Remembering the Holocaust accurately

Despite the disproportionately large number of Jewish victims of Stalinism, neither can one talk of a genocide of the Jews at Soviet hands.

ribbentrop molotov 311 (photo credit: Archive)
ribbentrop molotov 311
(photo credit: Archive)

Tomorrow many countries will mark InternationalHolocaust Remembrance Day, established by the UN in 2005. Yet at thesame time, there is a movement afoot to proclaim another day tocommemorate the victims of the Nazis - but in this new movement tocommemorate them along with the victims of Stalinism. There is groundfor deep concern about repeated attempts to equate the Nazi regime'sgenocidal policies, with the Holocaust at their center, with othermurderous or oppressive actions, an equation that not only trivializesand relativizes the genocide of the Jews perpetrated by the Naziregime, but is also a mendacious revision of recent world history.

TheEuropean Parliament passed a resolution (April 2, 2009) determiningAugust 23, the date in 1939 on which the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotovagreement was signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as adate of remembrance for victims of both regimes. To be politicallycorrect, the Holocaust is explicitly excluded from this comparison.This follows a similar resolution passed by the Senate of the CzechRepublic on June 3, 2008, which declared that the "crimes againsthumanity committed by the communist regimes throughout the continentmust inform all European minds to the same extent [sic] as the Naziregime's crimes did."

There can be no doubt as to the crimes of violent and oftenmurderous oppression by the Soviet regime of and in the countries ofEastern Europe. In the Baltic states, occupied by the USSR in 1940-1941and 1944-1989/91, for instance, tens of thousands of local residentswere exiled, many of whom died, and most returned only much later,broken in body and mind, while thousands of others were imprisoned andwere killed or died in prison. Local communists, and they werenumerous, ruled these countries and blindly obeyed orders from Moscow,but did not plan the annihilation of any Eastern European nationalgroups as such.

Among the exiled, tortured and killed people, Jews were muchmore numerous than their percentage in the population. This was brutaland murderous oppression, but not genocide either toward them or towardthe other ethnic groups. It must be said, though, that a certainproportion of the persecuted in the immediate postwar era had in factbeen Nazi collaborators. However, to compare this with the murder ofmany millions of Europeans by the Nazi regime is a distortion ofhistory.

Moreover, if all victims are to be equallyremembered, the exclusion of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust makesno sense; despite the statement to the contrary, they are implicitlyincluded. It should be remembered that the so-called "Generalplan Ost,"developed by Nazi Germany in 1941/1943, planned the annihilation "assuch" - to use the terminology of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention - ofthe three Baltic nations, of Poles and of Czechs by forcibleGermanization, expulsion and partial murder, after a German victory,and after the total annihilation of the Jews. The planned Nazi stepsare obviously connected. Again, therefore, the statement that theHolocaust is excluded is, clearly, meaningless.

Of course, German postwar plans were not known to the futurepotential victims. The other nations were to be destroyed, "as such,"but the Jews, were - all of them - to be annihilated, not only inEurope, but also everywhere on Earth (there is plenty of evidence forthat). As far as the Soviets are concerned, with all their brutality,they did not plan anything similar.

THEEXAMPLE that I wish to present here is based on the official,English-language report by the Latvian Historical Commission regardingSoviet and Nazi crimes in Latvia (The Hidden and Forbidden Historyof Latvia under Soviet and Nazi Occupations, 1940-1991 - SelectedResearch of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia, Instituteof the History of Latvia, vol. 14, Riga 2005). I choose Latvia becauseit is a democratic country that achieved independence from the Sovietsby a wholly admirable unarmed rebellion that testifies to itsdemocratic credentials.

Thereis no doubt that the three Baltic states were, before the war, undertremendous pressure from the two superpowers next door, Nazi Germanyand the Stalinist USSR. In Latvia, there was traditional and radicalopposition to Germans. German barons had ruled and oppressed Latviansfor centuries. Latvian communists had been one of the main groups thatpropelled the Bolsheviks into power in 1917, but independent Latviabetween the wars, rightly fearful of Soviet imperialism, had firstdeveloped a liberal government, and then had become an authoritarianstate under the center-right dictatorship of Karlis Ulmanis (Lithuaniaand Estonia developed similarly, and by the 1930s had also becomeauthoritarian, under Antanas Smetona and Konstantin Päts,respectively). There were home-grown pro-Nazi and pro-Soviet groups inLatvia, opposed by the Ulmanis regime.

In 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Latviacame under Soviet influence; in 1940 it was occupied and annexed by theSoviet Union. One has to recognize that Latvian communists were quiteinfluential locally, and that parts of the peasantry initially welcomedthe division of land executed by the communist regime. Pro-communistsin Latvia, under the leadership of Augusts Kirhensteins (just likeJustas Paleckis in Lithuania) may not have been central figures intheir society, but they were by no means marginal. There was, however,national oppression, political persecution, the introduction ofSoviet-style one-party rule, and in June 1941, just before the Germaninvasion, brutal deportations to Siberia took place.

Therefore, when the Germans attacked, in June 1941, mostLatvians - just like their Baltic neighbors - sided with them. TheGermans did not, as many had hoped, grant autonomy, never mindindependence. Nevertheless, there was massive collaboration in thepersecution and murder of the Jews in Lithuania and Latvia especially,and most Jews there were killed, under German supervision, byLithuanians and Latvians. Baltic police battalions, recruited by theGermans, including Latvian ones, were a very important part of theGerman machine murdering Jews in Belarus, and even in Poland and theUkraine. However, that did not change German colonialist policiestowards the Baltic peoples, including Latvia, nor did the establishmentof Latvian SS units, by conscription, late in the war, after the Jewshad been, to all intents and purposes, annihilated.

Slowly, under German occupation, Latvianopposition groups developed. They were neither very impressive nor veryefficient, and recent attempts to play them up as a major patriotic andanti-Nazi underground are not very convincing. Soviet partisans,usually led by pro-Soviet or communist Baltic individuals, gained somesupport. Then the Soviets returned, complete with Latvian Red Armyunits. The first Soviet occupation lasted one year (1940-1941), whereasthe second occupation lasted some 45 years, until the collapse of theSoviet Union.

Didthe Soviets commit genocide in the occupied Baltic states, andspecifically in Latvia? There were close to two million inhabitants inLatvia in 1939, about 75 percent of whom were ethnic Latvians; the restwere mainly Russians, Germans and close to 95,000 (or about 5%), wereJews. The Soviets arrested, jailed and persecuted some 3,000 personslocally, and deported 15,400 more during the first occupation.Together, that was less than 1% of the population. Apparently, a largenumber of the deportees survived, broken in body and spirit, but theysurvived. Of these 15,400, 11.7% were Jews, so the number of Jewishvictims of this first bout of Stalinist oppression was more than twicetheir proportion in the population. Of the others, not all were ethnicLatvians, of course.

During the second, long, occupation, the Soviets deported atleast 43,000 Latvian citizens. Together with the first wave ofdeportees, the total amounted to some 3.3% of the population - andagain, many of the deportees, though by no means all of them, returnedin the end. And though the Germans, with the active participation ofmany local inhabitants, had in the meantime murdered more than 95% ofthe local Jews, there were still quite a number of Jews among thedeportees of the second wave. One can hardly talk of an anti-Latviangenocide. And, despite the disproportionately large number of Jewishvictims of Stalinism, neither can one talk of a genocide of the Jews atSoviet hands.

Latvian national history was falsified by the Soviets, Latviancultural institutions were transformed and converted into communistpropaganda organs and any hint at national autonomy was brutallysuppressed. However, the Latvian language was not forbidden, and asemblance of Latvian ethnic traditions was maintained; at the helm ofLatvia stood Latvian communists, though the actual command was inRussian hands. But the Soviets forbade Hebrew, and in time effectivelysuppressed Yiddish as well. Latvian institutions were transformed, butJewish institutions were eradicated.

There was mass immigration of non-Latvians intoLatvia - and it is still unclear whether this was a directed attempt toswamp Latvian ethnicity (the tsarist regime had done something similar)or not. In any case, it was brutal oppression, but genocide it mostcertainly was not. Had there been a genocide, there would have been nochance of a final struggle for independence, which was achieved withthe disintegration of communist imperialism: Latvian democrats thencould liberate Latvia.

TWO MAJOR issues emerge: one, the collaboration of the majorityof Latvians (and Lithuanians and Estonians) with the Germans, notnecessarily because of any sympathy with Nazi Germany, but because thealternative was the hated Soviet regime - hated because of theexperiences of the first occupation. That, again, resulted in thecooperation of large numbers of local people, actively or by silentagreement, in the annihilation of the Jews. Anti-Semitism prior to 1939cannot be ignored either.

Noless problematic is a disconnect between Baltic perceptions and thoseof Central and Western Europe of the historical role of the USSR in thewar against Nazi Germany. This is not to be taken lightly. It mayindeed be quite natural that it is the Soviet threat that was and isparamount in the minds of Baltic nationals, and hence the equationbetween Stalinism and Nazism. But historically, this is an error.

The two regimes were both totalitarian, and yet quitedifferent. The greater threat to all of humanity was Nazi Germany, andit was the Soviet army that liberated Eastern Europe, was the centralforce that defeated Nazi Germany and thus saved Europe and the worldfrom the Nazi nightmare. In fact, unintentionally, the Soviets savedthe Baltic nations, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Czechs and othersfrom an intended extension of Nazi genocide to these nationalities,which while it was not intended to lead to total physical annihilation,as with the Jews, it was aimed at a disappearance of these groups "assuch." The EU statement, implying a straightforward parallel betweenNazi Germany and the Soviet Union, therefore presents an ahistoric anddistorted picture.

It also implies that the war was initiated by both regimesequally, and that they therefore bear equal responsibility for thedeath of some 35 million people in Europe alone (if one adds the war inAsia, the total is, according to a number of historians, about 55million). This is a total perversion of history. In the summer of 1939,Stalin would have sold all Russian mothers for an assurance thatGermany would not attack the USSR. He knew very well that his army wasdisorganized by the purges, and that the USSR was in no condition towithstand a German onslaught alone. Until June 1939, he was stillplaying with the possibility of a united front with Britain and Franceagainst Nazi Germany.

But the negotiations broke down when the Western powers made itclear that their contribution to any common effort would be strictlylimited. Poland denied the Soviets - rightly, one supposes - thepossibility of marching through its territory, the Soviet intentionbeing, it appears, to avoid having Soviet territory endangered by theGermans, and instead to fight on foreign soil. The British told theSoviets that they would be able to contribute a couple of divisions,and later on more. The French clearly implied that they would defendthemselves behind the Maginot Line. The Soviets saw no other way out ofthe danger but to seek an accommodation with Hitler, especially if theycould make territorial gains that would create a new buffer zone westof them.

WORLD WAR II was started by Nazi Germany, not theSoviet Union, and the responsibility of the 35 million dead in Europe,29 million of them non-Jews, is that of Nazi Germany, not Stalin. Tocommemorate their victims equally is a distortion.

Thereis more to it even than that. Communism was a deviation from the idealsof the French Revolution which Karl Marx had admired. Marxism was, fromthe outset, a contradictory ideology, because it aspired to equalityand justice, even to democracy, but from the outset it also includedclearly anti-democratic elements, even genocidal ones (articles by Marxand Engels in 1848/9, again in 1863, and the correspondence betweenthem, talked about the elimination of the Czechs, Slovenes and others,as so-called nonhistoric nations).

The democratic trend came into its own with the development ofMarxist social-democratic parties in Central and Western Europe, whilethe anti-democratic and dictatorial elements became the ideology of thegroups out of which communism developed. The USSR, even under Stalin,had these contradictory elements in its basic makeup. The ideal wasstill the realization of libertarian principles, and the abolition ofthe state, as Lenin wrote; this can be seen, for instance, in the 1936Stalin Constitution, a prime example of a wonderfully democraticprogram.

The reality was the exact opposite: oppression, terror,corruption, murder, torture. But very large numbers of Soviet citizensactually believed in the quasi-liberal propaganda, and I think it was,ultimately, the internal contradictions that became the basis for thecollapse of the regime. The economic inefficiency, the corruption andthe terror were, in the final analysis, the result of the fact thatthere was no consistent basis for the communist regime.

With the Nazis it was completely different. There, there was aterrible consistency between a racist, terrorist, anti-Semitic ideologyand the way the society was being built. There were no contradictions:World control by war and conquest, and genocidal programs, were thehallmark of the regime. Without military defeat, the Hitler regimewould not have disappeared; it would never have collapsed on its own.The Soviet regime did.

It is therefore not that difficult to see how the Soviets inthe end were able to collaborate with the West in the defeat of NaziGermany. They had become an ordinary imperialist dictatorship,embellished by an ideology that bore no relation to real life,employing the usual terroristic methods against real and imaginedenemies, but no different from other tyrannies before and after them.Yet, well over 20 million Soviet citizens died in the war, and it wasthe Red Army that defeated Nazi Germany, though the West certainlyhelped.

Iftoday, East Europeans can enjoy membership in the European Union, it isdue to the fact that they were oppressed and ruled, for 45 years, by abasically inefficient, corrupt and barbarous dictatorship, but not bythe Nazis. They were liberated by the Soviets. The West recognizesthat, and so, actually, do many East Europeans: They had to get rid ofthe Nazis first, to begin their tortuous, difficult road of oppositionto the Soviets. The Red Army enabled them to do that, though the pricewas very heavy indeed: 45 years of Soviet oppression. That is theparadox. In the end the East Europeans won, deservedly so. But let usnot change history because of that.

One certainly should remember the victims of the Soviet regime,and there is every justification for designating special memorials andevents to do so. But to put the two regimes on the same level andcommemorating the different crimes on the same occasion is totallyunacceptable. Not only to Jews.

The writer is academic adviser to Yad Vashem and the author of numerous books and articles about the Holocaust.