Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Defending history

In an intriguing article on CiF, Dovid Katz takes the Conservative Party to task for their extraordinary decision to ally with some of the most bizarre, authoritarian and ultra-nationalist far right groups in the European Parliament, seemingly to appease anti-EU sentiment in the party. It is an act of gross irresponsibility for a party that seeks to govern and will no doubt count for absolutely nothing in the coming election campaign.

However, this is not the main subject of the piece. Instead Katz is concerned about a rewriting of history, the equating of Stalinist oppression with the Holocaust in the so called "double genocide" model that sees the Nazi genocide committed against the Jews as equal to Stalin's endeavour to eradicate national identity in the non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union. He sees it as an attempt to mitigate Nazism by "insisting that communism's evils be proclaimed "equal" to Nazism by all of Europe, and trashing the Allied war effort as one that did nothing but replace one tyranny with another "equal" one in the east".

Katz isn't trying to diminish the crimes of Stalinism, he is pointing out that this supposed equivalence has been propagated to hide some rather awkward evidence of complicity in the holocaust.
In the case of the countries in the far east of the European Union, the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), there is a reluctance to own up to any complicity with the Holocaust. The percentages of their Jewish populations killed (mid-90s) were the highest in Europe. Further west, collaboration had meant ratting to the Gestapo or taking neighbours to the train station to be deported. In these countries, it meant something different. Many thousands of enthusiastic local volunteers did most of the actual shooting of their country's Jewish citizens, whose remains lie scattered in hundreds of local killing pits. In Lithuania and Latvia, the butchery started before the Nazis even arrived.
The ultra nationalist account is seeking to conceal this by turning the perpetrators into victims, this time of a second "genocide".

I am always concerned by historical attempts to make qualitative judgements between unambiguous evils - was Stalin worse than Hitler (thereby implying one was actually better), was Fascism the same as Communism etc. – as they are either a form of sloppy shorthand or an attempt to dissemble. Nor is it enough to quantitatively evaluate regimes by counting the corpses (there are always corpses; many, many corpses). Katz is clear that what we have here is not laziness, but a clever and deliberate attempt at eradicating inconvenient facts from a nationalist narrative. And, what is more, that has meant turning on the victims themselves.
Then, in May 2008, at the lowpoint of modern Lithuanian history, armed police came looking for two incredibly valorous women veterans: Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky (born 1922), librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and Rachel Margolis (1921), a biologist and Holocaust scholar. Margolis is especially loathed by proponents of the "double genocide" industry because she rediscovered, deciphered and published the long-lost diary of a Christian Pole, Kazimierz Sakowicz. Sakowicz, witness to tens of thousands of murders at the Ponar (Paneriai) site outside Vilnius, recorded accurately that most of the killers were enthusiastic locals. Now resident in Rechovot, Israel, she is unable to return to her beloved hometown in Lithuania for fear of prosecutorial harassment.
The falsification of history by the powerful is rarely good for the health of either witnesses or serious writers and historians.

This is not to say that we cannot make meaningful comparisons about the generalities of different regimes. We have an excellent conceptual tool to do just that, totalitarianism, a concept that I have defended here and here against the attempt to extend it so far as to render it meaningless. Certainly both Fascism and Communism were totalitarian, but the specifics of their historical roots, the source of their support, motivation of their supporters and their ideological aims were markedly different. The trouble is that the term is often not used analytically, but as abuse or simply for playing a game of guilt by association. And the moment that happens, history slips across the border into propaganda. That is when it is used to hide things, things that matter, things like the criminal singularity of the attempt to exterminate every Jewish, man, woman and child in Europe through industrial slaughter, together with the inconvenient identity of some of those who did the killing.

I have been re-reading Mark Mazower's history of Europe in the Twentieth Century, Dark Continent. He is very clear about the distinctions between Fascism and Communism and makes a strong argument that Fascism was not an aberration, "National Socialism, in particular, fits into the mainstream not only of German but also of European history far more comfortably than most people would like to admit". This made it a more potent threat to democracy across the continent than Communism. His book is a warning against complacency and to stop us hiding from the reality and continuing threat of barbarism. He quotes Hannah Arendt,
"We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury into oblivion".
She is right and there are examples closer to home. Recently, the idea of a post-left has gained some currency. It emerged out of a critique of what has also been referred to as a red/brown alliance between some far left groups and jihadi theocrats. I have no problem with the description and condemnation of these political factions, I just want to know what is particularly novel about them.

To me the idea of a post-left is an evasion of a discussion of long-standing anti-Semitic and totalitarian discourses within the left. It offers a nice and convenient view that the left was pure and innocent before the Stop the War Coalition came along. This is not so and if we are to realise the emancipatory aims of left thinking, we have to acknowledge, study and counter the darker side too, the one that led to the Gulags, one that has a very long history indeed.

Dishonest history plays games like this. It does things like diminish the uniqueness of the Holocaust and its grotesque historical specificity. Nor does it help us understand the other horrors of our recent past – the Stalins, Maos, Pol Pots, Saddams and many others. They may be united by the deliberate practice of misery and death, but they were not the same, nor were they equivalents, and, most certainly, one was not worse than the others. They were different, distinct variants of totalitarianism.

Most casual comment is not dishonest, it is sloppy. But sloppy history has its perils too. We should guard against the falsifications that allow our defences to slip against new enemies of liberty. This does not just mean the noisy threat of theocratic terrorism, but something more insidious, a growing anti-democratic, ultra nationalist right, something much more in tune with the dark side of European history. Potentially more dangerous and capable of success (just as long as it can just get round those little awkward historical facts that might make people think twice), this tendency is something that the Tory Party has shamefully chosen to work with in the European Parliament.

Given the penchant for the systematic distortion of history, the practice of good historical enquiry and debate has an important role to play in the defence and advancement of democratic societies. Cicero's famous maxim seems apt:
Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge
(Thanks to the man with no blog)


Ludwik Kowalski said...


Please share this link with those who might be interested.


P.S. The book is waiting for a reviewer

Graeme said...

Excellent post, Peter.

Anonymous said...

A challenging post: It is hard to argue with much of what he says, but, what does he mean here? "It is widely repeated locally that the Soviets and their Jewish supporters committed genocide first, in 1940 (when the Baltic states were wrongfully incorporated into the USSR, less than a year after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact".

It would have done no harm to acknowledge that the Russians really did torture, murder and deport hundreds of thousands in that year.

Did that justify doing things that even the Germans would not do? No, of course not. But can you expect such things to happen without consequence? No. And when the tide of war turned, it could only get worse.

However you look at it, Jewish suffering has acquired a monopoly of attention in the west. That suffering was unique, but it is not right to gloss over any suffering.

You rightly criticise 'equivalence' as sloppy and morally dubious. But what will you say to elderly Balts whose families were deported and lives disfigured? They too deserve an explanation.

The Plump said...

And a challenging comment anon.

I think that there always is a danger of slipping into, if not outright apologism, a minimisation of one or the other. The author tries very hard to avoid it, as do I.

As to what I would say to a Balt, well there are two lines I would take.

1. It diminishes an understanding of your suffering not to examine the uniqueness of Stalinist terror instead of lumping it in with the Nazis.

2. It grossly diminishes your suffering to use it as a device to launch the far right into power.

Anonymous said...

Your points are, as always, well made. We seem to be nowhere near the start of common intellectual honesty on this.

Stalin enjoys extraordinary popularity in Russia. It is possible in the west to express views on Stalin which would invite public opprobrium if expressed on Hitler. (Am I becoming morally equivalent?)

There is no popular public debate about Stalin's terror. Still less is there an understanding of the fear felt in the east for Putin's Russia. That fear fuels a fairly unpleasant far right.

A little effort by historians and, dare I say, intellectuals (dread term)could be benefical throughout eastern Europe.

I'm done. Time for Anon to sink into well deserved obscurity.

Will said...

"It is possible in the west to express views on Stalin which would invite public opprobrium if expressed on Hitler. (Am I becoming morally equivalent?)"

Doesn't even make sense.

"There is no popular public debate about Stalin's terror."

Are you a fucking imbecile or just a willfully blind cunT?

The other shite posted by the anon cunt is beyond comprehension.

Fucking idiot.

Anonymous said...

Quod erat demonstrandum.

The Plump said...

And Will, you can stop moAniNG about commenters too, you gRumPy oLd soD. :-)


Judith said...

Good post, thought provoking.
Were you at Hull between 1989 and 1992 when I was being a pain in the establishment's bum?

The Plump said...

Thanks Judith. I got my job there in 1996, so missed your bad behaviour mores the pity :-)

Will said...

I wooD love to have been in one of your classes -- wooD have made your life a fuckkiNg misery (read joy when using werD misery there). OMG WTF OMG OMG OMG.

Rebecca said...

To anon's first comment - among the people that the Soviets deported from the Baltic states were thousands of Jews from each country. (Ironically, it saved the lives of many of these people, since it meant they were not in the Baltic states when the Nazis arrived in summer 1941 to kill all the Jews). There may have been some Jews who supported the Soviet takeover of these countries, but many others were seen as dangerous by the Soviets themselves.