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East European Perspectives: March 20, 2002

20 March 2002, Volume 4, Number 6

Holocaust denial in postcommunist East-Central Europe is a fact. And, like most facts, its shades are many. Sometimes, denial comes in explicit forms; it is visible and universally aggressive. At other times, however, it is implicit rather than explicit, particularistic rather than universal, defensive rather than aggressive. And between these two poles, the spectrum is large enough to allow for a great variety of forms, some of which may escape the eyes of all but the most versatile connoisseurs of country-specific history, culture, or immediate political environment. In other words, Holocaust denial in the region ranges from sheer emulation of negationism elsewhere in the world to regionally specific forms of collective defense of national "historic memory" and to merely banal, indeed sometime cynical attempts at the utilitarian exploitation of an immediate political context.

The paradox of Holocaust negation in East-Central Europe is that, alas, it is neither "good" nor "bad" for Jews, who, by and large, no longer make up a numerically significant part of the region's national minorities. But it is an important part of the QUO VADIS transitional equation. Attitudes toward the Holocaust will not directly determine the region's outlook. But they may do so indirectly, insofar as facing collective responsibility is part of any "democratic game."

Criminal responsibility, however, can never be collective. Though looming large in postcommunist East-Central Europe, suspicions of an intended "collective incrimination" speak more of personal options than they speak of collective apprehensions. In a free society, choice is personal, but its outcome is collective. It is in this sense -- and this sense alone -- that Holocaust negation in the region is value-ridden. And those who "produce values" and offer them on the newly established competitive market are politicians and intellectuals -- sometimes working in tandem, at other times at odds.

The argument can be made that there is nothing specifically "East-Central European" about that. Indeed, that argument SHOULD be made. However, what is specific about the region is its former Communist legacy. This collective legacy partly facilitates, partly explains, and to a certain extent even exonerates Holocaust denial and its "comparative trivialization" -- as U.S. historian Peter Gay coined the endeavor (Gay, 1978, pp. XI-XII).

In a book on postcommunist Slovakia, Shari J. Cohen forged the concept of "state-organized forgetting of history" to describe the former regime's Orwellian manipulation of historical record to serve its political purposes (Cohen, 1999, pp. 85-118). For reasons that need not preoccupy us in this context, I disagree with Cohen's generalization, among other things because "forgetting" history implies obliteration rather than manipulation (Shafir, 2002). But "state-organized forgetting" is fully applicable when it comes to the East-Central European Communist regimes' "de-Judiazation" of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis and/or their local emulators or official allies, as amply demonstrated by contributors to a volume edited by Randolph L. Braham after the demise of those regimes (Braham, 1994a). This makes the task of Holocaust negationists easier and heightens receptivity to "Holocaust trivialization" arguments above what it would otherwise be in the Western parts of the continent.

Except for the very first postwar years, Soviet historiography and its imposed model strove to both "nationalize" and "internationalize" the Holocaust. "Nationalization" amounted to transforming Jewish victims into local victims, while "internationalization" derived from those regimes' ideologically determined "definition" of "Fascism."

In an essay written in 1985, French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet noted that the "History of the Great Patriotic War" by Boris Tepulchowski, while mentioning the gas chambers at Auschwitz, Maidanek, and Treblinka, never indicated that these had been put in place mainly to serve the purpose of the Jews' physical elimination; instead, Tepulchowski wrote that 6 million "Polish citizens" were murdered by the Nazis. As for the extermination of Jews on Soviet territory proper, it was covered in just two lines (Vidal-Naquet, 2000, p. 94).

Thanks to Evgenii Yevtushenko, the case of Babi Yar, where Soviet authorities constantly sought to blur the record of the victims' Jewish identity, 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." It bears no trace of specific Jewish suffering (Korey, 1994, pp. 210-12).

Similarly, the 1947 Polish parliament's decision to set up a memorial at Auschwitz described the site as one where "Poles and citizens of other nationalities fought and died a martyr's death." Twenty years later a monument was erected at the site, carrying inscriptions in 19 languages, including Yiddish, telling visitors that, "Four million people suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazi murderers between 1940 and 1945." Jews were thus included among the list of "other nationalities" that "suffered" at the hands of the German perpetrators.

As historian Michael C. Steinlauf ironically observes, that list was "alphabetically and therefore democratically" ordered, with "Zydzi" coming last. The 4 million figure was inflated on purpose to allow for a larger presence among the victims of Poles, Russian prisoners of war, and other non-Jews murdered at that extermination camp (Steinlauf, 1996, pp. 117-118). It was only after the fall of Communism that the inscription would be changed, to read, "Let this place remain for eternity as a cry of despair and a warning to humanity. About one and a half million men, women, children and infants, mainly Jews from different countries of Europe, were murdered here. The world was silent" (Steinlauf, 1996, p. 145). Much of the same applies to Sobibor, were the tablet mentioning 250,000 murdered "Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, Poles and Gypsies" was replaced by one speaking of "over 250,000 Jews and about 1,000 Poles" who lost their lives there (Steinlauf, 1996, p. 144).

Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia provides its own example of largely the same pattern. As Cohen points out, even before the 1948 takeover, "The Communist Party was ambivalent about singling out Jews as victims of fascism," and those "books and memoirs that were published during this period were removed from library shelves and bookstores after 1948 or 1949" (Cohen, 1999, p. 93). Although school textbooks underwent fluctuations in references to the Holocaust, its "de-Judiazation" remained a rather constant trait. For example, a school textbook of the 1950s told students that the camps at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt were not large enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of "democrats" from all over the continent (Cohen, 1999, p. 221 n. 67).

A document published by the Charter 77 group of dissident intellectuals in 1989 stated that while the fate of Czechoslovakia's 360,000 murdered citizens was often mentioned in official speeches or textbooks, "Only rarely...and practically never when the relevant text is aimed at wider audiences, do we encounter information that 240,000 to 255,000 of the total number of victims were persons of Jewish origin" (cited in Hahn, 1994, p. 61). The ethnic identity of the famous drawings of Theresienstadt children was passed over in silence for many years (Hahn, 1994, pp. 61-62). In Slovakia proper, "the word HOLOCAUST did not enter [public] debate...until 1989" (Cohen, 1999, p. 10; author's emphasis). The avoidance to specifically treat the role of Slovak "clerical fascism" in the extermination of Jews was possibly also a reflection of the sensitive relations between Czechs and Slovaks.

Hungary was no different. Under Stalinism, "the Holocaust was virtually sunk into the Orwellian black hole of history" (Braham, 2001). As Istvan Deak puts it: "World War II was officially remembered as the era when 'communists and other progressive elements' had struggled against, or became the victims of, 'Hitlerite and Horthyate fascism.' Somehow there seemed to have been no Jews among these heroes and victims; instead, all were 'anti-fascist Hungarians'" (Deak, 1994, p. 111).

Failure to deal with the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust can also be traced to the general failure of Communist regimes to provide a viable definition of "Fascism" -- a term under which all the radical right European regimes in the interwar period were (sometimes unwarrantedly) grouped together.

Up to the late 1960s and early 1970s, the universally accepted and universally imposed definition of "Fascism" was that provided by Georgi Dimitroff in his 1935 Comintern report, which had "Fascist" regimes being little else than "the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital" (Dimitroff, 1974, p. 7). This definition "explain[ed] Fascism away" by carefully avoiding the impulse to reveal the over-arching support that Italian Fascism, Nazism, and other radical authoritarian forms of government enjoyed among all social classes (Gregor, 1997, pp. 128-78). But its advantage, from the "Marxist" perspective, rested in allowing the ruling parties to present themselves as the "vanguard" of popular democratic attitudes in a population allegedly largely opposed to those regimes. The revolutionary character of generic Fascism could thus be fully buried in ideological jargon, for after Lenin the "revolution" was no less monopolized than was the actual Communist hold on power. "Fascism" could not be anything else than "counter-revolutionary."

Deak's remarks (1994, p. 118) on the Hungarian postwar situation could, in fact, apply across the board in postwar East-Central Europe:

"Keen to show the uniqueness of communists as anti-fascist fighters and simultaneously to present class-struggle as the main if not the only factor determining historical progress, orthodox Stalinist communists acted as if the Holocaust had never happened. Clearly, an ideology that regards ethnic and religious problems as mere-cover-ups for class conflict cannot deal adequately with a historical process that had as its goal the extermination of all members of a particular group, whether progressive or reactionary, whether exploiters or part of the exploited. Hence also the 1953 official Hungarian history textbook for high school students, which did not contain he word 'Jew' in its section on World War II. Hence also the general Stalinist practice to treat such Jewish victims of the Holocaust who happened to be communists or social democrats as 'martyrs of the international working class movement' while relegating all other Jewish dead to the general category of 'victims of fascism.'"

Hence also, one may add, the fact that, according to a Czechoslovak history textbook of the 1960s, the perpetrators at the camps had been "particularly cruel to communists, whom they set up as their key enemies," although it is acknowledged that "they also treated Jews very brutally" (Cohen, 1999, p. 105).

For Romanian communist historiography under Nicolae Ceausescu, even "pogroms" such as the one perpetrated in Iasi in late June 1940, were organized "against anti-fascist forces" (Eskenasy, 1994, p. 184). A rather interesting ("amusing" would be out of place) compromise was produced by Romanian historian (of Jewish origin!) Nicolae Minei, according to whom 12 million people had been interned by the Nazis in "specially constructed camps," of whom "half had been Jewish" (Minei, 1978, p. 7).

That this official definition of "Fascism" and its derivatives started to somewhat shift in the 1960s and the 1970s need not, I believe, be granted the exaggerated attention paid to it by A. James Gregor in an otherwise highly illuminating volume published in 2000 (pp. 107-127). First, because the changing definitions (one should rather speak of "approaches") were never OFFICIALLY embraced in binding Communist documents; and, second, because they were rather transparently -- indeed to a ridiculous extent -- aimed at allowing each side in the Sino-Soviet conflict to condemn the other as being "Fascist." Official documents could mutually indict the adversary as being "Fascist," but no Communist Party congress -- much less an international Communist gathering -- I am aware of ever replaced the Dimitroff definition.

And that definition left its mark not only on Communist historians. Milan S. Durica, a Slovak scholar teaching history at a theological faculty, for example, in 1992 defended the record of the Nazi-allied Jozef Tiso regime, emphasizing that labeling it "Fascist" would be wrong. There never was sufficient autochthonous Slovak capital in the "Parish Republic," it being largely concentrated in Hungarian-Jewish-German hands, he wrote; and "Fascism," according to Durica is "the reign of terror by financial capital, the most reactionary imperialistic movement of chauvinist high bourgeoisie allied with nationalism" (cited in Mestan, 2000, pp. 93-94).

To the extent that perceptions of what "Fascism" was all about nonetheless underwent a change in the area, this was due to mutations in civil society. The same applies to changes registered in perceptions of the Holocaust and its Jewish character. Sometimes, as during the Czechoslovak "Prague Spring," these perceptions were crushed by Soviet tanks and the ensuing "normalization," only to re-emerge on the eve of regime change, as witnessed by the above-cited Charter 77 statement. For example, the 1965 movie "The Shop On Main Street" was banned after 1968 (Cohen, 1999, p. 106).

When force against civil society proved insufficient, the impact of the shift in perceptions was wider and would eventually be reflected in the respective polity's enlarged readiness to face the burden of its own past. This was obviously the case with Poland's Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR), and later of Solidarity, with their marked impact on the beginning of the change in Polish-Jewish relations. Indeed, nowhere else in the area after 1989 was the readiness of scholars and intellectuals to face delicate issues linked to the Holocaust higher than in Poland -- which does not imply that national oversensitivity has been fully overcome.

Finally, the shift was occasionally a "fallout" of what can be labeled as "the transition to the Transition." According to Deak, "in Hungary, much earlier than in any other Communist country, efforts were made to face up to the dilemma of anti-Semitism and Hungarian participation in the Final Solution." But Hungary, I wish to add, also pioneered economic and political reform, which explains at least in part why during this period of the "transition to the Transition," the "Hungarian textbooks, although full of omissions, went into great details on Europe's collective guilt about the Holocaust" (Deak, 1994, p. 118). Even so, popular awareness of the Holocaust remained low in Hungary, the appearance of a relatively large number of documentary and historical publications on it notwithstanding (Braham, 2001).

It is, however, not irrelevant that the Communist Party extended even during this period its protection to the nationalist-inclined members of the Hungarian intelligentsia (the so-called "populists") rather than to the "urbanists," most of whom continued to publish their works in "Samizdat" and most of whom also happened to be Jewish. This would eventually have a significant impact on postcommunist perceptions of Hungarian-Jewish divisions and attitudes toward the Holocaust. But without diminishing their importance, these shifts in perception remained confined to a small, mainly intellectual elitist group, and their impact on society at large was marginal at best.

But Gregor (2000, pp. 42, 128-165) is definitely right when arguing that a "perfectly plausible case can be made that Stalinism was the ideology of a developmental NATIONAL SOCIALISM -- the 'socialism' of an economically backward nation. As such, it shared more than superficial similarities with the Fascism of Mussolini" (author's emphasis). As I pointed out elsewhere (Shafir, 2001, pp. 400-401 and 2002), Stalin's "socialism in one country" was the first ideologically formulated justification of what would eventually become known as "National Communism."

Nor was "National Communism" confined to the former Soviet Union's borders. "Objectively speaking" (as Stalin would have put it), it became the dominant doctrine adopted AGAINST Soviet domination. Tito's "heresy," as we know from Zbigniew Brzezinski (1960), had "National Communism" at its core, as did the Hungarian revolution of 1956 (at least at its early stages) and the Polish return to power in that same year of Wladislaw Gomulka. Eventually, the latter event would beget the phenomenon of General Mieczyslaw Moczar's "Endo-Communism," combining "the assimilation of ideas with direct linkage to the prewar Endecja" with "proletarian rhetoric" and thus producing a "peculiar marriage of authoritarian Communism and chauvinist nationalist tendencies," among which anti-Semitism figured prominently (Steinlauf, 1996, p. 115).

But Steinlauf is somewhat mistaken -- the marriage was hardly "peculiar." Under Ceausescu, Romania would not only undergo a similar process but far overtake Poland, with the world outlook of the interwar Fascist Iron Guard encoded and all but officially acknowledged in party documents, and reflected in party-supervised historiography. With the exception of Czechoslovakia (or rather its Czech part), no country in East-Central Europe remained unaffected by "the plague," with Enver Hoxha's Albania and Ceausescu's Romania (joined in the 1970s by Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov in what I termed "xenophobic communism," see Shafir, 1989) reaching paroxysm in their attempts to substitute nationalist for ideological legitimacy (Tismaneanu, 1984 and 1989; Fischer, 1989).

A large part of the postcommunist East-Central European political spectrum is occupied by parties of "radical continuity" and -- to a lesser but not inconsiderable extent -- by parties of "radical return." The former are the offspring of "National Communism" liberated from its earlier Communist ideological straightjacket, while the latter advocate a return to the values embraced by the interwar radical right (see Shafir, 2001). All radical continuity formations are "successor parties" of the former Communist rulers, which does not necessarily imply that ALL successor parties are radical continuity formations.

However, what ALL successor parties share is access to what Michael Waller (1995, pp. 481-482) calls "organizational continuity," including, above all, access to material resources. Neither radical return formations nor the conservative or neo-conservative formations which identify themselves with historically reborn mainstream parties benefit from such access. Rejecting, as they do, continuity with Communism, they must replace it with other resources, among which "historic continuity" figures more prominently than it does in the case of the successor parties. At first sight, this has little to do with Holocaust denial and with its "comparative trivialization." On closer scrutiny, however, both radical return and conservative formations or intellectuals identifying with them are often found to be part of the Holocaust-denying landscape.

In an article analyzing what is termed as the "assault on historical memory" in postcommunist Hungary, Randolph L. Braham, the world's most important historian of the Holocaust in that country, describes spectrum of Holocaust denial in the following manner:

"While the number of populist champions of anti-Semitism, like that of the Hungarian neo-Nazis actually denying the Holocaust, is relatively small, the camp of those distorting and denigrating the catastrophe of the Jews is fairly large and, judging by recent developments, growing. Wielding political power and influence, members of this camp represent a potentially greater danger not only to the integrity of the historical record of the Holocaust, but also, and above all, to the newly established democratic system. For unlike the Holocaust deniers -- the fringe group of 'historical charlatans' -- ...the history cleansers who denigrate and distort the Holocaust are often 'respectable' public figures--intellectuals, members of parliament, influential governmental and party figures, and high-ranking army officers" (Braham, 2001).

MUTATIS MUTANDIS, this applies to all countries in the region. And one of the main reasons for the widespread presence of "respectable public figures" indulging in casting doubt on the Holocaust rests precisely in the absence of "organizational continuity" and the resulting overpronounced necessity to compensate for that absence with appeals to legitimizing "historic continuity."

In other words, the legacy of "state-organized forgetting" and of "National Communism" extends far beyond those who under the former regime identified with its values and continue to do so in the postcommunist setting. The partisans of radical return (from among whom most outright negationists stem) are perhaps the fiercest in opposing the legacy of Communism. However, the former regime has made their discourse more persuasive than it might otherwise have been the case by having failed to address the issue of the Holocaust or by "deflecting" the blame for its perpetration onto either the Germans or onto a combination of Germans and the traditional "historic enemy."

This, for example, was the case of Romania where, under Ceausescu, references to Jewish extermination were singularly confined to Hungarian-occupied northern Transylvania, with no mention whatever being made of the extermination of Jews in Transnistria under Marshal Ion Antonescu's regime and/or solely attributed there to the Germans (Eskenasy, 1994, pp. 191,196; Ioanid, 1994, p. 164). Why, then, should Iron Guard leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and Antonescu, Admiral Miklos Horthy and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szalasi, President Tiso, or Croat "Ustasha" leader 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 Communism and/or the traditional enemy of their nation?

What is more, with Antonescu, Szalasi, and Tiso having been executed as war criminals, or Codreanu having been assassinated on the orders of King Carol II in 1938, they may fit very well into the natural postcommunist search for replacing manipulated "state-organized" martyrdom on the altar of proletarian internationalism, with martyrdom on the altar of national, anti-Communist values. Ludovit Pavlo, chairman of the Slovak League of America and a partisan of Tiso's rehabilitation, was most genuine in giving vent to this quest for "martyr-hero models." In 1996, in an article included in a collective volume published in Bratislava, Pavlo wrote quite bluntly: "I was pleased that Tiso died a martyr's death because we gained a saint and a hero.... I was afraid [after the war] that Tiso would be sentenced to life imprisonment because, with the passage of time, he would probably have fallen into oblivion." Tiso defender Gabriel Hoffmann, in a book he edited together with his brother Karel in 1994, concluded "after the study of hundreds of documents" that all accusations leveled at Tiso were lies and that he was "not a criminal, but a saint." The Vatican, Hoffmann wrote, will one day canonize Tiso (cited in Mestan, 2000, pp. 159, 164).

Tiso, who was a priest, finds himself in the company of laymen Codreanu and Antonescu. In 1993, when an Iron Guard "inheritor party" calling itself New Christian Romania was set up in Bucharest, participants in its founding congress demanded that Codreanu be canonized (see "Romania mare,"29 January 1993); the same demand was made in 1998 by a Cluj-based foundation of radical-return leanings. In 2001, a participant in a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the setting up of Romania's most conclusive exemplification of a radical continuity party -- the Greater Romania Party -- proposed that Antonescu be canonized by the Romanian Orthodox Church (Totok, 2001).

"Mainstream," allegedly democratic party leaders in search for alternatives to organizational resources face a double dilemma when forging what Hungarian sociologist Andras Kovacs properly termed in Hungary's case "an identity on a symbolic level." I believe Kovacs's insights can be generalized beyond Hungarian borders.

These parties can opt either to place themselves somewhere around the Western political spectrum or to "express a relationship with certain emblematic periods, events or individuals in the country's own history." In actual fact (one must correct Kovacs), one option does not necessarily rule out the other. A political formation may rally itself to, say, the European conservative stream of the "People's Party" and still proceed to identity-forging on mainly autochthonous values. Formations whose option is mainly introvert fight among themselves the battle "for the appropriation of history" in which they attempt to "demonstrate historical tradition and continuity" (Kovacs, 2002).

But a second dilemma emerges once the introvert option has been made, namely whether or not to distance themselves from the less seeming aspects of remote or immediate history -- and to what extent. Opting for distancing themselves from figures such as those mentioned above is in many cases tantamount to renouncing historic legitimacy as well. For what historic legitimacy can one claim if, as a Slovak or a Croat politician, one casts aside any continuity with the only time when an independent Slovak or Croat state has existed? And while claiming "anti-Communist historic legitimacy" IS possible in the case of Hungary's or Romania's "historic parties" or neo-conservative formations, it is not easy to do so when Antonescu and Horthy are largely perceived as THE embodiment of anti-Communist postures.

Finally, even in the case of Poland or the Czech Republic (which, unlike the Hitler allies were themselves victims of aggression and decimation), the Holocaust poses the problem of "competitive martyrdom" -- that of one's own nation versus that of the Jews. In the Polish case, moreover, politicians, intellectuals, and indeed the Catholic Church must cope with a legacy of non-institutionalized, large-scale popular anti-Semitism, as well as with that of the partly institutionalized anti-Semitism of formations such as the "Endecja." Under these circumstances, it is quite tempting to engage in one shade or another of "comparative trivialization." I shall eventually examine these shades in follow-up articles.

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