The debate over the historical record of communism simmers on in the European Union.
Forced onto the bloc's agenda by its new ex-communist member states, the issue was most recently broached at a European Parliament debate in Strasbourg on April 21.
Reflecting deep-seated divisions among member states and political camps, the parliament ultimately failed to agree on a common declaration. Some argued that charging communism -- at least, in its Stalinist incarnation -- with crimes against humanity would provide long-overdue historical justice. Others, however, saw it as an attempt to rewrite history for populist gain.
These questions go to the heart of the divisions which still linger in Europe between the EU's old and new member states. Most of the "old" countries tend to see no need for a new historical reckoning. The Soviet Union is seen as an ally in defeating Nazi Germany, and communist parties still exist.
The new member states, however, tend to view the issue as a critical part of reuniting the continent. Throughout the Soviet bloc, communist oppression cost the lives of millions of people, deprived the rest of freedom, and placed their countries behind the Iron Curtain for half a century.
This line of argument also has more than a whiff of antagonism toward Russia, whose outgoing president, Vladimir Putin, has called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century."
'Difficult Historical Questions'
For those seeking to condemn communism for crimes against humanity, it's been an uphill battle. The strongest resistance comes from the EU's political left. Jan Marinus Wiersma, a Dutch socialist and a leading figure in the EU's socialist group, attacked what he described as "party-political interpretations of history."
"All too often, differing interpretations can lead to different visions, different ways of understanding things, and sometimes xenophobia [and nationalism]," he said. "This is extraordinarily dangerous in a Europe which is characterized by diversity, that includes ethnic diversity. There are no simple answers to difficult historical questions. Let's not overlook this, because quite often, people have a populist interpretation of history."
Wiersma attacked attempts at drawing "facile or glib comparisons" between totalitarian regimes -- without once, however, identifying either by name. He said such debates have no place on the EU's agenda.
The leader of the smaller European United Left, French politician Francis Wurtz, was more outspoken. He rejected the idea of a "Nuremberg of ideologies" and said putting Soviet-era crimes on a par with those of Nazism "relativizes" the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Even if lawmakers could find a common stance on the issue, the best the body could do formally is pass a moral judgment on communism. The real powers on such matters lie with the member states.
In April 2007, EU justice ministers passed a law making it a criminal offense to publicly condone, deny, or trivialize "genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes" -- provided such crimes were recognized as such by the Nuremberg Tribunal of 1945 or the statute of the International Criminal Court of 2002. Neither makes any reference to communist crimes. The EU's executive, the European Commission, has been instructed to study whether the need exists to augment the list of crimes.
On April 21, Vice President Jacques Barrot told the parliament additional measures are for individual member states to decide.
"During the hearing, a group of participants suggested in a document a great number of measures," Barrot said. "The [European] Commission has noted this call for a greater European involvement, but it must be stressed that each member state itself must find its own way of addressing this issue. The European Union cannot substitute itself for these national processes. The European Union does not have much competence to act in this area."
The EU's role, Barrot says, should be restricted to "facilitating dialogue and the exchange of views."
In his two statements, Barrot never once invoked either Nazism or communism by name.
During the debate, deputies from Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe angrily recounted atrocities from their countries' communist pasts. They argued that the mass executions of political opponents and deportations of civilians that took place under the Soviet yoke must be recognized as an integral part of Europe's troubled history.
Estonia's Tunne Kelam, a conservative deputy, spoke for most when he argued for a "moral and political assessment" of the legacy of communist regimes equivalent to the judgement passed on that of Nazism.
"I am a bit disappointed with the commission's statement, because [its] main theme is that the assessment of communist totalitarianism will be an internal affair of every relevant country," he said. "I'm afraid that's going to deepen [a feeling of] double standards, because clearly, fascism and Nazism are not considered to be an 'internal' matter [for] any of the EU member states. Every emergence of neo-Nazism, or racism, is viewed as a direct threat to the common values of Europe."
Communism, Kelam noted, is by implication not seen as a threat to Europe. Its victims therefore, remain "second- or third-class victims," he said.
The new member states have received a generally sympathetic hearing among the EU's political right.