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East European Perspectives: January 22, 2003

22 January 2003, Volume 5, Number 2


By Michael Shafir

Basically, the "comparative trivialization" of the Holocaust in the context of postcommunist East-Central European debates comes in the form of two main arguments. The first places the two grand atrocities of the 20th century -- the GULAG and the HOLOCAUST -- on relative EQUAL FOOTING. This has been called the "double genocide" or the "symmetry" approach (Vareikis, 2003), and it can have a relatively benign and a more aggressive form; the purposes of each, however, are similar: to negate the singularity of the Holocaust. The second form of "comparative trivialization" places the HOLOCAUST IN THE SHADOW OF THE GULAG, by insisting that the latter's victims were far more numerous. Here one already faces the phenomenon that Vladimir Tismaneanu (2001) has fittingly termed "competitive martyrdom." This time around, however, the competition over martyrdom is no longer about who suffered more at the hand of the Nazis, but (in an inverse Leninist equation) in terms of who did greater wrong to whom. "Kto kogo" (Who whom) is past- rather than future-oriented, although not void of implications for the future. Common to both approaches is the assumption that Jews have indulged and continue to indulge in a "monopolization of suffering," both in order to counter their own guilt in bringing about, and participating in, the perpetration of the Gulag and to profit from an alleged "lucrative business."

The gist of the more benign form rests in submitting a "bill of mutual historical forgiveness" seemingly reflecting a QUID PRO QUO principle (Vareikis, 2003). Each side has done terrible things to the other, it is alleged, and the time has come to close a long chapter of animosity and march on with mutual humility. For Slovak-Australian exile Frantisek Vnuk, the deportations of Slovak Jews in 1942 are to be put on par with "what the Jews did in Slovakia with the Slovaks before 1939 and after 1945. Both Slovaks and Jews have transgressed against one another," though Vnuk makes it clear that the Slovaks had only reacted to what was previously done to them (Mestan, 2000, p. 100). Even in its most benign form, the argument reveals, as Leon Volovici concisely formulated it, that "the real target of the Jew = Bolshevik propaganda was not the number of Jews in the communist elites, but the alleged Jewish collective culpability for the misdoing and disasters of the communist regimes. Marxism was and is presented as a 'Jewish' ideology, emanating from Judaism, as a tool to rule the world and enslave other nations. This propaganda points to an absolute and imaginary 'Jewish guilt' in order to balance it with the real culpability and real responsibility for crimes committed against the Jewish population" (Volovici, 1994, pp. 16-17).

Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp's reluctance to participate in the Jedwabne commemoration (see "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," Vol. 4, No. 20) was a reflection of this benign form of "symmetry" approach. It somehow overlooked that the pogrom at Jedwabne was in itself the outcome of Jews having been liquidated because, among other things, they were perceived as agents of communism. Indeed, 75 of the younger Jedwabne Jews there were ordered to lift a huge statue of Lenin erected during the Soviet occupation of the area and carry it under savage beating to the Jewish cemetery. Their 90-year-old rabbi was marched at the head of the column carrying a red flag and, after the Lenin statue was entombed, those Jews were killed and buried along with it. The author of "Neighbors," Jan T. Gross, is by no means oblivious to the argument that Jews had participated in the forceful imposition of communism in Poland. But "Neighbors" shows that the liquidated Jews had nothing in common with the policies of communization (Gross, 2001, pp. 41-54, 112-116, 163-167). Yet one of Poland's most respected historians, Tomasz Strzembosz, insisted precisely on this aspect in his criticism of "Neighbors" (Strzembosz, 2001). Furthermore, during their 1939-41 occupation of eastern Poland, the Soviets were far from sparing the Jews from deportations to Siberia and other harsh measures, the criteria being political rather than racial. No less than 22 percent of those deported were Jews (Brumberg, 2001). As Gross put it during a debate in which both he and Strzembosz participated in March 2001, "There were proportionately more Jewish victims of those deportations than Polish victims. Between one-fourth and one-third of the deported civilians were Jews" ("Rzeczpospolita," 3 March 2001, in "Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles on Jedwabne," p. 274). MUTATIS MUTANDIS, this applies everywhere in the region. Jews were spared by neither communist Jewish leaders nor indeed by Moscow itself.

Yet the argument is brought up time and again, and not only by radical return partisans. In Hungary, MIEP leader Istvan Csurka is even willing to concede that the destruction of the country's Jewry has been "A TRAGEDY FOR THE WHOLE HUNGARIAN NATION" but hastens to add that, after "the period of evil men gone wild with their execution squads, came the era of [Jewish communist leaders Matyas] Rakosi, [Erno] Gero, [Jozef] Revai, and [Mihaly] Farkas, with its own unrestrained Bolshevik terror, among whose beneficiaries were considerable numbers of former Arrow Cross members, as well as former persecuted Jews." While Csurka is willing to admit that "the Moscovite Jews persecuted [also] the [Holocaust] survivor Jews" (cited in Kovacs, 2003, emphasis in Csurka's original article), it is the seemingly less anti-Semitic conservatives who dare go further into a "symmetric" approach to the Holocaust and the Gulag. Former Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban's adviser, Maria Schmidt, for example, wholly embraced the data presented by French historian Stephane Courtois in his controversial preface to the "Black Book of Communism," originally published in France in 1997. Courtois's figures show that between 85 million and 100 million people perished as a result of communist rule, whereas, as Schmidt put it in 1998, the Nazis had exterminated only some 25 million (cited in Braham, 2001). One has thus stepped right into "competitive martyrology."

"The Black Book" has met with considerable criticism in the West, not all of which is relevant to the present discussion. It has been emphasized that Courtois's mesmerism on numbers ignores the eschatology of the Nazis vs. that of the communists and, as a result, also the basic fact that while at least theoretically under communism it was possible to escape death by undergoing genuine or feigned socialization, no such escape existed for the victims of Nazism -- and certainly not for the Jews. The TELOS of the two regimes, Courtois's critics claimed, remained different despite all their common features. This different TELOS could produce, under communism, the phenomenon of dissidence that contributed so much to the regime's demise. This was not, and never could be, the case of Nazism: a "dissident Nazi" would instantly cease to be a Nazi -- which was not the communist case. Furthermore, Courtois was suspected of inflating figures to demonstrate, as it were, the far worse criminality of the communist regime; and, in order to do so, he was suspected of having added to the victims of the communist regime those of natural calamities that occurred under communist rule. He was also said to have willfully overlooked the "detail" of the far greater longevity of communism and the fact that it can be easily assumed that the 12-year Nazi regime would have produced a far larger number of victims had it lasted beyond 1945. On these grounds, two of Courtois's joint authors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, went so far as to publicly disassociate themselves from the volume as a whole (Tismaneanu, 2001). But no less important was the fact that Courtois's preface, by insisting on the PRECEDENCE of communist evil and on its emulation by the Nazis, would (at least indirectly) vindicate the reactive "justifications" of the Holocaust in their "double-genocide" forms.

Yet it must be emphasized that the massive impact of "The Black Book" on some Central and Eastern European countries has by no means GENERATED in those countries the "double genocide" perspective. That interpretation of recent history PREDATED "The Black Book," which only reinforced it. In Lithuania, for example, the "double genocide" thesis penetrated postcommunist society as a result of the writings of exiled Lithuanians, which is also to a large extent applicable to Slovakia. When President Algirdas Brazauskas made his apology in the Israeli Knesset in 1995, on his return he met with an oft-repeated question in the media: Who will apologize to the Lithuanian nation? Writer V. Jasiukaite, for example, emphasized that "there has been a genocide of the Lithuanian nation, and this has had its executors," adding that "not a few Jews had worked in the special services." Another popular Lithuanian writer, Jonas Avyzius, at that time a member of the Conservative Party, wrote that while Brazauskas had apologized for Lithuanians who had murdered Jews during World War II, "there was not the slightest hint that the President of Israel would do something similar, condemning his Jewish countrymen, who worked in repressive institutions in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, and sent thousands of Lithuanians to concentration camps." Yet a third writer, Jonas Mikelinskas, in an article in the Writers Union publication "Metai," combined a plethora of sources (including the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion") to prove that Jews had played the most prominent role in the anti-Lithuanian Soviet genocide (all cited in Vareikis, 2003).

Like his Lithuanian peers, Vnuk deplored that "so far not one Jew has been found who is ready to ask Slovaks for forgiveness for all the humiliation, suffering and misery caused the Slovaks by the Jews." After what Jewish communist leader Rudolf Slansky (executed by the communists in 1952 as a Zionist and imperialist agent) has done to Slovaks, according to memoirs by Professor Vaclav Cerny, "the Jews here ran a lasting debt.... [I]t is not they who are our moral creditors, but we theirs: let them not forget that" (both cited in Mestan, 2000, pp. 100 and 126, respectively). It was neither the event in itself nor indeed the contention -- clearly reflected in its title, "Who is Whose Debtor?" -- that made the publication of Cerny's memoirs remarkable. Rather, it was the fact that it was no marginal radical-return periodical that ran them but the government's own mouthpiece, the pro-Vladimir Meciar "Slovenska Republika."

Just as in Slovakia, Romanian "comparative trivialization" cuts across the political spectrum. It is hardly surprising to find Greater Romania Party (PRM) leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor stating that Romanians "are awaiting the time when the holocaust perpetrated against Romanians, by no means a lesser one than the holocaust perpetrated against the Jews, will be officially acknowledged" ("Romania mare," 23 June 2001). It is, once more, not surprising to find PRM Senator Mihai Ungheanu authoring in "Romania mare" in 1992-93 a long serial on "The Holocaust of Romanian Culture" that was eventually turned into a volume attributing to Jews and only to Jews the responsibility for having imposed the Zhdanovist line and having destroyed physically and spiritually the postwar Romanian intelligentsia. But the opposite side of the Romanian political spectrum embraced the "double genocide" approach with no lesser enthusiasm, as Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine, a French expert on the history of ideas in Romania, shows in a comprehensive essay (1999). A gigantic volume entitled "The Red Holocaust," authored by Germany-exiled Florin Matrescu, was enthusiastically reviewed in the respectable Writers Union weekly "Romania literara" in January 1996. On 27 April 1993, columnist Roxana Iordache was wondering in the daily "Romania libera" when Jews would "kneel down" before Romanians and ask forgiveness for what they had done to them.

By 1998, one witnessed a carbon-copy repetition of the Lithuanian saga. President Emil Constantinescu had made a rather courageous declaration acknowledging Romanian responsibility for the Holocaust in May 1997, not long after being elected (a similar statement was made during a visit Constantinescu paid to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., one year later). As a result, Floricel Marinescu, a historian with connections to the previous regime, in March 1998 published a furious article in the "Romania libera" weekly supplement "Aldine" in which not a single cliche employed in the "double genocide" argument was missing. As he put it, "from the strict quantitative perspective, the number of crimes perpetrated in the name of Communist ideology is much larger than that of those perpetrated in the name of Nazi or similar ideologically minded regimes." Yet unlike Constantinescu, "no prominent Jewish personality [from Romania] has apologized for the role that some Jews have played in undermining Romanian statehood, in the country's Bolshevization, in the crimes and the atrocities committed [by them]. Proportionally speaking, the Romanians and Romania suffered more at the hands of the communist regime, whose oncoming the Jews had made an important contribution to, than the Jews themselves had suffered from the Romanian state during the Antonescu regime.... The Red Holocaust was incomparably more grave than Nazism." Were one to give credence to Marinescu, the Jews were, albeit indirectly, also guilty for present-day Romania's dire economic situation, for it was due to them that the Romanians had "lost the habit to work" ("Romania libera," 7 March 1998). Not long after the publication of the tract, Marinescu was appointed a presidential counselor. Other Romanian intellectuals chose an apparently less confrontational path to express the same thoughts (for a discussion, see Shafir, 2000).

From here, the road to claims that Jews were bent on claiming a "monopoly over sufferance" just because they feared their role in bringing about communism would otherwise be revealed was short. The alleged link was repeatedly emphasized by "Adevarul" -- the daily with the widest readership -- Editor in Chief Cristian Tudor Popescu. What is more, Popescu eagerly translated and wrote an approving introduction to a chapter from Norman Finkelstein's negationist "The Holocaust Industry" (2000), which was reproduced in the daily's literary weekly shortly after its publication in America ("Adevarul literar si artistic," No. 517, 9 May 2000). The full text of the book, it was announced at the "conference" organized by Gheorghe Buzatu and Ion Coja in 2001, was about to be marketed as well. Finkelstein, so it seemed, was the Jew for whom the Romanian "comparative trivializers" had eagerly been waiting.

Does the applause with which the arrival of the "negationist Messiah" has been met invite the conclusion that "comparative trivialization" is an insurmountable obstacle -- at least among former communist states? The trivialization is entrenched in both FACT and LEGEND. It is A FACT that a minority of Jews had been attracted to Marxism, and that at the outset of the communist regimes there were many Jews among their leaderships. It is LEGEND that the "ZYDOKOMUNA" -- or whatever other local denomination has been or is being used to label "Judeo-Communism" -- had created the ideology, installed it in power, and, above all that were it not for the Jews, this dark episode of history would have been spared from these countries. It is FACT that many Jews had welcomed the Soviet army, which they regarded as a liberator. It is LEGEND that, were it not for Jewish collaboration with Moscow, those regimes would have collapsed in no time.

Within the "comparative trivialization" debates, however, this argument is leading to a dead end, because it overlooks the fact that history, including recent history, is and will remain "imagined." To reject out of hand comparability is to overlook the reality that collective memories are by definition dissimilar. WHAT IS REMEMBERED depends to no small extent on WHO IS REMEMBERING. The problem is not whether Jewish communists (be they a small and unrepresentative minority, as many Jewish authors never tire of emphasizing) acted as Jews when perpetrating crimes -- just as it is not whether the Nazis and their East-Central European collaborators acted as Germans, Lithuanians, Romanians, etc. The problem rests in whether a convincing argument can be produced that would both acknowledge the enormity of the Gulag and at the same time reveal the singularity of the Holocaust.

Let us at this point recall that the notion of "comparative trivialization" has been borrowed and expanded from the concept devised by Peter Gay, and that Gay used it in reaction to Ernst Nolte's obvious efforts to bring about a "relativization" of Nazi atrocities. Much of the debate over the Holocaust in postcommunist Eastern Europe, as Kovacs (2003) observes in Hungary's specific case, can be viewed as a continuation of the "Historikerstreit" (Historian's Quarrel) between Nolte and his critics -- but in a different geopolitical context. Nolte's "reactive" apology of Hitler, shifting the blame onto Bolshevism, which the Nazi leader allegedly emulated, remains, of course, inadmissible. But does this make inadmissible comparison between different genocides? And does this comparison necessarily lead to the negation of Holocaust singularity? Is it not at all possible both to acknowledge the singularity or uniqueness of the Holocaust and AT THE SAME TIME realize the unprecedented genocidal dimension of the Gulag?

Arguments produced by Jewish historians ruling out comparability in the name of singularity are sometimes not only counterproductive in the sense that they offer the partisans of "Jewish monopolization of suffering" ammunition to convince domestic audiences, but also objectively unconvincing. Was the Gulag, as Steven T. Katz has put it, nothing but "a vast slave empire created in large part to finance the modernization of Russia?" Is it really only the utilitarian aspect ("dead slaves bring no profit") that was behind the creation of the Gulag and maintained it throughout most of the communist period, in both Russia and the states that emulated the Russian model? Is it really exhausting its purpose to argue that "Stalin needed his GULAG that he could exploit them -- he did not set out purposely to murder them"(Katz, 1993, p. 7)?

Katz rules out any ideological motivations. In his view, it was the "utilitarian motives, however base" that prevailed under communism over "ideological fantasies and death." The "justification for violence" is to be found in "collective gain, wealth, production, industrialization, and socialist modernization" (Katz, 1993, p. 19). But such a perspective surely ignores that only an ideological justification that allows anything and everything in the name of "class struggle" could produce such a recipe for "modernization." It also ignores the fact that both the Nazi and the communist regimes were TOTALITARIAN and that a totalitarian regime in which ideology is not a prevailing feature is an impossibility. Subordinating "ideological fantasies" to utilitarian motives is -- to reduce the argument AD ABSURDUM -- tantamount to claiming that a liberal ideology dedicated to the same developmental purposes could presumably also transform individuals into "slaves" that would labor in the name of freedom, as Stalin did. Furthermore, from the perspective of those whose grandparents and parents went through the Gulag atrocities (regardless of whether they died in camps or managed to survive their ordeals), Katz produces arguments that to a large extent consist of turning exceptions into the rule. He thus writes that the Gulag inmates "in many cases" could be visited by relatives "once a year" and that "even when this was not possible, or in between visits, mail was allowed into and out of Camps, even 'care' packages including food, and the sending of money, though an uncommon occurrence, was also permitted." In contrast, he writes, Jews who underwent the ordeal of the Holocaust "neither visited nor corresponded. Their loved ones were either already ashes or living dead in another segment of the Kingdom of Night" (Katz, 1993, pp. 19-20).

Comparability, in any case, is by no means tantamount to sameness. There is little point in comparing identical objects. Furthermore, before it can be established whether or not objects of comparison are identical, the inherent traits of each object must be established. It took more than 40 years to do so for the Holocaust, and the task is not over yet. Research on the Gulag is incipient, and it is for this reason that "comparative trivialization" is, from a Jewish perspective, just as insulting as is the dismissal of the Gulag's genocidal aspects from a Gentile perspective. And vice-versa. The dialogue risks turning not only into one of the deaf, but also into one over the dead. Whose "dead" count more is by definition a matter of who does the counting; and who does the counting is, at this stage, clearly reflected in "who does the accounting."

In his seminal "Rethinking the Holocaust," Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer provides, I believe, a corridor leading out of the dilemma. But the corridor has to be freed of some remaining obstacles. The notion of genocide has originally been confined to the physical annihilation, or intention to do so, of members of whole nations. Were it to have remained confined within these boundaries, the communist genocide would, perhaps, be arguably applicable to massive numbers of deportations and the large-scale annihilation of Ukrainians, Balts, and other Soviet nationals; but it would leave out massive extermination of own-nationals. The Cambodian Khmer Rouge, among others, could never be indicted for "genocide," which is absurd. Although Bauer seems to disagree with the decision, the United Nations eventually extended the notion also to embrace the intent to annihilate religious groups as well as the destruction of political groups (see Bauer, 2001, p. 10). This certainly allows for consideration of the phenomenon generally referred to as "Gulag" as a genocidal one.

Bauer then suggests, and I believe the suggestion must be followed, to consider "genocides" as being acts of "selective mass murder" or the "partial murder" of targeted groups, differentiating such acts from the Holocaust, which is an intended "total destruction" of the targeted group. He then shows that unlike the Holocaust, other genocides were primarily driven by "pragmatic" considerations, above all by the quest physically to take over territory and assets of the targeted groups. He then concludes by producing three main reasons for the Holocaust's singularity: a) its being primarily motivated by "ideological" rather than pragmatic considerations; b) its "global, indeed universal character" rather than a limited geographical one; and, finally, c) "its intended totality. The Nazis were looking for Jews, for all Jews" (Bauer, 2001, pp. 47-49).

It is not difficult, as I just argued, to demonstrate communism's ideological character, and it should be equally obvious that "global universality" applies to communism no less than it applies to Nazism. What does, indeed, make the Holocaust unique is the third dimension, which, unlike the communist one, allowed no escape for the targeted victim. No Jew could ever become a "Nazi New Man," no matter how much he or she might have been willing to undergo the transformation. Not so with the communist "class enemy." This difference, I believe, pales all others, including the dispute on whether or not industrial mass murder is essentially different from other forms of physical destruction.

Why is this important, however? Not because the distinction would do away with the phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Outright negationists need not, indeed should not, become partners for dialogue. But other implicit deniers might find it easier to reconsider their perspective once the plight of own-nations is no longer dismissed out of hand. But Bauer provides another persuasive argument that might help establish dialogue. The Holocaust, he writes, is unique because it has been an "extreme form of genocide." But that does not make it into an unrepeatable act, and, even more frightening, "THE HORROR OF THE HOLOCAUST IS NOT THAT IT DEVIATED FROM HUMAN NORMS; THE HORROR IS THAT IT DIDN'T." What has happened "may happen again." To others, not necessarily Jews; perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. "We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders" (Bauer, 2001. pp. 42, 67. Author's emphasis).

Viewed from this horrid perspective, I believe that for "trivialization of the Holocaust" to lose its large East European prevalence, we (meaning Jewish historians, political scientists, social scientists) might well stop and ask whether we do not sin ourselves in trivializing other genocides. This author can only reiterate his own position, expressed publicly some time ago: "Comparisons, to be sure -- including comparisons in the social sciences - -may be a scientific instrument serving the purpose of widening the perspective of analysis. There is no reason why the Holocaust should not be compared with the Gulag, were it only for the fact that they both undeniably belong to the genocide phenomena, and genocide studies, alas, are an emerging discipline in our world. However, when the comparison is made for the purpose of denying or belittling either of them, and/or for that of obliterating that which is inherently unique to either the Holocaust or to the Gulag, then one has ceased to look for similarities and has entered the odious minefield of historic negation. Such endeavors have nothing in common with science, 'social' as they may still remain" (Shafir, 2001).
* This article is part of the study "Between Denial and 'Comparative Trivialization': Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East Central Europe," originally published in "ACTA," no. 19/2002 and is reproduced with the permission of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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