Politicizing the Holocaust is a danger to us all
On Jan. 23, dozens of leaders including Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Prince Charles of the United Kingdom and the Presidents of France, Austria, Germany and Russia gathered in Jerusalem to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and to attend the Fifth World Holocaust Forum.
But instead of a somber commemoration, the event turned into a heated memory fight between Russia and its Eastern European neighbors. In his address, Russian President Vladimir Putin used the tragedy of the European Jews to promote his foreign policy objectives. Putin’s speech included false claims about the percentage of Soviet Jews among the Holocaust victims and equated death camps with the siege of Leningrad. Putin also highlighted the role played by local collaborators in Eastern European countries that currently have hostile relations with Russia.
Putin’s remarks contained some important and often overlooked facts. Soviet civilians of all ethnicities did suffer enormously during World War II, and it was the Red Army that liberated Auschwitz. It also is undeniable that many Eastern Europeans — individuals, pogrom mobs, nationalist armed groups and collaborationist governments — actively participated in the murder of Jews. And yet, Putin’s address was deceptive and morally wrong. It promoted a false historical narrative that whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes before and during WWII, including persecution of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied areas.
Putin also conveniently overlooked ethnic Russians who collaborated with Germany, and cynically exploited a historical tragedy to advance Russia’s foreign policy and delegitimize the very existence of U.S.-Allied Eastern European countries by presenting them as little more than eager perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Putin is a master of deceptive narratives, from what happened with the annexation of Crimea to interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But in this case, he largely was echoing tactics adopted earlier by the very countries he targeted.
After the fall of communism, many Eastern European governments engaged in remarkable Holocaust revisionism, almost always aimed at minimizing or ignoring anti-Jewish violence carried out by their own populations. In Poland, most prominently since the rise of the Law and Justice party to power in 2015, the government passed a series of “memory laws” that criminalized (later, just civilly sanctioned) any mention of Polish participation in the murder of their Jewish neighbors. The new Polish legislation not only stifles research and public debate about the Holocaust but also has produced virulent anti-Semitic attacks.
In Lithuania — the deadliest country in all of occupied Europe to be a Jew — the responsibility of individual Lithuanians for the killings continues to be denied. This is because the memory of Soviet occupation in Lithuanian public narrative is a greater trauma than the Holocaust. This dominant memory of Soviet rule also has produced a highly problematic concept of “double genocide” that equates the crimes of the Holocaust with those of the Soviet occupation. And just a few weeks ago, the ruling party in Lithuania drafted a law officially exonerating the Lithuanian nation from crimes of the Holocaust.
Hungary has engaged in this same tactic by building massive public monuments that present the country as the biggest victim of Nazism, thus ignoring the role Hungarian government played in the deportation to Auschwitz and other camps of 430,000 Hungarian Jews.
As a result, many Eastern European states are ill-equipped to effectively counter Putin’s Holocaust offensive. Openly acknowledging the extent of local participation in the Holocaust would require dismantling — often literally so — national mythologies, museums and monuments. Clinging to the existing narratives, however, would only invite further attacks and strengthen Putin’s hand.
Making Holocaust victims and their memory pawns in geopolitical rivalries is morally objectionable. It also threatens democracy, stability and the physical safety of Jewish communities in Europe and beyond. Post-1945 institutions such as NATO and the European Union are built upon a common set of political ideals, many of which derive from the legacy of the Holocaust. Politicizing this shared legacy and turning it into a cynically misused political tool will undermine the very foundations of Western democracy, a goal Putin actively strives to achieve. By refusing to openly confront painful history, Eastern European states endanger their own security and legitimacy.
No less importantly, the escalating memory war between Russia and its post-communist neighbors threatens the safety of these countries’ small and marginalized Jewish communities. Supporting their governments’ distorted historical narratives will force these communities to betray their history. Openly opposing the trivialized Holocaust memory will get them treated as a Russia-aligned fifth column, a charge that fueled decades of anti-Jewish violence in the past.
Only confronting their WWII past will protect Eastern European states from Putin’s memory war. Open historical debate is not only morally right, it also makes countries safer. If the U.S. is truly committed to the security of its Eastern European allies and cares about the safety of Jewish communities, it should make an honest examination of the Holocaust and its memory a key priority. This is the least we can do to honor the memory of the Holocaust victims.
Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust.”
Jelena Subotić is a professor of political science at Georgia State University and the author of “Yellow Star Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism.”