The arc of post-World War Two history, however sluggish and bumpy, has generally bent in the direction of acknowledging responsibility. While tensions persist in many regions still today, European states have progressively come forward professing their role in the Holocaust and have taken steps, big and small, towards restitution and reconciliation. It’s futile to try to evaluate the degree of genuine remorse versus the pressure exercised by international standards or by public opinion in a changing national landscape; regardless, by and large, states have moved towards assuming their roles as collaborators or enablers of the Nazis.
But with a short historical memory and political sensibilities at play, recent years have brought to light just how fragile this path towards a universally accepted single, factual narrative is.
A Look to the National Level
You will remember the uproar caused in 2018 by a Polish law: a law seemingly excepting Poland from its historical responsibility, and that initially criminalized such expressions as “Polish death camps” or “Polish concentration camps.” While indeed these specific formulations are inaccurate, the anti-Semitism endemic to pre-war, wartime and post-war Poland is a reality. Many Polish collaborators outed, extorted and rounded up Jews for the Nazis. This is a reality that Poland tried to shield itself from and in so doing created an international fiasco.
But the Polish case is by no means singular: The preamble of the Hungarian Basic Law of 2011 states: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944 (note; the day of the Nazi occupation of Hungary), from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed”. The Hungarian constitution does not directly deny the Holocaust, but the culpability of the Hungarian state for the organised murder of about 600,000 Hungarian Jews, and in so doing has contributed to such negative consequences as the glorification of Nazi collaborators, the rewriting of curricula and the creation of a controversial ‘House of Fates’ museum.
Recent proposed legislation in Lithuania has also caused outrage. A bill drafted in the Seimas, the country’s Parliament, is titled, “The Lithuanian state, which was occupied in 1940-1990, did not participate in the Holocaust,”. Although Lithuania was occupied at the time, several Lithuanian leaders did collaborate with the Nazis. About 70,000 Jews were killed in Ponary forest during the Holocaust by German SS and Lithuanian collaborators. More than 90 percent of the 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered.
On an International Level: Minimization, Instrumentalization
The developments above, taking place at the national level are certainly distressing. What we’ve also seen, however, is the muddying of the waters on an international stage.
Unlike the national level where the actors involved usually come to the table with a nationalist agenda, we are seeing a frivolous depiction of the past on the international level, weaponized to deal with current political clashes – especially in response to Russia flexing its muscles globally and in Eastern Europe in particular.
In September 2019, the European Parliament debated a motion on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe focused on condemning the totalitarian regimes haunting 20th century Europe: Nazism and Stalinism. While the motion is not factually problematic, the tone clearly departs from the preservation of the singularity of the Holocaust. For instance, the motion “calls for a common culture of remembrance that rejects the crimes of fascist, Stalinist, and other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of the past as a way of fostering resilience against modern threats to democracy” and stresses the importance of “recognising and raising awareness of the shared European legacy of crimes committed by Stalinist, Nazi and other dictatorships.” With these formulations and more, the Parliament is conflating the Holocaust with other 20th century tragedies and thereby depriving the Holocaust of the special focus it warrants.
A perfect example of the difficulties at hand: while intending to emphasize the importance of remembrance, and to protect against revisionist trends today, the European Union falls into its own trap. As we look to the European Union to be one of the main checks in place to guarantee the preservation of the historical record, we must remind policymakers that guarding the memory of the Shoah, and avoiding its instrumentalization at all costs is crucial and foundational to the very essence of the European project.