“Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in “1984,” quoting a party slogan in that book. “Who controls the present controls the past,” he added.
The resolution adopted by the European Parliament on September 19 has an Orwellian ring to it. It is called “The importance of European memory for the future of Europe.” Not everything in this resolution is bad. It deals with the importance of remembering the crimes committed in World War II, and not only for the sake of honoring the memory of the victims and punishing the executioners.
Remembering, according to this resolution, bolsters democracy, the rule of law and the defense of human rights, which enable the European Union to prevent a repetition of past crimes.
This is definitely a worthy objective, but the lofty words conceal a dangerous view, expressed in the historical tale they tell. “The Second World War, the most destructive war in European history,” it says, “began as an immediate result of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed on August 23, 1939.”
This declaration is not problematic because of its falsity but because it’s not the whole truth. It’s true that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact let Hitler move forward without worrying about a second front, but the Germans had planned the war much earlier, before this pact was signed.
Other contributing factors are not mentioned at all in the resolution, including the problem of the Treaty of Versailles, the Munich pact and the support of the Fuhrer’s allies such as Italy, Spain, Japan and the tycoons who benefited from his rule.
According to the European legislators, the war was not the result of German aggression, but of Nazi-Communist aggression. The emphasis this resolution places on Stalin, while ignoring figures such as Franco and Mussolini, raises the suspicion that the European Union’s alternative history takes the present status of Russia, Italy and Spain into consideration more than it does the historical truth.
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The interpretation given to the manner in which the war ended is even sketchier. With all the justified criticism of Stalin’s crimes, one must remember that it was Russian troops who defeated the Nazis in Europe (obviously with the help of the other allies). Auschwitz was not liberated by humanist pacifists, but by armed soldiers fighting under the red flag.
The resolution adopted by the European Union repeatedly cites different variations of the words “Nazis, Communists and other totalitarian regimes.”
Placing communism on an equal footing with Nazism is a historical distortion which ignores the bravery of those who fought the Nazis. Even if one ignores the courage of the Red Army because of its role in maintaining the Soviet dictatorship, the ranks of fighters against the Nazis included loyal communists and socialists such as the Yugoslav partisans, the Polish communist Armia Ludowa partisans and many members of the French Resistance and Jewish fighters in the ghettos. Were these also responsible for the war and its crimes?
These crimes are the biggest problem with this resolution. “The Nazi and Communist regimes committed mass murders, genocide and deportations, leading to a loss of life and liberty on a scale that was unprecedented in human history,” says clause 3 of the resolution.
This statement is not wrong, but the conflation of atrocities creates a distorted picture. The European legislators do acknowledge the Holocaust suffered by European Jewry and condemn its denial, but overall, their resolution gives the impression that the crimes of the Nazis and “the crimes of Communist and other regimes” are equally heinous. Evil has its gradations, and blurring these makes it harder to combat it.
When corrupt people try to evade justice, they argue that everybody is corrupt. Similarly, painting Nazis and communists with the same brush denies the significance of the Holocaust in human history.
The Baltic states are particularly interesting in this context. They’ve been supporting such resolutions for years, to downplay their complicity in Nazi crimes by creating a false picture in which their fate under the Russian occupation was the same as the fate of the Jews.
This is why the resolution promotes practical steps such as establishing days of commemoration, the removal of offensive monuments and the determination of material included in the curriculum of European Union schools.
This is historical revisionism, which highlights the words of Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a leading Holocaust historian, published in these pages and elsewhere. Bauer said that the Holocaust was unique not because it couldn’t happen again, but because it was an attempt to totally annihilate an entire people, which was persecuted across the globe in the name of a racist and murderous ideology, with no underlying pragmatic reasons for doing so.
This distinction does not make it easier for the victims of Stalinism, but it’s required for combating genocide now and in the future, a struggle which requires an understanding of the mechanisms that enabled the murderousness and of the mechanisms that helped fight it.
These will never be understood if all aspects of human evil are lumped together, with no ability to distinguish between the different components.
Many supporters of this resolution in the European Union are not anti-Semitic or revisionists.
They are motivated by considerations that are connected to the confrontation with Russia, to promoting European integration and to contending with racist and isolationist trends across the continent. But even when intentions are good, the practicalities can be sloppy.
European leaders would do well to base their policy on a moral conception and on well-established facts, rather than on distorting history. Instead of Orwellian attempts to change the past, let them focus on amending the present and shaping the future.