There is no contest in victimhood

Efraim Zuroff, the director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, took a stand in Jerusalem Post against the “Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism” and the proposition to establish a combined day of commemoration for the victims of both Nazism and Communism on August 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He suspects that the declaration “seeks to undermine the current status of the Holocaust as a unique historical tragedy”, and for this “insidious” plan he blames primarily the Baltic nations, whom he also criticizes for an alleged failure to adequately recognize their own past Nazi collaboration.

The claim that the comparison of Stalin’s crimes to those of Hitler somehow belittles the memory of the Holocaust sounds cynical, as if victims of historical violence competed with each other for the attention and compassion of the world. In reality there is no such competition. Compassion is no limited resource, indeed it seems to grow when shared. Only an unambiguous and uncompromising condemnation of all totalitarian violence, regardless of its ideological packaging, gives us hope of a universal recognition of the plight of victims and families, and of success in preventing similar tragedies in the future.

The opposition to the equation between Communist and Nazi crimes is very strong in Russia, who attempts to prevent it even through legislation. In the West the idea that the two regimes were equally criminal should not be new. Hannah Arendt, the noted analyst of 20th century totalitarianism, wrote about their similarities already in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, first published in 1948. That earned her a label of “Cold War ideologist” by some left-wing academics, but by the 1960-ies, when she still equated the regimes in her report on the Eichmann trial, the criminal nature of Stalinism was widely known.

The regimes of Hitler and Stalin were similar in their total anti-liberalism and total cruelty. Both were willing to sacrifice human lives to the requirements of their ideological utopias. Both were characterized by violence against groups and persons deemed “the enemy”, and by total arbitrariness of political power. Some consider Nazism more cruel, as it picked its enemies on the basis of “race”, a category with nothing at all to do with people’s choices or actions. Being a “class enemy” could be somehow related to one’s personal choices or political views. Still, Stalin’s regime perfected the arbitrariness: while Nazis rewrote their laws to legitimize their crimes, Stalin’s Soviet Union was governed by total lawlessness. Anyone, even his nearest collaborators, could be turned into enemies overnight.

Today no one can appeal to lack of information about the Communist crimes. Some people regard Communism as worse than Nazism because of the sheer number of its victims. Others insist that as an ideology, Communism contained some good ideals in theory while Nazism as a racial supremacist ideology was evil to its core. The historical uniqueness of the Holocaust consisted in the cynical efficiency of industrial mass murder. The violence of Communism was more chaotic and lasted longer. In the end, attempts to decide which of the two totalitarianisms was worse are bound to fail – there is no answer.

The claim of Mr. Zuroff that memorizing Stalinism’s victims somehow threatens the memory of the Holocaust reveals a regrettable assumption that the grief of the victims and their descendants can be measured and ranked. The idea that an equal recognition of Stalinist crimes belittles the Holocaust also echoes the proposed Russian legislation that would treat any critique of the Soviet victors of WW II as an alleged rehabilitation of Nazism.

That view was aggressively expressed by a group of pro-Kremlin demonstrators in Helsinki, Finland last spring. The group, demonstrating against the allegedly “Fascist” history writing of Estonians, consisted of some Finnish pro-Kremlin propagandists, representatives of Russian nationalist Nashi youth movement and the so-called Finnish Islamic party whose leader Abdullah Tammi has issued blatantly anti-semitic video statements, calling his brothers to fight against “global Zionist conspiracy”. Those people hate Israel and the Jews as much as they resent the regained independence of the three Baltic states.

The memory of the Holocaust is debased not by its comparison to the crimes of Stalinism, but by its use and abuse as a means of ideological manipulation against the newly free Eastern European nations. Moses Fishbein writes in Kiyv Post about how fabricated accusations of antisemitism have been used by the Kremlin to interfere in Ukrainian politics. Similarly, those who are not comfortable with the free Baltic states’ interpretation of their own history, falsely accuse those peoples of anti-semitism and Holocaust denial. It is highly regrettable that the director of an organization dedicated to the valuable task of recording historical memory would join them in making such ideologically motivated unbased accusations. Indeed such claims may make it harder to target genuine anti-semitism that, unfortunately, can still be found in the region as well as elsewhere.

The Jewish and Baltic peoples have a lot in common: experiences of homelandlessness and totalitarianism, persecution and repression, successful integration in the diaspora and still having to justify the existence of one’s homeland. As Observer columnist Nick Cohen has pointed out, in today’s Europe one is most likely to find anti-semitism at the political far Left, among the haters of Israel and America and supporters of movements like Hamas. The opposition to the Baltic nations’ independence and their right to write their own history comes from the same direction and is based on inert geopolitical loyalties rather than any real political or moral ideals.

Unfortunately every occupation and dictatorship finds collaborators among the conquered peoples. In this sense the Baltic states were no exceptions during the German or Soviet occupations. Blaming particular peoples for the crimes of any of the occupying forces encourages not consolation but resentment and bitterness. There were victims as well as perpertrators among all ethnic groups, there is no reason to turn disputes about history into an ethnic quarrel.

The combined commemoration of Nazist and Stalinist crimes is justified not just because of their comparable extent and cruelty, but also because of their historical interconnectedness. Both inhuman ideologies rose and gained power at approximately the same time, and the pact they signed 70 years ago may have led to the Second World war and the horrors that followed. A shared memorial day is not meant to separate, but to unite all peoples whom the tragedies concern. It is the shared interest of all of us that nothing similar will ever happen again.

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One Response to There is no contest in victimhood

  1. Jack Walters says:

    This is the clearest and most compelling commentary that I have read on this subject. Informed voices must speak out against Russia’s attempts to suppress recognition of the extent and horror of communism.

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