Questions and Answers on the Holocaust-Gulag “Competitive Martyrology”


by Michael Shafir (Cluj-Napoca, Romania)


1. Approximately when did the drive to equate the Holocaust and the sufferings endured by people under Communist regimes start?

It is very difficult to pinpoint an exact date. In the West, a number of Sovietologists have long driven attention to the fact that the horrible crimes perpetuated by Stalin and his henchmen in East Central Europe deserved the attention and the opprobrium that Nazism met with after the Second World War. Due to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous book Gulag, these crimes soon began to be referred to under the synthetic name of that book. The collapse of the Communist regimes in the region in 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 intensified that drive, which also found an impulse in the once popular (but later criticized) “totalitarian model.” That model was now revived, finding support particularly in the eastern part of Europe that had suffered under Soviet domination. Western historians were (and still are) quite divided over this issue. For example, Robert Conquest, who produced several important books on Stalinist crimes, was reluctant to place the Holocaust and the Gulag on the same footing. On the other hand, Stéphane Courtois, who edited and contributed to the Black Book of Communism, not only embraced the comparison, but insisted on

a) “numerology” (i.e. the fact that the number of victims of Communist regimes far exceeded that of Jews exterminated by the Nazis and their allies during the Second World War) and, unfortunately,

b) alluded to a possible attempt by Jewish historians to conceal those facts in order to emphasize the uniqueness of the Jewish suffering.

All these notes and many more, ranging from what the Vilnius-based American scholar Dovid Katz  calls “Holocaust Obfuscation,” to the “trivialization of the Holocaust,” and even to attempts to deny it altogether, would emerge with particular force in some of the former Communist countries. The Baltic States, and particularly Lithuania, were pioneers in this direction, and were soon joined by scholars and pundits from other countries that (just like, or nearly like, the Baltic states) were subjected to the consequences of the 23 August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact: Poland, Romania and Moldova. Soon, however, the drive was embraced also in countries that had not suffered as a result of the pact, but were Nazi-Germany’s allies during the war: Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia. These efforts gave birth to what is nowadays acknowledged under the name of the “Double Genocide Theory” or the “Symmetrical Approach.”

2. Is it inherently wrong, then, to compare the Holocaust with the Gulag?

Not necessarily. Even those intending to demonstrate the singularity of the Holocaust must realize that uniqueness cannot be demonstrated but comparatively. In other words, singularity is never singular. Besides, as Yehuda Bauer wrote, singularity is the wrong term in this context, for it implies that Holocaust-like phenomena cannot ever be repeated. One should rather speak of unprecedentedness. The Israeli historian has convincingly demonstrated that the Holocaust was indeed a phenomenon without precedent in humankind’s history. But that does not mean that the Gulag and the Holocaust do not share common traits as well. They were both phenomena made possible by modern means of mass destruction, although, paradoxically, the Gulag was, at one and the same time, also a means to push for modernization, at least in the Soviet case; they were both ideologically driven; and they both placed the community rather than the individual at the center of their ideological objective: in one case race, in the other class. Herein precisely lies also the difference between them: in order to achieve its end-object, the Holocaust was genocidal, whereas the Gulag was a crime against humanity. International law adopted after the end of the war distinguishes between the two, although both crimes are imprescriptible. And it should be noted that, paradoxically, at the famous Nuremberg trials (November 20, 1945 – October 1, 1946), the accused were charged with the latter crime, not the former. That is because only in December 1948 was the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, coming into force on January 12, 1951, after its ratification by twenty states.

3. If both crimes are imprescriptible, why the insistence on the Double Genocide approach?

There are several reasons. Paradoxical as this may sound, the first reason should be attributed to the success of the international community of Holocaust survivors and “second-and-third” generation survivors, to cause the Holocaust be perceived as the “paradigmatic genocide.” Somehow this created the feeling that unless placed in the genocidal category, no community’s suffering stands a chance of being similarly acknowledged at the international level. This led first to the “trivialization of the Holocaust” in an inflation-like idiom (loss of value by over-utilization of uncovered currency) where people often speak of a “Holocaust of the bees,” a “Holocaust of intellectuals” etc.), and eventually to “Holocaust Obfuscation,” to which we shall eventually return.

The second reason derives from the first, but is nonetheless different. At first glance, the Soviet mass deportations of entire peoples suspected of having collaborated with the Nazis in the course of the Second World War and in its aftermath places that regime among genocidal regimes. Yet if one is to stick to the definition of genocide as approved by the United Nations back in 1948, things look somewhat different, for although these measures were both unjustified and atrocious, they were never intended to lead to the physical extermination of those nations, to the elimination of their reproductive capacity or their culture. These were, again, crimes against humanity, but not genocides. And incidentally, the same applies to the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe in the postwar period in places such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Of course there were human victims, local pogroms. Of course atrocities were committed here as well, but they do not fall into the narrowly-defined category of genocide.

4. But was that definition not the result of a Soviet veto on the more encompassing proposals made by other states during the debates that preceded the adoption of the Convention in 1948?

Of course it was. The Soviet Union was particularly opposed to attempts to include the category of “social groups” in the definition, and for good reasons: it feared that this inclusion would render it vulnerable to charges of genocide, particularly against social classes, religious groups, etc. But one must not forget that the Soviets were not the only state to oppose that inclusion. After all, the United States itself ratified the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide only forty years after its approval by the United Nations, and also for political reasons of its own. Amending that convention, as some have proposed, would achieve nothing but placing under a large question mark what has been achieved by the narrow definition. Politics would never be eliminated, for it is still states that must approve a new convention and ratify it. More important, the international legislation does include, as mentioned, crimes against humanity, which are imprescriptible, as well as legislation against mass murder or ethnic cleansing, which includes forced deportation. The persecution of social groups belongs here as well.

Some claim that what crime is placed under which category depends to a large extent on subjective factors. And they are partly right. The transformation of the Holocaust into the paradigmatic genocide is precisely one of these subjective factors. Perhaps the best example is that of the Ukrainian Holomodor (extermination by hunger). The Holomodor  (1932-1933) preceded the Holocaust, and it is now officially promoted in Ukraine as genocidal, the more so as even Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew refugee in the US who was the main promoter of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide eventually acknowledged it as such. Yet all indications are that Stalin and his henchmen never intended to exterminate the Ukrainian nation as such, it being one of the chief producers of foodstuff in the Soviet Union. He “only” intended to crush opposition to collectivization, just as he did not only in Ukraine, but also in other parts of the Soviet Union. It was a horrendous crime against humanity, but not genocide. It was “class war,” not “race war”. And since the opposition to that drive did not stem only from peasants, but was inspired by Ukrainian intellectuals and nationalists, they would also pay the price for it, Stalin (just like Hitler) being persuaded that a nation decapitated of its elites is easier turned into a submissive nation. And that also applies to the mass murder that led to the liquidation of Polish army officers (but also many intellectuals) at the Katyn forest in 1940.

In short, if we are to stick to both the etymological roots of the genocide concept (the destruction of a nation) and to its international definition, such crimes belong to the category of crimes against humanity. The same, again, should apply to the crimes committed by the Stalinist regime in the Baltic States. Mass deportations, the decapitation of elites, selective executions, and the liquidation of “class enemies”  are all features of Stalinist totalitarianism. To make the distinction between crimes against humanity as part of the “class war” and genocide more emphatic one should underline that among nations subjected to deportations, Jews were everywhere proportionally more numerous among deportees than the native nationality. However, they were not deported on religious or national grounds, but on class grounds. This also partly explains the presence of individual Jews both among the persecutors and among victims. The Nazis and their local collaborators in the Baltic states never distinguished between rich or poor Jews, collaborating and non-collaborating Jews during the first Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, etc. That was genocide. Or to put it differently: a person with anti-Communist views could always pose into a Communist believer, standing a fair chance to survive persecution. No Jew ever stood a chance of survival by claiming he or she was a Nazi believer. Or a nationalist Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian. In short, the “Double Genocide” is neither “double” nor “symmetrical.”

5. Are there any historical or psychological factors that should be taken into account when explaining the popularity of the Double Genocide approach?

Of course there are. And the two are intertwined. First, as is well known, Communist regimes everywhere subjected the Holocaust to oblivion, or at best to manipulation. To utilize Shari Cohen’s terminology, they indulged into “state-organized national forgetting.” One of the grounds for doing so was the fact that these regimes claimed they were the embodiment of dialectical materialism, according to which the history of mankind is the history of class struggle. But fascism, Nazism and its local emulators in Eastern Europe never made class distinctions when it came to the elimination of Jews. So Jews had to be, first, transmogrified into “fighters for progress” which would explain why they had fallen victim to that ideology, and then simply relegated to oblivion. So was the participation of local collaborators in the Holocaust, they being reduced to “the fringe of society.”

Any political regime, however, is in need of “positive history” and of “hero models” that it can claim as precedent. Why should, then, Iron Guard leader Corneliu Zelea Codreanu and Marshal Ion Antonescu, Admiral Miklós Horthy and Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi, President Jozef Tiso or Croat Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić not re-emerge as “model figures” of national heroes, whose only fault rests in their having (nilly rather than willy) supported or allied themselves with those who were fighting Communism and/or the traditional enemy of their nation? Their crimes having been ignored, why should not the Baltic Waffen SS volunteers who fought the Soviets not emerge as “hero models,” as one had hardly heard about some of the same people’s participation (before having volunteered) in the extermination of Jews even before the Nazi’s arrival to witness the massacres or of having served as guards in extermination camps? For, as reputed historian Timothy Snyder has shown in Bloodlands, one of the greatest Hitler propaganda successes was to imbue the populations of Eastern Europe subjected to Soviet rule in 1940 or to partial Soviet occupation with the equation “Jew=Bolshevik.” Incidentally, Snyder has been criticized for not differentiating between the Holocaust and the Soviet crimes, by showing that a relative small territory has produced under the Zeitgeist’s disregard for human life 14 million victim between 1933 and 1945. Those who did so, however, had not carefully enough read Snyder’s book.

These historic factors are intertwined with factors of a psychological nature. The participation of some politically prominent, though sociologically not representative, Jewish Communists in the first (Stalinist) phase of Soviet rule in East Central Europe, has not been forgotten, confirming, as it were, post factum, Hitler’s equation. It little matters that the bulk of Jewish survivors in East Central Europe opted for leaving those countries as soon as they could. “First they brought Communism on our heads, then they ran away” became everywhere a stereotypical reproach. One deals here with what I have termed in Freudian terms “the externalization of guilt.” In other words, by collaborating with the Communist authorities or by having acted as Communist agents before Soviet occupation, Jews had brought on themselves the wrath of collaborators, who “did onto them what they had first done onto us.” Hence the refusal to acknowledge collective responsibility (to be distinguished from individual guilt). But this refusal is reinforced by what US sociologist Jeffrey Alexander has termed “cultural traumas.” German historian Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “post-memory” i.e. the process by which memory is transmitted from generation to generation, and U.S. sociologist Robert Bellah’s concept of “communities of memory” are well known to those familiar with Holocaust Studies. But is there any reason to assume that only Jews have memory and only among them are there communities of memory likely to survive over generations? For Jeffery Alexander,

“Events are not inherently traumatic. Trauma is a socially mediated attribution.”

It is turned into a cultural trauma when collectivities undergo a social crisis:

“Events are one thing, representations of these events quite another. Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity. Collective actors ‘decide’ to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to their sense of who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go.”

What is more, instead of triggering empathy for like-suffering groups, people subjected to collective traumas tend to, on the contrary, attribute to others the responsibility for their ordeal:

“Is the suffering of others also our own? In thinking that it might in fact be, societies expand the circle of the we. By the same token, social groups can and often do refuse to recognize the existence of others’ trauma, and because of their failure they cannot achieve a moral stance. By denying the reality of others’ suffering people not only diffuse their own responsibility for the suffering but often project the responsibility of their own suffering on these others” (emphasis added)

To sum up: the Holocaust-Gulag martyrological competition is, above all, a clash of memory rather than one of history. Psychological factors are intertwined with historical factors, as in any memory. For post-Communist societies, the “Gulag narrative” has been turned into what Yael Zerubavel calls the “master commemorative narrative”in the absence of any other recent “positive history” elements. Unfortunately, this has given birth to a drive to utilize the instruments of “Holocaust Obfuscation.”

6. Is Holocaust Obfuscation another form of Holocaust Denial?

Yes and no. It is neither exactly denial, nor is it, at first sight, trivialization. But it is more dangerous than the former two, since it might appeal to people who cannot be suspected of antisemitism but be prone to back obfuscation because of their own anti-Communist past. After all, the 2008 Prague Declaration that called for 23 August to be observed as the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism (since introduced in several European countries) was supported by people such as former Czech President Václav Havel. Writing on that declaration, Dovid Katz points out that

“The heinous crimes of Communist regimes clearly merit full exposure. Victims deserve recognition… However, the declaration insists as a matter of principle that Soviet Communism and Hitler’s Fascism be declared absolutely ‘equal… Bold non-Jewish advocates of truth and reconciliation, individuals and NGOs alike, have recently been overwhelmed by a state-sponsored ‘Genocide Industry’ that promotes Holocaust Obfuscation. This is not Holocaust denial but, rather, a ruse to confuse the issue and talk the Holocaust away in a new, cunning paradigm of ‘equal genocides’.”

In turn, Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff points that behind the syllogism there is a definite intention:

“If Communism equals Nazism, then Communism is genocide, which it is not. If Communism is genocide, then Jews committed genocide because among the Communists, some of them were Jews. If Jews committed genocide, then obviously it does undermine the arguments of Jews against the peoples in Eastern Europe, who helped the Nazis mass-murder the Jews. In other words, this is designed to deflect the criticism of Nazi collaboration in Eastern Europe which was far more lethal than Nazi collaboration anywhere else.”

If, as recently proposed by a subcommittee of our organization, Holocaust denial and distortion includes

“minimizing or ignoring the participation of local collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany in the implementation of the Holocaust”

then Holocaust Obfuscation must be rejected as well.



The author submitted a version of this paper at the Educational Working Group of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (formerly the ITF — International Task Force) in Toronto, Canada, in October 2013.

Professor Michael Shafir is Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Doctoral Studies, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania and Associate Professor at the Dimitrie Cantemir Christian University in Bucharest.

He was born in Romania and received his PhD in Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1981. He taught Political Science at the University of Tel Aviv and was Chair of International Relations at the Faculty of European Studies, Babes-Bolyai University until 2012. He was director of foreign news at Kol Israel, deputy director of Radio Free Europe’s Audience and Public Opinion Research, as well as chief of the Romanian Research Unit at  Radio Free Europe Research Institute in Munich, Germany.

Between 1995 and 2005, Shafir lived in Prague, his last position being that of European Affairs Coordinator at Radio Free-Europe/Radio Liberty and editor of East European Perspectives, a journal published by RFE/RL and distributed on the internet. Michael Shafir is the author of Romania: Politics, Economics and Society. Political Stagnation and Simulated Change, published by Frances Pinter, London, 1985; Between Negation and Comparative Trivialization: Holocaust Denial in Post-Communist East-Central Europe, published by Polirom, Iasi, Romania in 2002 and X-Rays and other Phobias, Iasi, Instiutul European.

He has published over 350 articles on communist and post-communist affairs in American, Austrian, British, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Israeli, Romanian and  Slovak  journals, and has contributed chapters to books published in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the UK and the USA. Professor Shafir is the head of the Romanian delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

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