by Dovid Katz
To read Part One, click here.
IT HAS BECOME WIDELY UNDERSTOOD that the unique lessons of the Holocaust, including recognition of the potential morphing of racial hate into a program of genocide, are of major educational importance for inoculating future generations against its happening to anyone else, anywhere else. Reflecting on the Holocaust as a major chapter of barbarism in European history also gives us a needed pause to help assure the retention of essential ethics and standards of humanity in our pursuit of scientific and social progress.
TRUTH-TELLING ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST in Eastern Europe is not an abstract game. It is not only a statement about the ethics of falsehood vs. the truth, or about racism vs. the inherent equal value of all people. It is also about democracy itself. Yet some East European countries within NATO and the European Union are very democratic except on this issue. In 2010, the new rightwing government in Hungary passed a law that effectively criminalized the opinion that there was only one genocide in the region during World War II (maximum jail-time for offenders: three years). This was rapidly followed by a similar law passed by the Lithuanian parliament and signed by its president (with two years max). Momentum for this trend picked up in 2014 when a similar law was passed by the Latvian parliament (up to five years of imprisonment). Young people who would think about challenging a status quo now hesitate to speak out, and independent-minded souls tend to emigrate. This is very sad, not least because the hard-working and long-suffering peoples of Eastern Europe, whose nations finally made it into NATO and the EU, deserve the same standard of democracy as citizens of any NATO-EU country.
THE EASTERN EUROPEAN “DOUBLE GENOCIDE” MOVEMENT is so far from actual history and elementary logic that it would have us believe that those who liberated Auschwitz (namely the Red Army on January 27, 1945, the date now marked by the United Nations as Holocaust Memorial Day) are morally the same as those who perpetrated the genocide at Auschwitz. That is why this movement would prefer that Holocaust Memorial Day be forgotten and replaced by a day of mix-and-match commemoration of the victims of Nazi and Soviet crimes together. The date chosen for that replacement is August 23, the day of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. The demand for a single “red-and-brown mix-and-match” day of commemoration is one of many contained in the constitutional document of the movement, an influential document of which most Americans have not even heard, so far under the radar has all this been transpiring.
That document is the “Prague Declaration” of June 2008. It boasts the word “same” five times (italicization in the citations that follow added for rapid reference):
1) “Consciousness of the crimes against humanity committed by the Communist regimes throughout the continent must inform all European minds to the same extent as the Nazi regime’s crimes did”;
2) “Believing that millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized”;
3) “Recognition that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity serving as a warning for future generations, in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal”;
4) “Establishment of 23rd August, the day of signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust”;
5) “Adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks so that children could learn and be warned about Communism and its crimes in the same way as they have been taught to assess the Nazi crimes.”
The declaration also demands “equal treatment and non-discrimination of victims,” which in practice has meant that the murdered millions targeted on the basis of their race have to be thought of as “equal” to say political dissidents wrongly deported to Siberia or imprisoned or otherwise wronged.
In April 2009, one of these points, indeed the establishment of the mixed day of commemoration of Nazi and Soviet crimes, was approved in a non-binding resolution of the European Parliament. In May of 2014, under the lofty title “Black Ribbon Day,” it was snuck under the radar into a military appropriations bill of the United States Congress, at the initiative of a number of Baltic-American nationalist organizations. Although representing just “one little point” of the “red-equals-brown” juggernaut, it illustrates how the revision of history in the direction of Double Genocide can be construed (actually: misconstrued) as part of today’s politics of national security vis-à-vis an assertive and in fact dangerously aggressive Russia. In short, if the Soviets and the Nazis were equally guilty of genocide, and the Soviets or their successor state, Russia, never owned up to that alleged other Holocaust, and Putin is nowadays misbehaving, then surely this is a splendid stick with which to hit the Russians: They are Hitler incarnate. Within minutes of Congress passing the resolution on the mixed red-brown day, the Lithuanian ambassador in Washington rapidly gloated that “Putin virtually brings back the historic ghosts, which are referred to in the resolution.” That the World War II Soviets were our Allies in freeing Europe from the genocidal regime of the Third Reich is now so thoroughly forgotten, so unmentionable, that the bogus history takes on a life of its own in the heart of Western democracy.
Some of the groups that lobbied for this 2014 congressional resolution are among those that helped engineer the May 2012 repatriation from Putnam, Connecticut to Lithuania of the remains of that country’s Nazi puppet prime minister Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis) for reburial with full honors, in a ceremony attended by two former heads of state. During his brief tenure in Kaunas (Kovno) in the summer of 1941, Ambrazevičius signed documents confirming Nazi orders for the Jewish citizens of his city to be sent to a concentration camp (it was actually a mass murder site). He subsequently signed another that confirmed the order for the remainder of his city’s Jewish citizens to be incarcerated within a month in a ghetto (it would become the Kovno Ghetto).
INSTEAD OF SPEAKING UP WITH MORAL CLARITY to disagree with a certain decision by an ally, the American neocon-infected State Department actually helped camouflage the event. As the remains of the Nazi puppet prime minister were en route to the glittering reburial, the United States embassy in Vilnius sponsored a major symposium on the Holocaust, focused on Timothy Snyder’s celebrated book Bloodlands (I subsequently published an open letter to Professor Snyder). The reburial underway did not even get mentioned at the symposium.
This is one of a number of deeply disturbing neocon-style capers by the State Department’s Vilnius outpost. In 2011, the embassy offered a generous grant to a Canada-based summer literary seminar on condition that the Wiesenthal Center’s Nazi-hunter and historian Dr. Efraim Zuroff, be disinvited from the announced program (he was). In 2010, the embassy arranged financing for a conference that helped the state’s history-revising units obfuscate the Holocaust. In 2009, when this policy was just starting at State, America added its vote to the “Vilnius Declaration” that snuck in language about the “genocide” of Nazi and Soviet regimes in addition to the demanded rubber-stamping of the proposed unitary August 23 mixed day of commemoration.
For those here in Vilnius, perhaps the greatest shift was obvious at the local human level during the switch from the Bush to the Obama administration: Rachel Kostanian, herself a flight survivor and the incredibly courageous and longtime inspirational director of the one honest Holocaust exhibit in Lithuania, known informally as the Green House, went from being an honored specialist frequently consulted by the embassy to a kind of outcast routinely excluded from discussions about Holocaust commemoration and education. She discussed this in a recent online interview. Some of her achievements have been chronicled in a tribute by Esther Goldberg Gilbert.
In earlier years, under the Clinton and Bush administrations, policy was gracefully balanced. Satisfying the East European yearning for Holocaust distortion was not part of the agenda. In fact, for years, the United States was easily able to have a splendid relationship with the Baltics and neighboring states, and simultaneously stand up assertively to Russia when necessary, while occasionally gently disagreeing with allies’ attempts to distort the Holocaust narrative or to cover for anti-Semitism. The best of friends can disagree about some things. For years, the U.S. had cooperated with the Wiesenthal Center’s efforts to put on trial suspected Nazi war criminals. In 2008, the Bush administration’s last ambassador to Lithuania awarded Fania Brantsovsky, a Vilna Ghetto survivor and heroic veteran of the Jewish partisans (now 92) a certificate of lifetime merit less than one week before police came looking for her, as part of the state campaign to defame survivors who resisted. The commitment to Lithuania’s security and to its status in the European Union and NATO was every bit as strong, but there was an American sense of noble pride in speaking the truth about the Holocaust when it was, in various ways, under local challenge in the spirit of the far-right Double Genocide movement, so central to nationalist circles throughout the region.
FOR REASONS THAT REMAIN MURKY, the situation deteriorated rapidly during the Bush-to-Obama transition, and has continued to slide. This is surprising as one would a priori expect the neocons to have had rather more success with a Republican administration. One theory has it that this was in response to the Baltic states’ fury that President Obama in 2009 cancelled the Bush administration’s plans for missile interceptors in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic, and then, “even worse,” went ahead in 2010 to sign with Russia the new START Treaty that reduced by half the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers. Famously, Lithuania’s president snubbed President Obama’s dinner invitation in Prague in retaliation. According to various Western diplomats in Vilnius speaking at the time, off the record, instructions came through from Washington to “give in on everything else” to allay the feelings of betrayal that America was improving relations with Russia (the “restart”). A more sinister and factually uncorroborated version links it all to a purported CIA prison and rendition facility, with these (and other) concessions provided to ensure that its secret be kept until the end of days.
A third version would have it that the neocon platoon led on these issues by Robert Kagan and Victoria Nuland, both American Jews, persuaded the administration to underwrite the history revisionism demanded by the right-wing nationalist circles in power among our NATO and EU allies, and outside these alliances — in (western and central) Ukraine, as a concession for maintaining the solid wall of solidarity against the ominous Russian bear just to the east. If it’s so important to our loyal allies that the Holocaust’s history be tinkered with in their favor, and if prominent American Jews can see their way clear in going along with it, then it must surely make for good policy and practice.
Time will tell which of the three factors, in whatever combination, have been in play. In all three scenarios, and particularly the third, there is another aspect calling out for serious study. Was the attempted “demonization to the exact status of Hitler” of the Soviet Union not part of the Cold War mentality, for which the West’s betrayal of Eastern Europe at Yalta was the first American failure that could only be put right by destruction of the USSR? If so, the continuation of that mindset from the fallen USSR through to 21st-century Russia is an instance of the oft-noted psychological process of transference. But the empirical reality is different. For all its many very serious shortcomings and wrongdoing, the Russian state today affords its citizens freedoms of religion, thought, travel and free enterprise that were unthinkable in Soviet times. Of course we must stand with the Russian people to ensure that the long haul journey toward democracy comes to the right destination sooner rather than later.
It could be that the most important neocon book on the geopolitics of these matters is Intermarium (2012). The title is the author’s proposed name for the East European lands between the Baltic and the Black Seas. He is Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, a Polish-born historian at Washington D.C.’s Institute of World Politics. One of the book’s arguments concerns the sacred bond of mutual loyalty. What George W. Bush’s secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld called “New Europe” (the new Eastern member states of NATO and the European Union previously in the Soviet sphere) was exquisitely loyal, his argument goes, to the United States for Afghanistan and Iraq. They volunteered blood, treasure and political capital, in contrast to the alleged perfidy of so much of Western Europe (Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe”). Now it is time for America to repay that loyalty by enabling the rise of a new American-client (specifically American — not just Western, NATO or EU) sphere of federated states (which he names “Intermarium”) that will put a stop to Russia once and for all. It is all very much a sophisticated historico-political tract saying in many more — and more elegant — words what the State Department’s Victoria Nuland put so succinctly in her “Fuck the EU,” insofar as both perceive the American alliance with right-wing Eastern Europe as a stand-alone coalition, excluding Western Europe as much as Russia from the rosy bright future. One of the scary things in the book is the obvious chain of thought by which a World War III between the U.S. and Russia may be the necessary price for the composite Intermarium’s totalistic revenge upon Russia for centuries of domination under czar and commissar alike.
THESE ISSUES ARE CLOSELY TIED to human rights today and in the future, and to efforts against racism. Those who lavish state honors on Holocaust-era Nazis cannot really put up wholehearted opposition to today’s neo-Nazis. Indeed, the State Department has gone silent on the adulation of the Waffen SS in Latvia and Estonia and the state-enabled neo-Nazi marches through Lithuania’s main cities on independence day celebrations. There has been no protest against laws inhibiting free speech on the subject of Double Genocide in the eastern NATO countries.
It is noteworthy that parallel developments in Hungary, accelerated by the 2010 victory of the right-wing Fidesz party (and the coinciding rise of the openly anti-Semitic Jobbik party) could not be kept under the radar. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and leading scholar of the Holocaust Randolph Braham both returned honors previously accepted from the Hungarian government to protest the Hungarian state’s honoring of Holocaust collaborators. In the same spirit, Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, as speaker of the Knesset, retracted an invitation to a Hungarian counterpart who had participated in honoring a collaborator.
Israel, in fact, has had a complex and fascinating relationship to these issues, on occasion providing concessions to the Double Genociders in return for concrete votes in the UN, EU and other international forums. One such concession entailed the Israeli government arranging for Yad Vashem to rejoin, in 2012, a discredited Lithuanian state commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes, a rejoining which brought pained protest from the last Lithuanian Holocaust survivors, among others. This was connected with the poignant saga concerning Holocaust survivor, resistance fighter and scholar Yitzhak Arad, who for over two decades was director of Yad Vashem. After being invited to join the state financed commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes (“the red-brown commission”) at the end of the 1990s, he was himself in 2006 absurdly accused of war crimes (there is still no apology, hence the defamation on the internet continues though there never was the slightest specific charge against him or the other Holocaust survivors targeted). He and Yad Vashem then withdrew from the commission. But after Lithuania’s vote against the Palestinian Authority joining UNESCO in 2011, the Israeli government arranged for Yad Vashem to come back to the commission, lending it credibility for its major mission of equating the Nazi and Soviet regimes. One of the happy results of all this was that it inspired Yitzhak Arad’s masterful 2012 essay, written deep in his eighties, on the history of the revisionism, the commission, and the motives in play. We see clearly from his study how the field of Holocaust studies itself has been readily commandeered in the cause of rewriting the narrative in line with the East European far right. And yes, positing that Holocaust killers were heroes because they were also “anti-Soviet activists” is far right. About as far right as you can get in the realm of ideas.
THEN THERE IS THE IRKSOME MATTER OF YIDDISH being mobilized for historical revisionism. While klezmer concerts throughout Eastern Europe can occasionally be a cover to deflect attention from anti-Semitism and Holocaust revisionism, they do not represent a serious investment in Yiddish. That part of the story relates mostly to Lithuania, which has been, as Efraim Zuroff recently put it in a documentary on these subjects, “a veritable laboratory for Holocaust distortion.” Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius (Vilna, Wilno, Yiddish Vílne) was a world center of modern Yiddish culture before the war, and the city where the YIVO was itself founded in 1925. Over a period of years, it became obvious to government operatives who specialize in Judaic studies that the field of Yiddish is particularly promising for PR, and also particularly weak and manipulable. Many Yiddishists (in the sense of “lovers of Yiddish,” not necessarily experts or even speakers), frustrated by the lack of Jewish and wider respect for and investment in Yiddish language and culture in the West or Israel, can be gobstruck by state support for plaques in Yiddish commemorating Yiddish writers, and by conferences, symposiums, colloquiums, and yes, by finding personal success as writers, artists, scholars, program leaders, photographers, whatever, that they do not find at home. The Double Genocide Holocaust-revision movement can easily gain a groundswell of new support from a camp that can be particularly spineless in one sense: the fetish of this or that sound or word or song can perchance outweigh a vastly graver and more cynical calculus concerning the abuse of “love of Yiddish” to cover for Holocaust revisionism — even when that revisionism is ipso facto a betrayal of the actual people who were the native Yiddish civilization in Eastern Europe before being annihilated. It is uncanny that silence from “Yiddishists” on the attempted criminalization of (Yiddish-speaking) Holocaust survivors, or on the glorification of local perpetrators and collaborators who annihilated the (Yiddish-speaking) Jewish population, can be purchased with a pot of lentils.
The Lithuanian government’s units involved with history management have pulled off their biggest coup with an institution that was once the pride of living Yiddish culture and learning (and will hopefully once again fulfill that role in our lifetimes): YIVO. In a deeply disturbing pattern, ignoring pleas from Holocaust survivors, YIVO has shifted its emphasis from the progress of living Yiddish culture and scholarship in New York to the public relations needs of the Lithuanian government. From a 2011 event honoring the then right-wing foreign minister, through to the planned 2015 conference in partnership with the far-right’s state-sponsored academic institutions in Vilnius which are overwhelmingly dedicated to obfuscating the Holocaust, YIVO has become the jewel in the crown for East European Holocaust revisionism. The more so when its own director became a member of the state’s commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes. But this isn’t only about YIVO. When it has suited needs, other Jewish and Yiddish organizations have been pressed into service. They include the National Yiddish Book Center, the Bloomington Indiana University program in Yiddish, the American Jewish Committee, and now in 2014 for the first time, the World Jewish Congress. One of the saddest (hopefully temporary) results has been the veritable hijack of Vilnius University’s own Yiddish institute. One of the ironies of the situation is the contrast between foreign Jewish academics and visitors who become pawns of both revisionism and attempts to cover up anti-Semitism, and the inspiringly brave Lithuanian citizens who themselves speak out, often with adverse consequences for their careers and income. All of the Western Jewish and Yiddish institutions mentioned carry out absolutely splendid work. For members and donors to warn their leaders against becoming pawns in the Holocaust politics in a very different part of the world is an act of friendship and loyalty, not antagonism or enmity. Everyone makes mistakes, but as Mark Twain is supposed to have said (and that attribution is much disputed): It is much easier to fool someone than to get them to admit that they have been fooled.
RETURNING TO THE LARGER PUZZLE, it remains for political scientists to look and see how neoconservative thinkers — long attracted to grand, militaristic solutions regarding the Soviet Union and then Russia (among other places), perennially attributing hyperbolic descriptions of pure evil to the other side, prone to preemptive warfare as a panacea (and quite blind to the unpredictable reactive violence thereby unleshed) may have themselves inched closer to a “Double Genocide” model of World War II history long before their post-Cold War partnership with the new nationalistic elites in Eastern Europe. This is tricky, because polemical dart sin the heat of conflict do not a theory make, and only detailed study can characterize and quantify any preexisting proclivity to the fallacy of double genocide that has proved so mindlessly combustible when suddenly ignited in triumphant partnership with Eastern ultranationalists, whose own motives (unlike the U.S. neocons), include glorifying Nazi collaborators and perpetrators as “national heroes.” Tricky or not, however, the question of preexisting partial congruence of Holocaust revisionism with American neoconservative thought is a legitimate topic for a focused study.
Turning from the history of ideas to the policies and ethics of now: We must not allow the alliance of bedfellows against 21st-century Russia’s misdeeds produce, on the part of America or any Western democratic nation, a temporary blindness towards, or support or camouflage for, the willful obfuscation of history, whereby Hitler’s genocide is downgraded and Soviet crimes upgraded. Much less should America turn a blind eye to the racism,, anti-Semitism, and homophobia so seamlessly bound up with the models that take Nazi perpetrators as heroes. And even less should proud Americans forget their nation’s huge sacrifices, as part of the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance that brought down Nazism in Europe. Instead, we have an occasion to muster real strength and just say no to East Europe’s ultranationalists.
FINALLY, NONE OF THIS is about the delightful, hard-working people of Eastern Europe. Full disclosure: I am a Brooklyn-born Jew who has been based in the heart of Vilnius for the last decade and a half, and have been treated splendidly by everyday people here and throughout Eastern Europe (in fact, on both sides of the new east-west border). All these issues are about governments, and the elites of politics, academia, media and culture, not about the population. These countries suffered a lot under the yoke of Soviet repression, during all those years when our postwar Western party of freedom and advancement was reaching ever new heights. They live in the neighborhood of that same large and unpredictable neighbor and have every right to demand security in perpetuity. They are victims today too, in so far as they are often rather poorly served by governments that invest in history revision instead of a better life for all — governments that are often dominated by the very ultranationalist elites who have found such unexpected and disproportionately vast support from a neocon-dominated American foreign policy. That policy would see them all become fodder in a glorious new crusade against Russia, in the spirit of permanent military adventurism that brings to memory an earlier misguided era of a very different kind of theory of permanent revolution.
Dovid Katz is a Brooklyn-born, Vilnius-based independent Yiddish studies and Holocaust scholar. He edits Defending History, which reckons extensively with the issues raised in this article. From 1999 to 2010 he was professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Vilnius University. His personal website is www.dovidkatz.net.