Accessibility links

Breaking News

East European Perspectives: October 30, 2003

30 October 2003, Volume 5, Number 22


By Michael Shafir

The "cucumber season" is known among media people as that time of year when they have to hunt for news instead of being hunted by it. It is a season when "anything goes," as it were. Astute and/or aspiring politicians, aware that their peers are sweating on seashores or contemplating mountain peaks, take advantage of the fact that newscasts will cover statements that would be ignored during the rest of the year. It is also known as the "silly season."

A lot of ink has been spent by political scientists and journalists since 1989 to describe what came to be called "Romanian exceptionalism." Romania, it would seem, is just "different" from other East-Central European postcommunist states. But to my knowledge no one -- not even the author of the best analysis of postcommunist media modus operandi in that country (Gross, 1996) -- imagined that exceptionalism in the Romanian case extends to the "cucumber season" as well. Romania may be the only country in the world where the season is dominated by politicians who are closer to the ends than to the beginnings of their political careers, and by incumbent governments rather than by aspiring politicians -- in short, by those who dominate newscasts the rest of the year as well. This exceptionalism does not make the protagonists less "silly" than their associates in the "cucumber-dominated" season elsewhere in the world. But it might make them less eligible for the attenuating circumstances of inexperience or unfulfilled political ambitions.

Two successive scandals of international proportion involving Holocaust-denial postures by the Romanian government and the country's president in June and July illustrate this exceptionalism in abundance. Both scandals excelled in their apparent futility. Both at first sight defy logic and/or "national interest." Finally, both scandals illustrate a problem whose significance extends far beyond their immediate circumstances: that of "historical memory" and its political implications.

It is not my intention in this article to describe in minute detail the evolution of the scandals. Instead, I intend to submit those events to an analytically conceptual examination of their significances. I am consciously employing here the plural rather than the singular. This should not be mistakenly interpreted to imply that I am a partisan of the postmodernist approach to history and historiography. I do not believe that ANY interpretation of history is legitimate, for that would land me in either the camp of "vulgar Marxism" or in that of the Holocaust deniers, and perhaps in both. I do, however, believe that a plurality of explanations can coexist and that neither people nor PEOPLES are driven by singular motivations, unless they are obsessed. And obsession is the stuff of novelists and of psychiatrists, not of historians or (in my own particular case) political scientists.

In other words, I do believe in (non-postmodernist) "deconstructionism." Deconstruction -- by which I mean analyzing events in the particular context in which they occur without losing track of historical antecedents -- by definition involves a plurality of motivations, for we are never consciously driven only by the purpose we seem to pursue HERE AND NOW. We are also influenced by the socialization processes we have undergone and, no less important, by our conscious or unconscious effort to meet the expectations of those we strive to please, or whose support we wish to recruit.

If the perspective I described above is anywhere close to being correct, the "cucumber salad" served by the Romanian cabinet and by President Ion Iliescu in June and July should be "deconstructed" into all its "ingredients." In what follows, I shall be "deconstructing" the Romanian cucumber salad into several coexisting conceptual "ingredients" that I developed in previous works related to Holocaust denial in general and to its Romanian particularities, especially. References will be made to those works without more than minimally going into the explanation of the concepts employed. First, I shall focus on "utilitarian anti-Semitism" as a component of the explanation; second, I shall examine the "double-talk" aspect of official Romanian dissimulation in addressing Holocaust-related problems, or what I prefer to call "simulated change;" third, I shall be addressing the problem of the "comparative trivialization" of the Holocaust as illustrated in the summer 2003 "incidents"; leaving any theoretical considerations aside, I shall then proceed to scrutinize a blatant presidential prevarication; finally, I shall conclude in tackling the problem of "historic memory" and its subjectivity. But before embarking on the above, a brief "factological" review of the incidents seems warranted.

1. Serving the Cucumber Salad: Act One
On 12 June, a very brief official government press release announced that the cabinet had approved on the same day a cooperation agreement between the National Archives and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The communique added that Romania's government "encourages research concerning the Holocaust in Europe -- including documents referring to it and found in Romanian archives -- but strongly emphasizes that between 1940-45 no Holocaust took place within Romania's boundaries" (Rompres, 12 June 2003). The statement was a perfect illustration of "selective negationism," by which I mean those types of Holocaust denial that do not negate the Holocaust as having taken place ELSEWHERE but exclude ANY participation of members of one's own nation in its perpetration (Shafir, 2002a, pp. 52-59, 2002b, pp. 88-103). It was also an exemplification of brutal falsification of historical fact, based, as we shall see below, on the "technicality" that most Holocaust atrocities in Romania had been committed on territories not officially annexed, and on the willful omission of the atrocities committed on Romanian territory proper.

The communique immediately triggered a wave of protests by Jewish organizations in Romania and by official Israeli circles while also attracting the attention of Jewish organizations in the United States and elsewhere. After apparent hesitation, the Steering Committee of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FCER) on 17 June released an unprecedented, strongly worded communique noting with "surprise and justified sadness" the government's claim and calling it "irrelevant and out of place" ("Realitatea evreiasca," No. 189, 6-23 June 2003). The Aven Amenza Romany Center for Public Policy likewise protested the statement in an open letter to Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, after a meeting that commemorated 61 years since the start of the deportation to Transnistria of Romanian Roma. The center said it intends to sue Public Information Minister Vasile Dancu, whose office disseminated the Romanian government's announcement, saying the statement amounted to the denial of the extermination by the Ion Antonescu regime of 36,000 Roma during the Holocaust (Rompres and "Curentul," 17 June 2003). Like the FCER, Aven Amenza described the claim that no Holocaust had been perpetrated on Romanian territory as "irrelevant."

Romania's ambassador to Israel, Mariana Stoica, was summoned to the Israeli Foreign Ministry on 16 June, where she was handed an official protest and told that Israel "takes a grave view of the Romanian statement, which is at odds with the historical truth and detracts from the steps taken by the Romanian government to confront the past." The Romanian cabinet, Israeli Foreign Ministry Deputy Director David Peleg told Stoica, "must find a way to correct this unfortunate statement, in order to return bilateral ties to the right path" (Mediafax, 16 June 2003; "Ziua," 17 June 2003). The Knesset's (the Israeli parliament) Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Committee approved a resolution "strongly protesting" the Romanian government's statement and describing it as an act of "Holocaust denial." It said Romania's cabinet must "acknowledge the facts and the responsibility of the [Ion Antonescu] government that had brought about the murder of Jews in Romania." The resolution noted that Ambassador Stoica, on her government's instructions, had refused an invitation to attend the committee's meeting. It also quoted Romanian-born committee Chairwoman Colette Avital as saying: "The denial of the Holocaust by Romania's government creates a dangerous precedent. Four hundred thousand Jews were murdered in Greater Romania during the Holocaust and nobody can deny this" (official press release [in Hebrew], 17 June 2003). The Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority likewise issued a statement bashing the Romanian government's declaration, saying that it "is hardly comprehensible for a country claiming to have a democratic regime to present a version of historic facts that is falsified to such extent." It drew attention to the recently published work by Romania-born historian Jean Ancel, which "based on worldwide archival [documentation], including Romanian archives to which access is possible, shows that the Bucharest Romanian government, hand-in-hand with the Romanian Army and with police, has been directly responsible for these massacres" (Mediafax, 16 June 2003).

Leaving any diplomatic language aside, Radu Ioanid, director of international archival programs division at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in reaction to the government's statement that a "fascist-like wing [that is close to the chauvinist] Greater Romania Party (PRM) is acting inside the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD)" ("Cotidianul," 18 June 2003). From Australia and the United States to Germany, France, and Great Britain, the statement received wide (and universally negative) coverage. Citing an analysis by this author broadcast by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Romania-Moldova service, the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 17 June published an article under the sarcastic title "The Murderers Are Not Among Us" -- a clear pun on Simon Wiesenthal's classic "Murderers Among Us."

The near-universally negative reaction triggered abroad (to distinguish from the more heterogeneous response in Romania itself) prompted the government to "reconsider" its position. After an initial attempt by Culture and Cults Minister and historian Razvan Theodorescu to "clarify" the statement by historical-judicial gimmicks (see below), the government issued a "repentance" statement practically recanting the earlier assertions. The Antonescu regime in Romania, the government's new statement read, "was guilty of grave war crimes, pogroms, and mass deportations of Romanian Jews to territories occupied or controlled by the Romanian army," and the Romanian government "assumes its share of responsibility" for the crimes initiated by that regime during the Holocaust (Mediafax, 17 June 2003). Meanwhile, President Ion Iliescu himself had described the government's 12 June statement as having triggered "a useless debate" and as a declaration "that should have never been made" (Rompres and AP, 17 June 2003).

2. Anyone For A Refill? Act Two
Yet barely one month later, Iliescu himself would provoke an even greater scandal with his declarations in an interview with the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" ("Ha'aretz" English edition, 25 July 2003). Referring to the cabinet's statement of the previous month, which he himself had deemed out of place, Iliescu said "the Holocaust was not unique to the Jewish population in Europe. Many others, including Poles, died in the same way." But only Jews and Gypsies, the interviewer observed in reaction, had been "targeted for genocide" at that time. To which the president responded: "I know. But there were others, who were labeled communists, and they were similarly victimized. My father was a communist activist and he was sent to a camp. He died at the age of 44, less than a year after he returned." This was a typical example of indulging in what I (expanding a concept originally devised by U.S. historian Peter Gay) called "trivializing the Holocaust by comparison" (Shafir, 2002a, pp. 60-75 and 2002 b, pp. n106, 132). I shall further dwell on this point below.

Unlike the 12 June government statement, Iliescu admitted that massacres of Jews had been perpetrated on Romania's territory, and he observed that "the leaders of that time are responsible for those events." However, he noted: "It is impossible to accuse the Romanian people and the Romanian society of this. When Germany declared [sic] the Final Solution -- a decision that was obeyed by other countries, including Hungary, Antonescu no longer supported that policy. On the contrary, he took steps to protect the Jews. That, too, is historical truth." He also went on to observe: "Antonescu also had his positive side. In 1944, when Hungary under Horthy was implementing the Final Solution and transported its Jews, including residents of northern Transylvania, which was then under Hungarian rule, to death camps, Antonescu was no longer doing that." As to the historians' claim that the shift in policies toward Jews was due to Stalingrad, Iliescu acknowledged that this "is correct" but deemed the detail to be "not important." After all, he remarked in a full display of historical ignorance, "didn't the Hungarians also see the Germans' defeat at Stalingrad"?

Indeed they had seen that defeat -- a better-informed interviewer might have countered -- and this was precisely why Horthy attempted to contact the Allies for armistice feelers, which led to Hungary's occupation by Germany in March 1944 and eventually to Horthy's exile in October of that year. And while the admiral bears responsibility for those atrocities committed under his rule, most of the deportations to camps took place after his country was occupied and continued after his enforced exile by the Germans. Horthy, it is claimed by his Hungarian and other defenders, was indeed an anti-Semite; but they argue that he was also a defender of Jews (see Deak, 2000). All these "historical details" did not hinder Iliescu from telling the interviewer: "What amazes me is that no one has passed such harsh judgment on Horthy in Hungary" as that passed on Antonescu by Romania's [Jewish?] critics abroad. Those critics, Iliescu observed, "are very severe with Antonescu, but not so thorough when it comes to others." Here Iliescu was displaying ignorance of historical fact (an aspect analyzed in the following "deconstruction") but also giving vent to a widely shared feeling among East Europeans that the world-at-large is conspiring against their country (for an excellent analysis of the Romanian case, see Voicu, 2000). In other words, he was indulging in what Vladimir Tismaneanu properly labeled "self-pity" philosophies, which are part of the postcommunist mythical framework in which "conspiracy theories thrive" (Tismaneanu, 1998, pp. 7, 11, 84).

The interviewer then observed that the 12 June government statement had also "led to a discussion about the restitution of Jewish property from the war period." At this point, Iliescu became outraged:

"What's the connection? I don't think we should make a connection between these things. After all, that is liable to generate sentiments not of a positive nature toward the Jewish population. As though the entire engagement with the Holocaust was intended to justify property claims. I would prefer it if that connection were not made. In other words, the historical research should be left to historians. As for the restitution of property -- and there are Romanians, too, and not only Jews, who are asking for property back -- today the situation is worse than in 1989. People are struggling with shortages, and at the same time tens of thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- of people are coming forward with claims, because in Romanian history, during World War II and afterward, property was nationalized. Does that mean that the wretched Romanian citizens of today have to pay for what happened then? People have already had their fill of property restitutions and of having to pay for what happened during history, without their being guilty of anything.... We are in favor of righting wrongs that were done and ensuring compensation of some kind for those who suffered. But we also have to take into account the present condition of Romania. Is it worth continuing to skin those who are living in distress today, too? And just in order to compensate others? I don't find that appropriate."

It was quite plain that Iliescu was venting his opposition to property restitution in general and to his documented attempts to restrict restitution as much as possible. But he was sliding (at best) into a populist or (at worst) into sheer anti-Semitic discourse when, in a manner reminiscent of the interwar Iron Guard or the postcommunist PRM, he warned against "skinning" poor Romanians with restitution demands. And was it also just coincidental that the president used precisely the PRM discourse when he stated that "history should be left to historians"? That discourse had been employed by the PRM when raising objections to Ordinance 31/2002 (see below), and Iliescu could hardly be unaware of it.

When the interviewer switched the focus to the chauvinist PRM -- the second largest party in Romania's parliament after the 2000 elections -- and asked Iliescu whether mainstream parties "reject outright cooperation" with that formation, the president replied that he did "not want to reject that party as a whole," only its leader, Corneliu Vadim Tudor. "We have to assume that there are decent people in that party and among its supporters, people who support some of the positions of Romania Mare [PRM] because of the difficulties they are experiencing in their life. There are serious social problems and the economic situation is not yet satisfactory in the eyes of a large part of the population, and that encourages populist utterances," he explained.

What followed was a repetition of the June scenario. Ambassador Stoica was summoned to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and handed a protest, while Israeli Ambassador to Bucharest Sandu Mazor was instructed to deliver a strong protest at the Foreign Ministry in Bucharest. Once more, Peleg told Stoica that his country considered President Iliescu's declarations to be "grave" and "expects a clarification indicating whether this positions is [also] that of the Romanian government." It was not in the least insignificant (see below) that Peleg reminded Stoica that Israel had backed Romania's quest for NATO and EU integration, drawing attention that the integration process in the two organizations must be entrenched on forging "a tolerant civil society, capable of courageously facing the darker pages of its own past, assuming responsibility for it and learning its lessons" (Mediafax, 26 and 28 July 2003; "Ziua," 29 July 2003). Israeli Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, himself a survivor of the crimes perpetrated by Hungary in Vojvodina, called Iliescu's comments on the Holocaust "insensitive" ("Ha'aretz," 25 July 2003). Dorel Dorian, the Jewish community's representative in the Romanian parliament, called them a "regrettable error" ("Cotidianul," 28 July 2003). Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman sent Iliescu a letter of protest urging him to "publicly renounce your comments and take steps towards an honest reckoning of what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust" ("Ziua," 28 July 2003). The incident also somewhat changed the focus of a visit Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana began to the United States the day after the "Ha'aretz" interview's publication. The next day, Geoana met with representatives of U.S. Jewish organizations -- B'nai Brith's Vice President Daniel Mariaschin and American Jewish Committee European Affairs Director Andrew Baker. He told them that one should make a distinction between occasional passing tensions caused by misunderstandings and Romania's core stance in dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust or the country's relations with Israel and the U.S. Jewish community ("RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July 2003; "Ziua," 29 July 2003). The scandal, again, received extensive international media coverage, not to speak of the media in Israel, where the conservative "The Jerusalem Post" in an editorial called "Repudiate Iliescu's Anti-Semitism" went so far as to compare the Romanian president with Austria's far-right leader Joerg Haider and to urge his international isolation.

There was a sense of "deja vu" in what followed. At first, President Iliescu professed to be "surprised and saddened" by the "misinterpretation" of his statements, not only by Israeli officials but also by "Romanian journalists and commentators" (Mediafax, 27 July 2003). These were said to have been taken out of the context in which they had been made. He also said that it had never been his intention to display a "lack of sensibility" or to "banalize the Holocaust." Neither did he ever intend to detract from "the responsibility of those who led the Romanian state in that period. Historical truth must be fully expressed," he said, while also emphasizing the "uniqueness" of the treatment THE NAZIS had applied to Jews in occupied Europe or in the countries allied with Germany (emphasis added). How about ROMANIANS, however? Were only those who headed the state responsible for such crimes? Were only those who issued orders to be held responsible, without any guilt borne by those who carried them out, not to speak of "bystanders"? And was the president aware that by making this statement, he was doing little else than engaging in "deflective negationism" -- i.e., in the transfer of the guilt for the perpetration of the Holocaust crimes to members of other nations while minimizing own-nation participation in the crimes, which are thus reduced to insignificant "aberrations" committed by non-representative individuals? Deflecting the bulk of the guilt for the Holocaust onto the Nazis is a widespread form of "deflective negationism," one that could well be dubbed "Deutsche, Deutsche ueber alle" [Germans, Germans Above All] (see Shafir, 2002a, pp. 23-37 and 2002b, pp. 46-66).

Iliescu also claimed that the properties confiscated or "Romanianized" from Jews by the Antonescu regime had been returned after August 1944, adding, however, that the different "emigration waves" of Jews to Israel had "generated many property-problems." After "many hesitations and controversies," he added, a "legal framework has been created allowing restitution to all those entitled to receive it. The Jewish community is receiving back goods confiscated or nationalized, as do all other Romanian citizens." However, "the problem is complicated," above all by the "lack of resources that the state can allocate for compensation." As a matter of historical fact, the restitution of properties "Romanianized" by the Antonescu regime, though legislated, met in practice with the opposition of the country's rulers, and lost much of its significance with the 1948 nationalization. This was a major factor in encouraging Jewish emigration to Israel or elsewhere. Among the reasons claimed by the Romanian authorities before 1948 for a failure to meet restitution demands was the country's poverty in the wake of the loss of the war and the huge reparations imposed on it by the Soviet Union (see Glass, 2002, pp. 81-94). It seems that history does, indeed, repeat itself. In Iliescu's eyes, however, it was not the communist regime that had created the "property-problems" by nationalizing assets, but the Jews who opted to leave the country after having failed to regain possession or having lost it again shortly thereafter.

It was also stated in the official presidential communique that "the head of the state never questioned the legitimacy and the morality of requests to restitution and compensation"; he had only wished to "draw attention that in the conditions prevalent in contemporary Romania, where one out of three Romanians ives in poverty, paying out some $9 billion-10 billion in a short time, can generate serious economic and social disequilibrium." He was therefore advocating the "spacing out over time" of compensation for those properties that can no longer be returned to their rightful owners.

This was also the spirit in which Iliescu addressed a letter to Israeli President Moshe Katzav and, in a rather unusual gesture, attempted to assure Israeli Ambassador Mazor of his good intentions in a personal telephone conversation. Soon thereafter, Mariaschin visited Bucharest, was received by Iliescu and, in the same spirit, it was agreed that Romania would be implementing several measures to demonstrate its readiness to move from words to deeds. These measures included the setting up of a commission of Romanian and foreign historians that would "unequivocally establish the significance of the extermination of Jews on Romania's territory during the Second World War;" introducing the teaching of Holocaust courses in Romanian schools; and instituting an official observance of the Holocaust Day in Romania (see the interview with Mariaschin in "Romania libera," 4 August 2003).

Mazor, however, was rather circumspect in his reaction to the promises received. Israel, he said, will respond to the measures after they are implemented (Mediafax, 28 July 2003). This did not stop Iliescu from conveying on Mazor a high Romanian state distinction shortly before the end of his mission. That Mazor accepted the distinction so soon after the "Ha'aretz" interview scandal raised more than a few eyebrows in Israel and elsewhere. The riddle had a tragicomic key: the distinction had been conferred on Mazor for his "outstanding personal contribution to strengthening the traditional cooperation relations between the State of Israel and Romania [and] for [his] support of our country's efforts to build and consolidate a functional market economy" ("Evenimentul zilei," 7 August 2003). Mazor would soon announce that he was requesting to have his Romanian citizenship restored, as he intended to work in Romania as manager of a large Israeli investment company and wished to avoid the trouble of having to request a reentry visa after each departure from Romania. But he was thus infringing on Israeli regulations requiring a two-year "cool off" period for civil servants before they may engage in business that might raise suspicion of having used contacts established during service to their own private benefit. After being warned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and after Israeli journalists questioned whether he had served as Romania's ambassador rather than vice-versa, Mazor withdrew his dual-citizenship request.

The author is grateful for having been granted permission to publish this abridged version of his article ahead of the appearance of its full version in the Romanian journal "Xenopoliana. Buletinul Fundatiei Academice A. D. Xenopol," Vol. XII, 2003.


AP, 2003.

"Cotidianul" (Bucharest), 2003.

"Curentul" (Bucharest), 2003.

Deak, I. "A Fatal Compromise? The Debate Over Collaborationism and Resistance in Hungary" in Deak, I., Gross, J. T., Judt, T. (eds.), The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and Its Aftermath (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 39-73.

"Evenimentul zilei" (Bucharest), 2003.

"Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (Frankfurt am Main), 2003.

Glass, H., 2002, Minderheit zwischen zwei Diktaturen: Zur Geschichte der Juden in Rumaenien 1944-1949 (Muenchen: R. Oldenburg Verlag).

Gross, P., 1996, Mass Media in Revolution and National Development: The Romanian Laboratory, (Ames: Iowa State University Press).

"Ha'aretz" English edition, 25 July 2003,

"The Jerusalem Post," 2003.

"Realitatea evreiasca" (Bucharest), 2003.

"RFE/RL Newsline," 2003.

"Romania libera" (Bucharest), 2003.

Rompres, 2003.

Shafir, M., 2002a "Between Denial and 'Comparative Trivialization.' Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East-Central Europe," (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism).

Shafir, M., 2002b, Intre negare si trivializare prin comparatie: Negarea Holocaustului in tarile postcomuniste din Europa Centrala si de Est [Between Denial and Comparative Trivialization: Holocaust Negationism in Post-Communist East Central Europe] (Iasi :Polirom).

Tismaneanu, V., 1998, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Voicu, G., 2000, Zeii cei rai: Cultura conspiratiei in Romania postcomunista [The Bad Gods: Conspiracy Culture in Post-Communist Romania] (Iasi: Polirom,).

"Ziua" (Bucharest), 2003.