He who writes a nation’s history also controls its future—so wrote George Orwell. During the Soviet reign over Eastern Europe, every citizen knew who was in charge of writing history, especially that dealing with the victims of World War II. Anyone professing to be a Slovak, a Croat, a Ukrainian, or a Russian nationalist was immediately branded a “fascist spy,” a “CIA agent,” or an “enemy of the working people”; simply telling an anticommunist joke could earn one a hefty prison term. Communist journalists and court historians and hagiographers denounced free speech and demonized every sign of Eastern European nationalism. On behalf of the worldwide proletarian revolution, every attempt to retrieve a sense of lost nationhood was violently repressed. Instead of providing true body counts of the victims of the fascist terror of World War II, ruling party hacks and their servile scribes resorted to a surreal geometry in which fascist crimes were disproportionately elevated while all communist war and postwar crimes “were shoved under the red carpet of historical oblivion. During the Cold War, many young Lithuanians, Serbs, Estonians, and Byelorussians, after listening to communist propaganda for decades, seriously thought that their cultural memory was genetically predetermined “never to forget” the crimes of fascism.
Fifty-three years after the end of World War II, Hitler is alive and well, and he appears to have a splendid semantic career: if not as an archetype of goodness for a few, then certainly as an historical scapegoat for the many. Modern liberal videocrats and the architects of public truth resort to Hitler and his brownshirt company every time they need to denounce a nonliberal government that dares to clamp down on illegal immigrants or international drug cartels, or tries to establish more law and order. Whenever some freewheeling public figure, especially on the right side of the political spectrum, demands more discipline from the academy and the media, he ends up in the garbage can of fascism. In the liberal gallery of bad guys, French nationalist Jean Marie Le Pen is often equated with Hitler; the Austrian liberal-nationalist Jörg Haider shares the eternal company of Herr Goebbels; some Central and Eastern European leaders are frequently portrayed as authoritarian strongmen. Even conservatives in America are dubbed racists every time they timidly voice disapproval about the fiction of affirmative action, or when they publicly oppose the flood of illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande.
Do the liberal political elite and the modern media, by constantly invoking the specter of fascism willy-nilly, trivialize past fascist horrors? Paradoxically, by resuscitating fascist crimes, they seem to banalize fascism, if not make it more attractive. For example, despite the torrent of antifascist invective and innuendo, movements and parties of the extreme right in Europe—both East and West—are everywhere on the rise. Revisionist books about the Allies and their role in and after World War II are in great demand. Of course, in Europe’s politically correct environment, they often sell in the form of cloak-and-dagger samizdat publications from obscure if not lunatic editors.
In their paranoid fear of the possible revival of fascism, the modern liberal media ironically end up destroying their own impartiality and their own historical credibility. Thus they pave the way for the renaissance of real fascism.
Antifascist slanders and historical equations—Stalin versus Hitler-should not come as a surprise. After all, modern liberal democracies draw their juridical status and international credibility from their military victory over fascism. Without current salvos of antifascism, it remains unclear to what extent modern democracies would be able to retain their legal status and humanitarian profile. Since 1945, thousands of books critical of Hitler have been published in the West; scores of antifascist war movies have been shot; libraries of children’s comics have been built, portraying every antifascist fighter as a handsome guy eating chocolate, every Wehrmacht soldier as a fat and ugly Kraut.
Many intellectuals have sold themselves to the parroting media, thereby forgetting the basic tenet of dispassionate academic research: free spirit. In academic discourse, fascism is always portrayed as an absolute evil, in contrast to communism, which is viewed as an historical nuisance. Naturally, there are objective reasons for the trivialization of the Gulag and for the academic dismissal of the communist killing fields. One way or another, Hitler will always be worse than Stalin—for the simple reason that liberal democracies, side by side with communist democracies, fought the common enemy of fascism and Nazism. The short-lived yet extremely important wartime bond between liberals and communists explains why in the West today few speak passionately about communist ethnic cleansing or the persecution of fascist-leaning writers and intellectuals in post-Vichy France, or about how the Allies put out to pasture some 20,000 German professors and academics at the end of the war. Only timid mention is made of the firebombing of the old library in Hamburg in 1943, the destruction of the museum in Munich in 1944, or the carpet-bombing of Dresden by the Allies in 1945. To speak openly today about ethnic cleansing by the Red Army from the Baltics to the Balkans, from Riga to Trieste, means retroactively to lay blame on those in the West who involuntarily helped establish hybrid totalitarian states in the region, including the multiethnic patchworks called Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, or the Soviet Union.
A prominent French philosopher of Jewish extraction, Shmuel Trigano, argued in Le Monde (March 26, 1997) that “the constant reinvocation of Shoa, as a sole source of global moralism, risks bringing about a birth of a new spirituality, which is supposed to confer to each Jewish sign the absolute ethical value.” In other words, those who incessantly resort to the paradigma of Jewishness or use the state of Israel as the only intellectual superego might actually provide an alibi, in precarious historical moments, to those who target Jews for all fictitious evil. Exaggerated and fake philo-Semitism seems often to stem from people who, speaking in academic “ideal-types,” easily turn into vicious anti-Semites. By such intellectual acrobatics, these individuals not only betray their cultural memory but also gravely hurt the memory of the Jewish people.
In Europe today, it is clearly more profitable to be antifascist than anticommunist. After all, were not Nazis and fascists the most consistent representatives of anticommunism? Such equations—that Hitler equals or even surpasses Stalin, that more died at Auschwitz than in the Gulag ossuaries—yield in practice always opposite results.
After the end of communism in Eastern Europe, highschool history texts underwent a profound change. No more palavers about friendly, good-looking communist partisans always defeating the ugly Germans. Students in Eastern Europe today are obliged to learn the body count of their own martyred people, particularly in the sensitive years following World War II. Little by little Eastern European students must come to terms with the fact that the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and other communist countries were not just liberating them from fascist terror, but were also, in turn, subjugating them under a new and often worse terror. Yalta obliges.
The supreme irony of history is that—contrary to communist paranoia—the end of communism was not the result of a CIA conspiracy, dark forces of bourgeois evil, etc. Communism broke apart because it had, paradoxically, entered into its own historiographic entropy. By the mid-1980’s, not a single Eastern European citizen believed a word that communist hacks said. Even when communist scribes uttered words of truth about the decadent, crime-ridden West, out of sheer anticommunist defiance, nobody believed them. Neither American marines nor the omnipresent CIA but the vulgar surplus of communist mendacity brought about the end of communism.
The writing of history depends on time and place, and is always subject to revision. (It must not be forgotten that communist hagiography was crafted not only by communist apparatchiks but also by left-leaning scholars in the West.) But when times of great intellectual demythification arrive, when new political myths become fashionable, old political verities may be subject to revision—so argued Georges Sorel. When a political myth no longer sways the masses, the time may be right for vengeance and violence, which can attain very nasty proportions. When a victimology of one side turns into a secular religion, the other side may wait for the appropriate fruition of its own political theology. And when the body count of a people turns into show business, one must be prepared for the counter-arrival of new stars in the lime-lit gallery of world sufferers. Indeed, there is nothing new in history.