AN ESSAY ON MODERN EUROPEAN MEMORY
‘The problem of evil will be the fundamental problem of postwar
intellectual life in Europe—as death became the fundamental problem
after the last war’.
Hannah Arendt (1945)
‘Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial
factor in the creation of a nation; thus the progress of historical studies is
often a danger for national identity . . . The essence of a nation is that all
individuals have many things in common, and also that they have
forgotten many things’.
‘All historical work on the events of this period will have to be pursued or
considered in relation to the events of Auschwitz . . . Here, all
historicization reaches its limits’.
For Jews, concluded Heinrich Heine, baptism is their ‘European entry ticket’. But that was in 1825, when the price for admission to the modern world was the relinquishing of an oppressive heritage of Jewish difference and isolation. Today, the price of admission to Europe has changed. In an ironic twist that Heine—with his prophetic intimations of ‘wild, dark times rumbling towards us’—would have appreciated better than anyone, those who would become full Europeans in the dawn of the twenty-first century must first assume a new and far more oppressive heritage. Today the pertinent European reference is not baptism. It is extermination.
Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket. In 2004 President Kwasniewski of Poland—seeking to close a painful chapter in his nation’s past and bring Poland into line with its EU partners—officially acknowledged the wartime sufferings of Polish Jews, including their victimization at the hands of Poles themselves. Even Romania’s outgoing President Iliescu, in a concession to his country’s ambition to join the European Union, was constrained the following year to concede what he and his colleagues had long and strenuously denied: that Romania, too, played its part in the destruction of the Jews of Europe . . .
To be sure, there are other criteria for full participation in the family of Europe. Turkey’s continuing refusal to acknowledge the ‘genocide’ of its Armenian population in 1915 will be an impediment to its application for EU membership, just as Serbia will continue to languish on the European doorstep until its political class takes responsibility for the mass murders and other crimes of the Yugoslav wars. But the reason crimes like these now carry such a political charge—and the reason ‘Europe’ has invested itself with the responsibility to make sure that attention is paid to them and to define ‘Europeans’ as people who do pay attention to them—is because they are partial instances (in this case before and after the fact respectively) of the crime: the attempt by one group of Europeans to exterminate every member of another group of Europeans, here on European soil, within still living memory.
Hitler’s ‘final solution to the Jewish problem’ in Europe is not only the source of crucial areas of post-war international jurisprudence—‘genocide’ or ‘crimes against humanity’. It also adjudicates the moral (and in certain European countries the legal) standing of those who pronounce upon it. To deny or belittle the Shoah—the Holocaust—is to place yourself beyond the pale of civilized public discourse. That is why mainstream politicians shun, so far as they can, the company of demagogues like Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Holocaust today is much more than just another undeniable fact about a past that Europeans can no longer choose to ignore. As Europe prepares to leave World War Two behind—as the last memorials are inaugurated, the last surviving combatants and victims honoured—the recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity. It wasn’t always so.
There was never any mystery about what had happened to Europe’s Jews. That an estimated 6 million of them were put to death during the Second World War was widely accepted within a few months of the war’s end. The handful of survivors, whether in the displaced persons’ camps or in their countries of origin, paid implicit witness to the number of dead. Of 126,000 Jews removed from Austria, 4,500 returned after the war. In the Netherlands, where there had been 140,000 Jews before the war, 110,000 were deported—of whom fewer than 5,000 returned. In France, of 76,000 (mostly foreign-born) Jews who were deported during the years 1940-44, less than 3 percent survived. Further east, the figures were even worse: of Poland’s pre-war population of over 3 million Jews, fully 97.5 percent were exterminated. In Germany itself, in May 1945, there remained just 21,450 of the country’s 600,000 Jews.
The returning remnant was not much welcomed. After years of anti-Semitic propaganda, local populations everywhere were not only disposed to blame ‘Jews’ in the abstract for their own suffering but were distinctly sorry to see the return of men and women whose jobs, possessions and apartments they had purloined. In the 4th arrondissement of Paris, on April 19th 1945, hundreds of people demonstrated in protest when a returning Jewish deportee tried to reclaim his (occupied) apartment. Before it was dispersed, the demonstration degenerated into a near-riot, the crowd screaming ‘La France aux français!’ The venerable French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel would doubtless not have resorted to such language. But he was not embarrassed to write a few months later, in the journal Témoignage Chrétien, of the ‘overweening presumption’ of ‘the Jews’ and their urge to ‘take everything over’.
Little wonder that the future French government minister Simone Weil could write, of her return from Bergen Belsen: ‘We had the feeling that our lives did not count; and yet there were so very few of us’. In France (as in Belgium) deported resisters who had survived and now returned were treated as heroes: the saviours of their nation’s honour. But Jews, deported not for their politics but on account of their race, could serve no such useful purpose. In any case De Gaulle (like Churchill) was curiously blind to the racial specificity of Hitler’s victims, understanding Nazism in the context of Prussian militarism instead. At Nürnberg, the French prosecutor François de Menthon was uncomfortable with the very concept of ‘crimes against humanity’—he preferred ‘crimes against peace’—and throughout the trial he made no reference to the deportation or murder of Jews.402
Nearly three years later an editorial in Le Monde on January 11th 1948, headed ‘The survivors of the death camps’, managed to speak movingly of ‘280,000 deportees, 25,000 survivors’ without once mentioning the word ‘Jew’. Under legislation passed in 1948, the term ‘déportés’ could be applied only to French citizens or residents deported for political reasons or for resisting the occupier. No distinction was made regarding the camp to which someone was sent or their fate upon arrival. Thus Jewish children who were locked into trains and shipped to Auschwitz for gassing were described in official documents as ‘political deportees’. With mordant if unintended irony these children, most of whom were the sons and daughters of foreign-born Jews and who had been forcibly separated from their parents by French gendarmes, were then commemorated in documents and upon plaques as having ‘died for France’.403
In Belgium, Catholic parties in the first post-war parliament protested at the idea of any compensation being paid to ‘Jews arrested simply for a racial motive’—most of whom, it was hinted, were probably black-marketeers. Indeed, in Belgium the exclusion of Jews from any post-war benefits was taken a step further. Since 95 percent of the Jews deported from Belgium had been foreign nationals or stateless, it was determined by a post-war law that—unless they had also fought in the organized resistance movements—surviving Jews who ended up in Belgium after the war would not be eligible for any public aid. In October 1944, the Belgian authorities automatically ascribed the nationality ‘German’ to any Jewish survivor in Belgium who could not prove his or her Belgian citizenship. Theoretically this abolished all wartime ‘racial’ distinctions—but it also turned surviving Jews into de facto enemy aliens who could be interned and whose property was seized (and not returned until January 1947). Such rulings had the attendant benefit of marking these Jews for eventual return to Germany, now that they were no longer threatened by Nazi persecution.
In the Netherlands, where, according to the Dutch resistance paper Vrij Nederland , the Nazis themselves had been taken aback at the alacrity with which local citizens and civic leaders cooperated in their own humiliation, the handful of returning Jews was decidedly unwelcome. One of them, Rita Koopman, recalled being greeted thus upon her return: ‘Quite a lot of you came back. Just be happy you weren’t here—how we suffered from hunger!’ Indeed, the Dutch did suffer greatly through the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-45 and the many houses vacated by deported Jews, in Amsterdam especially, were a valuable source of wood and other supplies. But for all the enthusiastic cooperation of Dutch wartime officialdom in identifying and rounding up the country’s Jews, the post-war authorities—their own conscience clear—felt no obligation to make any particular amends to Jews. Instead, they made a rather self-congratulatory point of refusing to distinguish among Dutch citizens on racial or any other grounds and thus froze the country’s lost Jews into retrospective anonymity and invisibility. In the Fifties, the Catholic prime ministers of the Netherlands even declined to contribute to a proposed international monument at Auschwitz, dismissing it as ‘Communist propaganda’.
In eastern Europe there was of course never much question of recognizing Jewish suffering, much less compensating it. In the immediate post-war years Jews in this region were concerned above all with merely staying alive. Witold Kula, a non-Jewish Pole, wrote in August 1946 of a train journey from Łódz to Wrocław where he witnessed the anti-Semitic mocking of a Jewish family: ‘The average Polish intellectual doesn’t realize that a Jew in Poland today cannot drive a car, doesn’t risk a train journey, dare not send his child on a school outing; he cannot go to remote localities, prefers big cities even to medium-sized ones and is ill-advised to take a walk after nightfall. You would have to be a hero to go on living in such an atmosphere after six years of torment’.
After Germany’s defeat, many Jews in eastern Europe pursued their wartime survival strategy: hiding their Jewish identity from their colleagues, their neighbours and even their children, blending as best they could into the post-war world and resuming at least the appearance of normal life. And not only in eastern Europe. In France, although new laws forbade the overt anti-Semitic rhetoric of pre-war public life, the legacy of Vichy remained. The taboos of a later generation had not yet taken hold, and behaviour that would in time be frowned upon was still acceptable. As in the Thirties, the Left was not immune. In 1948 the Communist parliamentarian Arthur Ramette drew attention to certain prominent Jewish politicians—Léon Blum, Jules Moch, René Mayer—in order to contrast them with the parliamentarians of his own party: ‘We Communists have only French names’ (a claim as unseemly as it was untrue).
In these circumstances, the choice for most of Europe’s Jews seemed stark: depart (for Israel once it came into existence, or America after its doors were opened in 1950) or else be silent and, so far as possible, invisible. To be sure, many of them felt an overwhelming urge to speak and bear witness. In Primo Levi’s words, he was driven by an ‘absolute, pathological narrative charge’ to write down what he had just experienced. But then Levi’s own fate is instructive. When he took Se questo è un uomo, the story of his incarceration in Auschwitz, to the leading left-wing Italian publisher Einaudi in 1946, it was rejected out of hand: Levi’s narrative of persecution and survival, beginning with his deportation as a Jew rather than as a resister, did not conform to uplifting Italian accounts of nationwide anti-Fascist resistance.
Se questo è un uomo was published instead by a small press in just 2,500 copies—most of which were remaindered in a warehouse in Florence and destroyed in the great flood there twenty years later. Levi’s memoir was not published in Britain until 1959, whenIf This Is a Man sold only a few hundred copies (nor did the US edition, under the title Survival in Auschwitz, begin to sell well until twenty years later). Gallimard, the most prestigious of the French publishing houses, for a long time resisted buying anything by Levi; only after his death in 1987 did his work, and his significance, begin to gain recognition in France. Like his subject, then, Primo Levi remained largely inaudible for many years: no-one was listening. In 1955 he noted that it had become ‘indelicate’ to speak of the camps: ‘One risks being accused of setting up as a victim, or of indecent exposure’. Giuliana Tedeschi, another Italian survivor of Auschwitz, made the same point: ‘I encountered people who didn’t want to know anything, because the Italians, too, had suffered, after all, even those who didn’t go to the camps. . . . They used to say, “For heaven’s sake, it’s all over,” and so I remained quiet for a long time’.404
Even in Great Britain the Holocaust was not discussed in public. Just as the representative concentration camp for the French was Buchenwald, with its well-organised committees of Communist political prisoners, so in post-war Britain the iconic image of a Nazi camp was not Auschwitz but Bergen-Belsen (liberated by British troops); and the skeletal survivors recorded on film and shown in cinema newsreels at the end of the war were not typically identified as Jews.405 In post-war Britain, too, Jews often preferred to maintain a low profile and keep their memories to themselves. Writing in 1996 of his English childhood as the son of camp survivors, Jeremy Adler recalled that whereas there were no taboos at home about discussing the Holocaust, the topic remained off limits everywhere else: ‘My friends could boast of how dad had fought with Monty in the desert. My own father’s experiences were unmentionable. They had no place until recently. The public cycle from repression to obsession in Britain took about fifty years’.406
In retrospect it is the universal character of the neglect that is most striking. The Holocaust of the Jews was put out of mind not only in places where there were indeed good reasons not to think about it—like Austria, say (which had just one-tenth the population of pre-war Germany but supplied one in two of all concentration camp guards), or Poland; but also in Italy—where most of the nation had no cause for shame on this score—or in Britain, where the war years were otherwise looked upon with pride and even some nostalgia. The rapid onset of the Cold War contributed, of course.407 But there were other reasons too. For most Europeans, World War Two had not been about the Jews (except in so far as they were blamed for it), and any suggestion that Jewish suffering might claim pride of place was deeply resented.
The Holocaust was only one of many things that people wanted to forget: ‘In the fat years after the war . . . Europeans took shelter behind a collective amnesia’ (Hans-Magnus Enzensberger). Between their compromises with Fascist administrators and occupying forces, their collaboration with wartime agencies and rulers and their private humiliations, material hardships and personal tragedies, millions of Europeans had good reasons of their own to turn away from the recent past, or else mis-remember it to better effect. What the French historian Henry Rousso would later dub the ‘Vichy syndrome’—the decades-long difficulty of acknowledging what had really happened during the war and the overwhelming desire to block the memory or else recast it in a usable way that would not corrode the fragile bonds of post-war society—was by no means unique to France.
Every occupied country in Europe developed its own ‘Vichy syndrome’. The wartime privations of Italians, for example, both at home and in prison camps, diverted public attention from the suffering Italians had caused to others—in the Balkans, for example, or in Italy’s African colonies. The stories that the Dutch or the Poles told themselves about the war would sustain the national self-image for decades—the Dutch in particular setting great store by their image as a nation that had resisted, while forgetting as best they could that 23,000 Dutchmen volunteered for the Waffen SS: the largest contingent from Western Europe. Even Norway had somehow to digest the memory that more than one in five of its military officers had voluntarily joined Vidkun Quisling’s neo-NaziNasjonal Samling (‘National Rally’) before or after April 1940. But whereas liberation, resistance and deportees—even heroic defeats like Dunkirk or the Warsaw Rising of 1944—could all be put to some service in compensatory national myth-making, there was nothing ‘usable’ about the Holocaust.408
In certain respects it was actually easier for Germans to engage and acknowledge the scale of their crime. Not, of course, at first: we have seen how ‘de-Nazification’ failed. History teaching in the early Federal Republic stopped with the Wilhelminian Empire. With the rare exception of a statesman like Kurt Schumacher—who warned his fellow countrymen as early as June 1947 that they had better learn to ‘talk for once about the Jews in Germany and the world’—German public figures in the Forties and Fifties managed to avoid any reference to the Final Solution. The American writer Alfred Kazin remarked upon the fact that for his students in Cologne in 1952 ‘the war was over. The war was not to be mentioned. Not a word was said by my students about the war’. When West Germans looked back it was to memories of their own sufferings: in polls taken at the end of the Fifties an overwhelming majority identified the Allied post-war occupation as ‘the worst time of their lives’.
As some observers had already predicted in 1946, the Germans successfully distanced themselves from Hitler: evading both punishment and moral responsibility by offering the Führer to the world as a scapegoat. Indeed there was considerable resentment at what Hitler had wrought—but at the harm he had brought down upon the heads of Germans rather than because of what he and Germans had done to others. Targetting the Jews, as it seemed to many Germans in these years, was not so much Hitler’s greatest crime as his greatest error: in a 1952 survey, nearly two out of five adults in West Germany did not hesitate to inform pollsters that they thought it was ‘better’ for Germany to have no Jews on its territory.
Attitudes like these were facilitated by the relative absence of nearby reminders of Nazi atrocities; the Nazis had carefully located their main death camps far from the ‘Old Reich’. Not that proximity in itself was any guarantee of sensibility. The fact that Dachau was a suburb of Munich, a tram-ride from the city centre, did not in itself advance local understanding of what had taken place there: in January 1948 the Bavarian parliament unanimously voted to convert the site of the Nazi camp there into an Arbeitslager, a forced labour camp for ‘work-shy, a-social elements’. As Hannah Arendt observed on visiting Germany in 1950: ‘Everywhere one notices that there is no reaction to what has happened, but it is hard to say whether this is due to an intentional refusal to mourn or whether it is the expression of a genuine emotional incapacity’. In 1955 a Frankfurt court acquitted one Dr Peters, the general manager of a company that provided the SS with Zyklon-B gas, on the grounds that there was ‘insufficient proof’ that it had been used to kill deportees.
At the same time, however, Germans—uniquely in Europe—could not deny what they had done to the Jews. They might avoid mention of it; they might insist upon their own sufferings; they might pass the blame up to a ‘handful’ of Nazis. But they could not sidestep responsibility for the subject by attributing the crime of genocide to someone else. Even Adenauer, though he confined himself in public to expressions of sympathy for Jewish ‘victims’ without ever naming those who victimized them, had been constrained to sign the reparations treaty with Israel. And whereas neither the British, nor the French, nor even his fellow Italians showed any interest in the memoirs of Primo Levi, The Diary of Anna Frank (admittedly a more accessible document) was to become the best-selling paperback in German history, with over 700,000 copies sold by 1960.
The trigger for German self-interrogation, as we have seen, was a series of trials prompted by belated investigations into German crimes on the eastern front. Beginning in Ulm in 1958 with proceedings against members of wartime ‘Intervention Groups’, followed by the arrest and prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, and culminating in the Frankfurt trials of Auschwitz guards between December 1963 and August 1965, these proceedings were also the first opportunity since the end of the war for camp survivors to speak publicly about their experiences. At the same time the Federal Republic’s twenty-year Statute of Limitations for murder was extended (though not yet abolished).
This change in mood was driven in large measure by a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism at the end of the Fifties and by growing evidence that young Germans were utterly ignorant about the Third Reich: their parents had told them nothing and their teachers avoided the subject. Beginning in 1962, ten West German Länder announced that henceforth the history of the years 1933-1945—including the extermination of the Jews—would be a required subject in all schools. Konrad Adenauer’s initial post-war assumption was thus reversed: the health of German democracy now required that Nazism be remembered rather than forgotten. And attention was increasingly directed to genocide and ‘crimes against humanity’, rather than the ‘war crimes’ with which National Socialism had hitherto been primarily associated. A new generation was to be made aware of the nature—and the scale—of Nazi atrocities. No longer would popular magazines like Stern and Quick be able to downplay the significance of the camps, as they had done in the Fifties, or sing the praises of ‘good’ Nazis. A certain public awareness of the unacceptability, the indecency of the recent German past began to take hold.
The change should not be exaggerated. During the Sixties both a West German Chancellor (Kiesinger) and the Federal President (Hans Lübke) were former Nazis—a glaring contradiction in the Bonn Republic’s self-image that younger commentators duly noted, as we saw in Chapter 12. And it was one thing to tell the truth about the Nazis, quite another to acknowledge the collective responsibility of the German people, a subject on which most of the political class was still silent. Moreover, while the number of West Germans who believed that Hitler would have been one of Germany’s greatest statesmen ‘but for the war’ fell from 48 percent in 1955 to 32 percent in 1967, the latter figure (albeit composed overwhelmingly of older respondents) was hardly reassuring.
The real transformation came in the following decade. A series of events—the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Chancellor Brandt dropping to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial, the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and, finally, the German telecast of the ‘Holocaust’ mini-series in January 1979—combined to place Jews and their sufferings at the head of the German public agenda. Of these the television series was by far the most important. The purest product of American commercial television—its story simple, its characters mostly two-dimensional, its narrative structured for maximum emotional impact—‘Holocaust’ (as noted in Chapter 14) was execrated and abominated by European cinéastes from Edgar Reitz to Claude Lanzmann, who accused it of turning German history into American soap opera and rendering accessible and comprehensible that which should always remain unspeakable and impenetrable.
But these very limitations account for the show’s impact. It ran for four consecutive nights on West German national television and was watched by an estimated twenty million viewers—well over half the adult population. It also happened to coincide with another trial, of former guards from the Majdanek death camp: a reminder to viewers that this was unfinished business. The public impact was enormous. Five months later the Bundestag voted to abolish the Statute of Limitations for murder (though it should be recorded that among those who voted against was the future Chancellor Helmut Kohl). Henceforward Germans would be among the best-informed Europeans on the subject of the Shoah and at the forefront of all efforts to maintain public awareness of their country’s singular crime. Whereas in 1968 there had been just 471 school groups visiting Dachau, by the end of the Seventies the annual number was well in excess of five thousand.
Knowing—and publicly acknowledging—what Germans had done to Jews four decades earlier was a considerable advance; but situating it in German and European history remained a difficult and unresolved dilemma, as the ‘historians’ clash’ of the Eighties was to demonstrate. Some conservative scholars, among them the hitherto well-respected historian Ernst Nolte, were uncomfortable with the insistence on treating Hitler, his movement and his crimes as unique and sui generis. If we are to understand Nazism, they insisted, we have to situate it in its time and place. According to Nolte, the rise of National Socialism, and some of its more grotesque practices, were above all a response to Bolshevism: they followed and in some measure imitated the example and the threat offered by Lenin and his heirs. That doesn’t diminish the crimes of Nazism, Nolte argued in a notorious article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in June 1986; but without the Bolshevik precedent they cannot be fully explained. It was time to reconsider the Nazi era, situating the Holocaust in a broader pattern of modern genocides.
The reaction to Nolte came above all from Jürgen Habermas, who—like Enzensberger, Günter Grass and other members of the ‘skeptical generation’—was old enough to remember Nazism and thus intensely suspicious of any attempt to ‘limit’ German responsibilities. Nonsense, Habermas replied to Nolte: the point about Nazism is not to ‘situate’ or ‘historicize’ it—that is precisely the temptation which no German would ever again have the right to indulge. The Nazi crime—the German crime—was unique: unique in its scale, unique in its ambition, unique in its un-plumbed evil. Contextualization in Nolte’s sense, with the implicit relativisation of German responsibility that must inevitably ensue, was simply proscribed.
But Habermas’s uncompromising stance set a standard to which few of his countrymen (including historians, for whom comparison and context are the lifeblood of their discipline) could be expected to adhere for long. The new salience of the Holocaust in German public discussion—culminating in the Nineties in copious displays of official remorse for past shortcomings, with Germans indulging in what the writer Peter Schneider called ‘a kind of self-righteous self-hate’—could not last indefinitely. To ask each new generation of Germans to live forever in Hitler’s shadow, to require that they take on responsibility for the memory of Germany’s unique guilt and make it the very measure of their national identity, was the least that could be demanded—but far too much to expect.
Elsewhere in Western Europe the process of remembering and acknowledging had first to overcome self-serving local illusions—a process that typically took two generations and many decades. In Austria—where the television ‘Holocaust’ was broadcast just two months after its German showing but with no remotely comparable impact—it was not until the country’s President, Kurt Waldheim, was revealed in the mid-Eighties to have played a role in the Wehrmacht’s brutal occupation of wartime Yugoslavia that (some) Austrians began a serious, and still incomplete, interrogation of their country’s Nazi past. Indeed, the fact that Waldheim had previously served as UN Secretary General without anyone in the international community troubling themselves over his war record fuelled the suspicions of many Austrians that they were being held to uniquely high standards. Austria, after all, had had a post-war Jewish Chancellor (the Socialist Bruno Kreisky), which was more than could be said for the Germans.
But no-one expected very much of the Austrians. Their largely untroubled relationship to recent history—as late as 1990, nearly two Austrians in five still thought of their country as Hitler’s victim rather than his accomplice and 43 percent of Austrians thought Nazism ‘had good and bad sides’—merely confirmed their own and others’ prejudices.409 Austria’s Alpine neighbour Switzerland was another matter. For forty years after 1945, Switzerland secured a free pass for its wartime record. Not only was it forgotten that the Swiss had made strenuous efforts to keep Jews out; on the contrary, in popular fiction and in films everywhere the country was represented as a safe, welcoming haven for any persecuted person who could reach its borders. The Swiss basked in their clear conscience and the envious admiration of the world.
In fact, by 1945 the Swiss had taken in just 28,000 Jews—seven thousand of them before the war began. Wartime refugees were refused work permits—they were supported from payments levied upon wealthy Jewish residents. Not until June 1994 did the authorities in Bern officially acknowledge that the Swiss request (made to Berlin in October 1938) for the letter ‘J’ to be stamped on the passports of all German Jews—the better to keep them out—was an act of ‘intolerable racial discrimination’. If this were the extent of Swiss misbehaviour there would hardly have been much fuss—London and Washington never actually requested an identification tag on Jewish passports, but when it came to saving Jewish refugees the British and American records are hardly a source of pride. But the Swiss went considerably further.
As became painfully clear in the course of official investigations conducted through the 1990s, Switzerland not only trafficked in looted gold and made a substantial practical contribution to the German war effort (see Chapter 3), but Swiss banks and insurance companies had knowingly pocketed indecently large sums of money belonging to Jewish account holders or to the claimants of insurance policies on murdered relatives. In a secret post-war agreement with Communist Poland—first made public in 1996—Bern even offered to assign the bank accounts of dead Polish Jews to the new authorities in Warsaw, in return for indemnity payments to Swiss banks and businesses expropriated after the Communists’ take-over. 410 Once this sort of evidence started to emerge, the country’s burnished reputation came apart, and no amount of (grudgingly conceded) amends and payments and ‘victims’ funds’ are going to put it back together very soon. A September 13th 1996 editorial in Germany’s Die Zeit—noting that Switzerland had at last been caught by ‘the long shadow of the Holocaust’—smacked more than a little of Schadenfreude. But it was the simple truth.
The burnished image of wartime Holland—where almost everyone was believed to have ‘resisted’ and done their best to impede German plans—was engaged and discredited somewhat earlier, and by local initiative. By the mid-Sixties multi-volume official histories of the Second World War provided copious information about the what of the Netherlands’ wartime experience, including the deportations, but studiously avoided addressing in detail the who, the how and the why of the Jewish catastrophe in particular. In any case, few people read them. But in April 1965 a Dutch historian—Jacob Presser—published Ondergang, the first full history of the extermination of Dutch Jewry; it sold 100,000 copies in 1965 alone and precipitated a torrent of public interest in its subject.411 It was followed in short order by an avalanche of television documentaries and other programmes about the wartime occupation—one of which, De bezetting (‘The Occupation’), was to run for over two decades—and by a shift in official mood. It was in 1965 that a Dutch government, for the first time, offered to contribute to the memorial at Auschwitz—though it took another seven years before the Netherlands at last agreed to pay to surviving Jewish deportees the pension that had been accorded resisters and other Nazi victims since 1947.
As in Germany, the trigger for Dutch interest in their occluded past was the Israeli and German trials of the early Sixties. And in the Netherlands as elsewhere, the post-war baby-boomers were curious about recent history and more than a little skeptical of the story they had been told—or, rather, not told—by the ‘silent generation’ of their parents. The social changes of the Sixties helped breach the wall of official silence about the occupation: the breaking of social and sexual taboos—which in parts of the Netherlands, notably Amsterdam, had deeply disruptive implications for a hitherto conservative society—drew in its train a suspicion of other received practices and cultural truisms. For a new cohort of readers the core-text of the Dutch Holocaust—Anne Frank’s diary—was now read in a very different light: Anne and her family, after all, were betrayed to the Germans by their Dutch neighbours.
By the end of the century, the years 1940-45 had become the most thoroughly studied period in Dutch history But although the truth about the contribution of the Dutch to the identification, arrest, deportation and death of their Jewish fellow citizens first became public knowledge in the Sixties, it took a long time for the full implications to sink in: not until 1995 did a reigning head of state—Queen Beatrice—publicly acknowledge the tragedy of the Dutch Jews, in the course of a visit to Israel. Perhaps only in the mid-Nineties, with the image of armed Dutch UN peacekeepers standing placidly aside to let Serbian militia round-up and murder seven thousand Muslims at Srebrenica, did the lesson finally strike home. A long-postponed national debate about the price the Dutch have paid for their heritage of order, co-operation and obedience could at last begin.
In their defense, the Dutch—like the Belgians, the Norwegians, the Italians (after September 1943) and most of occupied eastern Europe—could claim that however shameful the cooperation of individual bureaucrats, policemen and others with the occupying authorities, the initiative always came from above: from the Germans. This is not as true as was once believed, and in certain places—notably territories like Slovakia or Croatia (or Hungary in the final months of the war) where local puppet governments pursued criminal projects of their own—it was only ever a half-truth. But in occupied western Europe, with one outstanding exception, there were no popularly accredited local regimes, no ostensibly legitimate national governments exercising authority and thus fully responsible for their actions. The Germans could not have done what they did in occupied Norway or Belgium or Holland without the collaboration of the locals (in the one country—Denmark—where that collaboration was not forthcoming, the Jews survived). But in all these cases it was the Germans who issued the orders.
The exception, of course, is France. And it is the tortured, long-denied and serially incomplete memory of France’s war—of the Vichy regime and its complicitous, pro-active role in Nazi projects, above all the Final Solution—that has back-shadowed all of Europe’s post-war efforts to come to terms with World War Two and the Holocaust. It is not that France behaved the worst. It is that France mattered most. Until 1989, Paris—for reasons discussed in this book—was still the intellectual and cultural capital of Europe: perhaps more so than at any time since the Second Empire. France was also by far the most influential state in continental western Europe, thanks to Charles De Gaulle’s remarkable achievement in re-establishing his country in the corridors of international power. And it was France—French statesmen, French institutions and French interests—that drove forward, on French terms, the project for a united continent. Until France could look its past in the face, a shadow would hang over the new Europe—the shadow of a lie.
The Vichy problem can be simply stated. Marshall Pétain’s regime had been voted into office in July 1940 by the last parliament of France’s Third Republic; it was thus the only wartime regime that could claim some continuity, however spurious, with pre-war democratic institutions. At least until the end of 1942, an overwhelming majority of French men and women regarded Vichy and its institutions as the legitimate authority in France. And for the Germans, Vichy was an immense convenience—it saved them the trouble of installing a costly occupation regime of their own in so large a country as France, while furnishing them with everything they needed from such a regime: acquiescence in defeat, ‘war reparations’, raw materials, cheap labor . . . and much else besides.
For Vichy did more than accommodate itself and its subjects to France’s defeat and run their country for Germany’s convenience. Under Pétain and his Prime Minister, Pierre Laval, France initiated collaborative projects of its own: notoriously the introduction in 1940 and 1941 of ‘Jewish laws’ without any German pressure to do so, and the arrangement whereby French authorities themselves would round up the country’s Jewish population (beginning with the many foreign-born Jews resident there) to meet quotas being demanded by the Nazi authorities as the Final Solution got under way. As a consequence of this successful assertion of French administrative autonomy, most of the Jewish deportees from France never even saw a foreign uniform until they were handed over to Germans for final trans-shipment to Auschwitz from the train yards at Drancy (north of Paris). Until then the whole affair was in French hands.
Following the Liberation, for all the obloquy poured upon Pétain and his collaborators, his regime’s contribution to the Holocaust was hardly ever invoked, and certainly not by the post-war French authorities themselves. It was not just that the French successfully corralled ‘Vichy’ into a corner of national memory and then mothballed it. They simply didn’t make the link between Vichy and Auschwitz. Vichy had betrayed France. Collaborators had committed treason and war crimes. But ‘crimes against humanity’ were not part of the French juridical lexicon. They were the affair of Germans.
This situation still obtained twenty years later. When the present author studied French history in the UK in the late Sixties the scholarly literature on Vichy France—such as it was—paid almost no attention to the ‘Jewish’ dimension. ‘Vichy studies’ in France and elsewhere focused on the question of whether the Pétainist regime was ‘Fascist’ or ‘reactionary’, and how far it represented continuity or a break with the country’s republican past. There was still a respected school of French historians who argued that the Pétainist ‘shield’ had protected France from ‘Polonisation’—as though Hitler ever intended to treat his western conquests with the barbarous ferocity visited upon the East. And any questioning of the myth of a heroic, nationwide resistance was still off limits—in historiography as in national life.
The only concession French authorities in those years would make to the changing mood abroad came in December 1964 when the National Assembly belatedly incorporated the category of ‘crimes against humanity’ (first defined in the London accords of August 8th 1945) into French law and declared them imprescriptable. But this too had nothing to do with Vichy. It was a response to the Auschwitz Trial then under way in Frankfurt, and was intended to facilitate any future prosecution on French soil of individuals (whether German or French) for their direct participation in the Nazis’ exterminatory schemes. Just how very far it was from official thinking to re-open the question of France’s collective responsibility became clear in 1969, when the government forbade French television to show Le Chagrin et la Pitié (‘The Sorrow and the Anger’) by Marcel Ophuls.
Ophuls’ film, a documentary about the wartime occupation of Clermont Ferrand in central France, was based on interviews with French, British and German subjects. There was almost nothing in it about the Holocaust and not much about Vichy: its theme was the widespread venality and daily collaboration of the war years: Ophuls was peering behind the self-serving post-war story of resistance. But even this was too much for the authorities in the last year of De Gaulle’s presidency. And not just the authorities: when the film was finally released two years later, not on national television but in a small cinema in Paris’s Quartier Latin, one middle-aged woman was heard to comment, upon exiting the cinema: ‘Shameful—but what do you expect? Ophuls is Jewish, isn’t he?’
It is a point of some note that in France, uniquely, the breakthrough into a more honest engagement with wartime history was the work of foreign historians, two of whom—Eberhard Jäckel in Germany and Robert Paxton in the US, both of whose major books were published between the end of the Sixties and the mid-Seventies—were the first to use German sources to demonstrate how much of Vichy’s crimes were undertaken at French initiative. This was not a subject that any native-born scholar had felt comfortable addressing: thirty years after the Liberation of France, national feelings were still acutely sensitive. As late as 1976, on learning the details of an exhibition planned to memorialize French victims at Auschwitz, the Ministère des Anciens Combattants (Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs) requested certain changes—the names on the list ‘lacked a properly French resonance’”412 .
As so often in France in those years, such sentiments probably had more to do with wounded pride than with unadorned racism. As recently as 1939, France had been a major international power. But in three short decades it suffered a shattering military defeat, a demeaning occupation, two bloody and embarrassing colonial withdrawals, and (in 1958) a regime change in the form of a near-coup. La Grande Nation had accumulated so many losses and humiliations since 1914 that the compensatory propensity to assert national honour on every possible occasion had become deeply ingrained. Inglorious episodes—or worse—were best consigned to a memory-hole. Vichy, after all, was not the only thing that the French were in a hurry to put behind them—no-one wanted to talk about the ‘dirty wars’ in Indo-China and Algeria, much less the torture practised there by the army.
De Gaulle’s departure changed little in this respect, even though a younger generation of Frenchmen and -women showed scant interest in national glory and had no personal investment in the myths surrounding France’s recent history. In coming years the French undoubtedly became more aware of the Holocaust and sensitive to Jewish suffering in general—in part thanks to the outrage that followed De Gaulle’s notorious press conference of November 27th 1967, in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, when the French President referred to Jews as ‘a people sure of themselves and domineering’. And the 1985 documentary film Shoah, by the French director Claude Lanzmann, had a dramatic impact upon French audiences, despite (or perhaps because of) being concerned almost exclusively with the extermination of Jews in the East.
But even though French historians—following in the wake of their foreign colleagues—were now establishing beyond question the overwhelming responsibility of France’s wartime rulers for the fate of Jews deported from French soil, the official French stance never varied. From Georges Pompidou (president from 1969 to 1974) through Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) and on to François Mitterrand (1981-1995), the line remained the same: whatever was done under or by the Vichy regime was the affair of Vichy. Vichy may have taken place in France and been the work of certain Frenchmen. But Vichy was an authoritarian parenthesis in the history of the French Republic. Vichy, in other words, was not ‘France’, and thus France’s public conscience was clear.
President Mitterrand, the last French head of state to experience World War Two as an adult (he was born in 1916), had special reason to maintain this Jesuitical distinction. A former Vichyite civil servant, Mitterrand built his subsequent political career in large measure by obscuring the compromises and ambiguities of his own biography and by projecting those ambiguities onto the country at large. He studiously avoided any reference to Vichy on public occasions; and while he was never reluctant to speak out about the Holocaust in general—whether in Jerusalem in 1982 or at home on the fiftieth anniversary of the July 1942 round-up of 12,884 Parisian Jews—he never let slip any suggestion that this was an affair in which France had debts to pay.
The taboo that Mitterrand enforced, embodied and would surely have taken to his grave was finally broken (as so often in this matter) by a series of trials. In 1994, after nearly fifty years in hiding, Paul Touvier—an activist in Vichy’s wartime Milice—was caught and brought to trial for the murder of seven French Jews in June 1944 near Lyon. In himself Touvier was unimportant: a cog in the Vichy machinery and a collaborator of Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo head in Lyon who had been captured and tried in 1987. But Touvier’s trial—and the evidence that came out concerning the Vichy authorities’ collaboration with the Gestapo and their role in the deportation and murder of Jews—served as a kind of ersatz for other trials that never happened: notably that of René Bousquet, the senior police administrator at Vichy. The prosecution of Bousquet, who in 1942 personally negotiated with the German authorities for the delivery of Jews, might have provided France with an occasion to confront the truth about Vichy. And not just Vichy, for Bousquet had lived unscathed for many decades in post-war France, protected by friends in very high places—including Mitterrand himself. But before he could be brought to trial Bousquet was conveniently assassinated (by a ‘lunatic’) in June 1993.
In the wake of Touvier’s condemnation, and in the absence of Bousquet, the French judiciary at last found the courage (after Mitterrand’s death) to inculpate, arrest and prosecute another major figure, Maurice Papon. A sometime government minister and police chief of Paris under De Gaulle, Papon had been employed as secretary-general of the Bordeaux administrative region during the war. This was a purely bureaucratic post, and his stint in Bordeaux in the service of Pétain had proven no impediment to Papon’s successful post-war career as a public servant. While in Bordeaux, however, Papon had been directly responsible for authorising the arrest and despatch of the region’s Jews to Paris and thence into deportation. It was for this—now defined under French law as a crime against humanity—that he was placed on trial in 1997.
The Papon trial, which lasted six months, revealed no new evidence—except perhaps about the man himself, who displayed an astonishing absence of pity or remorse. And of course the trial came fifty years too late: too late to punish the octogenarian Papon for his crimes; too late to avenge his victims; and too late to save the honour of his country. A number of French historians, called to testify as expert witnesses, declined to appear. Their task, they insisted, was to recount and explain what had happened in France fifty years before, not deploy that knowledge in a criminal prosecution.413 But the trial was exemplary nonetheless. It demonstrated conclusively that the fine distinction between ‘Vichy’ and ‘France’ so carefully drawn by everyone from De Gaulle to Mitterrand had never existed. Papon was a Frenchman who served the Vichy regime and the subsequent French Republic: both of which were fully aware of his activities in the Bordeaux prefecture and neither of which was troubled by them.
Moreover, Papon was not alone—indeed both the man and his record were decidedly commonplace. Like so many others, all he had done was sign the death warrants of people he never met and to whose fate he was indifferent. The most interesting thing about Papon’s case (and that of Bousquet, too) was why it had taken official France nearly fifty years to locate them in its midst—and why, at the very end of the century, the crust of silence finally broke open. There are many explanations, not all of them flattering to the French political class or national media. But the passage of time, together with the psychological significance of the ending of an era, is perhaps the most pertinent.
So long as François Mitterrand remained in office, he incarnated in his very person the national inability to speak openly about the shame of the occupation. With Mitterrand’s departure, everything changed. His successor, Jacques Chirac, had been just eleven years old when France was liberated in 1944. Within weeks of taking office, on the fifty-third anniversary of the same round-up of Parisian Jews about which Mitterrand had always been so circumspect, President Chirac broke a fifty-year taboo and pointedly acknowledged for the first time his country’s role in the extermination of the Jews of Europe. Ten years later, on March 15th 2005, at the newly inaugurated Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Chirac’s Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, solemnly declared: ‘La France a parfois été le complice de cette infamie. Elle a contracté une dette imprescriptible qui l’oblige’. ‘France was at times an accomplice in this shame. She is bound forever by the debt she has incurred’.
By the end of the twentieth century the centrality of the Holocaust in Western European identity and memory seemed secure. To be sure, there remained those occasional individuals and organisations—‘revisionists’—who persisted in trying to show that the mass extermination of the Jews could not have taken place (though they were more active in North America than in Europe itself). But such people were confined to the extreme political margins—and their insistence upon the technical impossibility of the genocide paid unintended homage to the very enormity of the Nazi crime. However, the compensatory ubiquity with which Europeans now acknowledged, taught and memorialized the loss of their Jews did carry other risks.
In the first place, there was always the danger of a backlash. Occasionally even mainstream German politicians had been heard to vent frustration at the burden of national guilt—as early as 1969 the Bavarian Christian Social leader Franz-Josef Strauss relieved himself in public of the thought that ‘a people that has achieved such remarkable economic success has the right not to have to hear anymore about “Auschwitz”.’ Politicians of course have their reasons.414 What was perhaps more indicative of a coming cultural shift was a widespread urge, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to re-open the question of German suffering after years of public attention to Jewish victims.
Artists and critics—among them Martin Walser, Habermas’s contemporary and an influential literary voice in the post-war Federal Republic—were now starting to discuss another ‘unmanaged past’: not the extermination of the Jews but the under-acknowledged other side of recent German history. Why, they asked, after all these years should we not speak of the burning of Germany’s cities, or even of the uncomfortable truth that life in Hitler’s Germany (for Germans) was far from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because we should speak instead of what Germany did to the Jews? But we’ve spoken of this for decades; it has become a routine, a habit. The Federal Republic is one of the most avowedly philo-Semitic nations in the world; for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? New books about ‘the crimes of the Allies’—the bombing of Dresden, the burning of Hamburg and the wartime sinking of German refugee ships (the subject of Im Krebsgang, ‘Crabwise’, a 2002 novel by Günter Grass)—sold in huge numbers.
In the second place, the new-found salience of the Holocaust in official accounts of Europe’s past carried the danger of a different sort of distortion. For the really uncomfortable truth about World War Two was that what happened to the Jews between 1939 and 1945 was not nearly as important to most of the protagonists as later sensibilities might wish. If many Europeans had managed to ignore for decades the fate of their Jewish neighbours, this was not because they were consumed with guilt and repressing unbearable memories. It was because—except in the minds of a handful of senior Nazis—World War Two was not about the Jews. Even for Nazis the extermination of Jews was part of a more ambitious project of racial cleansing and resettlement.
The understandable temptation to read back into the 1940s the knowledge and emotions of half a century later thus invites a rewriting of the historical record: putting anti-Semitism at the centre of European history. How else, after all, are we to account for what happened in Europe in those years? But that is too easy—and in a way too comforting. The reason Vichy was acceptable to most French people after the defeat of 1940, for example, was not that it pleased them to live under a regime that persecuted Jews, but because Pétainist rule allowed the French to continue leading their lives in an illusion of security and normality and with minimum disruption. How the regime treated Jews was a matter of indifference: the Jews just hadn’t mattered that much. And much the same was true in most other occupied lands.
Today we may find such indifference shocking—a symptom of something gravely amiss in the moral condition of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. And we are right to recall that there were also those in every European country who did see what was happening to Jews and did their best to overcome the indifference of their fellow citizens. But if we ignore that indifference and assume instead that most other Europeans experienced the Second World War the way Jews experienced it—as a Vernichtungskrieg, a war of extermination—then we shall furnish ourselves with a new layer of mis-memory. In retrospect, ‘Auschwitz’ is the most important thing to know about World War Two. But that is not how things seemed at the time.
It is also not how things seemed in eastern Europe. To east Europeans, belatedly released after 1989 from the burden of officially mandated Communist interpretations of World War Two, the fin-de-siècle Western preoccupation with the Holocaust of the Jews carries disruptive implications. On the one hand, eastern Europe after 1945 had much more than western Europe to remember—and to forget. There were more Jews in the eastern half of Europe and more of them were killed; most of the killing took place in this region and many more locals took an active part in it. But on the other hand, far greater care was taken by the post-war authorities in eastern Europe to erase all public memory of the Holocaust. It is not that the horrors and crimes of the war in the east were played down—on the contrary, they were repeatedly rehearsed in official rhetoric and enshrined in memorials and textbooks everywhere. It is just that Jews were not part of the story.
In East Germany, where the burden of responsibility for Nazism was imputed uniquely to Hitler’s West German heirs, the new regime paid restitution not to Jews but to the Soviet Union. In GDR school texts, Hitler was presented as a tool of monopoly capitalists who seized territory and started wars in pursuit of the interests of big business. The ‘Day of Remembrance’ inaugurated by Walter Ulbricht in 1950 commemorated not Germany’s victims but eleven million dead ‘fighters against Hitler fascism’. Former concentration camps on East German soil—notably Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen—were converted for a while into ‘special isolation camps’ for political prisoners. Many years later, after Buchenwald had been transformed into a memorial site, its guidebook described the stated aims of ‘German fascism’ as ‘Destruction of Marxism, revenge for the lost war and brutal terror against all resisters’. In the same booklet, photos of the selection ramp at Auschwitz were captioned with a quote from the German Communist Ernst Thälmann: ‘The bourgeoisie is serious about its aim to annihilate the party and the entire avant-garde of the working class’.415This text was not removed until after the fall of Communism.
The same version of events could be found throughout Communist Europe. In Poland it was not possible to deny or minimize what had taken place in extermination camps at Treblinka or Majdanek or Sobibor. But some of these places no longer existed—the Germans had taken extraordinary pains to obliterate them from the landscape before fleeing the advancing Red Army. And where the evidence did survive—as at Auschwitz, a few kilometres from Crakow, Poland’s second city—it was retrospectively assigned a different meaning. Although 93 percent of the estimated 1.5 million people murdered at Auschwitz were Jews, the museum established there under the post-war Communist regime listed the victims only by nationality: Polish, Hungarian, German, etc. Polish schoolchildren were indeed paraded past the shocking photos; they were shown the heaps of shoes, hair and eyeglasses. But they were not told that most of it belonged to Jews.
To be sure, there was the Warsaw Ghetto, whose life and death were indeed memorialized on the site where the ghetto had stood. But the Jewish revolt of 1943 was occluded in Polish memory by the Poles’ own Warsaw uprising a year later. In Communist Poland, while no-one denied what Germans had done to Jews, the subject was not much discussed. Poland’s ‘re-imprisonment’ under the Soviets, together with the widespread belief that Jews had welcomed and even facilitated the Communist takeover, muddied popular recall of the German occupation. In any case, Poles’ own wartime suffering diluted local attention to the Jewish Holocaust and was in some measure competitive with it: this issue of ‘comparative victimhood’ would poison Polish-Jewish relations for many decades. The juxtaposition was always inappropriate. Three million (non-Jewish) Poles died in World War II; proportionately lower than the death rate in parts of Ukraine or among Jews, but a terrible figure notwithstanding. Yet there was a difference. For Poles, it was difficult to survive under German occupation, but in principle you could. For Jews it was possible to survive under German occupation—but in principle you could not.
Where a local puppet regime had collaborated with its Nazi overlords, its victims were duly memorialized. But scant attention was paid to the fact that they were disproportionately Jews. There were national categories (‘Hungarians’) and above all social categories (‘workers’), but ethnic and religious tags were studiously avoided. The Second World War, as we have seen (see Chapter 6), was labelled and taught as an anti-Fascist war; its racist dimension was ignored. After 1968, the government of Czechoslovakia even took the trouble to close Prague’s Pinkus Synagogue and paint over the inscriptions on its walls that gave the names of Czech Jews killed in the Shoah.
When re-casting recent history in this region, the post-war Communist authorities could certainly count on an enduring reservoir of anti-Jewish feeling—one reason they went to some trouble to suppress evidence of it even in retrospect (during the Seventies Polish censors consistently banned allusions to the country’s inter-war anti-Semitism). But if east Europeans paid less attention in retrospect to the plight of the Jews, it was not just because they were indifferent at the time or preoccupied with their own survival. It is because the Communists imposed enough suffering and injustice of their own to forge a whole new layer of resentments and memories.
Between 1945 and 1989 the accumulation of deportations, imprisonments, show trials and ‘normalizations’ made almost everyone in the Soviet bloc either a loser or else complicit in someone else’s loss. Apartments, shops and other property that had been appropriated from dead Jews or expelled Germans were all too often re-expropriated a few years later in the name of Socialism—with the result that after 1989 the question of compensation for past losses became hopelessly tangled in dates. Should people be recompensed for what they lost when the Communists seized power? And if such restitution were made, to whom should it go? To those who had come into possession of it after the war, in 1945, only to lose it a few years later? Or should restitution be made to the heirs of those from whom businesses and apartments had been seized or stolen at some point between 1938 and 1945? Which point? 1938? 1939? 1941? On each date there hung politically sensitive definitions of national or ethnic legitimacy as well as moral precedence.416
And then there were dilemmas peculiar to the internal history of Communism itself. Should those responsible for inviting Russian tanks in to crush the 1956 Hungarian revolution or suppress the Prague Spring of 1968 be arraigned for these crimes? In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolutions many thought they should. But some of their victims were former Communist leaders. Who deserved the attention of posterity: obscure Slovak or Hungarian peasants thrown off their property, or the Communist apparatchiks who ejected them but who themselves fell victim a few years later? Which victims—which memories—should have priority? Who was to say?
The fall of Communism thus brought in its wake a torrent of bitter memories. Heated debates over what to do with secret police files were only one dimension of the affair (see Chapter 21). The real problem was the temptation to overcome the memory of Communism by inverting it. What had once been official truth was now discredited root and branch—becoming, as it were, officially false. But this sort of taboo-breaking carries its own risks. Before 1989 every anti-Communist had been tarred with the ‘Fascist’ brush. But if ‘anti-Fascism’ had been just another Communist lie, it was very tempting now to look with retrospective sympathy and even favour upon all hitherto discredited anti-Communists, Fascists included. Nationalist writers of the nineteen-thirties returned to fashion. Post-Communist parliaments in a number of countries passed motions praising Marshal Antonescu of Romania or his counterparts elsewhere in the Balkans and central Europe. Execrated until very recently as nationalists, Fascists and Nazi collaborators, they would now have statues raised in honour of their wartime heroism (the Romanian parliament even accorded Antonescu one minute’s silence).
Other taboos fell along with the discredited rhetoric of anti-Fascism. The role of the Red Army and the Soviet Union could now be discussed in a different light. The newly liberated Baltic states demanded that Moscow acknowledge the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin’s unilateral destruction of their independence. The Poles, having at last (in April 1995) secured Russian acknowledgement that the 23,000 Polish officers murdered in Katyn forest were indeed killed by the NKVD and not the Wehrmacht, demanded full access to the Russian archives for Polish investigators. As of May 2005 neither request seemed likely to meet with Russian acquiescence and the memories continued to rankle.417
The Russians, however, had memories of their own. Seen from the satellite countries, the Soviet version of recent history was palpably false; but for many Russians themselves it contained more than a grain of truth. World War Two was a ‘Great Patriotic War’; Soviet soldiers and civilianswere, in absolute numbers, its greatest victims; the Red Army did liberate vast swathes of eastern Europe from the horrors of German rule; and the defeat of Hitler was a source of unalloyed satisfaction and relief for most Soviet citizens—and others besides. After 1989, many in Russia were genuinely taken aback at the apparent ingratitude of erstwhile fraternal nations, who had been released in 1945 from the German yoke thanks to the sacrifices of Soviet arms.
But for all that, Russian memory was divided. Indeed, that division took institutional form, with two civil organizations coming into existence to promote critical but diametrically opposed accounts of the country’s Communist past. Memorial was founded in 1987 by liberal dissidents with the goal of obtaining and publishing the truth about Soviet history. Its members’ particular concerns were with human-rights abuse and the importance of acknowledging what had been done in the past in order to forestall its recurrence in the future. Pamiat’, formed two years earlier, also sought to recover and honour the past (its name means ‘memory’ in Russian) but there the resemblance ceases. The founders of Pamiat’, anti-Communist dissidents but far from liberal, wanted to offer an improved version of the Russian past: sanitized of Soviet ‘lies’ but also free of other influences foreign to Russia’s heritage, above all that of ‘Zionists’. Within a few years Pamiat’ had branched out into nationalist politics, wielding Russia’s neglected and ‘abused’ history as a weapon with which to ward off ‘cosmopolitan’ challenges and interlopers.
The politics of aggrieved memories—however much these differed in detail and even contradicted one another—constituted the last remaining bond between the former Soviet heartland and its imperial holdings. There was a shared resentment at the international community’s under-appreciation for their past sufferings and losses. What of the victims of the Gulag? Why had they not been compensated and memorialized like the victims and survivors of Nazi oppression? What of the millions for whom wartime Nazi oppression became postwar Communist oppression with no discernible caesura? Why did the West pay so little attention?
The desire to flatten out the Communist past and indict it en bloc—to read everything from Lenin to Gorbachev as an uninflected tale of dictatorship and crime, a seamless narrative of regimes and repressions imposed by outsiders or perpetrated in the people’s name by unrepresentative authorities—carried other risks. In the first place it was bad history, eliminating from the record the genuine enthusiasms and engagements of earlier decades. Secondly, the new orthodoxy had contemporary political implications. If Czechs—or Croats or Hungarians or anyone else—had played no active part in the dark side of their own recent past; if eastern European history since 1939—or, in the Russian case, from 1917 to 1991—was exclusively the work of others, then the whole era became a sort of parenthesis in the national story: comparable to the place assigned to Vichy in post-war French consciousness, but covering a vastly longer period and an even grimmer archive of bad memories. And the consequences would be similar: in 1992, Czechoslovak authorities banned a BBC documentary film about the 1942 assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich from the Karlovy Vary film festival, because it showed ‘unacceptable’ footage of Czechs demonstrating support for the wartime Nazi regime.
With this post-Communist re-ordering of memory in eastern Europe, the taboo on comparing Communism with Nazism began to crumble. Indeed politicians and scholars started to insist upon such comparisons. In the West this juxtaposition remained controversial. Direct comparison between Hitler and Stalin was not the issue: few now disputed the monstrous quality of both dictators. But the suggestion that Communism itself—before and after Stalin—should be placed in the same category as Fascism or Nazism carried uncomfortable implications for the West’s own past, and not only in Germany. To many western European intellectuals, Communism was a failed variant of a common progressive heritage. But to their central and east European counterparts it was an all too successful local application of the criminal pathologies of twentieth-century authoritarianism and should be remembered thus. Europe might be united, but European memory remained deeply asymmetrical.
The Western solution to the problem of Europe’s troublesome memories has been to fix them, quite literally, in stone. By the opening years of the twenty-first century, plaques, memorials and museums to the victims of Nazism had surfaced all across western Europe, from Stockholm to Brussels. In some cases, as we have seen, they were amended or ‘corrected’ versions of existing sites; but many were new. Some aspired to an overtly pedagogical function: the Holocaust Memorial which opened in Paris in January 2005 combined two existing sites, the ‘Memorial to the Unknown Jewish Martyr’ and a ‘Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation’. Complete with a stone wall engraved with the names of 76,000 Jews deported from France to Nazi death camps, it echoed both the US Vietnam Memorial and—on a much reduced scale—the ambitions of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, or Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The overwhelming majority of such installations were indeed devoted—in part or whole—to the memory of the Holocaust: the most impressive of them all was opened in Berlin on May 10th 2005.
The explicit message of the latest round of memorials contrasts sharply with the ambiguity and prevarication of an earlier generation of lapidary commemorations. The Berlin memorial, occupying a conspicuous 19,000-square metre site adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, is the most explicit of them all: far from commemorating ecumenically the ‘victims of Nazism’ it is, quite avowedly, a ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’.418 In Austria, young conscientious objectorscould now choose to replace military service with a period in the state-financed Gedenkdienst(‘Commemorative Service’, established in 1991), working at major Holocaust institutions as interns and guides. There can be little doubt that Western Europeans—Germans above all—now have ample opportunity to confront the full horror of their recent past. As the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder reminded his audience on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, ‘the memory of the war and the genocide are part of our life. Nothing will change that: these memories are part of our identity’.
Elsewhere, however, shadows remain. In Poland, where a newly established Institute of National Memory has striven hard to encourage serious scholarly investigation into controversial historical subjects, official contrition for Poland’s own treatment of its Jewish minority has aroused vociferous objections. These are depressingly exemplified in the reaction of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Solidarity hero Lech Wałesa to the publication in 2000 of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book Neighbours , an influential study by an American historian of a wartime massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbours: ‘Gross’, Wałesa complained in a radio interview, was out to sow discord between Poles and Jews. He was a ‘mediocre writer . . . a Jew who tries to make money’.
The difficulty of incorporating the destruction of the Jews into contemporary memory in post-Communist Europe is tellingly illustrated by the experience of Hungary. In 2001 the government of Viktor Orbán inaugurated a Holocaust Memorial Day, to be commemorated annually on April 16th (the anniversary of the establishment in 1944 of a ghetto in wartime Budapest). Three years later Orbán’s successor as prime minister, Péter Medgyessy, opened a Holocaust Memorial Centre in a Budapest house once used to intern Jews. But much of the time this Holocaust Centre stands nearly empty, its exhibits and fact sheets seen by a thin trickle of visitors—many of them foreign. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Hungarians have flocked to the Terrorhaza.
The Terrorhaza (‘House of Terror’), as its name suggests, is a museum of horrors. It tells the story of state violence, torture, repression and dictatorship in Hungary from 1944 to 1989. The dates are significant. As presented to the thousands of schoolchildren and others who pass through its gloomy, Tussaud-like reproduction of the police cells, torture equipment and interrogation chambers that were once housed there (the House of Terror is in the headquarters of the former Security Police), the Terrorhaza’s version of Hungarian history draws no distinction between the thugs of Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross party, who held power there from October 1944 to April 1945, and the Communist regime that was installed after the war. However, the Arrow Cross men—and the extermination of 600,000 Hungarian Jews to which they actively contributed—are represented by just three rooms. The rest of the very large building is devoted to a copiously illustrated and decidedly partisan catalogue of the crimes of Communism.
The not particularly subliminal message here is that Communism and Fascism are equivalent. Except that they are not: the presentation and content of the Budapest Terrorhaza makes it quite clear that, in the eyes of the museum’s curators, Communism not only lasted longer but did far more harm than its Nazi predecessor. For many Hungarians of an older generation, this is all the more plausible for conforming to their own experience. And the message has been confirmed by post-Communist Hungarian legislation banning public display of all representations of the country’s undemocratic past: not just the swastika or the Arrow Cross symbol but also the hitherto ubiquitous red star and its accompanying hammer and sickle. Rather than evaluate the distinctions between the regimes represented by these symbols, Hungary—in the words of Prime Minister Orbán at the opening of the Budapest House of Terror on February 24th 2002—has simply ‘slammed the door on the sick twentieth century’.
But that door is not so easy to close. Hungary, like the rest of central and eastern Europe, is still caught in the backdraft.419 The same Baltic states which have urged upon Moscow the duty to acknowledge its mistreatment of them have been decidedly slow to interrogate their own responsibilities: since winning their independence neither Estonia nor Latvia nor Lithuania has prosecuted a single case against the surviving war criminals in their midst. In Romania—despite former President Iliescu’s acknowledgement of his country’s participation in the Holocaust—the ‘Memorial of the Victims of Communism and anticommunist Resistance’ inaugurated at Sighet in 1997 (and supported by the Council of Europe) commemorated assorted inter-war and wartime Iron Guard activists and other Romanian fascists and anti-semites now recycled as martyrs to Communist persecution.
In support of their insistence upon ‘equivalence’, commentators in eastern Europe can point to the cult of the ‘victim’ in contemporary Western political culture. We are moving from winners’ history to victims’ history, they observe. Very well, then let us be consistent. Even if Nazism and Communism were utterly different in intent—even if, in Raymond Aron’s formulation, ‘there is a difference between a philosophy whose logic is monstrous, and one which can be given a monstrous interpretation’—that was scant consolation to their victims. Human suffering should not be calibrated according to the goals of the perpetrators. In this way of reasoning, for those being punished or killed there, a Communist camp is no better or worse than a Nazi camp.
Similarly, the emphasis upon ‘rights’ (and restitution for their abuse) in modern international jurisprudence and political rhetoric has furnished an argument for those who feel that their sufferings and losses have passed unrecognized—and uncompensated. Some conservatives in Germany, taking their cue from international condemnation of ‘ethnic cleansing’, have re-opened the claims of German communities expelled from their lands at the end of the Second World War. Why, they ask, was theirs a lesser form of victimhood? Surely what Stalin did to the Poles—or, more recently, what Miloševič did to the Albanians—was no different in kind from what Czechoslovakia’s President Beneš did to the Sudeten Germans after World War Two? By the early years of the new century there was talk in respectable circles of establishing in Berlin yet another memorial: a ‘Center Against Expulsions’, a museum devoted to all victims of ethnic cleansing.
This latest twist, with its suggestion that all forms of collective victimhood are essentially comparable, even interchangeable, and should thus be accorded equal remembrance, aroused a spirited rebuttal from Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, when he signed a petition in 2003 opposing the proposed Center. ‘What sort of remembrance! Did they suffer that much? Because they lost their houses? Of course it is sad when you are being forced to leave your house and abandon your land. But the Jews lost their houses and all of their relatives. Expulsions are about suffering, but there is so much suffering in this world. Sick people suffer, and nobody builds monuments to honour them’ ( Tygodnik Powszechny, August 17th 2003).
Edelman’s reaction is a timely reminder of the risks we run by indulging to excess the cult of commemoration—and of displacing perpetrators with victims as the focus of attention. On the one hand there is no limit in principle to the memories and experiences worthy of recall. On the other hand, to memorialize the past in edifices and museums is also a way to contain and even neglect it—leaving the responsibility of memory to others. So long as there were men and women around who really did remember, from personal experience, this did not perhaps matter. But now, as the 81-year-old Jorge Semprún reminded his fellow survivors at the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald on April 10th 2005, ‘the cycle of active memory is closing’.
Even if Europe could somehow cling indefinitely to a living memory of past crimes—which is what the memorials and museums are designed, however inadequately, to achieve—there would be little point. Memory is inherently contentious and partisan: one man’s acknowledgement is another’s omission. And it is a poor guide to the past. The first post-war Europe was built upon deliberate mis-memory—upon forgetting as a way of life. Since 1989, Europe has been constructed instead upon a compensatory surplus of memory: institutionalised public remembering as the very foundation of collective identity. The first could not endure—but nor will the second. Some measure of neglect and even forgetting is the necessary condition for civic health.
To say this is not to advocate amnesia. A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it. Until the French understood Vichy as it was—and not as they had chosen to misremember it—they could not put it aside and move on. The same is true of Poles in their convoluted recollection of the Jews who once lived in their midst. The same will be true of Spain, too, which for twenty years following its transition to democracy drew a tacit veil across the painful memory of the civil war. Public discussion of that war and its outcome is only now getting under way.420 Only after Germans had appreciated and digested the enormity of their Nazi past—a sixty-year cycle of denial, education, debate and consensus—could they begin to live with it: i.e. put it behind them.
The instrument of recall in all such cases was not memory itself. It was history, in both its meanings: as the passage of time and as the professional study of the past—the latter above all. Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialisation incomplete.421 Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless: ‘Only the historian, with the austere passion for fact, proof, evidence, which are central to his vocation, can effectively stand guard’.422
Unlike memory, which confirms and reinforces itself, history contributes to the disenchantment of the world. Most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive—which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins. But history does need to be learned—and periodically re-learned. In a popular Soviet-era joke, a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing’.
So it does—and not only in totalitarian societies. All the same, the rigorous investigation and interrogation of Europe’s competing pasts—and the place occupied by those pasts in Europeans’ collective sense of themselves—has been one of the unsung achievements and sources of European unity in recent decades. It is, however, an achievement that will surely lapse unless ceaselessly renewed. Europe’s barbarous recent history, the dark ‘other’ against which post-war Europe was laboriously constructed, is already beyond recall for young Europeans. Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust—visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives.
If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past. If Europeans are to maintain this vital link—if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose—then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.