When we downplay the crimes of Nazi-era collaborators, we help to revive the doctrines of the far right

World War 2-era Eastern European Nazi-aligned collaborators are being hailed as heroes in Europe today. By rewriting their criminal histories, we are assisting in the rehabilitation of their white supremacist and fascistic doctrines. This is a goal of today’s ultrarightist political parties.

Let’s examine this subject more thoroughly. This is not just an exercise in refuting historical falsification – important as that is. It is also an examination of how the Eastern European far right, and their ideological brethren in the West, are gaining ground at the expense of those who gave their lives fighting fascism.

Chetniks march on Anzac Day

Australian readers will appreciate the following observation, because of its connection to Anzac Day. During the march on the said Anzac Day, a Serbian paramilitary formation, the Chetniks, are allowed to participate. The Chetniks are a Serbian ultrarightist group who collaborated with the invading Nazi forces in World War 2.

The Chetniks, responsible for numerous atrocities against Jews, Croats, Roma and antifascist Serbs, have been getting a makeover of sorts since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Chetnik military and political commanders, once condemned as mass murderers and war criminals, are currently being exonerated by an ultranationalist rewriting of World War 2 history.

Serbian diaspora communities, which are solidly ultranationalist, are contributing to this whitewashing of Nazi-era crimes. The supporters of today’s Chetniks are being welcomed in, among other places, the Anzac Day march in Australia. This action, endorsed by the Australian Returned Services League (RSL), is a disrespectful slap in the face to all the Anzacs who fought against fascism in World War 2.

The Chetniks found a working alliance with Hitler’s Germany to be a logical consequence of their racist, ultranationalist ideology. They were already loyal participants in an anti-Communist military formation, fighting under the command of Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Cooperating with Nazi Germany was neither opportunistic nor involuntary; their crimes of ethnic cleansing were carried out in accordance with Nazi-aligned political objectives.

The rewriting of history throughout Eastern Europe

It is not only in the former Yugoslavia where there is a concerted, sustained campaign to rewrite WW2 history along ultranationalist lines, and thus forgive the horrendous crimes of Nazi-collaborationist groups. With the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, the former Communist nations began to explore the deepest corners of the Soviet experience – that is to be welcomed. But what has happened is not a mere academic exercise in historical rectification.

From the Baltic states to the Balkans, there has been a systematic campaign to deny or exonerate the crimes of Eastern European ultranationalism, rehabilitating those who cooperated with the Axis powers. This historical revisionism is a cynical and perverse exercise in restoring the reputation of convicted Nazi collaborators, and thus absolve East European nationalism of its complicity in the Holocaust and associated ethnic cleansing.

This ultranationalist rewriting of history has contemporary ramifications – feeding the nationalist resentment that underpins today’s European far right political parties. The goal of Eastern European ultranationalist parties is not only to remove their own culpability for war crimes, but also to reinforce current geopolitical motives that sees the West – mainly the United States – build up an anti-Russian, militarised coalition in the former Eastern bloc.

The Baltic states have led the charge, so to speak, in pursuing a path of obfuscating their own role in the killing of Jews, and contributing to the perverse historical fiction of ‘red equals brown’. After all, if the Soviets can be portrayed as being ‘just as bad, even worse’ than the Nazis, then Eastern European nationalism can occupy the ground of a perpetual victim. Its active participation in the anti-Semitic killings can be washed away amidst this tide of pseudo-historical revisionism.

Horseshoe theory is horse manure

The ‘red-brown symmetry’ – the claim that the Nazis and Soviets were just as bad, indeed the same, as each other – has a certain appeal in the West because of the pseudo-clever ‘horseshoe theory‘. This academic thesis contends that the far left and far right do not occupy opposite ends of a political spectrum, but are actually more alike – hence the metaphor of the horseshoe.

This ridiculous fiction has a superficial appeal – the capitalist system and its supporters like to smear any deviation from the ‘sensible centre’ as extreme. This shallow and anaemic claim overlooks the many and varied links between the capitalist ‘centre’ and its bastard progeny – the ultraright. Capitalist powers routinely encourage and nurture a fascistic presence in order to confront an organised working class.

Nazi Germany, in the process of smashing trade unions and the organised Left, looked for inspiration in passing its laws of racial segregation, to the United States. While the two nations had significant differences, it is crucially important to remember that the racial project of Nazism was inspired by the ‘successful’ example of American racial legislation. The far right commonly employs a leftist mask, employing the rhetoric of the Left while targeting the most vulnerable sectors of the community.

It is one thing to denounce the crimes and distortions of the Soviet system, as the current Russian government has done. It is quite another to draw an equals sign between the system that produced Auschwitz and those that demolished it. The falsity of the ‘red-brown’ equivalence is tuned for political expediency. As David Broder has written in Jacobin magazine, this perverse distortion of WW2 history relativises the crimes of fascist ideology and its doctrine of race war and conquest.

While the Soviets did sign the often-condemned Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, singling out this event as a unique occurrence and evidence of conjoint Nazi-Soviet responsibility is hypocritical in the extreme. The Eastern European nationalist regimes had a long history of pacts and alliances with Nazi Germany, beginning back in the 1920s. The Soviet foreign ministry’s repeated attempts to formalise an anti-fascist alliance with Britain and other Western European nations were routinely rebuffed.

Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor and writer, stated that while the gulag was appalling, the Soviets never produced an Auschwitz. Last month, on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army, we must remember that while the Nazis were the main architects of industrialised racial mass murder, they had willing accomplices in Eastern Europe.

The Iraqi protests – an ongoing nationalist uprising

Since October 2019, Iraqis have taken to the streets in a sustained, organised, community-based uprising against the corrupt and sectarian Baghdad regime. Installed in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the government of Iraq has been unable to unify the country, or provide basic social services. The regime propped up by the US has institutionalised a sectarian-based power sharing agreement.

Over the last week, a new Prime Minister, Mohammed Allawi, has been selected, breaking months of deadlock. The protesters have rejected his appointment, stating that he is still part and parcel of the Baghdad regime. Camped out in Tahrir Square in the capital city, the Iraqis on the streets have undermine the entire structure of the regime and its political parties. In Nasiriyah, a southern city of Iraq, anti-government demonstrators issued a statement rejecting the sectarianism of the regime and vowed to continue their protests.

Let’s examine the background of the current events, and place them in a wider political context. The current uprising represents a crisis of the Baghdad government and is a striking rejection of the entire post-2003 American-imposed political structure. There is intense and widespread outrage at the catastrophic results of the 2003 invasion and the corruption of the political elites.

In January this year, a ‘million-man march‘ was organised by the powerful political cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The latter, a populist-nationalist Shia politician, has joined the protest movement, but also leads the largest political bloc within the current Baghdad government. While his supporters have participated heavily in the antigovernment protests, Sadr has played a balancing act, negotiating between the bourgeois parties and the demonstrators.

The march brought into focus the continuing presence of US troops in the country. No doubt among the demonstrators are those whose lives have been scarred by the 1991 First Gulf War, the punitive US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, through to the 2003 full-scale invasion of that nation. These measures amount to an act of criminal and predatory sociocide carried out by US imperialism.

While the Sadrist bloc has participated in the protests, the party that has seen its fortunes rise most noticeably and appreciably is the Iraqi Communist Party. No single political group leads the demonstrators, however, the Communist party’s activists are solidly embedded with the protest movement. The party has a practical alliance with the Sadrists, while maintaining its own independent political platform.

The Iraqi Communists have demanded that only a complete overhaul of the entire post-2003 regime will suffice. The sectarian power-sharing system, established by the US occupation authorities after 2003, seems on the surface a reasonable idea. However, the purpose of such a confessional-based system is to purposely divide the Iraqi population into sectarian-ethnic components, thus implementing the old tactic of divide-and-rule.

The rise of sectarian violence is a direct consequence of the US invasion of 2003. The role of the United States has been, whether overtly or covertly, to increase and exacerbate the religious-sectarian divide. Let us dispose of the tired cliche of ‘ancient hatreds’ as an explanation for sectarian violence in Iraq. Professor Stephen Zunes writes that it was deliberate US policy, not ‘ancient hatreds’, to cultivate a system based on sectarian hostilities.

The current armed Shia militias, commonly called Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) are for the most part allied with Iran. These forces arose after the 2003 invasion and subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi Army. Iran has gained influence in Iraq, and the US believed that the Iranian-backed militias would be effective in fighting all those Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Having fought ISIL, and becoming incorporated into a new Iraqi army, the PMU groups are now turning against the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of Iranian General Qasim Suleimani.

Resorting to the explanation of ‘ancient hatreds’ between Sunnis and Shias may be popular among the American punditocracy, but has no bearing to reality. In fact, such cliches only serve to shift culpability for the US invasion and its destructive consequences onto some mythical ‘historic forces’.

It is worthwhile to note that the demonstrators have denounced the economic and social inequalities of the post-2003 invasion regime. Since the US invasion, Iraqi society has been marked by high unemployment, rampant corruption and poverty. Indeed, corruption has become an institutionalised feature of the Baghdad government, in much the same way as corruption was a feature of the US-backed client state of South Vietnam in its day.

The protesters, by emphasising their rejection of sectarianism and corruption, pose a striking similarity to the Iraqis of earlier generations who rose up in rebellion in 1920. The nationalist uprising of that year, opposing the then-colonial power Britain, rejected sectarian divisions and demanded greater social equality. The British government at the time, one of whose ministers was a young Winston Churchill, responded with unrestrained savagery. Churchill, for his part, recommended the use of poison gas against the Iraqi insurgents.

It is imperative, for us in Australia, to build up an antiwar movement capable of responding to the manoeuvres of the pro-war and imperialist Australian ruling class. Australia, as a junior partner of American imperialism, has consistently joined every measure of the US ruling class to carry out its colonial ambitions. From Vietnam to Iraq, Australia has voluntarily joined – even pushed its way – in every American overseas war. It is time to break this pattern and listen to the Iraqi people’s demands for sovereignty.