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.