Early in August, two major World War Two anniversaries were marked in Europe; August 1 saw the 67th anniversary of the heroic Warsaw uprising by the Polish underground resistance movement against Nazi German occupation forces; and August 6 witnessed the 66th anniversary of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing of Nagasaki occurred on August 9. I raise these anniversaries to highlight the importance of commemorating the courageous struggles by the peoples oppressed by the Nazi regime, and to underscore the importance of historical debate for comprehending the tremendous social forces that have shaped the world today. But my point today is not to just go over old historical ground, but to highlight a growing problem in our midst; Baltic ultranationalism which has mutated to outright neofascism.
Consider the following commemoration of World War Two, this time in Estonia; the Moscow government strongly condemned the criminal connivance of the Estonian authorities in allowing a march of Estonian SS veterans in late July. The gathering of veterans of the 20th Estonian SS division not only promoted neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant ideas in the young generation, but also whitewashes the criminal actions of the Baltic SS veterans and their culpability in the crimes of the Nazi regime, in particular the holocaust.
This cannot be dismissed as just a one-off march by a band of senescent curmudgeons reliving their glory days. Last year in Latvia, a rally and commemoration was held for the veterans and supporters of the Latvian legion that served in the SS. Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom party has practiced a kind of Baltic revisionism of World War Two, obfuscating the culpability of the Baltic fascists in executing Jews, and simultaneously exaggerating and embellishing the Soviet period in the Baltic republics as equal to Nazi fascism. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and holocaust historian, has spoken out against the menace of Baltic fanatic-nationalism, calling it a threat to European democracy, and highlighting that since independence in 1991, not a single Baltic Nazi war criminal has been prosecuted in a Baltic court of law.
Back in April 2007, just prior to the traditional May 9 commemorations of victory in Europe day, which are understandably serious and solemn occasions in Russia, a monument to the Soviet soliders who fell during World War Two was dismantled in Tallinn, the Estonian capital city. There were riots and ethnic clashes between rightwing Estonians and the Russian-speaking community, leading to arrests and at least one Russian dead. The Russian government tabled a resolution to the United Nations condemning the glorification of Nazism and demanding that desecrating World War Two monuments be outlawed. The motion was defeated and the United States voted against it. Marches by Waffen-SS veterans and their supporters, drawn from the extreme rightwing parties and anti-immigrant circles in which Anders Breivik circulated, are annual events in the Baltic states. Dismantling Soviet-era memorials dedicated to the commemoration of Soviet sacrifices during World War Two have become commonplace in the Baltic republics. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly urged the international community to reject any attempts to desecrate or profane the memory of the dead and remember that victory in WWII was achieved at tremendous cost by the Soviet Union. Let us also not forget the incredible sacrifices that the Chinese made in their decisive contribution to defeat an aggressive and militarist Japan.
But I think there is something more insidious going on here – equating red with brown, and obfuscating the guilt of the perpetrators of the holocaust. They are not my phrases, but the words of Dovid Katz, chief analyst at the Litvak Studies Institute and editor of the website Holocaustinthebaltics. In a couple of articles for the Guardian newspaper, Katz underscores two crucial themes. First is the ongoing attempt to equate Nazi and Soviet crimes. After all, if both are equally guilty then the Baltic ultranationalist agenda to revise history can proceed, portraying the Baltics as the innocent victims of two aggressive, cooperating predators. Did not Hitler and Stalin sign a pact in August 1939 which included in its provisions, the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states? In the early 1990s, the newly-independent Baltic states set up state-organised committees to examine both Nazi and Soviet crimes. As Katz states, this project was a Baltic ultranationalist agenda to rewrite their participation in crimes against the Jews, and by promoting the ‘double-genocide’ interpretation, absolve the Baltic SS collaborators of their guilt, or at least to obscure their own responsibility for carrying out the genocide of the Jews. Secondly, by propounding the ‘double-genocide’ interpretation, and advocating an anti-Russian position, the Baltics further ingratiated themselves with the European powers and the United States. This reflected their political orientation after 1991. If Russia can be portrayed as a genocidal, homicidal equivalent of the Nazis, then the ‘Western democracies’ will firmly embrace the Baltic republics into the neoliberal, capitalist agenda of the major imperialist powers. Populist ultranationalism was used as an ideological battering ram to accompany the imposition of the IMF neoliberal austerity programme.
The Soviets committed terrible atrocities in the early 1940s when their troops and secret police moved into the Baltic states under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. There were mass deportations of anti-Soviet sections of the ruling classes and intelligentsia; carrying out large-scale collectivisation of agriculture and heavy industrialisation caused massive dislocation. The Soviets invested heavily in large capital investment projects for the production of manufacturing and industrial commodities. This caused massive upheaval in a society that was largely agricultural and semi-rural.
As Dovid Katz points out, the only reason that the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians are still with us is because there was no genocide. However, the Baltic fanatic-nationalist motivation to label the Soviet period ‘genocide’ not only minimises Nazi criminality during the war, but plays up Soviet crimes in order to conceal Baltic accountability for antisemitic pogroms and massacres during WWII. It is interesting to note that with the capitalist economic crisis engulfing Europe, the once-hailed Baltic tigers are experiencing a severe economic downturn. One consequence of this has been the mass exodus of young Balts from their respective states, and the rate of exit is comparable to Stalin’s deportations of the 1940-41 period.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was unethical and immoral – Putin said as much in 2009 during a speech in Gdansk, Poland, to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. He also went on to condemn the appeasement of Nazi Germany by the western powers, noting especially the infamous Munich pact, the Hitler-Chamberlain agreement that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany’s encroachments. Moscow’s overtures for a mutual assistance pact with Britain and France were repeatedly rebuffed. Russia faced a war on two fronts in 1939, being invaded by militarist Japan in that year. Now all this does not make the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact right, but it does indicate the selective condemnation of Moscow while ignoring the deep culpability of the western European powers in the appeasement of Nazism.
Seumas Milne states it plainly when he writes that with the resurgence of a xenophobic, ultranationalist right in Eastern Europe, some historians, particularly evident in the Baltics, are equating Nazism with Communism in order to dishonestly claim that WWII was caused not just by Nazi Germany, but also by the USSR. As Milne states in his article “But the pretence that Soviet repression reached anything like the scale or depths of Nazi savagery – or that the postwar “enslavement” of eastern Europe can be equated with wartime Nazi genocide – is a mendacity that tips towards Holocaust denial.” It is virtually impossible to deny the holocaust in the Baltics, an area covered with the mass graves of its victims. So holocaust obfuscation is a cleverer, more cunning ruse to play. Baltic perpetrators of Nazi crimes gain acceptance, even honour, if they can portray their fight as a yearning for ‘independence’ from Soviet rule.
With unemployment growing, social services being cut back, and racist violence occurring across Europe, it is time to put an end to holocaust obfuscation and the poison of Baltic ultranationalism. Australia has sizable Baltic communities who brought with them not only their cuisine and culture, but their fanatic-nationalist agenda. Let us commemorate those who gave their lives fighting Nazism by stopping this revisionist deceit from spreading.