O P I N I O N
A REVIEW OF THE PRAGUE PLATFORM’S TRAVELLING EXHIBITION “TOTALITARIANISM IN EUROPE” PAID FOR BY THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION (CURRENTLY ON SHOW AT TUSKULĖNAI PARK IN VILNIUS, LITHUANIA)
by Geoff Vasil
At the edge of downtown Vilnius, along the river Neris where the buildings suddenly turn old and worn and bushes, trees and grass take on unmanicured forms, across the bridge whose entree is gated by the Danish and British embassies to Lithuania, there is a strange park nestled in between some very empty Soviet-looking and much older buildings.
As you enter the park past some small tennis courts, a large lump confronts you. It seems to lack the serenity of a sacred earth mound worn down with time, and that impression is strengthened by the strange metal construction surmounting it, something between a radar antenna array and an abstract artist’s sculpted image of the cold virus. A pavement leads around the whole of the lump. Circumambulating the mound, you don’t look at the mound itself so much as what surrounds it, the radial spokes of vision alternating between Soviet-era government buildings, a grandmother with a baby stroller, a street filled with traffic, some old buildings, obviously renovated, lodged on the other side of the park across unkempt lawn just providing a hint of some Poe-esque estate abandoned to the ravages of time, and, finally, a very new section of benches and concrete, with a steep drop-off down the sleep which eventually leads to the Neris.
The modern side has a meandering walkway down to an entrance of sorts, three locked gates of rough wrought-iron bars set into a marble exterior above which a Latin inscription informs you this is a columbarium, whatever the hell that means.
I recognized the site as the one Laima Vince used in her not-fully-edited but nonetheless obfuscationist masterpiece, Backwaters of the Heart, as the same place where a girl from Greenland broke down and lost her cadence in English at the enormity of the suffering. Apparently there are bodies, or human remains, housed there. The whole park complex with museum facilities is a paean to the lines in George Orwell’s 1984: “There lie they and here lie we, Under the spreading chestnut tree,” since the Tuskulėnai estate, refurbished and housing the lump and virus sculpture now, was the site of numerous atrocities by the different factions in World War II.
I was there for a travelling exhibition called Totalitarianism in Europe, supposedly an EU production equating Communism and Nazism, death camps and gulags, the Holocaust and Communist atrocities. The best candidate was the building to the back and far left, a sort of long hall of windows with a door and a sign. I sauntered across the lawn littered with pine needles, acorns and leaves in the early autumn, and saw an Angel-of-Death mushroom, Amanita virosa I think is the Latin binomial, poking up through the ground. The hall’s door was locked, with some instructions on how to reach the museum’s administrative offices, but I could see the poster for the exhibit through the window at least. A helpful young man in the administrative offices took me to the exhibit through a small doorway, told me to help myself to the literature on a table near the entrance, and unlocked the main door.
The exhibit was a series of posters. Each poster had the name of a country printed prominently at top. Many countries had two or more posters, with subheadings for Communism or Nazism underneath. The presentation was mainly textual, with a few photographs of local Nazis and Communists for each country, and a few photographs of German Nazis and Soviet Communists who operated in that specific country in some measure. Latvia’s Communist poster had Beria and Stalin’s portraits, while the others did not. The countries were mainly continental European countries including Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania and a few others, but not Yugoslavia, nor Russia, Italy, France, or most of the southeastern and southern states. Scandinavia was not included.
The hall, with shades drawn, had the sort of empty feeling spaces sometimes acquire after long periods of non-use. While there wasn’t a lot of physical dust, there was yet the sense that dust and cobwebs were surely not out of place here. The feeling was enhanced by the entire floorspace being filled with modern chrome-plated and cushioned chairs used at universities and in conference rooms, around which I had to navigate carefully in order to view the posters. It seemed as if very few people had been there in recent months.
The first poster, if you entered from the main door, was titled “Totalitarianism in Europe: Fascism – Nazism – Communism. An international travelling exhibition.” While a hyphen is not an equal sign, it sure felt like that was the idea being conveyed here. The introduction poster stated: “In the 20th century, Europe tragically became the birthplace and territory of the most devastating totalitarian regimes based on radical belief – Communism, Fascism and Nazism – which caused the extermination of or immeasurable suffering of countless millions of innocent people.” The hyphen here seems, again, more of a cupola than a marker of an insertion into the sentence. It continues:
“There still exists a difference between the common perception of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships on the one side and the Communist dictatorship on the other.”
Evidently this distinction is considered a lamentable holdover of the past by the authors of the exhibit. A little further on, it says:
“In contrast, it has not yet become public knowledge that Communist totalitarianism. [from 1927 till now], is responsible for much larger losses of human lives than World War II.”
It goes on to call for Nuremberg-style trials of Communism, in essence, based on war crimes (albeit admittedly committed during peace-time), crimes against humanity and genocide.
Without delving too deeply into the flaws in that line of reasoning, suffice it say it would be just as viable to bring charges against Catholicism for the same reasons, beginning with the establishment of the Church by Constantine till the present day. Equally, one could just as well argue that the State has committed by far the majority of all crimes against humanity and all known genocides, and thus hold a legal tribunal to prosecute the alleged crimes of statism. The authors of the museum exhibit seek to cast a wide net to include the crimes of Communism as such, using the precedent of a very specific set of crimes committed in a very definite span of time for very different reasons and with very different results. Thus they are attempting to shift focus from the Holocaust to a more nebulous grudge against a more nebulous adversary, and most likely seeking to assign blame to and to get compensation from a single successor state, Russia, even though almost all of the post-World War II Communist regimes in Eastern Europe were headed by and almost fully administered by local Czechs, Estonians, Germans, Bulgarians, etc.
I focused on the two posters for Lithuania. On the poster subtitled Nazism, the claim is made that only Lithuanians subordinate to Nazi command structures perpetrated Holocaust crimes, something we know is untrue from survivors’ testimonies. The poster tersely notes: “Different resistance organizations against the Nazi occupation were formed.” Technically this is true. There was a Jewish, Polish and Communist resistance, but there is also the myth of a Lithuanian anti-Nazi resistance including disgruntled former Nazi lackeys, such as Nazi puppet prime minister Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, whose “resistance” to the Nazis seems to have consisted of writing pseudonymous articles in underground newspapers while in hiding under an assumed name, providing “constructive criticism” to the Nazis on how to better administer occupied Lithuania.
There follows a list of the number of victims by category, including 200,000 Jews murdered and 29,500 people of unspecified ethnicity sent to concentration camps or imprisoned. Another 60,000 victims are listed as having been transported to Germany as slave labor, no ethnicity specified. A smaller list at the bottom informs us a round figure of 1,000 people were sentenced as Nazi perpetrators during the Soviet period, of whom, again a round figure, 250 were sentenced to death and 750 imprisoned.
The Nazism poster for Lithuania contains photographs of Lohse, von Renteln, Horst Wulff, Rosenberg, Hans Hingst and Arnold Lentzen, but no Lithuanians.
The Communism poster for Lithuania contains photos of 4 Lithuanians and 2 Russians. The figures listed for victims could probably be disputed by different authorities on the subject, but again, they are all very round figures. The smaller list called “Prosecution of Perpetrators after the End of the Regime” has a footnote attached to the very title explaining this includes Communist AND Nazi perpetrators. Each very specific figure in the short list has a footnote in red providing explanations that of the 46 charged and tried in court, 3 were Nazis; of the 10 sentenced, 1 was a Nazi; and that the five who actually did time in prison were all Communists. No information is provided on the ethnicities of those deported to gulags or those who died there. Do these figures include the alleged 1,000 people convicted of collaborating with the Nazis on the other poster for Lithuania? How many of the 20,500 “fighters of the resistance killed or died in combat” on the Lithuania Communism poster were actually resisting Communism under the banner of the swastika? Do the 1,500 “sentenced to death for political reasons” include the 250 presumably Lithuanians sentenced to capital punishment for Holocaust crimes on other poster? Finally, why does the Communism poster for Lithuania list 496,000 people who “escaped the country – emigrated” while the Nazism poster for Lithuania makes no mention of escapees?
There seems to be no way of knowing which local East European collaborators and perpetrators tried and punished were in fact tried and punished by Soviet courts after the war, and which were tried and punished by post-Soviet Lithuanian courts? (The answer to that last question, about how many punished, is known to be: none.)
The text-and-photo format of the poster exhibition reminded me of earlier “shockumentary” documents I’d seen from Lithuania but slightly updated graphically, with a dash of subdued color here and there. Looking over the list of sponsors of the exhibition project, I saw an EU flag and the inscription: “Europe for Citizens. With the support of the Citizens Programme of the European Union” but at first didn’t see the slightly more obscure disclaimer:
“This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.”
Is that supposed to deflect lawsuits against the European Commission over potential Holocaust revisionism? What does “cannot” exactly mean, here? What if I do hold the Commission responsible for funding revisionist propaganda? (Note that throughout the examples from the texts provided above, and in many other instances not included, the hyphen is used to serve as a cupola, a colon and an equal sign, not to introduce an interjection, as I suspected originally regarding the subtitle of the exhibit.)
The literature provided on the table near the door was disconcerting as well. A small sign in Lithuanian said not to remove packets of reproductions of the posters translated into Lithuanian, while the young man told me to help myself to either the English or Lithuanian packets. Another document being handed out to visitors was a magazine-sized leaflet called “Citizens’ Rights: Discover the Past for the Future: The role of historical sites and museums in Holocaust education and human rights education in the EU. Summary report.” from the European Agency for Fundamental Rights. Chapter 2 in the leaflet, titled “Developing a culture of self-critical historical reflection,” seemed rather ironic in view of the Tuskulėnai museum complex’s overall message and the poster exhibit specifically.
Whereas the booklet maintains that Holocaust commemorative sites serve the purpose of self-critical reflection and a link with a past decreasingly accessible via living survivors, the Lithuanian park complex, including the poster exhibit but also the earthen lump and a permanent museum, seeks to perpetuate a reburial of the past, a common grave for Europe where the limbs of the corpses are so inextricably intertwined that no one could be expected during their lifetime to sort it all out and make some kind of sense out of the plethora of tragedies known as the twentieth centuries. Thus, by default, the Holocaust becomes not a unique instance of genocide unparalleled in scope, barbarity and industrialization, but something within the continuum of genocides including the hypothetical genocide of Lithuanians by the Soviets, a “genocide” which, while it did deprive Lithuanians of de facto statehood, actually saw an increase in the Lithuanian population, increased study of the Lithuanian language and culture, and a host of other maladies now afflicting the European continent.
I came away from the Tuskeleniai museum and park complex feeling I had just attended a Satanic black mass, a celebration of the culture of death, not an insightful journey into the inner workings of totalitarian regimes considered as a common entity. This feeling was very much reinforced by a short visit to the main museum, located also underground, where multiple soundtracks vied for supremacy, all of them horrible, giving the general impression of being in a theme park dedicated to the American film the Exorcist. The exhibits there also did nothing to further the idea of a self-critical reappraisal of history, but were more akin to an atrocity exhibition where there was a clearly defined “Us” and a somewhat vaguer but still distinct “Them,” consisting of Germans and Russians.
Under the flowing chestnut tree, a mass common European grave, the sixth estate, the unisonic voice of the dead calling out to us, and their blood crying up to Heaven, remember us, but only a little bit, don’t remember us too well for we the meek are all gone and the barbarians have inherited the earth, Amen.