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East European Perspectives: September 5, 2002

5 September 2002, Volume 4, Number 18


By Michael Shafir

While outright negation of the Holocaust in the former communist countries of East-Central Europe is not often encountered and, generally speaking, remains on the fringe (see Shafir, 2002) "deflective negationism" is far more diffuse. Whereas outright negationism rejects the very existence of the Holocaust, its deflective alternative does not; or, to some extent it does, but more perversely so. Rather than negate the Holocaust, deflective negationism transfers the guilt for the perpetration of crimes to members of other nations or it minimizes own-nation participation in their perpetration to insignificant "aberrations." It is thus particularistic rather than universal, as well as self-defensive.

Deflective negationism is a specific form of the more general syndrome of "externalization of guilt"-- a phenomenon with deep social and psychological roots that crosses national boundaries. In most cases, externalization of guilt is focused on the historic national enemies, be they internal (national minorities perceived as threatening) or external. Anti-Semitism, as I showed back in 1991 when discussing the specific Romanian case, has always been particularly prone to the whims of guilt-externalization (Shafir, 1991, p. 29). But Romania is by no means singular. Writing on the Russian extreme right, Walter Laqueur observed that it shares the "unshakable belief that all of Russia's misfortunes can be blamed on foreigners. Whatever goes wrong has nothing to do with anything that ethnic Russians have done or have not done. Without the machinations of foreigners, Russia would be great, prosperous, and powerful" (Laqueur, 1997, p.194). However, in the particular case of Holocaust interpretations, explanations, and historiographical output in East-Central Europe, one would have expected externalization of guilt to be either very marginal or wholly absent. Yet this is far from being so. One would search in vain here for "logical" explanations; for, as French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1992:73) observed, "When logic has no other end than self-defense, it goes mad." It is possible to distinguish between several subcategories of deflective negation, according to its target. Assigning perpetration solely to the Germans is the easiest and perhaps most natural form of deflective negationism. A second subcategory deflects guilt onto allegedly insignificant aberrations encountered in one's own nation. Last but by no means least, guilt for the Holocaust is also deflected onto the Jews themselves. All three subcategories at the same time involve a conscious or unconscious amount of "Holocaust minimization" (Braham, 2001). This part of the article concentrates on examining the first among these three subcategories.

That the Holocaust would not have taken place without the Nazis or without their invasion of East-Central Europe is a truism that needs no demonstration. Yet responsibility cannot rest on Nazi shoulders alone. The Holocaust was also made possible by crimes initiated and committed at the order of Nazi-allied authorities; by atrocities initiated and perpetrated by local fascists; or by collaboration-- indeed the effective participation in their perpetration--of individuals from among the populations conquered by the Reich. Deflecting the entire guilt for the crimes onto the Nazis is thus an explicit or implicit refusal of Vergagenheitsbew�ltigung (coming to terms with and overcoming the past).

Poland: From Blonski To Jedwabne
The Polish story is perhaps the most dramatic, for the Poles face a situation of having been victims and, to use Raul Hilberg's terminology, "bystanders" at one and the same time (Hilberg, 1992). The former dimension is deeply imbedded in collective memory; the latter is often subject to deflection. As Michael Steinlauf (1996, p.125) aptly formulated it, the communist-induced legacy of ignoring the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust has meant that its meaning "had become Polish victimization BY the Holocaust" (author's emphasis). In addition, victimization in the "imagined" Polish community (its Andersonian sense, see Anderson, 1991) is perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere, undoubtedly reflecting objective historical facts as well.

As Ilya Prizel recently put it, "Generations of Poles were brought up to believe that historic Poland, until its partition in the late 18th century, was a model of tolerant multiculturalism." The "overwhelming consensus" among Polish historians, Prizel wrote, is that, "Poland was the first country to resist Hitler and the only country to simultaneously confront the bloody tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin." This consensus is reflected in the way the Holocaust has been generally perceived as having been "primarily a Polish tragedy that resulted in the extermination and martyrdom of Poland's clergy and intellectuals" (Prizel, 2002, p. 279). Polish popular belief, reinforced by the communist NON-TREATMENT of the Holocaust as a tragedy affecting mainly Jews, thus does not take kindly to those Polish, but particularly foreign, intellectuals and historians who, while not denying the Polish national trauma under the Nazis, are suggesting that victims can sometimes be bystanders and even collaborators.

When literature professor Jan Blonski in 1987 first called on his countrymen to "stop being defensive, pleading innocence" about the Holocaust and "accept our responsibility," his call met with expectedly harsh reactions. For it was not easy to demolish the myth that had transformed the genuine 16th- and 17th-century Polish tolerance of the Jews into one claiming that "that tradition continued uninterrupted over the centuries" (Brumberg, 1994, p.144). "We welcomed Jews into our home, but made them live in the basement," Blonski wrote, adding (in an obvious reference to the Emancipation that, "When they sought to enter the drawing room, we promised we would let them in on the condition that they would stop being Jews, or 'become civilized,' as the expression went in 19th-century Poland, but certainly not only in Poland." However, "When some Jews expressed willingness to follow this advice, we started talking about a Jewish invasion." Then came the Holocaust, when "we lost our home and the occupiers began killing Jews on its premises. How many of us decided that this was none of our business? There were also those (I leave criminals out of account) who secretly were glad that Hitler solved the Jewish 'problem' for us." Does this, Blonski asked, amount to "complicity in genocide"? The definitive answer, he believed, was negative. "Why talk about genocide, then? About complicity? My answer is this: Taking part and complicity are not the same thing. One may be associated in guilt without actually taking part in the crime." The Holocaust in Poland, according to Blonski, would have been "made more difficult" on its perpetrators were it not for the "indifference and moral paralysis [of] the society that witnessed it" (Blonski, 1988, pp. 352-354).

Blonski's article was a landmark in the evolution of both Polish-Jewish relations and Polish attitudes toward the Holocaust. To review that evolution is beyond the focus of this study. But as Polish historian Dariusz Stola noted, by the 1990s the debates in Poland on the Holocaust had increasingly turned into "Polish-Polish debates, contrary to the previous decades, when they had been mostly Polish-Jewish controversies." Many Poles are nowadays ready to face the seemingly irreconcilable equation that "a victim can sometimes be a victimizer" and that "Nazi intentions toward the Poles were inhuman, but different from the plan of the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question" (Stola, 2002). Many -- but by no means all, it should be added.

Deflective negationism is still a tempting option. Nothing illustrated this better than the reactions to the publication (in 2000 in Poland, in 2001 in the West) of Jan T. Gross's account of the July 1941 massacre of Jedwabne's 1,600-strong Jewish community by their Polish neighbors (Gross, 2001). The massacre had been subjected to confinement in the communist "black hole of history." Indeed, Gross's book does not contain revelations that were not known already in the first decade of Poland's communist rule -- it only provides additional information. Neither does the book in any way generalize Jedwabne into an accusation of overall Polish complicity in the Nazi crimes, though Jedwabne was actually not a singular case. Four days earlier, close to 1,000 Jews were killed by their neighbors in the nearby town of Radzilow. Some of the Jedwabne massacre perpetrators had, in fact, been put on trial and convicted in 1949 and in 1953, with one death sentence pronounced but never carried out (Brumberg, 2001; Fox, 2001). The monument put on site by the communists in the 1960s acknowledged the Jewish identity of the victims but claimed that "Gestapo and Hitlerite gendarmes burned alive 1,600 people" (Fox, 2001, p.90). A similar inscription was put in place in Radzilow, whose Jewish victims were said to have perished "at the hand of the Fascists" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2001). Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of Jedwabne's victims were forced into a barn that was set on fire by their Polish neighbors. The Germans were certainly present in the vicinity; but ironically, the German military post not far from Jedwabne was the safest place for the Jews to seek refuge, some owing their lives -- for the time being, at least -- to that military post (Gross, 2001, pp. 74-80; Fox, 2001, pp. 81-82). There were, according to Gross, less than a dozen German soldiers in Jedwabne when the atrocity was committed, and they did no more than take photographs of it. According to the account of a Jewish eyewitness, the same had happened in Radzilow, where the arrival of German soldiers saved the lives of 18 Jews (Gross, 2001, pp. 68-69). A few other Jews were saved in both places by local Poles who hid them from the wrath of their neighbors.

Yet despite the evidence provided by Gross and reported on by the Polish democratic media, some prominent Polish historians entrenched themselves in deflective negationist ditches. This was mostly done through postures of "quasi-negationism," defined by Stola as "a most detailed critique of sources to conclude that nothing can be said precisely and unquestionably about an event" (Stola, 2002). While acknowledging that he can no longer deny that Poles have participated in the mass murder of Jews, prominent historian Tomasz Szarota questioned Gross's certainty that ONLY Poles perpetrated the massacre. He claimed that 200 German troops came to the town on the same day (which Gross conclusively demonstrates in the book to be untrue), and that, even if Germans did not participate in the slaughter, they may well have inspired it. Gross does not deny this may have been the case but shows how eager the Jedwabne Poles were to carry the massacre out; before the slaughter perpetrated at the instigation of the Jedwabne mayor, the Germans asked the local Poles to leave alive some Jewish craftsmen, but the reply was that the Gentiles can do any job without the Jews. Szarota also wondered "how 1,500 [sic!] healthy, able-bodied people could be led to their deaths by fewer than a hundred criminals armed only with clubs, without attempting to defend themselves or even to flee" (Szarota interview with Jacek Zakowki, "Gazeta Wyborcza," 18-19 November 2000, in Thou Shalt Not Kill: Poles On Jedwabne, p. 73). Abraham Brumberg, who cites him (2001, p. 9), remarks that, "Thus are axes, knives and iron bars transformed into 'mere sticks,' and a crowd of 1,600 tormented, beaten, blood-covered men, women and children, hardly able to stand, become exemplars of good health. That is, as the standard image has it, cowards." But the insistence of Szarota and other Polish intellectuals on the role the Germans allegedly played in the Jedwabne massacre led to an investigation by the National Remembrance Institute (IPN), a body in charge of investigating crimes committed by the Nazi and communist regimes in Poland. The fact that German ammunition was found near the massacre site had given some credence to Szarota version, but the IPN commission concluded in July 2002 that part of the ammunition dated back to World War I and the rest comprised bullets produced after 1942, one year later than the Jedwabne events (Reuters and dpa, 9 July 2002; "Bigotry Monitor," Vol. 2, no. 2, 12 July 2002). "We have not found any evidence that would indicate that there were other uniformed German formations [in Jedwabne] apart from eight gendarmes, which was known earlier," IPN Chairman Leon Kieres announced in a preliminary report, released in December 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2001), whose findings were confirmed by the final report in July (dpa and Reuters, 9 July 2002).

The Jedwabne memorial was replaced in 2001 with another mark, in a ceremony boycotted (for reasons yet to be discussed) not only by the town's population -- aside from its mayor -- but also by the Catholic Church. The ceremony was attended by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who apologized for the crime "as a citizen, and as president of the Republic of Poland." But the new memorial still eschews identifying the perpetrators. It is erected "In memory of the Jews of Jedwabne and surrounding areas, men, women, and children, fellow-dwellers of this land, murdered and burned alive at this site on 10 July 1941" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 July 2001). On the eve of the ceremony, a Western agency reported that a sign on the door of a Jedwabne grocery store read: "We do not apologize. It was the Germans who murdered Jews in Jedwabne. Let the slanderers apologize to the Polish nation." It was signed by an unknown Committee for the Defense of the Good Name of Poland" (AP, 10 July 2001).

Lithuania has also had its deflective memorial negationism. In the postcommunist period, Jewish activists from Vilnius erected a monument in the memory of victims slaughtered at Ponary (Paneria). The intended inscription -- in Lithuanian, Russian, and Hebrew -- spoke of 70,000 Jewish victims murdered and incinerated "by the Nazis and their local assistants." The authorities, however, deleted from the inscription any reference to the "locals" and eventually removed the Lithuanian and Russian-language inscriptions altogether, "evidently out of concern that the non-Jewish young generation would discover what their elders had done" (Levin, 2000).

Deflective negationism is also prompted by the pursuit of immediate or short-term popularity by politicians. That they may oscillate, or even contradict themselves, in their own pronouncements on the Holocaust is therefore not a surprise. Each pronouncement is aimed at serving immediate needs. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, for example, in an apparent spontaneous addition to a speech he prepared for addressing the Israeli Knesset in 1991, added "Please forgive us," triggering the applause of the Israeli parliamentary deputies but also the wrath of many of his countrymen. In 1995, when Poland observed the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Walesa knew better. Presiding over morning ceremonies in Krakow's Jagellonian University on 26 January and in the afternoon over a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Walesa never made any specific reference to Jews or the Holocaust. The inscription in Auschwitz had in the meantime changed (see Shafir, 2002) -- not so the mentality of an electorate brought up in the belief that the Holocaust was above all one of the Polish nation. Indeed, a public-opinion poll released in that year showed that 47 percent of Walesa's countrymen believed that Auschwitz was above all the place of Polish martyrdom and that only 8 percent were of the opinion that most of the victims there had been Jews. It was only in the late afternoon, when ceremonies took place at Auschwitz itself and after protracted negotiations with the world Jewish leaders present, that Walesa amended a prepared speech, adding "especially the Jewish nation" after the originally prepared deploring of the "suffering of many nations" (Steinlauf, 1997 , pp. 131-132, 139, 141).

Prominent Polish intellectual Adam Michnik was right in defending Walesa against charges of anti-Semitism directed at the latter after the 1995 Auschwitz ceremonies (interview in "Le Monde," 10 February 1995). It was not anti-Semitism that drove Walesa on the occasion; just as this had not been the motivation for his having condoned the "Judaization" of his presidential rivals, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Aleksander Kwasniewski, in 1990 and 1996, respectively -- all while wondering why some people wished to hide their ethnic origin and describing himself as "happy to be a genuine Pole." Rather, Walesa was driven by what I have described as "utilitarian anti-Semitism" (Shafir, 2001, pp. 419-420), which to a large extent may call for making use of deflective negationism as well. When Kwasniewski apologized for Jedwabne, Walesa was beyond himself with rage: "The Jedwabne crime," he said, was revenge for the cooperation of the Jewish community with the Soviet occupant. The Poles have already apologized many times to the Jews; we are waiting for the apology from the other side because many Jews were scoundrels" (cited in Rosenfeld, 2002, p. 5). Less than reflecting "utilitarian anti-Semitism," the outburst was part and parcel of the "symmetric genocide" negationist postures that will be dealt with in a future article in "RFE/RL East European Perspectives."

Hungary: From Last Ally To Last Nazi Victim
Another example in point is provided by former conservative Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and his entourage. Orban was in fact emulating the policies of his predecessor, Jozsef Antall, who was of the opinion that if Holocaust issues in postcommunist Hungary must be addressed at all, they should concentrate on Hungarian rescuers of Jews rather than on the Jewish suffering and decimation (Karsai, 1999, p. 139). Antall, of course, had a personal stake in the matter: He was the son of a "Righteous Among Nations" (Deak, 1994, p.119), and thus he could NOT be suspected of anti-Semitism. But first on his political mind was what Hungarian sociologist Andras Kovacs termed "creating an identity on a symbolic level" (see Shafir, 2002). He was undoubtedly aware that the electorate to which he could appeal was generally inclined to idealize Hungary's precommunist past and (for reasons yet to be discussed) tended to regard Jews as perpetrators of Hungary's own martyrdom at the hand of communists, rather than victims of Hungarian anti-Semitism and of collaboration with the Nazis. Ministers of his cabinet attended the 1993 reinterment of Horthy's remains, and Antall himself later visited the grave. Before doing so, the premier referred to Horthy as having been a "Hungarian patriot" who "should be placed in the community of the nation and the awareness of the people" (cited in Braham, 1993, p. 140).

In 1998, after a visit to the Hungarian pavilion in the Auschwitz exhibit, Orban, decided to reconstruct the pavilion built by the communist regime, finding it both inappropriate and neglected. The plans envisaged portraying a"virtual symbiosis of Hungarian-Jewish life since the emancipation of Jews in 1867, downplaying the many anti-Jewish manifestations as mere aberrations in the otherwise chivalrous history of Hungary. While focusing attention on the positive aspects of Jewish life in the country, emphasizing the flourishing of the Jewish community between 1867 and 1944, the rescue activities of those identified as Righteous, and Horthy's saving of the Jews of Budapest� [the same plans] blamed almost exclusively the Germans for the destruction of the Jews" (Braham, 2001).

The exhibition was canceled after protests from the country's Federation of Jewish Communities. Reacting to the decision, a federation spokesman said the country's Jewish communities did not wish to see the project halted but "to see it is done right" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 September 1999).

A plaque commemorating Horthy's notorious gendarmes (who impressed even the SS advisers with the enthusiasm they displayed in the ghettoization and concentration of Hungarian Jews before deportation, and who occasionally also participated in the extermination) was unveiled in 1999 at Budapest's War History Museum in the presence of minor coalition Smallholders' Party member Zsolt Lanyi, chairman of the parliament's Defense Committee, triggering strong protests from the Jewish community ("RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October 1999; Braham, 2001).

And it was a senior official from the same coalition, Orban adviser Maria Schmidt, who shortly thereafter again triggered the community's protests when she stated in Le Pen-like fashion that the Holocaust was "a minor, we might say marginal, consideration, not included among the war aims of either side" -- be it by the side that perpetrated the extermination or the side that saved Jews. But the West, which had been Stalin's ally, was unwilling to face the crimes committed in the name of communism because to do so would jeopardize "the legitimacy of the Western democracies" (cited in Gero, Varga, Vince, 2001, p. 153). Yet Orban issued a statement largely exonerating Schmidt and expressing his "full confidence" in her ("RFE/RL Newsline," 16 November 1999). Schmidt had some sort of "vested interest" when she made the statement; she had been a leading member of the commission that attempted to "cleanse" out of the Auschwitz exhibit the Horthy atrocities against Hungarian Jews (Braham, 2001).

Deflective negationism is also (but not only) manifest in Hungary in a form that transforms the Nazi-allied country into a victim of the Germans, or, as Braham (2001) put it, "turning Germany's last ally into its last victim." All these manifestations, to return to Kovacs's analytical perspective, emerged from the option of Antall's Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to display historic continuity -- an option later embraced by Orban's Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (FIDESZ-MPP, FIDESZ for short) as well. The political discourse of the two formations is by necessity "externalizing guilt" and deflective. It is the unjust 1920 Trianon Treaty that had forced Hungary into an alliance with Germany and had brought to power the extreme right Arrow Cross, it is claimed. As Kovacs summarized the discourse's main perspectives:

The antisemitic laws of the thirties are the consequences of this alliance; they are concessions made to the Germans in order to prevent a more brutal persecution of the Jews; they were also a means of silencing the Hungarian extreme right-wing. It is thanks to these laws that the largest community in the German sphere of interest could survive in Hungary until the German invasion of the country in March 1944. In this respect, another important factor was the resistance of the Horthy government, which opposed demands for the deportation of the Jews until the German invasion. The responsibility for the Holocaust is borne solely by the German occupiers and the collaborators of the Arrow Cross, who formed only a minority and were the radical opponents of the conservative government (Kovacs, 2002).

It is true, on the other hand, that Antall's and Orban's motivations may have been somewhat different, if only because the two premiers obviously belong to different generations. The most important members of Orban's cabinet were born between 1960 and 1965. Educated in the spirit of communist "organized forgetfulness," the younger conservatives may simply be less sensitive to anti-Semitic demagogy than the Antall generation and therefore less aware of the need to distance themselves from extremists of the Istvan Csurka type. (I am grateful to Professor Kovacs for drawing my attention to this aspect). Antall and his generation had opted for identifying themselves with Horthy-era Hungary despite awareness of the provocative sensitivity of their option. Orban's generation is far less sensitive to the implications of its "historical referential" option. Neither the conservative nor the neo-conservative generation were driven by anti-Semitic motivations; but at the end of the day, both engaged in deflective negationism.

Deflective negationism is also embraced in Hungary by the radical return Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), which, for all practical purposes, became an ally of FIDESZ after the 1998 parliamentary elections. Like the conservatives, MIEP leader Csurka acknowledges and deplores the Holocaust (Kovacs, 2002); but, even more than they, he denies any Hungarian responsibility for it and brands anyone who does so a "traitor" whose only aim is to tarnish the reputation of the Hungarian people and break its self-respect (Karsai, 1999, p. 139). Kovacs rightly insists that there is a difference between the conservative and the neo-conservative tone in perceptions of, and attitudes toward, the Holocaust on one hand, and the tone and perceptions of MIEP supporters on the other. Unlike the negationists, conservatives neither display an "overt antisemitism" nor do they deny the Holocaust. While Csurka displays a "concealed, coded" anti-Semitism, and his remarks on the Holocaust are frequently aimed at brandishing the alleged "Jewish revenge" on an "innocent" Hungary, the conservative discourse of the Jozsef Antall and Viktor Orban governments was not anti-Semitic "in terms of intentions" -- it "honestly" condemned the persecution of Jews and it considered the Holocaust to have been "a tragic event in Hungarian history." However, since it strove to "demonstrate the historical continuity of anti-Communist conservatism" perceived to have preserved "the most important characteristic of the Hungarian political system prior to the German occupation," (Kovacs, 2002) this conservative type of discourse also ended up in being deflective. Kovacs may well be right in emphasizing the dangers inherent in the failure of the "anti-Fascist argument" to make a distinction between "political anti-Semitism" (i.e., the MIEP type of discourse) and "historical conservatism" (the MDF-FIDESZ discourse). However, both discourses are similarly, even if not equally, conducive to failing the task of what Michnik termed "the ability to confront the dark episodes of one's own heritage," which he defined as "a test" for the "democratic maturity" of "each nation" (cited in Steinlauf, 1997, p. 133). By this (granted, rather high) yardstick, Braham (2001) is perfectly legitimate in placing both types of discourse under the common category of the Holocaust's "history cleansers."

* 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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