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Under the sign of half truth

Central Eastern Europeans must be given the time they need to unravel their complex legacy of Communism and Fascism. By Richard Wagner

The West is only too happy to play the guardian of human rights, the jury, when Eastern Europe confronts its past. This often results in a warped perception, as for example when the homo sovieticus operating in the compact parallel societies in Estonia and Latvia is occasionally viewed as an endangered minority. Another factor is that the Western media favours overarching political structures. There is an eagerness to point out that the nation is obsolete, and as a result the Central Eastern European insistence on independence is often held to be exaggerated. And the country in question will commonly be accused of failing to differentiate sufficiently between fascism and communism. It is hard to shake off this suspicion, but it has something to do with recent history. Indeed the Baltic peoples have a few problems understanding the invasion of the Red Army, which was a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact, as an anti-Fascist act. Especially as the year of Soviet rule, which by the way came to an end when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, brought with it mass shootings and the deportation of the middle-class elite. This is how complicated history can be.

Well, we cannot pin either fascism or communism on the Central Eastern Europeans. The larger states of Germany and Russia are to blame here. What the Central Eastern Europeans are being accused of is collaboration. It is the fate, but also the modus vivendi, of the so-called small nations to have a strategy for living together with the occupiers and making the best of the situation. Sometimes the line gets blurred between collaboration and patriotism when what is at stake is the survival of the nation, of everything there is. Not for nothing did anti-Communists and ex-Communists interact so soundlessly in Slovenia in the nineties.

But this often oversimplifies the matter for them in moral terms: the Central Eastern Europeans have a tendency to position evil with the big powers. And this makes it fairly simple for them to talk themselves out of the blame, even when it comes to the extermination of the Jews. The Nazis certainly set the Holocaust in motion, but they didn't invent anti-Semitism. The pogrom immediately after the Second World War in Poland's Kielce is one example of how deeply rooted it was in Central Eastern Europe. Indeed local strands of anti-Semitism survived despite all resistance to the Nazis. This is how blurred anti-fascism can be.

The lack of willingness to confront the past is also a consequence of long-term dictatorship, of the direct or indirect Soviet rule. 'Anti-fascism' was famously the glue of Communist propaganda. The Communists artificially enhanced the societies they ruled over with the anti-Fascist attribute. The Fascists were always the others. Thus in questions of collaboration, the Communist regimes in Central Eastern Europe neither considered themselves responsible nor the appropriate addressees. In times of national communism, people in Romania completely dropped all talk of Hitler and General Antonescu as brothers in arms. In school books Romania's involvement in the Second World War was reduced to the time when the country changed fronts in August 1944. Its involvement in the murder of the Jews in Transnistria also went unmentioned. Entire generations learned almost nothing about it.

But since liberation in 1989, when the path to contemporary modern European life was opened up to societies in Central Eastern Europe, so was Pandora's box. A society in upheaval is always a society in crisis. Just how much can be attributed to crisis and how much to symptoms of upheaval, how much is slipping and how much is progress, is always bound up in the respective political standpoints and the interests at stake. The past is politically instrumentalised both within the Central European Eastern states and against them.

However right it is to demand that the learning processes must begin, in Central Eastern European societies in upheaval they cannot happen overnight. The sobering experiences to which people are subjected allow them to slip into simplified explanations. The local breed of anti-Semitism is intact, even in places where the Jews are long gone. It has even acquired a new remit. To avoid having to take personal responsibility for the concrete facts of the Communist exercise of power, in particular for Stalinist crimes, Central Eastern Europe as a whole has gone to great lengths to count up all the Jews who played a role in communism. But the considerable numbers they have come up with do little to offset the cohorts of guilty culprits.

Occasionally the accusation directed at the Central Eastern Europeans is that they blend out the collaboration with fascism and overstate the crimes of communism. Well, the Baltic countries were under German rule for 3 years and 57 under the Soviets. Another factor is that the Germans, with the exception of the neighbouring Slavic countries Poland and Czechoslovakia, never tried to impose their system one to one. Unlike Stalin, their tactic was to have like-minded allies who wielded authority in the respective countries, autocrats like Horthy in Hungary or right-wing clerics like Tiso in Slovakia, although they were otherwise anti-Church.

One problem that should not be underestimated in the Central Eastern European public debate is the devaluation of the Antifascist habitus through Communist propaganda. This also resulted in Fascist gestures being played down. People who did not believe the propaganda were often disinterested in what it was being directed at. In the same way as a memorial for the liberators was an instrument of Soviet rule, so the section in the museum about the Second World War was also nothing but a Bolshevik waxwork cabinet.

But the Communists operated with half truths. They did not invent history, they manipulated it. Even the majority of war criminal trials in the post-war period would not withstand a constitutional state investigation. These trials should really all be re-held. But this is practically impossible, and as result revisionism will continue to have a foothold. The Communist propaganda destroyed the ethical value of the historical culture. But this must be won back before a balanced assessment of the past can take place. And such things can take an inordinate amount of time, as the collaboration discussions in the Netherlands demonstrate, however democratic the setting.

This in turn relates to the fact that in the post-war period as well, both East and West politically instrumentalised the alleged German threat. Astonishing numbers of societies in Europe used anti-fascism ex post as a comfortable legitimation for their self-created deficits. Only after 1989 and the properly civilian creation of the German national state was this instrument abandoned. - The historical diversity of interests in Eastern Europe are often complex. If the Central Eastern Europeans are to be thorough in their work on collective remembrance, they must be allowed the time they need.


This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 31August 2007.

Born in 1952 in the Banat region of Romania, which historically had a large German population, Richard Wagner now lives in Berlin. His book "Der deutsche Horizont. Vom Schicksal eines guten Landes" ("The German horizon: On the Fate of a Good Country") was published by Aufbau in 2006.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european