O P I N I O N
by Dovid Katz
It isn’t every Monday and Thursday (as the old Yiddish saying goes) that this journal publishes an opinion piece congratulating a contemporary historian in Lithuania who is a current mainstream player (rather than a pensioner, conceptual or actual exile, or someone painted up as a narrow ethnic-minority champion, anarchist, Soviet apologist, plain old personal maverick, or what-not). It is even more unusual for DefendingHistory.com to go out on a limb without even knowing said historian’s views on the issues that lie at the core of DH’s modest corner in the contemporary marketplace of ideas.
Let it be said at the outset that we sincerely hope that a vote of confidence and congratulations from DefendingHistory.com will not unduly (let alone fatally) harm the man’s future career prospects in the vaunted circles of Lithuania’s most powerful politicians, state institutions and history professors. But come to think of it, the improper leap-into-bed together of this untenable ménage-à-trois goes to the core of the conundrum.
Actually, a more general sense of Defending History has been in play from the outset.
We defend the free practice of history ― whether the freedom to think, speak, teach, publish diverse views ― from manipulation by the state and powerful institutions under its influence. We defend the right of minorities to hold fast to a narrative that differs from that taught in the majority’s standard institutions.
We believe, moreover, that the state should not be sending the message to young researchers of history-related or minority-studies disciplines that if they want a successful career (without emigrating) they must plant themselves at or near the far right’s double-genocidist distortion of twentieth-century history, or serve as “handlers for naive foreigners” who enjoy being wined, dined, pleasured and glorified in Vilnius’s delectable Old Town.
The state should not be purging history departments (much less Jewish studies institutes and initiatives) of staff who disagree with the state’s “approved” history. That was among the kind of reasons we all wanted to get rid of the Soviet Union.
The state ought not be squandering taxpayers’ hard earned money on attempts to export a trumped-up state-approved history across Europe or across the planet. In any event, the tide eventually turns. At first, even a small country can impact foreign historiography temporarily by throwing money at something that states do not usually throw money at and keep the whole effort under the radar. But sooner or later the response comes, as it did this year with the Seventy Years Declaration in the European Parliament. It was courageously signed by eight Lithuanian parliamentarians (six MPs and two MEPs), and in one fell swoop transformed the 2008 Prague Declaration (on which more later) from God’s Honest Truth to just one nationalist view of things.
But turning from diversity to freedom more generally, it must be self-evident that a European Union and NATO ally should not be rolling back freedom of speech and expression on the road to Orwellian history-imposition. The people of Lithuania and its neighbors deserve the very same level of freedom as any other citizens of the European Union and NATO countries, from Anchorage to Melbourne and beyond.
But such is the outcome when politicians playing games for power (that is their job after all) meddle in the nation’s universities and research institutes where the thirst for diversity and debate, and the love of liberty ― liberty of mind, classroom and keyboard ― should prevail (that is their job after all).
This journal has from day one opposed the ban on “Nazi and Soviet symbols equally”; the promulgation of legislation openly intended to codify one opinion and criminalize the other; amending the criminal code to make way for the criminalization of opinion; the failure of the History Institute and other establishment historians to stand up properly against such laws and for freedom of thought in academia (and society); and most tragic of all for the noble and long-suffering people of Lithuania, the passage by parliament and signing into law by the president in June 2010 of a law that effectively makes it illegal for anyone to state the opinion (as we often do) that Stalinist crimes were horrendous and need to be documented, exposed and justice sought, but that they are in no circumstance equal to the Holocaust.
Moreover, this journal, which disagrees with much or all of what A. Paleckis has had to say about the events of 1991, when, in our view, valiant unarmed Lithuanian lovers of freedom and independence were attacked by armed Soviet forces before the eyes of the world, will continue to fight for his, and everybody’s right to free speech. By the same token we have expressed appreciation for his valiant resistance and eloquent response to the current government’s policies on honoring Nazi collaborators of 1941, permitting city-center neo-Nazi parades and legalizing swastikas. (He was found innocent last January, but the state appealed and a new hearing is slated for 12 June 2012.)
To return from the general back to the specific. The “red-equals-brown movement” financed by nationalist governments in Eastern Europe is frankly riddled with the rot of far-right extremist ultranationalism, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and an overarching obsession for obfuscating the Holocaust, albeit without denying a single death. It is a branch of the unsavory part of postmodernist practice to try to mush it all up into obfuscation by confusing perpetrators and victims, right and wrong, and taking refuge in Facebookian “It’s complicated,” as a famous Kaunas professor came close to saying last week when he belittled “the reaction of the Jews” which is based in his view “on a simplified, schematic look at the Lithuanian provisional government.” Actually, no, from its onset to its near-completion, the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry is morally a much more straightforward affair than the good professor would like. The country’s universities, that should be challenging the government’s and the red-brown commission’s truly simplistic “equation of equal evils” are instead busy serving as the government’s outriders and agents, as noted this week by Geoff Vasil on these pages.
Lithuania owes the greatest of debts to a former professor of the same university, Leonidas Donskis, now a member of the European Parliament, for the sparkling moral clarity and inspirational personal courage, with which he has spoken out in the recent and unbelievable saga of a series of state honors for a major Holocaust collaborator. As for the Seimas, its honor this season owes a lot to two valiant MPs, Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis and Algirdas Sysas, who issued a statement in Parliament. MP Andriukaitis moreover challenged the foreign minister on the floor of the Seimas in an unforgettable exchange worthy of the House of Commons.
But what are the underlying politics of all this? Why would states in the Baltic region and in other parts of Eastern Europe even want to invest heavily in the rewriting of history for the West, not just for their own peoples, at times of economic hardship and crippling austerity, unemployment and mass emigration of talented young people?
Among others, squandering state treasure on the whitewash and glorification of war criminals and Holocaust collaborators is part of a backward effort to purge national histories of the stain of Holocaust complicity, principally by replacing “overall” collaborator status with “overall” victim status. In Lithuania this was accompanied by a diabolical “blame the victims” game including the infamous attempts to prosecute Holocaust survivors who survived because they joined the anti-Nazi resistance (and are heroes of the free world), or because they dared to seek legal justice.
Of course this is all provincial claptrap. All our sovereign nations, large and small, have their stains in history, and the way to move on is to acknowledge them, allow diversity of opinion and the flourishing of thought, not by the patent nonsense of a state “historical commission” that is housed in the prime minister’s office and is a de facto agency of its foreign ministry.
But it is not just the sheer madness of primitive ultranationalism that has driven all this. In foreign policy circles an overarching geostrategic rationale has been constructed to make it all sound almost rational.
It runs something like this: If modern Russia can be made to be the understood heir to a USSR that is proclaimed ― by the mainstream of the West, not just by “the crazy Baltic nationalists” ― inherently equal to Hitler, then the pipedream is that Russia might just wake up one fine morning and decide to follow Germany’s 1945+ model and declare itself an international pariah for decades, a willing payer of reparations. In the absence of such an unlikely outcome, the remaining option is to use the “Hitlerization of Russia” policy to ensure that Russia will be disdained and delegitimized by the West no matter what the state of actual relations and behavior at a given point in time.
At junctures when the West’s relations with Russia decline (the “non-reset” periods), naive American diplomats might jump on this bandwagon, forgetting the “small detail” that it was the Alliance of the western powers led by the United States, and including the USSR in 1941-1945 that enabled, with vast human and national sacrifice, the defeat of Hitler, one of Western civilization’s major accomplishments. And, forgetting the slight detail that the “Baltic model” often states explicitly (for internal consumption ― double games abound) that American, British and other Allied sacrifices during World War II were quite useless as far as they are concerned, shifting them around between two “equal” evils. It is conveniently forgotten that there would have been no Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia to become independent in 1991 if the Nazis had won World War II. It becomes okay to relegate the Allies’ sacrifices and achievements to a kind of historical junk bond status, even while trying to recruit diplomats, academics and others to at least an acquiescence to double-genocidist politics.
The equivalence nonsense reached its apex in the 2008 Prague Declaration, which doesn’t even bother to equate Nazism and Stalinism. It uses the word “same” five times to underline the proposed equality of Nazism and Communism, potentially putting Mikhail Gorbachov in one basket with Hitler by European fiat imposed on an unsuspecting naive West by eastern foreign ministries. These foreign ministries have for some years had a free run in manipulating history, in part because people have been busy with other issues, and in part because Putin’s Russia is verily headed in dangerous, unpredictable and worrying directions, leading us all to occasionally look around for any bow-and-arrow to hand. But the West needs to secure the Baltics’ security in perpetuity for all the reasons underlying the European Union and NATO, not in connection with a nationalist far-right attempt to rewrite history (and yes, any government that expends state funds on the glorification of Holocaust collaborators is ipso facto “far right”).
One of the sad ironies is that the double-genocidist campaign has crippled rather than enhanced the genuine need in the West for historians, educators and public figures alike to do a much better job in educating current and future generations about the magnitude and scope of Stalinist crimes. Similarly, there is a real need for a much enhanced recognition of Eastern Europe’s near half century of subjugation by the USSR when the West was enjoying an unbridled and unprecedented time of postwar freedom and prosperity.
All this translates politically into pandering to the right, the far right, the ultranationalist base. But it also entails the political need (“for the foreigners and the Jews”) to constantly divert attention, cover up and play games with endless “Jewish heritage events” from plaques in central Vilnius (often too high up to see if you’re not looking for it, a quite hilarious double-game symptom) to endless conferences where the same “state-koshered” group of local “Jew-handler” specialists are paired up with foreign UJIs (short for “Useful Jewish Idiots”), who are brought to Vilnius for lavish conferences, high honors and presidential medals, to pay tribute to the grand benevolence of the current Lithuanian government and its “parliamentary court Jew” who was, quite amazingly, the one Jew in Europe to sign the Prague Declaration.
We argued back in early 2011, in response to an article in Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, that Lithuania’s foreign policy has been set back noticeably by the squandering of resources, good will and political capital on the attempted export of red-brown ideology, and by the clampdown on intellectual freedom domestically (DH.com version).
For example, and in no special order:
“Our foreign policy is sinking, under an extra weight of history that it can no longer carry. In the name of ‘real’ history our leaders are ready to engage in historical falsifications to go and fight the world, be it with Moscow, Vienna or Tel Aviv.” [Elsewhere in the interview, it’s made clear that the larger critique includes Warsaw, too.]
“Britain and France will never agree on Napoleon’s victories. The founding of the United States is viewed in one way in France and again in a different way in Britain. But that diversity in viewing history does not dictate the foreign policy of Washington DC, or of Paris or London.”
“A current example: the reburial of Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, head of the Provisional Government of 1941. The government allocated funds, but neither they, nor the president, nor representatives from the Foreign Ministry participated in any events. This demonstrates both chaos in foreign policy, and moral failure to take responsibility for one’s actions.”