23rd of August: Reconciling memories from east to west

By Valentin Stoian | 19 January 2011

To quote this document: Valentin Stoian, “23rd of August: Reconciling memories from east to west”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 19 January 2011, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/999, displayed on 24 September 2021

Take a random class in a European highschool and start a discussion on the history and national memories of the twentieth century. It turns out that Westerners often ignore the realities of Eastern European history and impose their memory of World War Two. How is this possible? How can we remedy this at the European level?

Inside the class: misunderstandings

Imagine a classroom full of young Europeans attending an opportunity for international socialising. Imagine that the topics discussed are actually serious. They relate to 20th century history, fascism, communism, the Holocaust and how the liberal democratic world is the best form of human organization. This point of view is argued to be so by parading the worst examples of alternate forms of social organisation, i.e. fascism, Nazism and the Holocaust with its concentration camps and installations for industrial killing. Sixty-five years after the end of the Second World War, these events still reign supreme in the Western representation of evil. Why is this the case? And what are the implications for our imaginary Europe-wide meeting?

For almost twenty years now, in our imaginary classroom, some people from Eastern Europe tend to be present. “Unity in diversity” and the integration of different perspectives are European and North American stock phrases. Some Eastern Europeans pop-up in what used to be, until the 1990s a fully Western affair. In our imaginary classroom, someone begins to talk about the crimes committed by the communist regimes. Westerners stay silent when hearing unfamiliar words like Holodomor, Gulag and Katyn. “But what was Katyn?” someone asks. A short moment of embarrassment follows and someone has to tell the story from the very beginning.

Basic facts are not common knowledge, and the level of discussion drops precipitously to that of a highschool history class. Such moments create a feeling of humiliation among Eastern Europeans who come to believe that their Western colleagues do not understand their concerns and their history. Finally, when the organizers privilege one narrative above others, some feel excluded.

European politics of Memory

The European Commission’s recent rejection of the calls of six member states to promote legislation punishing the denial of communist crimes to the same extent as the denial of Nazi crimes did nothing to help this matter. In 2009, the European  Parliament upheld a motion to call for the commemoration of totalitarian crimes on the 23rd of August. This echoed the 2008 Prague declaration, calling for such a day to be established. In Vilnius, the OSCE succeded in adopting a declaration to establish the 23rd of August as a day of remembrance. However, at the level of the European Commission no such consensus was reached until now, because of the opposition of some of the states of “Old Europe”.

What’s so special about the 23rd of August?” some might ask. On the 23rd of August 1939, Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression protocol. This, which came to be known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, also included a secret addendum in which Germany and the Soviet Union split up Poland, the Baltic countries and Bessarabia. As a result, the two totalitarian regimes cooperated in dividing Eastern Europe until the beginning of Operation Barbarossa. Moreover, none of the Eastern European countries was consulted when their fate was decided by the two powers.       

Those who argue against such a commemoration bring several arguments. Firstly, that the Holocaust was unique in being the only attempt at eliminating an ethnic group completely. Soviet terror was a monstrous crime, the objectors argue, but it was not directed against one group in particular. If one accepted communist ideology, one could escape with his life. However, being a Jew was a biological category in Nazi Germany, and this spelled an immediate death sentence.

Secondly, celebrating communist victims and anti-communist resistance would rehabilitate local fascists, maintain the same critics. These, many times participated in the murder of local Jews when the Nazis occupied Ukraine and the Baltic countries. They were firstly perpetrators and ended up as victims of the newly installed communist regimes.

Finally, these same people maintain that placing communist and fascist crimes in the same basket would undermine the positive contribution the USSR brought to the defeat of Nazi Germany. As Efraim Zuroff puts it, "For all the terribles crims of the USSR, you can't compare the people who built Auschwitz with the people who liberated it". In Budapest, a plaque commemorating the liberation of the Jewish ghetto by the Soviet Army was repeatedly vandalized by those who do not see the Red Army as a “liberator”.

Beyond the old arguments: reconciling narratives

All these arguments have appropriate replies, but these have already been brought forward by historians. Thus, this article will not review the old debates between “anti-totalitarians” and “anti-fascists”. Rather, the aim is to bring a new argument, based on the duties of civility and respect we owe each other today. Instead of focusing on the memories of the victims, whose memory is alternately offended or honoured by this commemoration, it would be much better to focus on the obligations we have towards each other in our times.

The process of European enlargement was seen in the beginning, as a “reunification” of Europe. The formation of the EU was a way for the countries of Old Europe to put aside their past prejudices and hatreds, to overcome stereotypes and for each to bring to the negotiating table its own narrative of recent events. These narratives need to be put to bed and a new narrative of cooperation born of conflict had to be created.

The EU enlargement should have followed the same pattern, but it did not. Rather, candidates for accession had to repeatedly prove themselves in front of those of the old EU. They had to copy and implement the acquis communitaire in their own legislation. They had to pass several stages and be repeatedly evaluated on their progress. Finally, as the cases of work permits for new the citizens of new member states and of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s disputed Schengen accession now proves, this requirement for supervision and evaluation was not eliminated with EU accession.    

The danger of imposing European “memory” rules on New Member States

As justified or unjustified this process may have been, many people saw it as an imposition of rules which the accession candidates could not challenge. However, while at the legislative and technical level these precautions could be warranted, there is no reason for the same process to spill over into the symbolic level. Imposing narratives and definitions of problems on others does nothing to enhance one’s safety and security. It only perpetuates sentiments of domination or subordination. When one who suffered from communism but for whom fascism is a distant past is forced to discuss the evils of fascism without being allowed to share his own traumas, another trauma is created. It is a form of symbolic violence, which sometimes is stronger than physical violence. It creates a wedge between the one whose narrative is privileged and the one whose story is marginalized.       

Moreover, a very strong emphasis on Holocaust commemoration and on banning anti-Semitic and ethnically motivated hate speech without a similar treatment for communist crimes might back-fire badly. Anti-Semitism, mainly in the form of stereotypes and myths about the association of Jews with communism and is still powerful in Eastern Europe. The refusal of EU authorities to recognize the traumas of communism and to pay proper respect to the victims while at the same time insisting that Eastern Europeans pay tribute to the victims of fascism only plays into the hands of local anti-Semites. It gives credence to their assertions that Jews are behind everything, from the USSR to the EU. It fosters nationalism and resentments, both easy to convert to anti-Semitism. It makes the people of Eastern Europe feel oppressed and disrespected, second-rate citizens of the EU. This is the perfect opportunity for nationalists to thrive.  

Finally, in addition to lobbying the EU, some of the Eastern European countries, especially the Baltic ones, have gone ahead and began memorializing communism on their own. However, this unilateral approach opened the floodgates for what many Western Europeans feared would happen. Celebrations have been hijacked by extreme-rightists who see communism as the oppression of their own nation rather than a perpetration of crimes against universal human rights. A common European approach would set boundaries, respecting the wishes of both parties, on what and how it is appropriate to commemorate.    

Back to school: avoiding buzzwords

In the end, let us go back to our imaginary meeting of young people. If more was known in the West about communist crimes and their magnitude, then discussions would be of a higher quality. Participants would feel equal and both sides would respect each other. Katyn, the Holodomor and the Gulag would sound as well-known and as terrifying as Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. The integration of different perspectives and “unity in diversity” would stop becoming simple eurocratic soundbites. All highschool students know what was written at the entrance of Auschwitz. None remembers the writing on Vorkuta’s gates.

Valentin Stoian is a Phd Student at the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary


To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website


On the Internet


To read

  • Furet, F. and Nolte, E. (2001), Fascism and communism, translated by Katherine Golsan, University of Nebraska Press.
  • Furet, F. (1999), The passing of an illusion : the idea of communism in the twentieth century, translated by Deborah Furet, University of Chicago Press.
  • Geyer, M, Fitzpatrick, S. eds (2009), Beyond totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism compared, Cambridge University Press.

  • Arendt, H. (1958), The Origins of Totalitarianism, Cleveland: Meridian Books.


Source photo : Communism memorial, by zoonabar, on flickr