Fredrik Rydström | The Lithuania Tribune
In 2008, 50 distinguished members of the European Parliament and numerous prominent international cultural and political luminaries convened in Prague and ceremoniously signed what has become known as the Prague declaration. The initiative was, in essence, purely Eastern European and the countries spearheading the development were those priding themselves of being the fore-runners of anti-Communism, at this point in time mainly the Czech Republic and Lithuania.
For decades the expanding EU and its affiliated Western European States had been busy creating common institutions, organizations and political platforms aimed at meticulously examine, discuss and analyze the common European legacy of the Holocaust, their affinities with Nazi Germany, and their people’s alleged collaboration in the greatest atrocity known in human history.
What the “new member-states” brought to table was, intrinsically, the same bargain, but instead of highlighting the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, the Eastern European member states called for a thorough examination of, in their minds, the equal or even worse crimes committed in the name of Communism.
In Western European history writing, the crimes against humanity committed by the Nazi regime has, to put it mildly, always had primacy over those committed by various communist regimes. I recall when I, as a young student in Sweden, was firmly discouraged by my history teacher from writing about communist war atrocities in Eastern Europe because, to his mind, digging into that territory would be bound to be flawed with contradictions as Communism, in essence, was a ”benevolent ideology”. The teacher in social sciences did not fare of any better. I was forced to renounce my plans to carry out a project about the interpretation of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe in the 21st century because, she blatantly told me, “the socio-political development in this particular region lacks broader European significance”.
Nevertheless, Sweden does not constitute an anomaly in this respective, people aware of the implications of communist crimes in Eastern Europe and the East-West division concerning the interpretation of totalitarian genocides all share similar stories from their home countries.
At any rate, this demand by the new member states put “the old EU” in an awkward position: on the on hand, the calls for a thorough examination of the crimes committed by the post-war communist regimes was of course understandable or even called for, not even the most zealous and hibernated Euro-communists insisted on the matter per se. On the other hand, however, the old EU had, and still has, moral concerns regarding how the post-Communist member states deals with their own legacy of the Holocaust or, put it more accurately, how they by and large omit to or refrain from investigating and recount for their own people´s collaboration with the Nazi regime and the part they played in the Holocaust. The reasons for this hesitance or outright omission is, ideologically speaking, easy to understand as those “patriots” fighting for national independence against Soviet enslavement intermittently collaborated with the Nazis – thus assisting in the extermination of the European Jewry – in order to invoke support for their own nationalist ends.
This ominous moral dilemma hanged like a sword of Damocles over the heads of the representatives chosen to draw up the Prague declaration and, inevitably, ensued in innumerable clashes between Western European delegates on the one hand, and their Eastern European counterparts on the other. This seemingly unbridgeable chasm regarding the interpretation of history and the nature and origin of totalitarian genocides has, as a consequence, been profoundly mirrored in the paragraphs outlined in the Prague declaration.
Hence, rarely or never before has the wording of meaning been more precarious and fiercely debated as during the cumbrous delineation of the Prague declaration. When scrutinizing its paragraphs, therefore, one is struck by the declaration´s opaqueness and equivocality, which deliberately leaves plenty of room for various interpretations. This, essentially, reflects the East-West division over the interpretation of the Holocaust, while it, conversely, implicitly reveals the conciliatory approach employed by the Prague declaration committee in order to satisfy both ideological camps of signatories.
To prove my point, let´s take a closer look at a few of the constituting paragraphs of the declaration. The first paragraph, for instance, calls for the recognition of “Communism, Nazism and fascism as a shared legacy”. For Western European signatories this simply infers that totalitarian regimes, regardless of the nature of their crimes, share the very same ideological origin; after all, both Hitler and Mussolini referred to themselves as “socialists” early on in their political careers. However, as comprehended by Eastern European signatories, the paragraph could, with equal justifiability, be interpreted as a way to equalize the nature of the crimes committed under the auspices of both Nazism and Communism.
The same kind of ambiguous and open-ended interpretation could be applied to the paragraph concerning the establishment of the 23rd of August, the day of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as “a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist regimes” [. . .] “in the same way remembers the victims of the Holocaust on January 27th”. For Western signatories, this paragraph clearly acknowledged that the remembrance of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust on the 27th of January still had primacy over the remembrance of the crimes of communist totalitarianism as the victims of the Holocaust now was endowed two days of commemoration. The Eastern European signatories, quite naturally, interpreted the paragraph as that the crimes committed under the name of Communism and Nazism was to be considered equal as each was assigned its own specific Holiday.
The ambiguous paragraphs spelled out in the Prague declaration – and the broader East-West division concerning the interpretation of totalitarian genocides – have also cast its dark shadow on Lithuanian foreign politics. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, Audronius Azubalis, was, for example, scolded in the West when he humorously suggested that “it is not possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustaches”. This was, according to Western observers, an outright anti-Semitic statement clearly opposing the moralist and ideological pillars constituting the Prague declaration. When asked to comment on Foreign Minister Azubalis remarks on totalitarianism, PM Kubilius, renowned for his diplomatic skills, simply stated that both Nazi and Soviet crimes were “unique” in nature and the pain they cost “immeasurable”. By accentuating the uniqueness of totalitarian crimes the Western press was content and PM Kubilius escaped relatively unsullied from the whole situation, although what he actually expressed in no way contradicted Adzubalis original statement.
Since the inauguration of the Prague declaration back in 2008 many other declarations has followed which, in essence, has paid homage to the original proclamation and further elaborated on the theme of totalitarian crimes. However, the Prague declaration, and its followers, has not been without its critics and perhaps the most vociferous and influential voice of dissent is of Lithuanian descent. I am speaking here of the American-born and Vilnius-based professor Dovid Katz who, in short, has deemed the Prague declaration to be a part of a wider Eastern European (and particularly Baltic) political and ideological trend, termed “the Holocaust Obfuscation movement”, which, to his mind, systematically foments anti-Semitism by advocating the erroneous notion of a “double genocide”.
One might of course wave aside Professor Katz’s caveats, discarding them as exaggerated, and opt for that the Eastern European champions of the Prague declaration are doing us all a favour by emphatically highlighting the crimes committed under Communism; a lesson the West, as stated above, is clearly in need of. This might very well be so, but a word of caution is nevertheless in place here as those Eastern European EU member states suffering from nationalist myopia in general are the first to rally around the Prague declaration. Today Hungary has replaced the Czech Republic and Lithuania as the declaration’s chief self-proclaimed apologist; that is the same country that has evolved into the uncontested bastion of virulent xenophobia, authoritarianism and right-wing nationalism in the entire EU.
Fredrik Rydström is a distinguished academic from Sweden who graduated Vilnius University in Spring 2010. He has lived for almost two years in Lithuania where he ound true love: the kibinas. Fredrik has held several lectures about and specialized in Baltic-Nordic relations.