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East European Perspectives: October 2, 2002

2 October 2002, Volume 4, Number 20


By Michael Shafir

A slightly more versatile form of deflective negationism consists in admitting own-nation members' participation in crimes but considering those perpetrators to have been "fringe" -- in other words, marginal "aberrations" in the country's otherwise spotless history of relations with the Jews. In Hungary, the "aberration" is considered to be the Arrow-Cross "Nyilas" (Braham, 2001); in Romania the role is played by the "Legiune," as the Iron Guard was also called. For Ceausescu-era historiography, the Iron Guard had nothing Romanian about it; it only "slavishly emulated its Hitlerite tutors" and indulged into "anti-Semitic diversionism" (Minei, 1978, p. 16).

Romania's Legionnaires As An Aberration
The treatment by the Communists, as well as by the postcommunists, of the pogrom carried out in Iasi in late June 1941 is an example of deflection to fringe. In this particular case, however, the "fringe" is said to have been associated in perpetration with the Germans. The pogrom was carried out by local authorities, the Romanian Army, members of the Iron Guard, and the SS. Between 8,000 and 12,000 Jews perished in Iasi, and 2,793 perished in the pogrom's ensuing "Death Trains," in which Jews were packed in sealed cattle wagons and moved for days from place to place, asphyxiated or dying of thirst as a result (Ioanid, 1994, pp. 143-44; 2000, pp. 80-90). Some Communist historians chose the "German deflection" to attribute guilt. For Aurel Karetki and Maria Covaci, only some "stray Romanian soldiers" had joined the perpetrators "at their own initiative" (Karetki and Covaci, 1978, p. 75). Minei, who prefaced the book by Karetki and Covaci, wrote that the pogrom's initiative "fully belonged to Hitler's envoys and to the Einsatzkommandos" (Minei, 1978, p. 26).

In actual fact, local authorities, particularly police, were deeply involved in carrying out the slaughter, as were some army units; and convincing evidence points to the involvement of the Secret Intelligence Service in its preparation (Ancel, 1987; Carp, 1996; Florian, 1997; Ioanid, 2000, pp. 62-109). Yet in the book already cited -- a volume that signaled the regime's intention to begin Antonescu's rehabilitation process -- historian Aurica Simion was claiming that "in summer 1941 the Hitlerites, with the help of some Legionnaires and other declassed elements, organized a pogrom in Iasi OVER THE HEAD OF THE ROMANIAN AUTHORITIES, which had practically lost control over the town, in which 3,233 Jewish citizens were killed" (Simion, 1979, p. 132. Emphasis added). Simion was "more generous" with the number of victims than Ceausescu himself (1975, p. 570) was willing to admit (2,000); but four years before Simion's book was published, party historian Gheorghe Zaharia (cited in Ioanid, 2000, p. 86) had mentioned over 8,000 victims. Apparently more than half had since been resurrected!

That Mircea Musat, a former Communist historiography-censor turned founding member of the Greater Romania Party (PRM), would stick after the change of regime to the deflective interpretation was no surprise. In a book published in 1992, he was calling the Iasi massacres a "Hitlerite-Legionnaire pogrom" (Musat, 1992, p. 217). But that President Ion Iliescu would embrace the "fringe approach" was somehow unexpected. Iliescu's contortionistic exercises in dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust are worth contemplating.

Running again for the office that he temporarily lost to President Emil Constantinescu in 1996, in an interview with the daily "Adevarul" in October 2000, Iliescu was keen to point out to the electorate that he had valiantly defended Romania's historical record. His detractors, he said, had blown out of any proportion the fact that when he visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993 he covered his head in a gesture of politeness toward his hosts. But, Iliescu said, no one has paid attention to the difference between him and Polish President Lech Walesa; unlike Walesa when visiting the Israeli Knesset, he refrained from apologizing for his countrymen's participation in the Holocaust, the former and future president was keen to stress. The issue, he said, is one that still requires elucidation by historians ("Adevarul," 12 October 2000). The self-defensive remarks of the former and future president were alluding to the attacks on him by Paunescu (at that time a deputy chairman of the Socialist Labor Party) and by the PRM, who had harshly criticized Iliescu for having participated in ceremonies marking the Holocaust in Bucharest in 1993 and for having later that year attended the opening of the museum in Washington where, the PRM claimed, the "Romanian people" were being unjustifiably accused of having participated in the Holocaust against the Jews (Shafir, 1997, pp. 369-370, 390).

Now president once again, in a speech at the Choral Temple marking the 60th anniversary of the Iron Guard pogrom in Bucharest on 21 January 2001, the president said the Iron Guardist "aberration" had been a "delirium of intolerance and anti-Semitism." Yet, he added, that brief "delirium" excepted, there has been no Romanian contribution to "the long European history" of persecution of the Jews, and it is "significant" that there was "no Romanian word for pogrom." Furthermore, he hastened to add, it was "unjustified to attribute to Romania an artificially inflated number of Jewish victims for the sake of media impact." Romania's distorted image, according to Iliescu, was likely to be corrected when "Romanian (i.e., rather than Jewish) historians will tackle the subject" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2001).

Hardly six months had passed, however, when Iliescu's "unique aberration" of 1941 grew slightly larger. With Romania banging on NATO's doors and against the protests in the United States and Israel triggered by the Antonescu cult in Romania, Iliescu attended a ceremony marking the Iasi pogrom where he felt compelled to declare that "no matter what we may think," international public opinion considers Antonescu to have been a war criminal ("RFE/RL Newsline," 26 June 2001). Earlier that month, General Mircea Chelaru, a former chief of staff of the Romanian Army, was forced to resign from the military after participating in a ceremony in Bucharest where a bust of Marshal Antonescu had been unveiled (Totok, 2001). Finally, in March 2002, the Romanian government passed an ordinance forbidding the Antonescu cult and Holocaust denial and punishing those guilty of it with harsh prison terms ("RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2002). "Utilitarian anti-Semitism," rather than any other explanation, accounts for Iliescu's repeated contortions on the Holocaust. And that motivation had also driven him into an informal (1992-94) and even a formal (1995) coalition with the PRM.

"Deflection to the fringe" was also apparent in Poland on the occasion of the 2001 Jedwabne pogrom anniversary. Roman Catholic Cardinal Josef Glemp stayed away from the ceremony, although he announced that the Church would join the Jewish community in prayers. Glemp said that two "high-ranking officials" had tried to contact him some time before the anniversary and "dictate" to him how the Church should mark it. "I do not want politicians to impose on the Church how it should atone for the crime committed by a group of believers who had run morally wild," he said; and in an interview with a private radio station, he explained that: "In the name of justice, we cannot label any nation as a nation of murderers. We cannot extend the derangement, which was provoked among people of Jedwabne and its vicinity, to the entire Polish nation" (cited in "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 6 March 2001).

Polish And Lithuanian 'Fringes'
Suspicions of "anti-Polonism," "anti-Romanianism," "anti-Lithuanianism," or "anti-Hungariansim" -- in a word, of a Jewish conspiracy to assert the culpability of the nation as a whole -- surface every time the Holocaust is marked in one way or another. Strangely enough, however, their partisans never look "in the neighbor's courtyard" (except perhaps to throw the skeleton there) and are all persuaded that THEIR particular nation has been singled out for the purpose. More often than not, in this particular context the "double genocide" argument is also regularly produced. "We want," Glemp told journalists on the eve of the Jedwabne commemoration, "to apologize for all the evil that was perpetrated by Polish citizens on citizens of the Judaic faith" in Jedwabne. (The prayer was said in a church near the Warsaw ghetto on 27 May.) However, Glemp added, "We want to include in our prayers the other evil, that was perpetrated ON Polish citizens of the Catholic faith, and in which Poles of Judaic faith had a part" ("RFE/RL Newsline," 4 May 2001. Emphasis added).

A famous pastoral letter of Polish bishops, read in all parishes in January 1991, is from this point of view emblematic. While including a moving passage acknowledging the "sin" of the "bystanders," it also emphasized: "In expressing our sorrow for all the injustices and harm done to Jews, we cannot forget that we consider untrue and deeply harmful the use by many of the concept of what is called 'Polish antisemitism' as an especially threatening form of antisemitism; and in addition, frequently connecting the concentration camps not with those who were actually involved with them, but with Poles in a Poland occupied by the Germans." "We are," the letter also said, "aware that many of our compatriots still remember the injustices committed by the postwar Communist authorities, in which people of Jewish faith also took part," though it carefully hastened to add that "the source of inspiration for their action was clearly neither their origin, nor their religion, but the communist ideology, from which the Jews themselves, in fact, suffered many injustices" (cited in Steinlauf, 1997, p. 132).

Lithuanian Premier Gedimanas Vagnorius in 1991 deplored that a very small part of Lithuanian society had "cast a shadow over the entire Lithuanian people" by having participated in the crimes perpetrated during the Holocaust. His successor, Adolfos Slezevicius, on the eve of Holocaust Day in 1994, was likewise stating that he was compelled to "express words of regret and to ask the Jewish people for forgiveness" even though "no more than a hundred Lithuanians took part in the genocide of the Jewish people." President Algirdas Brazauskas, on a visit to Israel in 1995, told the Knesset he was bowing his head "in the memory of more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews who perished" and asked "forgiveness" for the action of "those Lithuanians who brutally killed, banished, and humiliated Jews." Like Walesa, upon returning home he was greeted by "a very tumultuous and aggressive response from many of his countrymen" (Levin, 2000). So was former Hungarian (Socialist) Premier Gyula Horn after apologizing for the Holocaust in the name of the Hungarian people. Aron Monus, an outright negationist who had returned from exile and the publisher of the Hungarian-language version of Mein Kampf, sued Horn, arguing that the premier violated his personal rights by suggesting that he, Monus, was a member of a guilty nation (Karsai, 1999, p. 139; Kovacs, 2002). It must, however, be emphasized that Lithuania has since come a long way. On Holocaust Day 2001, former Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Alfonsas Eidintas told his countrymen that in the summer and the fall of 1941 alone, "some 130,000 Jews were slaughtered" and that "more than half were killed by local collaborators." The murderers, he added, cut off the beards of rabbis, raped women, and stole Jewish property ("The Baltic Times Online," 27 September-3 October 2001).

The Slovaks' 'Marginals'
Slovakia is not that far yet, and deflecting guilt to the "fringe" still looms large in that country. Stefan Polakovic thus argues in postcommunist Slovakia that neither the Hlinka Slovak People's Party (HSLS) nor Tiso himself can be blamed for the party's eventual emulation of National Socialism. A chief ideologist of the HSLS "clerical fascism," Polakovic was active in U.S. exile as a prominent leader of the Slovak Liberation Committee (Mestan, 2000, pp. 30-35, 131; Cohen, 1999, p. 209n50). Like other postwar exiled leaders, he frequently visited Slovakia, participating in conferences and symposia aimed at "cleansing" Tiso's reputation and that of the state he headed. In an article published in the "respectable" "Literarny tyzdennik" in early 1993 under the title "What Was Populism All About?" Polakovic argues that the HSLS's "populism" was, and continues to be, wrongly associated with Nazism. In fact, he claims, association with Nazi Germany was only a "cosmetic defect," and Tiso's state would have entered the annals of respectable statehood were it not for what he euphemistically calls "the deterioration of the political situation" after 1939; he understands that to be the emulation of National Socialism, the introduction of anti-Jewish measures, and subsequent deportations of Jews to extermination camps, though Polakovic never calls the child by its name. It was, he claims, the fault of Prime Minister Vojtech Tuka and that of Hlinka Guard commander in chief Alexander Mach that "tainted the image of modern Slovak statehood." It was Tuka who embarked upon an emulation of National Socialism and "triggered the inhumane solution of the Jewish issue." But in the same breath, Polakovic also argues that Nazism in Slovakia had been merely "formal" inasmuch as the HSLS was a single party with a "leader" at its head and the Hlinka Guard members were wearing uniforms (Mestan, 2000, pp. 67-68). Much of the same argument is brought by Dr. Jozef M. Kirschbaum, a major figure in Slovakia's wartime government and the secretary-general of Tiso's Party of National Unity (Cohen, 1999, p. 207), during his lectures in Slovakia: There was no anti-Semitism in the Slovak state, and the "Jewish question" was solely in the hands of the Germans and Tuka (Mestan, 2000, p. 147).

Like Polakovic and Kirschbaum, Gabriel Hoffmann argues that the deportations of Slovak Jews were entirely carried out at Tuka's orders and, moreover, that they took place against Tiso's will. The fact that Slovakia was the only state to have actually PAID the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for the deportation of every Jew (Hilberg, 1994, Vol. 2, p. 777) -- if one is to believe Hoffmann -- was somehow concealed from Tiso. This "personalized" form of deflective negationism to "fringe" is somewhat more sophisticated but by no means original. In Romania, some (though not all) Antonescu apologists insist that the marshal's break with the Iron Guard after its January 1941 rebellion had cleansed Antonescu and his regime of any association with Nazi ideology and crimes. A Slovak scholar, Dr. Anton Rasla, accurately depicted the purpose of the exercise: "By sacrificing the demon, we cleanse the angel" (cited in Mestan, 2000, p. 231n.127). This joint Slovak-Romanian objective also transpires from deliberate misinformation fed by the respective exiled apologists to their domestic readers. According to Hoffmann, Tiso's intervention on behalf of the Jews, indeed his having been a savior of Jews (see below), has earned him the pious recognition of the Israelis, who allegedly erected a monument in his memory in Jerusalem. Alas, one would search in vain for such a monument because, according to other Tiso apologists, it was pulled down in 1986 due to pressure from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (Mestan, 2000, p. 89, 157). Similarly, leading Antonescu apologist Iosif Constantin Dragan, a magnate who returned from exile and who was active in collaborating with the former regime's closet-rehabilitation of Antonescu (see Eskenasy, 1994, pp. 192-194 and 1997, pp. 278-282; Shafir, 1994, p. 337), claimed in 1993 that a statue in Antonescu's memory was erected in Haifa to honor the "protector and savior of Romanian Jews, of whom nearly 500,000 live happily in Israel" ("Romania mare," 7 January 1994). Dragan is the honorary chairman of the Marshal Antonescu League in Romania.

* 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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