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Rewriting History in Eastern Europe

Last week, Polish President Andrzej Duda signed a controversial law criminalizing statements that attribute responsibility for the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities to “the Polish nation.” In a televised speech, Duda said that the law protects Poland’s interests, dignity, and the historical truth, “so that we are not slandered.” The move sparked an outcry in Western countries. Human Rights Watch warned that it would have “a chilling effect on free expression.” Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said that the Polish government should not attempt to “rewrite history.” And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the law “baseless.” “I strongly oppose it,” he said. “One cannot change history and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

The law is just the latest part of a broader effort at historical revisionism. Last year, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (known as PiS) took over a World War II museum in Gdansk in an effort to restructure the exhibitions to emphasize Polish suffering and heroism. The museum’s director was fired, its advisory board was reshuffled to include right-wing pro-PiS historians, and an exhibit on contemporary conflicts across the world was replaced with a patriotic animation on Poland’s struggle from the beginning of World War II until the fall of the Soviet Union. PiS also began talk of requesting new reparations from Germany and started removing the “monuments of gratitude” to the Red Army erected by the Soviet Union after World War II.

Nor is Poland the only post-communist country that has tried to reframe the history of its role in World War II and defend the part it played in the Holocaust. Hungary, Ukraine, and the Baltic states have all made similar moves. Critics of such policies say they falsify history; their defenders argue that they represent a normal and necessary part of state building or even valiant attempts to preserve historical truth. In reality, these developments have little to do with historical accuracy or state building. The recent rise in efforts to reshape historical memory has been driven by three linked factors: the decreasing influence of EU institutions, the growth of right-wing parties, and rising tensions with Russia.


During the 1990s, while the international community was preoccupied with the political and economic reforms ushered in by the collapse of communism, eastern European states were engaged in another important but largely overlooked process: reconstructing and redefining their national histories, in particular grappling with World War II and the Holocaust.

Central to that effort was establishing a sense of national victimhood. In 1992, Lithuania established a Museum of Genocide Victims that commemorated the crimes of the Soviet occupation but originally ignored the Holocaust. In 1998, Poland created the Institute of National Remembrance, which researches and prosecutes Nazi and Soviet crimes against the Polish nation. In 2002, Hungary turned the former headquarters of the Nazi, and later communist, police into the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to Nazi and Soviet crimes.

These institutions not only commemorated the past and educated the public but also served political ends. At home, national victimhood was a powerful tool to mobilize political support and legitimate those who played on the theme. Abroad, governments used the focus on past suffering to apply pressure in negotiations with the EU and NATO.

Yet initially, official efforts to exploit history had to co-exist with conditions imposed by the EU, which required at least rhetorical grappling with the legacies of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and World War II. In the 1990s, the European Parliament adopted numerous resolutions commemorating the Holocaust and calling on national governments to restore stolen Jewish property and combat anti-Semitism. Although they were non-binding, the resolutions signaled what western European states expected of future members.

Governments in eastern Europe responded. They created Holocaust commissions and included chapters on the Holocaust in textbooks, devoting almost as much space to the subject as western books did. Some, such as the Baltics, paid only the required lip service to past atrocities. Others were more serious about confronting past darkness. Poland, for example, passed legislation in 1997 to restore communal Jewish property confiscated by the Nazi and Communist authorities to its prewar owners and in 2003 created a Center for Holocaust Research within the prestigious Polish Academy of Sciences. When, during the 2001 election, responsibility for the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, in which a group of ethnic Poles murdered several hundred of their Jewish neighbors, became a key issue, Poland’s left-wing President Aleksander Kwasniewski apologized for the pogrom. It seemed possible that nationalism could coexist with pluralistic discourse about the past.

Yet even these initial, tentative attempts to deal with the Holocaust proved contentious. A poll in 2001 showed that 48 percent of Poles disapproved of Kwasniewski’s apology. When, in 1995,Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas asked forgiveness for Lithuanians who had murdered Jews, he was met by demands from some in the Lithuanian intelligentsia that Jews also apologize for the way they treated Lithuanians during the Soviet occupation.


In recent years, the narratives of Holocaust commemoration and eastern European victimhood have increasingly clashed. With the memory of national suffering successfully institutionalized, nationalist elites have moved to marginalize the inconvenient past.

Poland is ahead of the curve, in part thanks to the ascendance of the right-wing populist PiS. The party has repeatedly tried to frame pluralistic discourse about the past as an attack on Polish honor. Polish Jews are asked to prove their loyaltyto Poland by defending the new Holocaust law against foreign criticism. PiS’ position is consistent with public opinion.In a 2015 opinion poll, just 23 percent of respondents agreed that Poles’ crimes against Jews were “still valid and needed to be disclosed and publicized.” Twice as many said that although the crimes should be remembered, they revealed nothing about the broader attitudes of Poles toward Jews during World War II. Even modern Polish music draws on the idea of the country’s martyrdom. Rappers such as Tadek and punk rockers such as Kukizspread the nationalist message.

Yet Poland is anything but unique. In Hungary—another state led by a right-wing populist party—a Holocaust monument erected in 2014 presents the state as an innocent victim of German aggression despite the country’s wartime alliance with Germany and the active participation of Hungarian collaborators in the Holocaust. Last year, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbandescribed Admiral Horthy, who governed Hungary from 1920 to 1944 and took the country into its alliance with Germany, as an “exceptional statesman.”

The story is similar in the Baltic states. In 2010, Lithuania amended its criminal code to punish with up to two years in prison those who “deny or grossly underestimate” the genocides committed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union against Lithuanians. A recent book that exposed Lithuanians’ collaboration in the Holocaust caused a public backlash against its author, the journalist Ruta Vanagaite. Earlier this month, Latvia bestowed financial benefits on all World War II veterans, including SS volunteers.

In 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament passed two laws reframing the country’s World War II experience. The first criminalized denying the legitimacy of “the struggle for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century” and glorified violent groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which collaborated with the Nazis and killed large numbers of Jewish and Polish civilians in the name of Ukrainian statehood during World War II. The second made it a crime to reject the “criminal character of the Communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991 in Ukraine.”


A major factor behind the growing resistance to inconvenient history is the diminishing leverage of the EU and the weakened appeal of western European norms. By now, most eastern European countries have either joined the EU or, like Ukraine, have effectively given up on the idea. EU membership has freed right-wing governments in countries such as Hungary and Poland from the need to follow liberal norms not only of political freedom and the rule of law but also when it comes to memory and presentation of the Holocaust. Germany’s central role in EU institutions also offers an irresistible opportunity for states such as Poland to highlight their suffering during World War II, a goal that conflicts with the prominence of the Holocaust in EU narratives of European history.

Moreover, ascendant right-wing populist parties across Europe mean that the union no longer speaks with one voice. Sanctioning a member state is now more difficult. Right-wing populist politicians, traditionally Euroskeptics, are now even more willing to invite international disapproval and gain domestic popularity by stoking nationalism and whitewashing the past. Their ideology necessitates real or perceived threats from powerful “others” to flourish. Narratives of historical martyrdom satisfy these needs, and the international opprobrium they provoke reinforces the claim that the nation is under attack from nefarious outsiders, especially from powerful Jews.

Equally important, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 exacerbated perceptions of national vulnerability in eastern Europe. The more acute the Russian threat, real or perceived, the more post-communist states double down on past victimhood and seek to restrict the conflicting Holocaust narrative. Although the Russian threat is most salient in Ukraine and the Baltic states, it also motivates other post-communist countries with memories of Russian aggression, including Poland.

In states that experience direct threats from Russia and are ruled by right-wing populist parties, the trend toward policing history and silencing inconvenient facts about their roles in World War II is likely to continue. That will heighten tensions with the United States and Israel, divide allies even within eastern Europe, and stifle open debate.

Ironically, it is Putin’s autocracy that might benefit the most from these developments.

But there is still hope. Dark pasts have been treated differently in countries where the left remains strong and where the Russian threat is less acute. Left-wing parties are ideologically less prone to appeals to nationalism and the right-wing narrative of victimhood is less convincing without an external threat. In Slovakia, prosecutors have asked the Supreme Court to ban the far-right People’s Party, which idolizes the World War II collaborationist leader Jozef Tiso. In 2016, Slovakia’s president and prime minister opened the Sered Holocaust Museum, which documents Slovak collaboration with the Nazis and the fate of the country’s Jews. Romania, one of the newest EU members and a German ally during the war, offers an even more positive example. The country has outlawed Holocaust denial, acknowledged its role in the Holocaust, and pays pensions to survivors of World War II–era anti-Jewish persecution. Although the past cannot be changed, some states have proved willing to learn from it.

(c) 2018 | Foreign Affairs

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