East Europe still flirting with totalitarianism

Every day we hear about a brand-new and appalling anti-democratic development in one or other eastern European country; constitutional amendments to bound the judiciary, regulations to oppress the press, laws to restrict free speech.

The problem is at the foundations and they are flimsy: Neither the citizens nor the governments are asking themselves the fundamental question: "Did my parents persecute their Jewish, Roma and leftist neighbours directly or indirectly, are we resting on these persecutions." And I mean since 1945, including East Germany.

Let us not forget that an overwhelming majority of these eastern European countries did not have democratic governances before the Soviet Union subjugated them. The only exception was Czechoslovakia, and that unfortunate country was forced to join the Soviet sphere of influence with a civil coup. In a nutshell, eastern European states transitioned to totalitarian Soviet rule from non-democratic systems. Between 1918 and 1945, these non-democratic states, including Romania and Hungary controlled by openly fascist regimes, participated directly or indirectly in the Holocaust. Sometimes they were passive collaborators and other times they were accomplices, but they were consistently anti-Semitic and repressive. Because of the borders drawn after the World War One, they watched the destruction of their Jewish neighbours with a sense of righteousness and perhaps retribution.

Once again, let us not forget that most of the Jews and Roma who were murdered during the Holocaust were citizens of these eastern European countries. According to the census of June 16 1933, including the Germans living in the Saar region - under the rule of the League of Nations at the time - the total Jewish population in Germany was 505,000 out of 67 million. In other words no more than 0.75 per cent of the total. The primary target of the Nazi genocide, the very centre of the ultimate solution was the east of the continent. For example, 3 million of the 3.5 million Polish Jews - around 10 percent of the Polish population - were killed during the Holocaust. The majority of the other 3 million Jews murdered during the Holocaust were citizens of other eastern European countries.

The recently deceased director of the acclaimed 10-hour documentary Shoah (1985), Claude Lanzmann said: “They (Poles) kept living their daily lives during the genocide. It didn't bother anyone. They heard what was happening in Chelmno, but they continued to plough their fields neighbouring the death camps. And of course, they could smell the stench because all of Poland reeked of the smell of burning human corpses. They were all talking about the unbearable stench. They were keeping their windows closed. I kept asking them: “what were you doing during the summer months?” “We were boiling inside!” What struck me as strange was the Poles were constantly oscillating between fantasy and reality."

After 1945, the memories of the Holocaust were buried behind the Iron Curtain, which was also a wall of silence. The 1945-1989 period brought impunity, or at least immunity, to eastern Europeans since the Soviets were on the winning side. But the search for contrition after 1989, which lasted for a very short period, was quickly replaced by the discourse of victimisation. That is why eastern European countries are struggling with the demons of the old totalitarianism. The EU's considerable grants are the only thing saving them from being trapped by their demons. Though, no one knows how and how long EU’s funds can keep those demons at bay.

Even though the Nazis were the main perpetrators, the inability of a country to discuss the fate of its Jewish citizens, as in Poland, completely undermines its democratic future. It is the same for other eastern European states, including East Germany. 

On February this year Poland's ruling Law and Justice Party proposed a law that criminalises the attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to Poland. Patryk Jaki, Polish deputy minister of justice, suggested a jail sentence between two to three years for those who use the phrase “Polish death camps”. The purpose of this law is to whitewash Polish history.

Hungary is not very different. Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has reawakened the anti-Semitism by harassing the Central European University that Jewish Hungarian-American businessman George Soros founded. What follows is a hostile attitude towards all foreigners, especially Muslims. 

The racist Alternative für Deutschland is growing like a cancerous tumour mainly in eastern Germany. Unlike West Germany, East Germany under Soviet occupation did not have the same thorough process of de-Nazification. The outcomes speak for themselves.

Unless confronted, the ghost of a crime as big as the Holocaust roams a country and prevents it from finding peace within. These countries are bound to not only poison themselves but their allies as well. It is very challenging for the EU to deal with rising racism in Hungary, Poland, and some other less noticeable but like-minded countries like the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Similarly, we note how the former East Germany is contaminating the western part of the country.

Turkey is not much different to these countries, just that the crime it refuses to confront happens to be older. The Armenian genocide of 1915 and religious cleansing in Turkey were buried under the apparently anti-imperialist War of Liberation and 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. All political movements in Turkey with the exception of that of the Kurds are epic defenders of these founding acts and their consequences. And this is the best we can achieve with such enormous impunity, irresponsibility and deliberate amnesia.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.