Memory at War

March 17, 2010

By Leonidas Donskis
A sinister tendency is increasingly getting stronger in the twenty-first-century world. Politicians are on the way to monopolizing two domains that serve as a new source of inspiration: namely, privacy and history. Birth, death, and sex constitute the new frontiers on the political battlefields.

Suffice it to recall the controversial Lithuanian Law on the Protection of Minors from the Detrimental Effect of Public Information adopted on 14 July 2009, which struck human rights defenders and media people, both in Lithuania and in the EU, as overtly homophobic and profoundly undemocratic.

Or think about new memory wars in present Europe. That Russia has become a revisionist power and a revanchist state is obvious. Moreover, it attempts to rewrite the history of the twentieth century overtly rehabilitating Stalin and depicting him to have been merely a wise, albeit sometimes cruel, modernizer of Russia, just like Peter the Great.

Hence, an attempt of the Baltic States and also of other Eastern-Central European nations to work out an antidote against Russia’s revisionism by putting forward the idea of the equivalency of Communism and National Socialism. However understandable the idea of the political and moral equivalency of Communism and National Socialism is for anyone whose family suffered under both regimes, it does not seem to be the most convincing way to do it. Western Europe and the USA will always take a deep exception to the claim of the Baltic States that the Holocaust and Soviet crimes were of the same nature.

Therefore, something has to be done to untie this Gordian knot of history, which makes us hostages of warring modes of collective memory. As far as Lithuania is concerned, our politicians and public figures have to stop romanticizing the forces of 1941 that tried to save the independence of Lithuania by collaborating with the Nazis. Had Lithuania been liberated by Great Britain or the USA, our Provisional Government would have been undoubtedly treated as collaborationists, and would have been brought to justice for high treason. The tragedy was that Lithuania, like Latvia and Estonia, were “liberated” from the Nazis by the Soviets, instead of Britain or the United States.

All in all, only our political courage and moral integrity, rather than selective interpretation of history, can end our memory wars with Russia or with the far Left of Western Europe. We cannot allow Russia to distort history spreading ugly lies about the Baltic States as crypto-fascist countries, yet we have to be fair and sympathetic to the Holocaust survivors, who sometimes fear, and quite rightly so, that a simplistic and relativistic approach to the Shoah as one of several Holocausts in Europe, becomes a sort of obfuscation and trivialization of the major tragedy of the modern world.

Memory wars in Lithuania teach us that history can never be left to politicians, no matter whether democratic or authoritarian. It is not a property of a political doctrine; nor is it a property of the regime it serves. History of World War II also teaches us that very few escaped the fate of both a victim and a perpetrator.

Therefore, if we stop conflating Soviet Communism, as well as its totalitarian practices and crimes against humanity, and the Communist parties in the countries where they confronted fascist and authoritarian regimes, and, instead, come to terms with the most difficult aspects of our own past, the entire Europe will sooner or later if not reject, then at least strongly condemn Communism for its devastating legacies and crimes in Eastern European countries. We need more intellectual and political courage, instead of self-victimization and replacement ideologies.