A recent decision by the European Union has evoked the ghosts of horrors past. Last month, the European Commission rejected calls by countries in Eastern Europe to criminalize the denial of crimes perpetrated not only by Nazi but also Communist regimes, reviving a highly contentious debate over whether Soviet atrocities can be equated to the Holocaust. Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic argued that Soviet crimes “should be treated according to the same standards” as the Holocaust. But due to a lack of consensus, the proposal was rejected, though it remains under review.
The idea of a so-called “double genocide” law that links Nazi and Communist crimes concerns some Jewish commentators and Western countries. Critics paint Eastern Europe’s lobbying efforts as an attempt to rewrite history by focusing attention on its role as a victim of the Soviets rather than as a collaborator in the extermination of Jewish minorities during the Nazi occupation. Anti-Semitism, critics say, is alive and well in Eastern Europe. Lithuania, for instance, has shied away from trying some suspected Nazi war criminals, and waged a controversial campaign to investigate alleged crimes committed by Jewish partisans during the Second World War.
The debate has also sparked a grim battle over how victims should be counted. Lithuania points to the 780,000 residents who fled, were killed or deported during the first years of Soviet rule, and compares that to the 200,000 Jewish citizens who died in the country under the Nazi regime. But Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff notes that the number of Lithuanian Jewish casualties should be put in perspective: it amounted to 91 per cent of Lithuania’s Jewish community.
Opponents of the proposal say that referring to Soviet crimes as “genocide” risks muddying the memory of the Holocaust. “For all the terrible crimes of the U.S.S.R., you can’t compare the people who built Auschwitz with the people who liberated it,” Zuroff told the Guardian.
That reasoning, in turn, is not sitting well with the descendants of those who suffered Soviet repression. Defeating Nazi Germany “in no way justifies the crimes that the Soviet army and regime perpetrated,” says Peeter Rebane, 47, a Harvard graduate and entrepreneur in Tallinn, Estonia. Both of Rebane’s grandfathers—a university professor and a local town mayor—were sent to labour camps in Siberia for being “active in the society,” he says. Only one of them survived his time in captivity, but couldn’t rejoin his family after being released for fear that doing so would attract further targeting by the regime. He died years later, alone and anonymous. The plight of those like him, says Rebane, hasn’t been as well publicized as that of Jewish victims. There are “no movies made by Steven Spielberg” on it, he notes.
That reaction is “only natural” in places that, like the Baltic states and Poland, have experienced a double occupation, says Meike Wulf, a politics professor at Maastricht University. These countries, she wrote in an email to Maclean’s, “have great difficulties in acknowledging another people’s suffering, they cannot accept the anti-fascist narrative (with the Holocaust at its centrepiece) prominent in the West and U.S.” Despite any lingering anti-Semitism, obtaining official recognition of their own suffering, Wulf added, could help to counter the painful legacies of the past.