• The Dangerous Conservative Totalitarianism Discourse in the EU

  • By Thilo Janssen | 06 Mar 18 | Posted under: Revisionism , History
  • For the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution conservative parties of the EU organised a whole series of events dealing with the heritage of communist regimes. The Estonian Presidency of the EU issued invitations to an August 2017 conference titled ‘The Legacy of the Crimes of Communist Regimes in 21st-Century Europe’. It was organised by the conservative Estonian Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu of the party Pro-Patria- and Res-Publica Union, which is a member of the European Popular Party (EPP), the conservative grouping in the European Parliament. The conference was embedded in the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Communist and Nazi Regimes,1 the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939, which is celebrated almost exclusively in Eastern European countries. In the November session of the European Parliament, the EPP placed a parliamentary debate on ‘The Legacy of the Totalitarian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917’ on the agenda.

    That the concept ‘totalitarianism’ has been applied to the 1917 Revolution and a conference organised on the centenary in the context of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact is part of a right-wing conservative history policy. The Hitler-Stalin Pact is the key event for this totalitarianism discourse of the conservative and extreme right: it is presented as the natural alliance of two totalitarian twin regimes, which is supposed to explain the dislocations of twentieth-century Europe. The totalitarianism concept used by the right and the conservatives is essentially aimed at representing Hitler’s National Socialism and communism as two sides of the same coin and historically ‘equal’. To understand this programme, the dynamics of the underlying discourse, and the democratic challenges it involves we need first to look at the historical background and the most important political developments and protagonists at the EU level.

    Historical background – Europe after the Hitler-Stalin Pact

    On 23 August 1939 the Foreign Ministers of Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with a secret additional protocol that assigned spheres of interest to both states. After the German attack on Poland on 1 September 1939 the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, Finland, parts of Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. From September 1939 to June 1941 the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) deported tens of thousands of people from these areas. Many were also murdered. The 1940 massacre of Katyn, in which almost 22,000 Polish officers (and others) were shot, is one of the best-known atrocities. Already previously, Stalin had cracked down on his own population. The collectivisation policy of the early 1930s caused the death by famine of an estimated five million people plus, three million of which were in the Soviet Ukraine. During the Great Terror of 1936 to 1938 hundreds of thousands of people were murdered as enemies of the state. Millions of people suffered and died in Soviet forced labour camps of the Gulag, which were only dismantled with the gradual de-Stalinisation after 1956.

    On 22 June 1941 National Socialist Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht quickly occupied the Baltic states and those areas of Poland which a year before had been annexed by the Soviet Union. The anti- Semitic legend of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ now became the framework in which the German occupiers proceeded to annihilate the Jews of the conquered areas. In this they were aided by native volunteers and collaborators, among them the Lithuanian Activist Front, which came back with the Wehrmacht from its German exile, or the Latvian Arājs Commando. The latter not only actively participated in the murder of Baltic Jews but was also later deployed in the murder of Jews deported from Austria and Germany or in the liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto and the murder of its inhabitants. After the turning point in the German war of extermination against the Soviet Union many former Holocaust collaborators fought in units of the Waffen- SS side by side with the Wehrmacht against the advancing Soviet army. At the same time, the Soviet army was the only hope of survival for the few Jews who were able to remain hidden from the Germans and their local helpers.

    After their reconquest by the Soviet Union the Baltic states were permanently incorporated into the Soviet Union. After Stalin’s death the Baltic states remained annexed and only regained their independence in 1991.

    In terms of the way it arose, its goals, and its range, the Holocaust is understood to be a sui generis violation of human rights. The goal of the Holocaust as the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ was the industrial annihilation of the entire Jewish population of Europe. By the end of the Second World War, six million Jews had been murdered by the Germans and by volunteers and collaborators under German command, first through bullets and then in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. On 29 January 1945, the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz as the last working site of the industrial liquidation of Europe’s Jews. The National Socialists wanted to exterminate the Jews as a people because specific characteristics were ascribed to them as a ‘race’. It was as the imagined global enemy of Germany – not as a mere local impediment that needed to be removed – that they were to be physically eliminated. It was Hitler’s aim to re-order the whole world in terms of race by means of still further unimaginable genocidal mass murder.2

    The totalitarianism narrative at the EU level since 2008

    The double occupation of the Baltic and parts of Eastern Europe, first by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany, is the historical background and point of departure for the totalitarianism discourse that the right- wing and conservative parties are trying to anchor as obligatory historical commemoration in history books, museums, and political discourse of the EU.

    The first step in the Europeanisation of this narrative was taken on 3 June 2008 with the so-called Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.3 According to the Prague Declaration, there are ‘substantial similarities between Nazism and Communism in terms of their horrific and appalling character and their crimes against humanity’. There needs to be an introduction of a ‘principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination of victims of all the totalitarian regimes’ and the establishment of the 23 August as ‘the day of signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on January 27th’. Among the signatories were former Czech president Václav Havel and the former director of Germany’s Federal Commission for Stasi Documents, Joachim Gauck, along with numerous representatives from Eastern European and Baltic states.

    On 2 April 2009, a majority in the European Parliament accepted a joint motion for a resolution ‘on European Conscience and Totalitarianism’ based on the Prague Declaration, introduced by the EPP parliamentary group, the Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN), the liberalist ALDE, and the Greens. Borrowing from the Prague Declaration, the text called for the establishment of ‘23 August as a Europe-wide Day of Remembrance for the victims of all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes’. The resolution also calls for ‘the establishment of a Platform of European Memory and Conscience to provide support for networking and cooperation among national research institutes specialising in the subject of totalitarian history, and for the creation of a pan-European documentation centre/memorial for the victims of all totalitarian regimes’.4

    For propagating the concept of totalitarianism on the European level an important body was founded on 6 October 2010: the Reconciliation of European Histories Group (REHG) in the European Parliament. This unofficial group consisted largely but not exclusively of Baltic and Eastern European members of the EPP group. Its chair was the Latvian EPP deputy Sandra Kalniete. The REHG has set forth its goals on its still existing website: 23 August is to become the ‘European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism’. It is important ‘to continue work on converging the views of all the Europe about the history of the 20th century’. The Iron Curtain had excluded ‘50 years of our true history from the European history’. The REHG strives ‘to develop a common approach regarding crimes of totalitarian regimes, inter alia totalitarian communist regime of the USSR, to ensure continuity of the process of evaluation of totalitarian crimes and equal treatment and non- discrimination of victims of all totalitarian regimes’.5 From 2010 to 2014 the REHG organised various conferences in the European Parliament. Some of them only addressed the crimes of state socialist regimes (for example, The Endured European Dream of Bulgaria: 1944-1989, on 17 November 2010),6 others the equating of the crimes committed under various state socialist regimes with the Holocaust. The official hearing, ‘What Do Young Europeans Know About Totalitarianisms?’ on 23 March 2011 began with a session entitled: ‘Holocaust, Gulag, Katyn, Goliotok ... – The Dark Side of Our History’. In the ‘Conclusions’ of the conference we read: ‘Double standards for the treatment of the victims of totalitarian regimes should not exist; such regimes should be evaluated on the same scale.’ For this there needs to be ‘adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks and curricula so that young generations could learn about totalitarian regimes’.7

    On 22 December 2010 the EU Commission took up the REHG’s history-policy initiative and published a report to the European Parliament and the Council on ‘the memory of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes in Europe’.8

    On 14 October 2011 in Prague, representatives of several scholarly institutes and monuments signed the founding declaration of a Platform of European Memory and Conscience in the presence of Donald Tusk, Viktor Orbán, and Petr Nečas. In its self-description, ‘The Platform of European Memory and Conscience brings together institutions and organisations from the V4 and other EU countries active in research, documentation, awareness raising and education about the totalitarian regimes which befell the Visegrád region in the 20th century’.9 On 7 June 2012 the REHG reported on its website that the Platform of European Memory and Conscience is working for the establishment of a ‘supranational court for international crimes committed by Communists’. Accordingly, on 5 June 2012 in the European Parliament it issued a call for a conference on the ‘Legal Settlement of Communist Crimes’.

    Further activities of the REGH in 2014 were directed at the prohibition of ‘totalitarian symbols’ in the European Parliament and all EU countries (‘in particular the swastika, red star as well as the hammer and sickle’) as well as the makeover of the exhibition at the House of European History in terms of the role of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Second World War.10

    The House of European History is a Brussels-based museum initiated by the European Parliament and its former president Hans-Gert Pöttering who was a member of the REHG. It opened in May 2017. The conservative programme of totalitarianism has at least partly shaped its exhibition on the twentieth century.11

    Criticism of the totalitarianism concept

    The implementation of this conservative history-policy programme at the EU level has encountered a great deal of criticism whose most important arguments are outlined in what follows.

    Perhaps the most prominent representative of the totalitarianism discourse within the conservative EPP is Sandra Kalniete who in 2005 published the book With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows about the Soviet deportation history of her Latvian family.12 She herself was born in the Gulag; her grandparents did not survive the Soviet forced labour camp. Kalniete’s book contributed to make the Soviet deportations and the suffering of tens of thousands of Latvians in 1941 and 1949 known throughout Europe. However, the book was also part of the public debate over the consequences for the politics of memory inherent in the conservative totalitarianism concept. The historian Michael Wolffsohn wrote in a review of Kalniete’s book that it contains ‘an almost provocative and unreconstructed whitewashing of Latvian collaboration with the German occupation in the Holocaust’.13 This is one of the most important points of departure in the criticism of the Prague Declaration, the commemoration of the Hitler-Stalin Pact on 23 August, and of the 2009 Resolution of the European Parliament.

    The Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel published a declaration on the occasion of the Prague Declaration in which it warned against equating communism and National Socialism to veil the participation of ‘thousands of local murderers’ in the Holocaust: ‘We appeal to the European Parliament to reject and discard the Prague Declaration and any and all similar proposals and declarations. These efforts represent attempts to cover up the Holocaust by imposition of an artificial equivalence and symmetry between the Nazi- Lithuanian genocide and the crimes committed by the Soviet Union.’14

    John Mann, Labour MP in Britain and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, characterised the approach of ‘equal evaluation of history’ as ‘just a traditional form of prejudice, rewritten in a modern context. In essence, it is trying to equate communism and Judaism as one conspiracy and rewrite history from a nationalist point of view’.15

    Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Jerusalem, who in his book Operation Last Chance16 concentrated on the flushing out of Eastern European and Baltic Nazi collaborators, criticised the political history project in an article headed: ‘A threat to Holocaust memory’, pointing to ‘the hidden motives behind the Prague Declaration’. If the goal were, Zuroff wrote,

    to merely gain official recognition for communist crimes and international empathy for its victims, both important and legitimate goals, we could support the Prague Declaration without any reservations. By seeking equivalency with Holocaust crimes, however, it becomes clear that among its primary motivations is to help the countries of Eastern Europe deny, relativize and/or minimize their sins of collaboration with the Nazis in Holocaust crimes and change their status and image from that of perpetrator nations to nations of victims.17

    At the OSCE Human Rights Conference in October 2009, Dr. Shimon Samuels, also of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, warned that this involved ‘a project to delete the Holocaust from European history’:

    State-sponsored Commissions (known informally as ‘red-brown committees’) seek to ‘equalize’ Nazi and Soviet crimes in addressing Western Europe, while at home, in each of these countries’ museums, a different tale is told: a bogus account of overwhelming Jewish complicity in Soviet rule, the glossing over of local participation in the killings, and increasingly efforts to tarnish Holocaust victims, survivors and resistance fighters with antisemitic stereotypes of ‘Jewish Bolshevik conspiracies’. The state-sponsored ‘Genocide Museum’ in central Vilnius, for example, has almost deleted the Holocaust while permanently exhibiting antisemitic materials. The State Museum of the Occupation in Riga iconizes the Latvian battalion of Nazi volunteer auxiliaries responsible for mass murder of their Jewish neighbours.18

    After long discussion, the Genocide Museum in Vilnius was renamed in 2017 and will now be called the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. The director of the Genocide Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, Teresė Birut Burauskaitė, explained that the name of the museum had not matched the content of the exhibition and that the deportations and massacres under Soviet domination cannot be equated to the Holocaust, which was exceptional: ‘[W]e cannot equal the threats faced by Lithuanians in Soviet-ruled Lithuania to the threats faced by Jews during the Nazi era.’19

    Roger Bordage, a French survivor of the German Sachsenhausen con- centration camp and former President of the International Sachsenhausen Committee, summed up the conflict in November 2011. It is obvious, he said, that ‘the millions of victims of Stalinist terror as well as victims of other state crimes have the same right to be commemorated as do victims of Na- tional Socialism. But, he warned:

    However, through the planned annual commemoration of the ‘victims of totalitarianism’ historical occurrences are being torn out of their contexts and causes and effects being mixed together. This kind of commemoration does not bring together the diverse memories of war and the rule of terror. Instead, it deepens antagonisms, opens up old wounds, and leads to new conflicts and confrontations.20

    For an open policy of memory that does justice to all victims of state violence and produces no new myths

    In historical scholarship the old concept of totalitarianism is considered outdated. As Salomon Korn puts it: ‘I cannot simply equate Communism with National Socialism or with the Killing Fields in Cambodia. These are different phenomena in different cultural milieus with different preconditions. They are all abhorrent crimes. However, I have to make the effort to find out the qualitative, historic, social, and ideological differences. This is demanded by historiographical integrity.’21Consequently, the concept of totalitarianism has given way to an empirical and comparative approach to research that does not arise as a political programme and that enables the elucidation both of similarities and fundamental differences between dictatorships and their crimes as well as their diverse socio-historical developments. In this way a public space is opened up for a differentiated examination of historical events and epochs in diverse geographical spaces – without the need to formulate an imperative commemoration policy. This permits a commemoration of victims of political violence that does not allow new myths to arise or bring back on the political stage old myths in new clothing. In this way it can be possible to individually commemorate all victims of state crimes in twentieth-century Europe.

    Dovid Katz, scholar of Yiddish language, literature, and culture in Lithuania, resumed the various motives behind the equating of German National Socialist and communist crimes in memory policy thus:

    The policy is being driven not only by ultra-nationalism (‘We have a perfect history’), antisemitism (‘the Jews were basically communists and got what they deserve’), and anti-Russianism (‘they are the same as Hitler’), but by a perceived set of current geopolitical concerns that should not (whether right or wrong) be converting history into a one- opinion discipline with the foregone conclusions being dictated by the state’s apparatchiks.22

    Modern anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism in all of its forms begins with the idealisation of the past. This can be seen in Hungary, which has been governed since 2010 by the party Fidesz, a member of the EPP. In April 2011 the constitution was changed to define Hungarians as an ethnic community.23 In the same year 23 August was introduced as a state day of remembrance. In summer 2017 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared an ally of Hitler, Miklós Horthy, to be an ‘outstanding statesman’, without entering into his role during the Holocaust.24 At about the same time the Fidesz government put up posters throughout Hungary representing the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros, who has Jewish origins, as a powerful conspirator who is threatening Hungary with a plan for the settlement of immigrants.25 The example of Hungary shows what political mechanisms are behind the totalitarianism discourse. In the context of a conservative nationalism the historical co-responsibility of Hungarian ‘national heroes’ for the Holocaust is suppressed. At the same time an anti- Semitically tinged friend-enemy policy is intended to secure votes.

    The modern left and coming to terms with authoritarian socialist regimes

    The twentieth century has left traces of violence in millions of European families, as victims, perpetrators – sometimes both at the same time. This is also, and especially, true for the political traditions and completely different paths of development of the various communist and post-communist parties in Europe, in the Soviet Union compared to Italy, in Romania compared to Spain. In the name of communist parties horrible and lethal violence was inflicted on millions of people in Eastern Europe, especially (but not only) in the Soviet Union during the Stalin period. At the same time many people became victims of violence as (actual or alleged) communists, not least in the dictatorships of Spain, Portugal, or Greece, which lasted well into the second half of the twentieth century. The remembrance of the resistance to Nazi Germany and the fascist dictatorships in Southern Europe occupies a firm place in the left’s politics of memory.

    The victims of the crimes committed under the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union, in Romania under Ceausescu, in 1956 in Budapest, or 1968 in Prague should also have a self-evident place in a living democratic culture of memory, also – and especially – in the modern, plural, and anti- authoritarian European left. This absolutely does not mean that historical phenomena and their background should be simply overlaid on each other, distorted, or even edited out.

    Unfortunately, there is historical revisionism even within the very broad spectrum of left and (post-)communist parties in the EU. When the German Member of the European Parliament Helmut Scholz – from the group of the United European Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – brought an exhibition on the Stalinist terror into the European Parliament, he contributed to bringing left memory policy out of the national context and into the European arena. The exhibition ‘I Came to Your Country as a Guest’ dealt with Hitler opponents and their families who had fled to the Soviet Union and became victims of the Stalinist terror there between 1933 and 1956. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) saw the exhibition as nothing but an anti-communist attack and slander of the Soviet Union.26 A half year later, after the 2014 European Parliament elections, the KKE left the GUE/NGL group.

    It is to be hoped that in the future the left, especially the left anchored in Western Europe, will deal more intensively with the twentieth-century history of Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Historical examination and the commemoration of the victims of authoritarian state-socialist regimes ought to be more systematically integrated into the anti-authoritarian self- conception of the European left.


    1. Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU, ‘European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Communist and Nazi Regimes takes place on 23 August’, Press release, 9 August 2017.
    2. See Richard Evans,The Third Reich in History and Memory, London: Little, Brown, 2015.
    3. The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, ‘Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism’ (03 June 2008).
    4. European Parliament, ‘Resolution P6_TA(2009)0213’ (02 April 2011).
    5. Reconciliation of European Histories Group,‘About us'.
    6. Reconciliation of European Histories Group, ‘The Endured European Dream of Bulgaria 1949-1989’ (17 November 2010).
    7. Reconciliation of European Histories Group, ‘Materials from the conference, held in the European Parliament, about education on totalitarianisms’ (05 April 2011).
    8. European Commission Brussels, 22 December 2010, COM(2010) 783 final, Report from the Commission to the European Parliament and to the Council.
    9. Platform of European Memory and Conscience, ‘About the platform’.
    10. Reconciliation of European Histories Group, https://eureconciliation.eu/.
    11. https://historia-europa.ep.eu/en/permanent-exhibition/europe-ruins.
    12. Sandra Kalniete, With Dance Shoes in Siberian Snows, Champaign IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
    13. Michael Wolffsohn, ‘Keine Gesellen, nirgends - Sandra Kalniete schreibt über das düstere Schicksal ihrer Familie und wäscht Lettland rein’, Die Welt, 16 April 2005.
    14. Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, ‘Declaration - Prague declaration – a distortion of truth’.
    15. John Mann, plenary address in the House of Commons, UK (31 August 2008), https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080131/debtext/80131-0010.htm.
    16. Efraim Zuroff, Operation Last Chance. One Man’s Quest to bring Nazi Criminals to Justice. New York: Macmillan Education, 2009.
    17. Efraim Zuroff, ‘Right of Reply: A threat to Holocaust memory’, Jerusalem Post, 27 August 2010.
    18. Simon Wiesenthal Center, ‘Bericht Dr Shimon Samuels, Wiesenthal Centre To OSCE Human Rights Conference – “Prague Declaration” is “A Project to Delete the Holocaust from European History”’ (5 October 2009), http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=lsKWLbPJLnF&b=4441467&ct=7548759.
    19. DELFI, ‘Lithuania to rename Museum of Genocide Victims after lengthy discussions’ (8 September 2017).
    20. Roger Bordage, ‘Opfer ist nicht gleich Opfer’, Jüdische Allgemeine, 28 November 2011.
    21. Jüdische Allgemeine Zeitung, Interview with Salomon Korn, ‘Aus Tätern dürfen keine Opfer werden’, 24 January 2008.
    22. Dovid Katz, ‘Why red is not brown in the Baltics’, The Guardian, 30 September 2010.
    23. The fundamental law of Hungary (25 April 2011).
    24. Keno Verseck, ‘Orbán wagt den Tabubruch - Würdigung für ungarischen Hitler- Verbündeten’, Spiegel online, 26 June 2017.
    25. Christian Böhme, Judith Langowski, ‘Kampagne gegen Soros in Ungarn – “Das erinnert an Europas dunkelste Stunden”’, Der Tagesspiegel, 13 July2017.
    26. Gregor Peter Schmitz, ‘Streit im EU-Parlament - Stalin spaltet Europas Linke’, Spiegel online, 5 December 2013.

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