The revision of the history – European and worldwide – of what Hobsbawm called ‘The Short Twentieth Century’ (1914-1991) by means of equating Communism to Nazism has an impact on European integration in terms of fuelling nationalisms and the geostrategic conflict between the West – mainly the US – and Russia. At the same time, this re-reading of history is a conservative mainstay in the ongoing war between those who view capitalism, after the collapse of the Soviet-type regimes in 1989, as the ‘end of history’ and those who think it is worth searching for new paths to a post- capitalist world.
Historical revisionism, promoted in the past by well-known historians such as Ernst Nolte, François Furet, and Stephan Courtois, aims to represent Communism as inherently totalitarian and barbaric and as closely resembling, or even identical to, Nazism. The new narrative, which has been reproached by other, not necessarily left, historians for trying to relativise and lighten the stigma attached to the ‘ultimate evil’ of Nazism, takes as its founding myth the signing of the Ribbentropp-Molotov Non-aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on 23 August 1939.
The first European efforts to establish 23 August as a day for the commemoration of the victims of Stalinism and Nazism – ‘Communism’ and ‘Stalinism’ being used interchangeably in various texts – came from the Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. At that time, on 23 August 1989, almost two million citizens of these states joined hands to form a human chain crossing these former Soviet republics. This ‘Baltic Chain’, or ‘Chain of Freedom’ spanned more than 600 kilometres.
In the EU, the principal official protagonist of this effort to revise European and world history has been the European Parliament, first with its 23 August 2008 declaration proclaiming 23 August as the ‘European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’, and then in 2009, with its resolution on ‘European conscience and totalitarianism’, in which it called ‘for the proclamation of 23 August as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, to be commemorated with dignity and impartiality’.1
Since 2009, the Day of Remembrance has been observed by the European Commission and the European Council and was adopted by law in nine European countries, eight of them ex-communist (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria), the other being Sweden. Two years later the ball was in the court of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs Council, which includes the ministers of justice of all EU countries who, at the conclusion of their meeting in June 2011 in Prague, invited all Member States to find appropriate ways to annually commemorate the 23 August Day of Remembrance. From that year on, ministers of justice of ex-communist states have hosted various events on that date in the following cities: Warsaw (2011), Budapest (2012), Vilnius (2013), Riga (2014), Tallinn (2015), Bratislava (2016), and, again, Tallinn (2017). These Days of Remembrance were normally attended by medium- rank officials of all EU Member States, as well as by a small number of ministers of justice of, almost exclusively, CEE countries.
These events were regarded rather indifferently by citizens in most parts of Europe and the world, with the exception of those of the CEE countries hosting the annual events. This uneventful routine was disrupted in August 2017, when Stavros Kontonis, Greece’s Minister of Justice, turned down the invitation of his Estonian counterpart, Urmas Reinsalu, to participate at a 23 August conference in Tallinn with the title ‘The Heritage in 21st-century Europe of the Crimes Committed by Communist Regimes’.2 He expressed this in a letter to Reinsalu on 18 August, in which he informed him that the Secretariat for Transparency and Human Rights of Greece’s Ministry of Justice would not participate in the event. Kontonis’s own presence in Tallinn was implicitly excluded without being mentioned in the letter.
The Greek minister’s letter, which received wide publicity in the Greek and Estonian press, and in other countries, did not go unanswered by Reinsalu who sent his response on 30 August in a letter much praised by conservative media, parties, and politicians in several countries, including Greece.3 This led to a second round of letters between the two ministers, with Kontonis’s sent on 5 September and Reinsalu’s response on 20 September. The editors of transform!’s 2018 yearbook have decided to publish the exchange as important historical documents of a clash in the interpretation of European history between two EU ministers, a right-wing conservative from Eastern Europe and a radical leftist from Southern Europe, who were also expressing the official positions of their countries on the Nazism-Communism equation. The editors have decided to publish an additional letter from Estonian MP Oudekki Loone, of the Centre Party whose leader, Juri Ratas, is the Prime Minister of the current Estonian coalition government. In her letter to Kontonis, Loone expresses her gratitude and respect for his decision to not participate; she regards the conference as a ‘shame’ and looks forward to a future in which ‘events like this are not organised anymore’.
The letters speak for themselves, and readers can draw their own conclusions about the issue in question. I would like, however, to make some personal remarks and comments on some points which I think reveal the huge and probably unbridgeable gap between the two contrasting views of the past, the present, and the future of Europe and the world.
Although Reinsalu announces that we should not deal with European history since this is the task of historians, his letters contradict this, as he does employ arguments typical of mainstream European historical revisionism, reinforced by the strong Baltic anti-communism which in part derives from his country’s and the region’s historical experience. It has been proven, he says, that not only Stalinism, but ‘communist ideology’ (my italics) as such is incompatible with the basic European values and virtues of human rights, ‘freedom, democracy, and the rule of law’. ‘In this regard there is no difference between Nazism, Fascism, or Communism’, being also a totalitarian regime responsible for ‘crimes against humanity, as has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights’. Confident of the ignorance of his counterpart in terms of the ex-USSR, the Estonian minister informs him that: ‘It may come as a surprise to you that at that time, private property – one of the self-evident foundations of the European economy – was forbidden in the Soviet Union. And free enterprise was a crime.’
Kontonis, for his part, explains that the reason for non-participation in the conference is that its title and content send a wrong and dangerous message to the peoples of Europe in reviving the disastrous Cold War climate, in a period in which the power of the extreme right is growing in many countries of our continent. He strongly rejects the Communism-Nazism equation on the grounds that history cannot be falsified and that the record shows that the Red Army, the army of USSR, was ‘the liberator of Europe and the Nazi concentration camps and the decisive force that put an end to the horror of the Holocaust’. While Nazism has only one horrible face, historical Communism gave birth to many ideological and political currents contrasting with Stalinism, a regime whose abhorrent crimes and repressive practices constitute a grotesque deformation of communism. The vision of one of these currents, Eurocommunism, is that of ‘a socialist social system based on multi-party democracy, political freedom, and self-management’.
Although, in their letters, the two ministers expressed the official position of their governments, the style and arguments used are related to their personality, culture, and ideology, in turn related to the history of their respective countries. Judging from their past and present activities, it is clear that we are looking at two types of politicians, with different personalities and different life stories.
Stavros Kontonis (single, born 1963 on the Greek island of Zakynthos) is a lawyer who has been involved in politics since his early youth. He was a member of the Greek Communist Youth ‘Rigas Fereos’, the Youth of the Communist Party of Greece-Interior (KKE Esoterikou), a small Eurocommunist party which arose in 1968 when the historic Communist Party of Greece (KKE) split into two organisations. In 1986, KKE Esoterikou itself split over the issue of whether or not to retain its communist identity and name, with the majority deciding to change the party’s name to Greek Left (EAR). The minority left the party and in 1987 founded the Communist Party of Greece Interior-Renewing Left (KKE Esoterikou- Ananeotiki Aristera), which in 1991 also changed its name to Renewing Communist Ecological Left (AKOA). Kontonis was active in these two parties, until AKOA decided in 2013 to dissolve itself and integrate into Syriza, of which Kontonis became and still is a member. His letters, not in very good English,4 are characterised by the Eurocommunist language of the 1970s and 80s, an innocent spontaneity and rather anarchic style while based on strong ideological arguments.
Urmas Reinsalu, according to data given in a Wikipedia article on him, which we are unable to corroborate, is twelve years younger than Kontonis (born in Tallinn, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Estonia, in 1975), is married and has two children; he is a lawyer and speaks English, Russian, German, and Finnish fluently. Since the age of 33 he has had a brilliant career as a specialist in public law in the Ministry of Justice, as advisor and then Director of the Office of the President of the Republic, Lennart Meri, and lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences. (Kontonis was of the same age when he started as a lawyer on the island of Zakynthos and he became a minister when he was 53).
In contrast to his Greek counterpart, who throughout almost all his life was an activist in generally small radical left political groups, Reinsalu was always connected to mainstream right-wing parties and for three years (2012-2015) was Chairman of the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union. In a 2015 interview given to an Estonian newspaper,5 he stated his intention to avoid implementation of a same-sex law. This contrasts with Kontonis’s support, along with all of Syriza’s MPs, of Greece’s similar law on same-sex civil partnership6 and his audacity, as a Minister of Justice, in introducing the law on the Legal Recognition of Gender Identity in parliament, which stoked the ire of the Orthodox Church and Golden Dawn, Greece’s Nazi party.
It is easy to see how charged the Estonian initiative is for Kontonis, considering that the antipathy between him and the Nazi Golden Dawn amounts to a genuine vendetta. Added to this is the fact that Reinsalu, in 2013 when he was Minister of Defence, had addressed the annual meeting in the city of Sinimäe of veterans of the Estonian Freedom Fighters Union, praising their sacrifice in defending the fatherland. The Freedom Fighters Union, although not coterminous with the Estonian Waffen-SS, and although the Waffen-SS had in part involved obligatory conscription, is understandably associated in the minds of progressives with the latter.
Reinsalu’s style is disciplined, internally logical, ostentatiously polite, and deftly patronising, diplomatic but essentially dismissive of his Greek counterpart. With his first letter he encloses a copy of the 2009 European Parliament resolution ‘for your reference’, as if Kontonis were ignorant of the resolution or unable to locate it, while he attaches to his second letter the Reports of the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, adding that ‘these books on your bookshelf will mark one or more of many steps on a friendly road to mutual understanding between our states and peoples’.
Alongside praise from their supporters, the ministers’ letters were also met with fierce criticism from political parties, politicians, and the media in their own countries. In addition to Loone’s letter to Kontonis supporting his decision to boycott the Tallinn conference, I have come across several articles in English published by Estonian websites and blogs sharing her view. In Greece, the right and centre-left parties, as well as much of the anti-Syriza media, strongly opposed non-participation in the event, accusing the government of a populist act that would isolate the country in Europe.7
Criticism of the government and Syriza also came from the Communist Party of Greece and other left parties, alliances, and political groups of the non-parliamentary left which, although they agreed with Greece’s non- participation, believed that the Ministry’s decision was intended to bolster the government’s fading left profile and to boost the morale of disappointed activists and Syriza supporters. Another criticism alleged the boycott was prompted by the government’s wish not to alienate Russia.8
I do not want to engage in what the French call a ‘procès d’intention’, that is, to judge the intentions of Kontonis and the Tsipras government in deciding not to participate in the event. However, judging from the Minister of Justice’s history, and the spontaneity and stubbornness that I personally know characterise him, I would not be surprised if the decision to boycott the conference was exclusively his own and that its adoption by the government came only after his first communication with Reinsalu.
Be that as it may, and aside from the question of intentions, boycotting the Tallinn event has erected a temporary obstacle to efforts at stigmatising the ‘communist desire’ of left activists and intimidating them from expressing it lest they be identified with the collapsed, undemocratic Soviet-type regimes. At the same time, it created a valuable official precedent in combating historical revisionism, which is gaining ground in Europe and tends to relativise and downplay the Nazi nightmare of the twentieth century. What is needed now is a counterattack to regain ideological hegemony.
Mr. Urmas Reinsalu
Minister of Justice
Republic of Estonia
Athens, 18 August 2017
Your initiative to organize, under Estonia’s Presidency of the Council of Ministers of the European Union, a conference titled ‘The Heritage in the 21st Century of the Crimes Committed by Communist Regimes’ quite reasonably raised questions for us.
Especially at a time when the founding values of the European Union are being openly challenged by the extreme right-wing movements and neo-Nazi parties spreading throughout Europe, the aforementioned initiative is a very unfortunate one.
In the end, history cannot be falsified, even if it may be written mainly by its victors or variously evaluated from different national viewpoints. Whatever these viewpoints may be, the historical record shows the USSR’s army as the liberator of Europe and the Nazi concentration camps and as the decisive force that put an end to the horror of the Holocaust.
In our consciousness, the National Socialist regime, the specific political system that had racism, hatred, intolerance, and mass murder at the core of its ideology, could never be equated with communism and the political ideology it represents, nor be equated with anything else, simply because humanity has not confronted anything else like Nazism – and we hope it will not have to do so in the future.
The horror we faced in Nazism had only one aspect, the abhorrent one we described above. Communism, on the contrary, gave birth to dozens of ideological currents, one of which was Eurocommunism, which emerged within a communist regime during the Prague Spring, with the goal of combining socialism with democracy and freedom. That current left its mark on the political thinking of all of Western Europe, providing a laboratory of theoretical work and promoting a culture of political dialogue.
We believe that the initiative to organise a conference with the proposed content and title sends a wrong and dangerous political signal, similar to those of the treaties following World War II, and revives the Cold War atmosphere that brought so much suffering to Europe. We believe that it is contrary to the EU’s values, and it certainly does not reflect the Greek Government’s and people’s view that Nazism and communism could ever be the two sides of an equation.
It is clear that the General Secretariat for Transparency and Human Rights of the Hellenic Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights will not attend the proposed conference.
Stavros N. Kontonis,
Minister of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights of the Hellenic Republic
Stavros N. Kontonis
Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights
Leof. Mesogeion 96
Athina 115 27, Greece
30 August 2017
I thank you for your letter in which you advised that you would not be attending the conference “The Heritage in 21st Century Europe of the Crimes Committed by Communist Regimes” on 23 August of this year. I regret that you made this decision but appreciate your taking the time to provide a thorough explanation for your choice. Allow me, however, not to agree with the arguments that you presented as reasons for declining this invitation.
I do not wish to descend into a debate on 20th century European history. This has been done and will continue to be done by historians, lawyers, social and political scientists and philosophers from many different countries. We are politicians, and our job is to protect values and virtues. Our values are human rights, democracy and the rule of law, to which I see no alternative. This is why I am opposed to any ideology or any political movement that negates these values or which treads upon them once it has assumed power. In this regard there is no difference between Nazism, Fascism or Communism. All of these ideologies claimed the right, in the name of their distorted visions for the future, to destroy entire nations and societal groups, and to declare others to be unworthy and unsuitable for a Utopian future, due to which such peoples and groups had to either be re- educated, forced to suffer in misery without hope for a better future, or banished to uninhabitable wastelands.
Condemnation of crimes against humanity must be particularly important for us as ministers of justice whose task it is to uphold law and justice. This is our duty, irrespective of the reasons these crimes were committed and regardless of who the victims of these crimes were. Every person, irrespective of his or her skin colour, national or ethnic origin, occupation or socio-economic status, has the right to live in dignity within the framework of a democratic state based on the rule of law. All dictatorships – be they Nazi, Fascist or Communist – have robbed millions of their own citizens but also citizens of conquered states and subjugated peoples of this right.
The fate of our two states in the 20th century has been different. In Estonia, you do not need to be a historian to know what happened in Greece during the Nazi occupation. To bring but one example: Louis de Bernieres’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has been translated into Estonian, and the film based on this book has been seen by thousands of my compatriots. Similarly, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was translated into Greek shortly after its publication in 1974. It may interest you to know that Solzhenitsyn completed this book in Estonia during a summer he spent as a guest on the farm of Arnold Susi, an Estonian whom he had met on that very archipelago of which he wrote. There, Solzhenitsyn was less visible to the eyes of the KGB than he would have been in Russia where he was well known. Arnold Susi had been sent to the Gulag simply because he had been a minister in the Government of the Republic of Estonia. The Communist Soviet Union had occupied Estonia, and being a government minister in the Republic of Estonia was a crime in the eyes of the Communist Secret Police. Minister Susi was condemned to the Gulag two months after the Soviet Union together with the Western allies had defeated Nazi Germany, and he would return home only 15 years later. He was one of the lucky ones. Dozens of his colleagues from all of the governments that held office in the Republic of Estonia were murdered in the Gulag or perished there due to famine, disease or inhuman living conditions.
It goes without saying that Solzhenitsyn’s book was banned in Estonia throughout the Soviet occupation.
Unlike Greece, Estonia has the experience of living under two occupations, under two totalitarian dictatorships. Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, then by Nazi Germany in 1941, and again when the Soviet occupation continued in 1944 through to August 1991. In light of the experience of my country and people, I strongly dispute your claim that Communism also had positive aspects. While it is true that the Soviet Union played an important role in defeating Nazi Germany, the Red Army did not liberate Eastern Europe so that the states and peoples that had been occupied by the Nazis could determine their own destinies. This did not happen in East Berlin, and this did not happen in Tallinn. The Greek Civil War ended in 1949. In that same year, the Communist regime deported nearly 2 percent of the population of Estonia only because they as individual farmers refused to go along with the Communist agricultural experiment and join a collective farm. This was in addition to the tens of thousands who had already been imprisoned in the Gulag prison camps or deported and exiled earlier. Thousands more would follow, taken into prison up to mid-1950.
While Stalin’s death allowed most of the survivors to return to their homeland, this did not mean that Communism had become humane. I am forty years old, and thus I completed basic education under the Soviet occupation. I know what I am talking about. It may come as a surprise to you that at that time, private property – one of the self-evident foundations of the European economy – was forbidden in the Soviet Union. And free enterprise was a crime.
I know what I am talking about when I say that it is not possible to build freedom, democracy and the rule of law on the foundation of Communist ideology. We all know that this has been attempted on all continents, with the exception of Australia. It has been attempted in various shades of red and under all kinds of nationalist slogans. This has always culminated in economic disaster and the gradual destruction of the rule of law. But there are also countries and peoples for whom the price of a lesson in Communism has been millions of human lives. This cannot be allowed to happen again.
In freedom and democracy, everyone has the right to their religious and ideological beliefs, but we must condemn all attempts or actions that incite others to destroy peoples or societal groups or to overthrow a legitimate regime by force. With regard to innocent victims, however, there is no need to differentiate. It makes no difference to a victim if he is murdered in the name of a better future for the Aryan race or because he belongs to a social class that has no place in a Communist society. We must remember all of the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships, as the European Parliament calls for in its resolution of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism. It was this resolution that served as the basis for the commemoration of the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes last week in Tallinn.
I herewith enclose a copy of the resolution of the European Parliament of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism for your reference.
[Minister of Justice]
European conscience and totalitarianism
European Parliament resolution of 2 April 2009 on European conscience and totalitarianism
From: Oudekki Loone [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 10:33 AM
Subject: from Estonia: thank you!
Dear minister Stavros Kontonis,
I wish to express my true gratitude and respect for your and Greece government’s decision not to participate in the repugnant conference titled “The Heritage in 21st Century Europe of the Crimes Committed by Communist Regimes” in Estonia. Your explanation was just perfect!
Unfortunately, these attempts to silently justify nazi regime and ideology are very much present in today’s Estonian politics. My own decision to celebrate 9th of May as a victory day for allied forces in WWII created an outrage amongst many journalists and politicians. But also it created a wave of support. Therefore, let me assure you, that Estonia is not of nazis, that here like anywhere else, nazis and their sympathisers are a minority. Your decision reminded true European values, and gave strength to everyone who is worried of rising cold war climate, to everyone who does not forget history and who know that socialism and freedom not only can be combined, but that socialism is essential to freedom.
This conference is a shame, but I am sure that there will be a future when events like this are not organised any more. You have just helped this future to arrive a little earlier.
Member of Estonian Parliament Riigikogu
Member of Defence Committee
Member of European Affairs Committee
Mr. Urmas Reinsalu
Minister of Justice
Republic of Estonia
Athens, 5 September 2017
Thank you for your letter of 30 August 2017, which I read with great interest. It concerns the conference that took place in your country on 23 August 2017 entitled ‘The Heritage in the 21st Century of the Crimes Committed by Communist Regimes’, in which the Greek Government, like many other European governments, decided not to participate. Despite your pertinent remark that it is not politicians who write history but scholars, such as historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, and others, your letter specifically refers to issues of 20th-century European history, quite correctly not claiming historical and political impartiality in political and ideological issues, and it is pervaded by a concrete perception of the past that is relevant to the experience of your country.
Furthermore, it is certainly true, as you say, that ministers of justice of countries governed by parliamentary democracies cannot express indifference towards the non-protection of human rights. Certainly they must not. When I recall, with real yet controlled passion, the history of the twentieth century, I can easily identify the overwhelmingly greatest danger to human liberty – fascism and Nazism, the historic dimension of a genocide and human calamity unmatched in its quality and extent, a unique human experience. If the entire democratic front had not won this battle during the Second World War we Europeans would be living today in complete terror under continuous Nazi occupation. We cannot deny that the decisive role in this fight for freedom was played by the army of the Soviet Union, a part of the allied antifascist forces. How then could we equate Nazism with the army and country that defeated Nazism? Would this not lead us to the conclusion that the result of the Second World War was meaningless, since it was merely a fight between two similar or identical totalitarianisms?
My view that Nazism and communism cannot be equated is shaped by historical readings, my political experience in the context of the Greek left, and the overall experience of my own country that never knew a Communist regime – authoritarian or otherwise – but only a devastating German Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944, three anti- communist dictatorships (in 1926, 1936-40, and 1967-74) as well as a tacitly anti-communist parliamentarianism after the Civil War when, in the name of persecuting communists, not only communists but also generally left-wing and politically centrist citizens were persecuted through imprisonment and exile, even torture, and were barred from jobs, at least in the public sector. As you will understand, the Greeks have also had their own experience in the twentieth century, which relates exclusively to extreme and thoroughly right-wing political power.
However, this does not mean that we approve of the occupation of the Baltic states by the Soviet army and what followed until 1990 or the persecution and violations of human rights that have occurred in your country or elsewhere in the name of the Stalinist version of communism. Nor do we approve of the unjustified prosecution, flouting orderly political processes, of ordinary people who were not true Nazi associates or ministers of occupation governments. Nor, of course, do we approve of the division of the world in 1945, as established at the Yalta Conference whose document was signed not only by Stalin but also by Churchill and Roosevelt. As I am sure you know, the left in Europe, and in particular the left of communist and Marxist origins, has never been monolithic or simply pro- Stalinist. On the contrary, I would point out, the revivalist Marxist and communist current and Eurocommunist currents – in Greece after 1968 in the form of the Communist Party of Greece-Interior and in Western Europe more generally – have always drawn careful distinctions and condemned the persecution, the liquidations, and the operation of prison camps and other violations of human rights perpetrated by the Stalinist regimes of so-called ‘real socialism’. These currents condemned the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in August 1968, the Jaruzelski dictatorship in Poland in 1981, the Katyn massacre, and more. This ideological wing has always condemned one-party states and supported a socialist social system based on multi-party democracy, political freedom, and self- management, which is radically different from Stalinist ‘communism’. Moreover, the left in which I have served and still serve regarded Stalinism as the greatest defamation of communism and thus the best recruiter for neoliberalism. Our left has long sustained that socialism needs to be built collectively by the workers, not by tanks. I understand that you do not agree structurally with this view, which corresponds to the ideological tendency to which I belong, but that, in my view, cannot legitimize the unfounded equation of Nazism and communism, an equation which, unfortunately, is also featured in the European Parliament Resolution of 2 April 2009 and the 2006-2007 Memorandum Against Communism.
This historical equation aims not only at blanketly denying the communist and socialist experience of the twentieth century but also the experience of the French Revolution itself, the historical matrix of the European Enlightenment. Should we also issue a condemnation of the ‘crimes of the French Revolution’ because it was associated with a Terror? Should Russia have remained a feudal, backward country, an easy trophy for the military ambitions of Germany’s Nazi state, in order to avoid what Hobsbawm called the ‘Age of Extremes’? Would it be better if there had not been a Civil War in the US, which did in fact involve serious property and other violations against white citizens in the southern United States, and to thus have not abolished the slavery of black Americans? Must we denounce Christianity because of the dark past of the Inquisition? I imagine that you would agree in answering no. Since our government could only answer all these questions in the negative we have decided simply not to participate in the conference you recently organized. I am sure you understand my reasoning.
In any case, the communist and Marxian socialist movement involved, organized, and mobilized workers, ordinary poor people, and the radical intelligentsia throughout the capitalist world on behalf of the ideals of egalitarian political democracy – with mass electoral support in the nineteenth century –, on behalf of the abolition of oppression and exploitation, the promotion of social justice, and the combining of freedom with social equality. All of this, despite its failures, its oppressive and bureaucratic distortions and degeneration in some countries that attempted to implement these ideals, can never be equated with a movement and a political power that from its beginnings professed the inequality of tribes and nations, extreme militarism and nationalism, extreme exploitation at the expense of other peoples, support for the occupying classes and groups, patriarchy and absolute racism, and the crushing of the workers’ movements in Europe. The imprisonment, displacement, and massacre of Jews, communists and socialists, democrats, people of different sexual orientation, as well as the transformation of Eastern Europe, including the Soviet republics, Poland, and the Baltic states themselves, into a system of slave regimes serving a German racial aristocracy – all this has been fully described by historians for decades now. Just as it is true that the purges and other acts of persecution perpetrated by the Stalinist states are abhorrent, this takes nothing away from the fact that the movement that had originally given birth to these states improved the lives of Western workers for decades, and so the movement itself can never be equated historically with the macabre orgy of Nazism, either politically, philosophically, or historically.
Returning now to the initial parameters of our debate, I sincerely and cordially hope that as democratic polities we agree on assigning the work of studying European history – with the exception of the unambiguous issue of Nazi-fascism – to historians who can facilitate political parties and social organizations to stimulate debate among an informed and active citizenry. The other path leads to scenarios not only of potential criminalization of political action, especially of the left but even more of the potential to distort history. Since you come from a country that experienced an authoritarian version of ‘socialism’ you can easily remember how photographs and portraits were changed or altered after every change of party leadership. Let us not attempt to replicate this in the year 2017. It is clear that we disagree over your equation of ideologies and policies, but I hope we will continue a constructive dialogue – which is what our common European culture demands – without demonization.
Stavros N. Kontonis
Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights
Leof. Mesogeion 96
Athina 115 27, Greece
Thank you for your long letter in which you provide an extensive explanation of the intellectual and ideological bases of Greek and European left-wing political parties, as well as the reasons why you have respect for the Soviet Union despite the crimes committed during Stalin’s rule. I will nevertheless stress that on August 23, throughout Europe, we commemorate the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Above all, we commemorate the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. For an innocent victim, it makes no difference whether he was murdered by a Nazi, Fascist or Communist regime. Communist regimes were equally guilty of committing crimes against humanity, as has been recognised by the European Court of Human Rights in reference to a number of judgments made by the domestic courts of Council of Europe member states. I also dare say that establishing democracy and the rule of law in the countries that fell under the influence of the Soviet Union in 1945 and remained within its sphere of influence until the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not one of the objectives of the Soviet Union when it destroyed Nazi Germany. History has demonstrated this to us, and the Soviet Union itself also never became a democracy or a state based on the rule of law.
Thus – the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally to the democratic Western states in defeating Nazi Germany does not justify the crimes against humanity committed by the Soviet Union on the territories that it occupied. This in no way renders these crimes against humanity any different or more pardonable than the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and their allies. The agreements reached in 1945 between the President of the United States, the British Prime Minister and the leader of the Soviet Union were a compromise to allow for the defeat of their common enemies. The right of small states to independence, freedom and democracy was but one of many arguments made upon achieving this compromise, and most certainly not the weightiest. Yet the importance of this compromise in world history cannot compel these small states to simply accept the loss of freedom, human rights and the rule of law that lasted for several generations at the hands of the totalitarian Soviet Union – created and lead by the Communist Party.
When we remember the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes on August 23 we are not equating these regimes, as they were all quite different and had rather different objectives. Yet we must nevertheless admit that the results of the Nazi and Communist totalitarian dictatorships were largely one and the same: the mass murder of innocent civilians based on their ethnic identity or social class, the deportation of entire nations and social groups, and the destruction of entire states. By remembering the victims, we honour their human dignity, and give a clear message about our values and of our readiness to stand up and defend them.
In 1998, Lennart Meri, President of the Republic of Estonia from 1992-2001, established the Estonian International Commission for Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity, composed of distinguished academics and former politicians. None of the members were Estonian citizens. The Commission was active for ten years and published three reports on crimes against humanity committed against Estonian citizens or on the territory of the Republic of Estonia during and after the Second World War. I am herewith sending you these reports together with the research on which they are based, as a gift. President Meri and the members of the Commission were adamant that the reports had to be compiled and published in English, so that people who are not fluent in our small and rather complicated language could also discuss and debate Estonia’s past. As you can see, Estonia has made great efforts to come to terms with the legacy of its recent history, but has done so without reference to any national memory politics, which often are no more than an official version of history established under the supervision of some governmental authority. We became all too familiar with such official versions under the Soviet occupation, and learned to fear them. Which is why we asked for the opinion of esteemed foreign experts, who took the time to become well versed in Estonian history.
It is my sincere hope that these books on your bookshelf will mark one or more of many steps on a friendly road to mutual understanding between our states and peoples.
[Minister of Justice]