History, memory, and politics in post-communist Eastern Europe

History, memory, and politics in post-communist Eastern Europe

The fact that East European trauma under communism is not adequately understood and appreciated in the West is the central grievance of these movements, and this feeds into new cycles of victimization

In October 2017, a commemorative plaque “In Memory of the 200,000 Poles Murdered in Warsaw in the German Death Camp KL Warschau” was unveiled in Warsaw. This was a sombre ceremony, with the local priest performing Catholic rites and a representative of the Polish army honouring the dead.

The only problem: almost none of this was true. While there was a camp in Warsaw, and a few thousand Polish citizens did die there during the German occupation after the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, the horror reached new heights. Indeed, this camp was turned into a concentration and extermination camp and its victims were mostly Jews brought in from other parts of Europe. These captives were used as slave labour to clear the charred remains of the ghetto. In total some 20,000-people died in this camp, most of them non-Polish Jews.

By framing its commemoration in such a way, the Polish civil society group behind this project was, therefore, clearly focusing on victims of their own ethnic group at the expense of others. However, this is a feature that is common among commemorative politics everywhere. More remarkable, though, is that the real purpose of this commemoration is to present it as a direct competitor with the memory of the Holocaust, especially in Poland, the geographic heart of the genocide.


See Prof Subotic speak at CIPS on 3 October at 11:30 am: Book launch: Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism


This revisionist historical remembrance in Poland is not new and has already attracted much international attention. In 2018, the Polish government passed a law that criminalised the use of the phrase “Polish death camps” to designate German Nazi death camps in occupied Poland, such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and many others. Moreover, the law also criminalised any insinuation that individual Poles may have committed anti-Semitic crimes during the Holocaust (the law was amended in June 2018 to make the offence civil and not criminal).

Poland is hardly alone. As I document in my book, Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism, this new historical revisionism has flourished across post-communist Europe and is especially visible in historical museums, monuments and memorials, history textbooks and in rehabilitation and restitution laws.

Over four years, I sifted through hundreds of primary archival and secondary literature sources on the Holocaust and its remembrance in Eastern Europe, including newspaper coverage of commemorations, museum exhibitions and catalogues, oral testimonies, history textbooks, public speeches, theatre, film, and literature sources. I also conducted dozens of interviews, as well as museum and memorial site visits in six countries. What I found was a remarkably strong trend of appropriation of Holocaust memory, especially its narrative and visual repertoire, to tell the story of communist oppression, albeit flavoured by each nation’s particular idiosyncrasies.

The real purpose of this commemoration is to present it as a direct competitor with the memory of the Holocaust, especially in Poland, the geographic heart of the genocide.

For example, in 2014, the Historical Museum of Serbia in Belgrade put up a high-profile exhibition In the Name of the People – Political Repression in Serbia 1944-1953, about crimes carried out by communist Yugoslavia in the years shortly after the war. The most stunning visual artefact displayed, however, was a well-known photograph of emaciated prisoners (one of them Elie Wiesel) in the Nazi Buchenwald concentration camp. In the Belgrade exhibition, this iconic image – one of the most famous photographs of the Holocaust – was displayed in the section devoted to the Yugoslav communist era camp for political prisoners on the Adriatic island of Goli otok, with the caption, “the example of living conditions of Goli otok prisoners.” The visual message conveyed by display then was, very clearly, that communist oppression looked like the Holocaust.


Recommended: “Lest We Forget”: Remembering Africa’s (Forgotten) Contributions to WWI


Similarly, in Hungary, the House of Terror museum that opened in 2002 in Budapest goes out of its way to bring home the message that fascism and communism were two sides of the same coin – multiple visual representations juxtapose Nazi and Soviet iconography. As I argue in my book, this type of historical remembrance is best understood as memory appropriation, where the memory of the Holocaust is used to memorialise a different kind of suffering, such as suffering under communism or suffering from ethnic violence perpetrated by other groups.

While in the West, the Shoah is generally considered as the defining memory of the twentieth century, this is not so in the post-communist space.

To explain the reasons for memory appropriation, my book argues that the Western European narrative of the Holocaust – which understands it as the foundational block of postwar European identity – has created stress and resentment in post-communist states, which have been asked to accept and contribute to this primarily Western European account as members or candidate states of the European Union.

The problem is that the “cosmopolitan Holocaust memory” as developed in the Western narrative does not cohere with the very different framework of Holocaust memories in post-communist Europe. This difference is evident primarily in the fact that while in the West, the Shoah is generally considered as the defining memory of the twentieth century, this is not so in the post-communist space. Instead, in Eastern European states, the experience of communism has focused national identities around the memory of Stalinism, Soviet occupation and in some cases pre-communist ethnic conflict with other countries.


My book puts these episodes of memory appropriation into a contemporary political context by demonstrating that they are not isolated instances of competing memory, but instead critical elements of national strategies of political legitimacy. They serve to reposition current national narratives in opposition both to those of communism but also to those historically embraced by Western Europe.

Cultural issues of identity and history have also been integral to the ascent and consolidation of populism in post-communist East Europe. The fact that East European trauma under communism is not adequately understood and appreciated in the West is the central grievance of these movements, and this feeds into new cycles of victimization – this time the perceived oppression focuses on Western liberal ideals, such as “gender ideology,” feminism, LGBTQ rights, or even more dramatically, Middle Eastern migration and refugee flows. The core of populist resentment is the issue of cultural imposition – and the deepest cultural imposition post-communist Europe feels today is the imposition of the Western memory on their own pasts.


Prof Jelena Subotic’s new book Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism is available from Cornell University Press


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