy theories, externalization of guilt, and Holocaust denial was perfectly illustrated by Neacsu, for whom Iliescu's visit to Washington had been "minutely prepared in Washington, Moscow, Paris, Budapest, Tel Aviv and other laboratories." Right after December 1989, Neacsu wrote, "our dear kikes" had managed to return to the positions from where Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceausescu had chased them away. Iliescu was nothing but their unwitting instrument. He had "become close to the Synagogue" in the hope of improving his image abroad. But the president was "educated...at the school of Judeo-Stalinism," had been "raised among Jews," and had become "their prisoner." This explained his "humiliating acts."

Tismaneanu has rightly insisted on the "competitive victimization" aspect of Holocaust denial and/or minimization: To the Jewish claim that their fate in Eastern Europe (especially during World War II) was one of mass murder, extermination, horrible persecutions, and endless discrimination, the answer is often characterized by insensitivity and irascibility. The argument is that Romanians, Poles or Hungarians have also suffered under the communist regime, and that conditions in Stalinist concentration camps were not superior to those in Nazi ones. The banalization of the Holocaust is related to the feeling that this is not a universal human issue, affecting the humanity in all of us, but rather an attempt by Jews (and their friends) to monopolize the quality and memory of suffering. Jews are accused of trying to confiscate all the benefits of universal compassion by insisting so much on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. This trivialization of the horror motivated Walesa's refusal to admit the overwhelmingly predominant Jewish martyrdom at Auschwitz and the rhetoric about the millions of Polish Jews having died as Polish citizens (Tismaneanu, 1999, pp. 106-07).

But the same trivialization, as has been shown above, is deeply entrenched in communist historiography, though Walesa would not recognize himself in that tradition. The irascibility mentioned by Tismaneanu is, indeed, a trait of "victimized majorities," who have no patience for anyone questioning their views. Vaclav Havel, at that time president of the still unified Czechoslovakia, walked straight into the first rally organized in Bratislava to commemorate 14 March 1939, the day Tiso's Nazi-sponsored "Parish Republic" declared its independence. The rally was organized by the Slovak National Unity Party and the Jozef Tiso Association. Havel was attacked by an angry crowd shouting "Independent Slovakia!," "Czechs, Jews, and Hungarians out!" and "Death to Havel!" To the same category of Tiso-worshipers in Slovakia belongs also the Slovak People's Party, which claims continuity with Tiso's Slovak People's Party (both the National Unity and the People's Party can claim the same heritage under different names, since the People's Party was renamed National Unity Party, absorbing all other Slovak political groups in 1939 (see Payne, 1995, p. 403). The Slovak People's Party and the Jozef Tiso Association (whose correspondent in Romania is the Marshal Antonescu League), organize regular commemorations at Tiso's grave (Antonescu's grave is unknown) (Fisher, 1994, p. 71; Szayna, 1997, pp. 130-31, 135; Cibulka, 1999, pp. 112-13).

No political party in Poland traces its roots to the pre-war fascist Falanga, but, strange as it may seem, this is another communist legacy. Boleslaw Piasecki, who headed the Falanga, served at the head of the Catholic Pax group under the communist regime (Prazmowska, 1995, pp. 198-201). To claim descent from the Falanga, then, is to claim a legacy of communist collaboration. Instead, it is the figures of Pilsudski and Dmowski that are "role models" for the Polish radical return. "National Democracy" (Dmowski's interwar Endecja, an organization that was strongly nationalist, anti-Semitic, anti-German and clerical) is the ideological well from which parties such as the National Democratic Party drink. Other claimants to the Endecja legacy are the National Party, the National Rebirth of Poland, and the National Front "Fatherland" Party (Szayna, 1997, p. 120). Boleslaw Tejkowski's Polish National Commonwealth-Polish National Party, though claiming some roots in Dmowski's nationalist ideology, acknowledges that it has taken Dmowski's premises as a "starting point" only. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Dmowski attacking the Catholic Church for having been "Judaized." Pilsudski, on the other hand, is most frequently invoked as a source for inspiration by the Confederation of Independent Poland (Prazmowska, 1995, p. 209).

In Hungary, Szabo's World National People's Party, Gyorkos's Hungarian National Front, and Kemal Erekem's Alliance of the Victims of Communism--all three claiming descent from Szalasi's Hungarian National Socialist Party-Hungarianist Movement (as the official name of the Arrow Cross was), in 1994 re-established a Hungarianist Movement (Payne, 1995, p. 274; Szayna, 1997, p. 139).

In Serbia, although the SRS claims to trace its roots back to the party with the same name led by Nikola Pasic in the first quarter of the 20th century (and thus implicitly to a parliamentarian tradition), Seselj's paramilitary troops are unabashedly called Chetniks. The Tito-defeated movement headed by Draza Mihajlovic did, indeed, have a model for "ethnic cleansing" of Yugoslavia (Payne, 1995, p. 409n), and it is not without significance that the oldest-living Chetnik in 1990 proclaimed Seselj a Vojvoda (warlord) (Irvine, 1995, p. 156). If in Romania the Party of National Right had re-established the ideological roots of Crainic's "ethnocratic state," in Serbia the praxis of ethnocracy was re-established by Seselj. Croatia's reborn Party of Rights (HSP) sees itself as the inheritor of Ante Starcevic's party by the same name, which denied the historical validity of the Serb nation. It was HSP leader Pavelic who set up the notorious Ustasha (Insurrection) with Mussolini's support (Jelavic, 1983, p. 21). Upon the HSP's resurrection by Dobroslav Paraga, the Ustasha (which Paraga denied had anything in common with fascism) became the model on which his party's paramilitary forces (the very mirror of Seselj's forces in Serbia)--called the Croatian Defense Forces and proudly displaying Ustasha-like blackshirts and U's standing for the organization's name carved on the stocks of their guns--would be set up (Irvine, 1995, p. 159).

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