John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic, eds., Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Post-Communist Europe

, December 20, 2016

John-Paul Himka and Joanna Beata Michlic, eds., Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Post-Communist Europe, Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2013, 778pp.

From the time of the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition to democracy, one of the most difficult political, moral and cultural challenges for the new democracies of Eastern Europe has been how to deal with their Holocaust past. This problem stems from several historical factors. Firstly, many in these countries played a uniquely lethal role as local helpers of the Nazis. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, this type of collaboration often included direct participation in mass murder. Secondly, the decades-old Soviet or Communist regimes refused to recognize Jewish peoplehood and the fact that the Nazis singled out the Jews, a primary ideological enemy of the Reich, for total annihilation. As the editors state in their excellent Introduction, in Communist discourse about World War II, “There was no room for public mourning and empathy for the dead Jews and the destroyed world of Eastern European civilization….” Although the Communist authorities prosecuted many of the Nazis’ local helpers, the issue of collaboration in the Holocaust never became part of their historical consciousness and social memory.

To complicate matters further, during the thirty years prior to the collapse of Communism in Europe, the Holocaust had become “the most potent, recognizable, and ubiquitous symbol of mass murder and genocide” throughout most of the Western world, and essentially served as a litmus test for the acceptance of Western (i.e., European Union) values. This development forced the new democracies of Eastern Europe to deal with the Holocaust from the beginning of their independence, since treating Shoah-related issues was regarded as a necessary step in forging good relations with Israel and the Jewish world, and therefore, critical for obtaining entry into the EU and NATO. Thus, with little time for preparation, the former Soviet republics and Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe suddenly found themselves facing the following six practical Holocaust-related problems: 1) acknowledgement of guilt and apologizing to Israel/the Jewish world; 2) commemoration of the victims; 3) prosecution of unpunished perpetrators; 4) documentation (new history books); 5) education (new textbooks); and, 6) restitution.

Bringing the Dark Past to Light is an ambitious effort to present a summary of how these issues are currently treated in all the new democracies of Eastern Europe that some 25 years ago gained their independence from Communist or Soviet rule, with the exception of Montenegro that became independent after this volume was published. (The book includes a substantial chapter on East Germany [DDR] as well.) In order to explain the relevant background, these articles also deal with the manner in which the previous Communist regimes dealt with the subject and thus provide an important overview of the issues since the end of World War II.

Since it is an anthology, not all the articles are of the same quality. The relative importance of the various articles depends to a large extent on the size of the local prewar Jewish community, and the wider impact, if any, of the country’s treatment of its Holocaust-related issues. Accordingly, the chapters on Poland (Joanna Beata Michlic and Malgorzata Melchior), Ukraine (John-Paul Himka), Belarus (Per Anders Rudling), Hungary (Paul Hanebrink and Catherine Portuges), Romania (Felicia Waldman and Mihai Chioveanu) and Russia (Klas-Goran Karlsson) are obviously of greater interest. The chapters on the Baltic nations: Estonia (Anton Weiss-Wendt); Latvia (Bella Zisere) and Lithuania (Saulius Suziedelis and Sarunas Liekis) deserve special attention as these countries play a major role in promoting the canard of equivalence between Communist and Nazi crimes. Likewise, Macedonia (Holly Case) and Moldova (Vladimir Solanari) must be studied since the history of the Holocaust is being manipulated as part of their contemporary political struggles.

Professor Omer Bartov in his illuminating conclusion summarizes the four major findings that emerge from the book. Firstly, the fall of Communism forced the nations of Eastern Europe to confront the Holocaust and the crimes of Communism, which hitherto had either been ignored or marginalized and which, upon the transition to democracy, began to compete with each other. Secondly, although the emergence from Communism has led to a new look at the past and to a reexamination of the historical record, these new perspectives remain strongly linked to issues of prewar nationalism, fascism and postwar Communist crimes. Their relative impact differs from country to country depending on their respective historical experience. Thirdly, the ensuing debates play different roles in the contemporary domestic and foreign policies of the various Eastern European countries, and the Holocaust is utilized in a variety of unpredictable and bewildering ways. Fourthly and finally, throughout the postwar period, Communist and post-Communist discourse on the Shoah has always been influenced by developments in the West.

Bringing the Dark Past to Light is an extremely valuable resource for those who wish to understand how the Holocaust is treated and how history remains a powerful force in shaping foreign and domestic policy in post-Communist Eastern Europe. It offers many examples of the manipulation of history and its impact upon numerous aspects of daily life. As Omer Bartov points out, “the dark past we wish to bring to light is not as dead, and not as past as all that; it is still an active agent in formulating people’s understanding of the past and hopes for the future.”

About Efraim Zuroff

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest books are Mūsiškiai; Kelionė Su Priešu [Our People; Journey With an Enemy], (Vilnius: Alma Littera, 2016); and Operation Last Chance; One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (New York: Macmillan, 2009).