Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Eastern Europe's Difficulty With Holocaust History

By Joanna Beata Michlic

The period 2010-17, has witnessed a swift turn to the right in politics and culture in post-communist Eastern Europe, accompanied by intensified attempts at assault on a critical history writing field about the Holocaust that has developed for the first time time in the region, in the aftermath of the political transformation of the late 1980s. In fact, at present we can talk about "a quiet, sinister war" launched against professional historians, institutions, and non- profit organizations that promote a nuanced image of a collective past revealing both glorious  and shameful pages of national history.

This prompts me to discuss resistance to the difficult past with regards to the treatment of Jewish communities in respective East European countries. I will draw on the experience of, and will refer to Eastern Europe as a whole. But, I am most informed by my research in and of Poland. I want to focus on the general patterns rather than on particular developments in order to stimulate our thinking on why it has been hard and is getting harder for East European societies to integrate the Holocaust into history writing and broader cultural curriculum, public memory, and historical education.

I will repeat some of the conclusions that John-Paul Himka and I made in our study of the memory of the Holocaust in post-communist Europe between 1989 and 2010, published as "Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Memory of the Holocaust in Postcommunist Europe," because they are still very much relevant to the understanding of the present. However, the last seven years saw, in Eastern Europe, a turn to the radical right in mainstream politics, and therefore a new study, a follow-up to our work, focusing on this most recent period, 2010-17, is urgently needed.

Today, the radical right in Eastern Europe can claim freshness because it has been marginalized since the defeat of fascism in 1945. A fierce challenge from the right today uses east Europe's consensus against everything associated with the left to legitimate its own maliciousness. And, the region is still characterized by a relative demographic homogeneity and deep fears of others.

The integration of the Holocaust into East European history and memory has proved to be one of the biggest challenges in the aftermath of the carnival of peaceful revolutions, of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Since the end of communism and the belated arrival of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, we have observed a number of serious and important attempts of digging out and incorporating the dark painful past in relation to the Holocaust into the respective national histories and public memories in the region. This process has been especially intense and profound in post- communist Poland, given the scope and the timeline of Polish public debates over two last decades and also about the thorny aspects of Polish-Jewish relations during and in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Today, all other Eastern European countries are still in need of their own reckoning about the war-time pogroms against Jewish fugitives in which members of the local populations were actively participating. The Jedwane pogrom of July 10, 1941, vividly analyzed by Jan Tomasz Gross in his 2001, slim monograph "Neighbours, The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland," symbolically stands for all the wrongdoings against Jewish community on the part of members of Polish collective under the German-occupation of Poland. However, the ongoing attempts of incorporating this difficult past into Polish and other twentieth century histories of the region, has been met with a powerful resistance to the former in a form of  "a quiet sinister, war" aimed at rewriting the history once again along the glorious and monumental model only.

And this resistance has been growing in strength in the last seven years, 2010-17, because of the dominance of right-wing conservatism, populism and ethno-nationalism in mainstream political culture that, in turn, encourages ethnic blood belonging and feeds on old, but skillfully modified and potent anti-Jewish tropes.

In the current political climate, also fed by the fear of refugees from the Middle East, we observe an intensified campaign that is defined by its chief disseminators as "a total war" against the archeology of the difficult past in relations to the Holocaust. The chief advocates of that "total war" claim that only their version of national history, namely, glorious and heroic history, protects "true" national interests, national traditions, and national identities.

That's "the only right history." These right-wing and ethnonationalistic advocates assert that their version of history including a skewed version of the Holocaust, has to be accepted not only in public memory, education, and history writing in their respective countries, but also by the West.

Suppression, omission, obfuscation, skillful manipulation of the difficult past with an emphasis on one's own suffering (of one's own ethnic collective) and aggressive attempts using a wide variety of social medias and new laws at silencing the difficult past are the key strategies of returning to or rather rewriting new terms of amnesia of the Holocaust.

What emerges today, in the spring of 2017, is that divisive and contradictory memories of the bloody 20th century, and earlier collective past, are fully utilized in the current politics and policies of memory in Eastern Europe. For that reason, the Holocaust memory might not become the foundation myth in the region for some time, or in the current political climate, not at all.

At this point in time, the key divisive memories between the West and the East, namely those of the crimes of Nazism and Communism are still pretty potent, and in fact they have been invigorated in the last seven years, thanks to the rise of militaristic, glorifying versions of the ethno-national histories of the Second World War in the region. We observe a mass fascination with reenactments of battles and with a variety of gadgets from the Second World War, often disseminating local fascist elements in the forms of symbols on T-shirts. Therefore, it would be impossible to consolidate divergent European memories into one coherent pan-European narrative of the Second World War.

Under such circumstances, the western notion of the memory of the Holocaust as a vehicle for productive dialogue and coexistence is discouraged. The difficult aspects of the Holocaust history that reflect negatively on one’s own national collective are interpreted as "spoilers" that needs to be eradicated, rather than as a past that should be integrated into respective national histories and memories as a way of building strong forward looking democracies.

Joanna Beata MichlicJoanna Beata Michlic is a social and cultural historian, and founder of HBI's Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust. She is an honorary senior research associate at the UCL Centre for the Study of Collective Violence, the Holocaust and Genocide, UCL Institute for Advances Studies, and an Honorary Senior Associate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London. She teaches at the Leo Baeck College in London. She recently published "Jewish Families in Europe, 1939-Present: History, Representation, and Memory" (HBI Series on Jewish Women).