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The Holocaust Lessons

Active cooperation with Germany in “the final solution of the Jewish problem” puts a shadow on the history of many Eastern European nations. Dealing with this dark card is very difficult, mainly because of its inextricable connection with the problem of the Soviet occupation.

November 5, 2013 - Marek Wojnar - Articles and Commentary



This, in turn, brings about the fear of belittling the suffering of the Eastern European nations.

Without a doubt, the Baltic states and western Ukraine are not the only areas where, in the second half of 1941, the first wave of mass murders of the Jewish people took place. They are, however, the only areas where members of local communities, mainly inspired by the Germans, or at their own will, took part in these crimes on a large scale.

And yet mistakes should not be made: the sources of this violence are not inborn anti-Semitism of the Baltic nations, nor an Ukrainian tendency for cruelty. To understand the surge of Nazi collaborators among these nations we need to realise the loss they experienced under the Soviet occupation. June 14th 1941. Just on this one day tens of thousands of people from the Baltic states were exiled to the Soviet Union. The trauma of this experience explains why this year became the “year of fear” for both Latvians and Estonians. It also explains why, in the summer of 1941, these very same nations welcomed Germans with flowers.

It was the experience of this fear that pushed some members of these nations into believing in the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy theory. And it was also the experience of this fear which explains why it was in these countries that the local population joined the German police battalions and Waffen SS legions. In addition, experience of this fear explains why the return of the Soviets in 1944 was not seen by these nations as a sign of liberation. And rightly so – as again they could see the setting off of the cattle wagons, and the NKVD bacchanalia began once again. And one more time, their local elites were faced with a dilemma: emigration or deportation (possibly a shot in the head).

The experience of the Soviet occupation has influenced, to the greatest extent, the way in which Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians perceive their history. Seemingly, it has also influenced the memory of their own participation in the Holocaust, especially with regard to one key question: how to write history in such a way as to make the crimes against Jewish people not obstruct the memory of the real tragedy of their own nations. A very difficult question, indeed. And a question which has not been yet answered by all of the above-mentioned nations.

A myth of an unequal victim

In Estonia, the scale of the Holocaust was evidently much smaller than in the other Baltic states or Ukraine. Germans, together with local Estonian collaborators quickly “solved” the Jewish problem which allowed Estonia to be called Judenfrei as early as December 1941. There were no ghettos in Estonia, hence the Jewish community (small in numbers) was perishing far away from the Estonian society. At the same time, Estonians enjoyed a relatively large autonomy from the Germans, mainly because of the similarity of their racial features. This racial connection was also the reason why some Estonian communities were so eager to get engaged in local self-defence divisions (Omakaitse), police battalions, and – finally – the Waffen SS units. The latter, known for their role in defending Estonia’s eastern border from the Red Army in 1944, entered the heroic narration of Estonia’s history.

All of this explains why Estonia, when compared to the other states in the region, is less willing to confront the dark pages of its own history. However, it wouldn’t be true if we said that it has completely ignored the problem; since 2003 Estonia has been celebrating the International Day of Holocaust Victims, the official presidential commission of historians admitted that the Estonian Legion and local police battalions participated in the murders of Jewish people, while Estonian politicians make occasional gestures to commemorate the memory of the murdered Jews. Nonetheless, this does not mean that there is a widespread social acceptance in Estonia that the Holocaust is a part of the country’s history. Unlike Lithuania and Latvia, Estonia has not yet worked out broad educational programmes on this topic that would be implemented by its government. Nor, at the national level, have any laws been passed directly condemning the Shoah.

Taking into account the general atmosphere and the fact that there is no law in Estonia on Holocaust denial, it isn’t surprising that there have been nationalistic publications in Estonia denying the crime against the Jewish people. Their target has primarily been aimed at two dissidents: Yuri Lina and Tiit Madisson.

Various examples show that this lack of sensitivity towards the Jewish issue is still on the increase. Consider: in September 2011, the Estonian Historical Museum organised a special exhibition devoted to a “distinguished resident” of Tallinn – Alfred Rozenberg, while a year later, Estonian magazine Eesti Express placed an advertisement for diet pills with a recommendation to use the experiences of Buchenwald prisoners. Almost at the same time, a different Estonian company, Gas Term, placed an advertisement for its services in which it used the gate at Auschwitz with its infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

All these events indicate a serious problem. A problem which is not limited to Estonian anti-Semitism (which is rather its result) but rather to a dominant historical narration. And this narration is based on three assumptions. First it reveals an absolute conviction of the innocence of the Estonian nation. Second, it puts a heroic areola around the ambiguous history of the 20th division of Waffen SS. Third, it shows an unusual (in the European or even global scale) belief that the communist regime was worse than Nazism. All those assumptions make it difficult, or even impossible, to talk about the dark cards in Estonia’s history. This is why, unless something is changed, Estonia will remain a strange country which combines incredible economic success with serious identity problems.

The Holocaust in Ukraine’s internal memory

As opposed to Estonia, Ukraine did not pass the ”Holocaust test” mainly because this painful issue has been placed in Ukraine’s internal memory conflict. When we look at the events that took place in the second half of 1941 we clearly see that the participation of the Ukrainian people in the Holocaust was limited to the region of Eastern Galicia, that is the very same territory which before the Second World War was the main centre of Ukrainian nationalism and later found itself in the hands of the Red Commissioners. The threat of repressions and exile was directed at everybody: Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. And yet in Galicia there was something, some sort of potential, which allowed the Germans to effectively use anti-Semitic slogans. In all probability, the ground was also set up by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists which was the main political force in the region, and which did not distance itself from the Nazis’ plans for a “New Europe”.

On June 30th 1941, battalion “Nachtigal”, led by the future commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Roman Shukhevych, entered Lviv as the first German unit. Soon, there was an explosion of pogroms against Jewish people. Until today, the role of this unit has remained a topic of many disputes among historians. The anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic atmosphere allowed Germans to form over a dozen Ukrainian police battalions which took part in different actions directed against the Jewish people. In March 1943 their members deserted to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

Today, these facts are often brought up in a discussion, however not because Ukraine has managed to hold its own history accountable. They are used more as an argument which the supporters of the post-Soviet vision of history use in a debate with those who glorify the anti-Soviet fights of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in western parts of the country. The latter, in turn, are trying to refute them and belittle them to defend their own historical myths.

During Viktor Yushchenko’s rule, when the process of rehabilitating the Ukrainian Insurgent Army took place, that second group had an advantage. The act of awarding Stephan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych with the title “Hero of Ukraine” clearly coincided with the memory of the Holocaust. And while, indeed, building Ukrainian martyrdom around the Holodomor did not contradict it, the introduction to the discourse of a clearly overestimated number (seven million) of Stalin’s victims certainly led to the diminishing of the meaning of the Shoah.

Examples of covering up the participation of Ukrainians in anti-Jewish activity during Yushchenko’s rule can be seen in the activity of the Archives of the Security Service of Ukraine. This institution, led by a controversial historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, published, in 2008, a document titled The Book of Facts, which was meant to confirm the lack of involvement of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in Lviv’s pogroms. Critics of Ukrainian nationalism, Per Anders Rudding and John Paul Himka, called the material false.

If the Yushchenko camp belittled the importance of the Holocaust (by lifting up the importance of Ukrainian victims) and neglected the role of Ukrainians in the Shoah, the actions of Viktor Yanukovych have been very different. For instance, as a result of the attempts undertaken by the presidential administration, a meeting was held between Yanukovych and the vice prime minister of Israel Avidgor Libermann during the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the series of massacres carried out by the Nazis in the Babi Yar ravine. These gestures, however, are not necessarily a result of the current government’s empathy towards the Holocaust issue. They only reflect Ukraine’s internal conflict over history. Unless there is some reconciliation in the Ukrainian-Ukrainian conflict, it will be difficult to talk about the possibility of reconciling the Ukrainian narration with a Polish or Jewish narration.

Consensus building

Latvia and Lithuania, unlike Estonia or Ukraine, have undertaken an attempt to deal with their nations’ participation in the Holocaust. Without a doubt, this decision of their governments was influenced by the tragic aspect of the extermination of Jewish people in these two countries. The case of Lithuania is especially painful with the infamous record of as many as 95 per cent of Jews murdered there, the overall number reaching 195,000 people. In Latvia, this percentage was noticeably smaller and the number of those murdered was 61,000. These numbers are incomparably higher than in the case of Estonia.

What distinguishes Lithuania and Latvia from Ukraine, is a clear perspective of European integration which forced their governments towards certain activities, also in the sphere of memory. As early as 1990 both Lithuania and Latvia passed laws condemning the Holocaust and admitted their participation of their own nations in the Shoah. Apologies for participating in the murder were expressed by both presidents Vytautas Landsbergis and Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. Both states also introduced broad education programmes devoted to the memory of the Holocaust. In Lithuania the Catholic Church played an active role in this process. The tragedy of the Jews is also seen in the symbolic sphere. The best example are memorials in Kovno and Paneriai in Lithuania, and Rumbula and the Bikernieki Forest in Latvia. Even at the Riga-based Museum of the Occupation of Latvia devoted, primarily, to Latvian martyrdom, visitors can learn many important things about the Shoah which took place in Latvia, and the participation of local collaborators in it.

This does not mean that Latvia and Lithuania do not have their own problems with memory of the Holocaust. The most controversial issue is the attempts to reconcile the national narration with its positive interpretation of some political organisations and military formations which were indirectly involved in the Shoah with the memory of those murdered. In Latvia, this is directly linked to the problem of how to commemorate the activities of the Latvian Waffen SS Legion. This unit, while fighting in 1944 on the eastern front against the Red Army, did not directly take part in the Holocaust. And yet, its rank and file, which is difficult to deny, also included, next to the drafted Latvians, members of the police battalions who had participated in the genocide. This problem may not be resolved any time soon, although it is also not seen as being particularly stiff. This is because in Latvia, as opposed to Estonia, soldiers who fought under the German flag are most often regarded as war victims and not heroes of the anti-Bolshevik crusade.

In Lithuania, the problem of participation in the Shoah is related to the problem of how to commemorate the memory of the members of the Lithuanian Activists Front, an organisation which, in collaboration with Nazi Germany, was trying to rebuild the Lithuanian state in June 1941. The Lithuanian authorities do not take a clear position on this issue. The conflict in regards to this issue is softened by the fact that the meaning of this episode for the Lithuanian memory is much smaller than for example that of the anti-communist guerrilla.

These are not the only controversial issues. There has been much controversy around the theory which assumes a symmetry between the Nazi and the Soviet crimes and which has been accepted in Lithuania and Latvia. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has on many occasions pointed to the insufficient speed at which Nazi criminals have been hunted down in the Baltic states. Why analysing these accusations, it is worth remembering that the Jewish communities also have their own narration about the past. In many aspects it is similar to the Russian memory. Hence, it should not be surprising that the countries which experienced the Soviet occupation do not want to accept some of its elements. This should not be surprising to us and we should remain careful in our judgements.

Traits of memory

The experiences of Eastern European nations handling the memory of the Holocaust shows that an uncompromised attempt to defend heroic narrations about the nation’s own past may hinder a discussion on difficult moments in their history. In the case of Estonia, we notice this in the examples of conflicts with the memory of other nations. In Ukraine it is placed in the conflict of two discourses (both unwilling to review their own position) in the framework of one state. A redefinition of these narrations would have to be based, on the one hand, on respect for the nations’ own symbols, and an attempt to open to the memory of other communities, on the other hand. An answer to the question as how to achieve it is certainly not easy. Perhaps a certain hint can be found in Latvia (Lithuania’s relative success is a result of avoiding a difficult topic by focusing on the history of anti-communist guerrillas). In a film, made in 2000, with a support of the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, titled The Latvian Legion, one of the veterans of this military unit while assessing representative of his nation fighting in the Waffen SS and the Red Army said: “We had no heroes, we were all (underlined M.W.) victims.” And it is this kind of humanistic perspective which puts the individual tragedy of a human being higher than the abstract fight of a nation (although the latter does not exclude patriotic behaviour) seems to be the path towards breaking of the vicious circle of heroic and martyrdom-based narrations. Only in this way will we be able to honour the graves of those murdered by the SS and NKVD and only in this way will we understand the fate of those who fought on different sides of the front. And only in this way will we understand that, in truth, Eastern Europe did not have heroes and that we were all victims.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Marek Wojnar is a PhD student at the Institute of History of the Jagiellonian University. He is a recipient of the Foundation for Polish Science grant within the project led by Professor Andrzej Nowak called “Histories and memories of empires in Eastern Europe – comparative studies”. 

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