Mass murder memories

Can we mourn both Soviet and Nazi victims, together?
Bryan P. Bradley | Sep 28 2010 | comment  


The Paneriai Memorial on the edge of Vilnius had an eerie feel when I visited last weekend. Not just because of the 100,000 innocents who had been shot here, thrown into pits and later dug up and burned in 20-foot pyres layered with firewood. And not just because my six companions and I were literally the only living souls in the place. But above all because I had lived in the environs for some 16 years, taking keen interest in Lithuania's historical sites, yet had never heard or suspected that such a place existed.

Most of the people murdered at Paneriai were Jews. Standing there, I could not help recalling a British media report just a few days earlier that took Lithuania to task for largely ignoring the fate of its Jewish population, of whom Nazi Germany and its local accomplices killed more than 90 percent between 1941 and 1944. Monuments to Lithuanian victims of the 50-year Soviet occupation are much more visible and much more frequented. For the record, those victims also number in the hundreds of thousands, as a British politician stressed in a separate article, calling the other report's criticism “mistaken”.

Lithuanians, like people in Latvia, Estonia and other former Soviet states, do not deny the criminal nature and scope of the Holocaust, but tend to view it more as someone else's tragedy, the Jews'. In two decades of regained independence, their grief and grievances have focused on their own national wounds. So, too, have their historical and criminal investigations. They are accused by Israel and many in Western Europe of playing up the work of Stalin's henchmen in order to play down the evil of Hitler's hordes and, by association, the role of their own countrymen in the Jewish genocide.

Eastern Europeans, for their part, say their critics are in denial about the tens of millions of murders attributable to Soviet Moscow. Offended and zealous for historical justice, they plead their case with calls to formally condemn Communism, like Nazism, at the international level. A good example is The Soviet Story, a hard-hitting 2008 documentary produced in Latvia and sponsored by a group in the European Parliament. The film seeks and largely succeeds to show Soviet equivalents, in documents, photos and video footage, for almost every type of Nazi atrocity.

And the battle rages on, with one side accused of being indifferent to the Nazi-led Holocaust during World War II, and the other called blind to the perhaps less efficient but equally deliberate and massive Soviet slaughters spread out over decades both before and after that war. Most often, the debate seems to focus on rivalry for attention to one's own victims, one's own tragedy, with unwillingness or inability to understand the other side's points and share the other side's pain.

What's in a word?

To judge by the recent banter in the British media, a key sticking point in this battle for historical truth and justice lies in the use of the term “genocide”. One side says this most heinous of crimes can only be attributed to the most evil of regimes, the Nazis. Stalin was bad, but not that bad, the argument goes. Forced labor in Siberia and KGB persecution are not on a par with the Nazi death camps and their gas chambers. The concept of a “double genocide”, implying moral equivalence between the Nazi and Soviet evils, could only be floated “by those who want to banalise or relativise the Holocaust and reduce its historical centrality,” in the words of British MP Denis MacShane. For the other side, refusing to use equally strong words to condemn Soviet crimes is a politically motivated selective attitude towards mass murder.

In fact, the official United Nations definition of genocide, which dates to 1948, refers only to the extermination of national, ethnic, racial and religious groups, but not social classes and political groups – the main targets of Soviet internal aggression. A broader definition, which would have been applicable to Stalin and his comrades, was vetoed by the Soviet delegation at the UN, Stanford University historian Norman Naimark reveals in a his just published book, Stalin's Genocides. The narrow UN definition of genocide is an injustice which needs to be corrected, Naimark argues.

Avoiding that debate and filling a perceived conceptual hole, US political scientist R.J. Rummel coined the term “democide” to refer to any “concentrated, systematic, and serial murder of a large part of its population” by a government. Rummel concludes from his research that the government of the Soviet Union committed “democide” against a minimum 28 million people, though he notes that a likelier figure is 60 million or more and some estimates exceed 120 million. He writes:

“Part of this mass killing was genocide, as in the wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of Don Cossacks in 1919 [or] the intentional starving of about 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants to death in 1932-33. […] Part was mass murder, as of the wholesale extermination of perhaps 6,500,000 'kulaks' (better off peasants and those resisting collectivization) from 1930 to 1937 […] And part of the killing was so random and idiosyncratic that journalists and social scientists have no concept for it, as in hundreds of thousands of people being executed according to preset, government, quotas.”

It is worth noting a December 2009 public opinion poll showing that 37 percent of Russia's population have “a positive attitude” toward Stalin and another 28 percent are “indifferent”. Almost a third of respondents said that Russia today needs “a leader like Stalin”, and a good number consider Stalin one of the greatest figures in history. Stanford's Naimark argues that such national attitudes – which would be absolutely unthinkable in a poll on Hitler in Germany – are a direct result of the denial and obfuscation involved in refusal to use words like “genocide” to describe the true nature of the Soviet regime.

Common tragedies, separate grief

Back in Lithuania, one senses the rivalry for attention to one's own victims in numerous details. Take the forest of Paneriai, which in fact contains several distinct monuments to those killed here by the Nazis: one recalls 86 members of a Lithuanian military unit, another commemorates some 20,000 Polish soldiers, and a third grieves for 70,000 Jewish lives lost. Then there is the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, housed in former KGB facilities and dedicated to the Soviet atrocities, quite separate from the Holocaust Exhibition at the Green House, a part of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

What is missing is a sense of common tragedy, that all the varied 20th century violations of human dignity caused a tremendous loss for all of society, for all of humanity. It is not just digestion of the fact that the exterminated Lithuanian Jews were fellow Lithuanian citizens, that many non-Jewish Lithuanians also died at the hands of the Nazis, and that Jews also suffered a lot from Soviet repressions, notes Nerijus Šepetys, who teaches history at Vilnius University.

“Most Lithuanians haven't come to grips with the fact that we lost “our” Jews in the Holocaust, our neighbors and our fellow citizens, who had greatly enriched our culture and social life during centuries. It's a huge loss that we can and must grieve as our own loss, too,” says Šepetys, my guide at Paneriai. That also implies honest assessment and open condemnation of those Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis.

Intertwined with all this is the lack of broader recognition and shared pain for the millions of victims of Soviet terror, putting aside irrational fear that fully condemning this other tragedy could somehow detract from people's sense of horror at the Holocaust.

“The entire Western world has lived for decades on the assumption that all crimes were Nazi crimes and it's very difficult to change it,” historian Norman Davies says in an interview in “The Soviet Story”. “Whether Europe will ever come to terms with this criminal part of its past is very difficult to know. But mass killing is mass killing.”

Bryan P. Bradley is an American-born writer, based in Vilnius, Lithuania, who has lived and traveled in Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 20 years.

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