top of page

In laws, rhetoric and acts of violence, Europe is rewriting dark chapters of its past

In Poland, the president signs a law criminalizing anyone who dares suggest that the country’s citizens helped perpetrate crimes of the Holocaust.

In Italy, a Mussolini-admiring neo-fascist goes on a shooting rampage targeting people with dark skin.

People parade through central Warsaw Nov. 11 ahead of the Polish capital’s traditional Independence Day march. An estimated 60,000 people joined the march in what was described as one of the biggest gatherings of far-right activists in Europe in recent years. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

And from Hungary to Britain, leading government figures and their allies promote dark theories about a Jewish financier plotting to subvert the national will.

After President Trump in August blamed “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville during ­dueling protests by white supremacists and their opponents, critics pointed to American historical amnesia as a contributing factor.

Europe, with its emphasis on remembrance in the service of “never again,” was held up as a superior model for reckoning with the horrors of the past.

But six months later, events across the continent have served as a potent reminder that Europe’s grip on its history is far from assured. In particular, the 20th century’s dark detours into Nazism, fascism and state-sponsored anti-Semitism are again being subjected to revision.

“You’re getting the rewriting of history in the extreme,” said Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University professor who has written extensively on Holocaust remembrance and denial.

Far-right groups protest on Poland’s independence day

Thousands gathered in central Warsaw on Nov. 11 for a march organized by radical far-right groups. The march coincided with Poland’s independence day. (Młodzież Wszechpolska)

The reasons, too, are varied: A revival of nationalism. A surge in prejudiced thinking about and behavior toward minorities. A social media culture that spreads information and disinformation alike with startling speed.

And then there’s the American president himself.

That is certainly what Poland’s critics saw that nation doing when its lawmakers chose to push ahead — on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less — with a bill that would make it illegal to say the Polish government or its citizens abetted Nazi crimes.

Poland’s nationalist leaders saw the legislation as a chance to correct what they regard as a historical slur: the use of the term “Polish death camps,” as well as other suggestions of Polish culpability. Unlike other European countries, Poland had no collaborationist government. About 6 million of its citizens died during World War II, half of them Jews, reinforcing Poland’s view of itself as a victim, not a perpetrator.

[Poland reckons with unintended consequences as Holocaust bill kicks up a storm]

The legislation, said Franziska Exeler, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, reflects the desire of the Polish leadership to make “the official narratives of World War II less complex than historical reality. Less messy and more heroic.”

In Poland in particular, as in much of Eastern Europe, historical revisionism is far from a new phenomenon. During decades of postwar communist rule, history was distorted freely for any number of political ends. For some, the new “Holocaust law” harks back to those times, when ideology often dictated history.

But the facts are the facts. Historians have documented anti-Semitic atrocities carried out by Polish citizens.

The law, which theoretically could criminalize researchers or survivors who point to Polish complicity, was condemned by Israeli leaders as amounting to Holocaust denial.

The Trump administration, which had previously praised Poland’s nationalist agenda, added its own sharply worded rebuke. But there was also a reaction in the other direction — an outpouring of prejudice toward Jews.

“The idea of the bill was not anti-Semitic in and of itself. They wanted to show their electorate that Poland has risen from its knees, and won’t be humiliated,” said Adam Michnik, a Polish journalist and historian who is editor in chief of Gazeta Wyzborca, Poland’s largest newspaper. “But the anti-Semitic hatred that this has dredged up, on the Internet and on social media, I don’t remember anything like it since 1968.”

That year, an anti-Jewish campaign by the communist government prompted the eventual departure of at least 13,000 Jewish Poles and Poles with Jewish roots — a reminder that old hatreds survived the war and have surfaced regularly in Europe in the decades since.

But the degree to which politicians are now stoking racial and religious prejudices — and legitimizing views long considered verboten — is exceptional in recent years, experts say.

An anti-immigrant party in Austria whose leaders have neo-Nazi roots recently joined the government. About the same time, a far-right party entered the German Parliament for the first time in more than half a century.

In Italy, meanwhile, far-right parties stand a chance of capturing the government in March elections alongside a more mainstream right-wing party. All advocate deporting hundreds of thousands of migrants.

The political atmosphere, said Noemi Di Segni, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, is rife with “very intensive signs of return to neo-fascism.”

With the heated rhetoric has come a spike in violence.

A onetime local candidate for Italy’s far-right Northern League — one of the parties in line to govern — went on a shooting rampage this month in the central Italian hilltop city of Macerata. He wounded six African immigrants, one of whom sat in his hospital bed two days after a bullet passed through his lung and said he had never heard of Benito Mussolini or the Italian dictator’s fascist creed.

But the shooter, who has boasted in court of his crimes, was well aware. He sported a facial tattoo associated with the extreme right, owned a copy of Hitler’s anti-Semitic manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” and delivered a fascist salute from the city’s Mussolini-era war memorial just before his arrest.

The shooting was condemned by mainstream politicians, and by thousands who marched in Macerata last week against racially motivated violence.

But the shooter, 28-year-old Luca Traini, was also cheered, receiving a level of support that disturbed even his lawyer. “Politically, there’s a problem. In Macerata, people stop me to give messages of solidarity with Luca,” the lawyer, Giancarlo Giulianelli, told reporters. “It’s alarming, but it gives us a sense of what is happening.”

So, too, does the campaign against the 87-year-old Hungarian American billionaire George Soros. Long a favorite boogeyman of the far right in Europe and the United States, Soros has been invoked even more than usual lately in attacks that critics see as an anti-Semitic trope.

In the Czech Republic’s presidential election late last month, pro-Western candidate Jiri Drahos was alleged in online propaganda to be part of a Soros-led cabal seeking to open the country to unchecked immigration.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gone further, launching legislation aimed at cracking down on civil society groups and dubbing it the “Stop Soros” bill. With elections due in April, Orban has campaigned more aggressively against the financier than he has against his political opposition.

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, recently raised eyebrows with a front-page story in the Daily Telegraph alleging a secret Soros plot to stop Brexit. Soros has never hidden his opposition to Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The trend toward what critics see as a dangerous acceptance of bias also has infiltrated the cultural sphere. In France — where Marine Le Pen, the daughter and political heir of a convicted Holocaust denier, placed second in last year’s presidential vote — the recent revelation that the Culture Ministry had included the anti- Semitic writer Charles Maurras in a series of annual books commemorating key figures and anniversaries in French history set off a backlash.

[France backs down on honoring an infamous anti-Semite. Many ask why he was being honored to begin with.]

Historians on the committee that drew up this year’s list insisted that commemorating Maurras was not the same as celebrating him. But the text of his entry conspicuously omitted the words “racist” and “anti-Semite.”

Neighboring Germany, as the country with the most to atone for historically, has long been hyper-aware of the potential damage from such an oversight.

Instruction about the Holocaust is at the core of the nation’s education system, and the capital, Berlin, is full of reminders of Nazi-perpetrated horrors — from the small brass “stumbling stones” that commemorate individual victims to the chilling Topography of Terror museum, which traces the rise of the Nazis on ground once occupied by the Gestapo and SS.

Yet even in Germany, the anti-Muslim far right is growing. Protests against Israel in December, meanwhile, stoked fears that the country has an anti-Semitism problem among its Muslim immigrants.

The irony, said Andreas Nachama, director of Topography of Terror, is that Jews, Muslims and other minority groups “all sit in the same boat, even though they don’t see it that way.” He added: “We should not get accustomed to violence against minorities, whoever the minority is.”

The story his museum tells is one of individual groups being singled out for discrimination, and ultimately persecuted by a state that uses prejudice as an excuse to abandon the rule of law. It’s a lesson of history, he said, that has to be learned to understand the value of liberal democracy.

“You don’t just have freedom. You have to win it and fight for it every day,” said Nachama, a historian and a rabbi. “You have to speak problems out loud, and don’t take anything for granted.”

(c) 2018 The Washington Post

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page