A Scholar’s Apt Warning on Ultranationalist Abuse of History and Historians


by Dovid Katz

There is actually a larger issue, and a constructive lesson, that emerges from Alexander Gogun’s reply to Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe’s critique of an earlier article co-authored by Gogun, that had appeared on a Ukrainian nationalist website that tends to glorify various Nazi-collaborationist nationalist groups and underplay or ignore their participation in genocide. Tellingly, that issue does not even relate to differences of opinion on any one point of fact, interpretation or analysis. Historians and academics will naturally disagree and from time to time and hasten to correct each other on this or that detail.

The Big Issue here, that Rossoliński-Liebe so successfully and succinctly exposed, is a dangerous and disturbing plot line that transcends the details. In short, he brought to light a characteristic twenty-first century instance wherein a competent historian at an established institution is successfully recruited for an East European pseudo-historical ultranationalist campaign to revise twentieth century history in the direction of far-right nationalist models.

We now know from Gogun’s reply, and his own previous works that he duly and rightly enumerates, that he understands very well both the virulent antisemitism and murderous work of certain Ukrainian nationalist groups during the Holocaust, and he takes pains to demonstrate that he never denied that understanding. But he fails to understand why a historian would take him to task for allowing a work he co-authored to be in effect abused by a publication as he puts it, “let us be frank, in not the most famous of journals” and “later reproduced on an amateur history website about Ukrainian nationalism”.

As if it is a trifle for a historian at a respected German university to allow one isolated
aspect of his thinking or work about the war era (in this case the sensational and wholly exceptional presence of a Jew or Jews in an antisemitic organization) to be featured on an ultranationalist website that distorts history, obfuscates the Holocaust, and glorifies local nationalist perpetrators and collaborators.  It is curious that he would be offended that someone would point that out, when after all it had “only” appeared “let us be frank, not in the most famous of journals” and “reproduced on an amateur history website about Ukrainian nationalism”. What feeble apologetics to call a nationalist website one that is “about” Ukrainian nationalism, as if it is some balanced historical treatment that puts due emphasis on the participation in genocide of the nationalist groups that are praised or heroized on the site.

The long and short of it is that Gogun should be grateful to Rossoliński-Liebe for pointing out the pitfalls of ultranationalist abuses of history and historians.

But Rossoliński-Liebe has performed a wider service, by raising the alarm about the not-so-innocent abuse of competent historians’ sympathies for the long-suffering nations of Eastern Europe. Some ultranationalist elements have become adept at teasing out a one-sided history, sometimes contributed by good-willed and eminent researchers, into the revisionist ultranationalist movements for which it is always a special prize to be able to flaunt a professional scholar.

The wider problem is most emphatically illustrated by (among others) the Lithuanian
government’s investments in academic and cultural projects that entice enough involvement by prestigious foreign scholars and institutions to give an aura of legitimacy for the nationalists’ “Double Genocide” movement epitomized by the 2008 Prague Declaration.

So on this occasion, with no disrespect to Alexander Gogun, we salute Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe’s courage and perspicacity in making it crystal clear, that if competent historians allow their work to be (ab)used by “amateur history websites about nationalism” that (ab)use will be exposed. And so it should be.


Editor’s note: See Alexander Gogun’s response.

This entry was posted in Dovid Katz, History, Opinion, Politics of Memory. Bookmark the permalink.
Return to Top