The Memorial of Red Army Soldiers is scaffolded ahead being dismantled at the Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius on December 6, 2022. (Petras Malukas / AFP via Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on January 27, 2023
Across Eastern Europe, the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated narratives that present life under Soviet rule as akin to Nazi genocide. It’s bad history — and it indulges the nationalist groups who collaborated with Adolf Hitler.
Just months before the bulldozers came, there was one last sea of flowers. They could not actually be laid at Riga’s monument to Victory in World War II, which was doomed to destruction in May 2022. Rather, they appeared along a rigid no-gap fence, constructed by police dozens of feet from the actual memorial. First the bulldozers came for the flowers, then after a decree a month later, they came for the memorial itself.
The destruction date was kept secret, but when the 260-foot futurist spire came crashing down into the reflecting pool, applause broke out, and congratulatory videos of the event were tweeted by leading Latvian officials. Now, the children and grandchildren of some of the ten million Red Army casualties — maimed or, more often than not, resting in unmarked graves — no longer have a site of memory to carry the last photos of their heroic loved ones.
The disinformation wars around the fight in Ukraine have spread well beyond the present, unsettling even the dead of the past — namely, those who fell in the global anti-fascist struggle against Nazism. Like Big Oil’s bonanza profits, this has brought a windfall for World War II revisionists and even Nazi apologists, undermining any shared narrative and understanding of the globally unifying struggle against fascism, which once formed the moral arc of the postwar order. What one might call the “Baltic narrative” of “double genocide,” or twinned “red-brown” totalitarianisms, has moved from the margins into the center, along with white supremacism, conspiracism, antisemitism, and the demonization of “antifa.” Where once it distorted public debate, now it carries out material destruction in deeds.
Soviet and Red Army memorials are falling throughout Europe, from Kiev to Riga and beyond. Estonia is planning the removal of no less than four hundred monuments, and Latvia recently passed a law to remove sixty-nine of them. The goal is to vilify and expunge that last trace of the Soviet era, once widely accepted as its redeeming feature — its indubitable status as the vanquisher of Nazism. Whereas once Eastern European nationalists had to swallow their pride and accept this, they no longer feel bound to. With the Ukraine crisis, not only can Nazi collaborators be celebrated, but the last material evidence of the Soviet victory can now be erased, removing a crucial signpost of stability in Europe’s collective memory.
Replacing the anti-fascist, “popular-front” narrative of World War II is a highly problematic false equivalency of the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. It tells us that two genocidally criminal dictatorships joined in alliance, and is even framed in a racialized manner, as German- and Russian-ethnic variants on the same minority-targeting rule of terror. The putative “Russian national character” is now indicted as perennially predisposed to invasion and looting. In Vilnius, the site made out of the old KGB headquarters has since 1992 been pointedly labeled a “museum of genocide victims,” as if Soviet terror had a racialized character, aimed at the destruction of children and the aged, rather than just political opponents, as Nazism clearly did.
Here, the Cold War rubric of “totalitarianism” is certainly not weaponized to raise awareness of Nazi crimes, but rather to demonize the Soviet project as equivalent to it. This means jumbling up the self-declared destroyer of the legacy of the French Revolution with that of its heir. Conveniently for the liberal West, left outside this frame are crimes of colonialism by a half-dozen supposed “liberal, democratic” countries, but also crimes of fascist movements and governments in a dozen more lands outside Germany and Italy. Like an undead ghoul that refuses to stay buried, this is a tune heard long before, during the Historikerstreit (historians’ dispute) in 1980s West Germany. Back then, revisionists like Ernst Nolte proposed a “European Civil War” narrative based in imitative competition between communism and fascism. Infamously, Auschwitz was held to be only a “copy” of the Russian original.
The great difference now, is not only are refugee and Holocaust-survivor historians mostly not around to defend against such revisionism, but the most outspoken propagator of historical confusion is an American, and an Ivy League professor-slash-zealous self-appointed oracle on tyranny, fascism, and democracy, Timothy Snyder. From the World Economic Forum to virtually every major media outlet, he has morphed into a policy-pundit panic-peddler, projecting fascism and genocide onto contemporary Russia, while infamously trying to frame Hitler’s consistent and uncompromising genocidal assault against the Jews as a result of “ecological panic,” as if the Jewish minority threatened the precious little fertile land Europe had at its disposal. With an impudent acceleration of mainstream rhetoric into war-party maximalism, nuance is sacrificed for zealotry. Snyder is a case of a clear link between a stage one of rewriting history followed by a stage two that legitimizes foreign-policy directives and civic law of virulent ultranationalist orthodoxy.
Snyder’s “century of blood,” with its “twinned totalitarianisms,” has become a new “common-sense,” liberal talking point — “Nolte with an NPR tote bag,” as a colleague put it. His Bloodlands is just a more sophisticated rendering of suggestive correlation between Nazism and the Soviet Union, legitimizing formerly fringe-nationalist dogmatic talking points, while hiding behind extremely problematic chains of citation. He has proved repeatedly willing to connect Nazi atrocities to Soviet crimes. Even Wehrmacht-veteran historians like Joachim Fest, who minimized the Holocaust, made clear that it was Hitler, not Stalin, who was “devoid of any civilizing ideas.”
In his narratives, Snyder engages in a style of suggestive justificatory thinking that even the Nazis themselves did not engage in: there is, indeed, no major basis of evidence that Nazis linked the Holocaust, or the genocide of the Roma and disabled, to anything perpetrated by the Soviet regime. Elite consecration of “double genocide,” now embraced as the American diplomatic norm, tacitly legitimizes Polish, Hungarian, and Baltic-state efforts to banish by judicial means any dissent from this dogma. In two recent laws in 2018 and 2022, Poland criminalized accusing Poles of committing crimes against Jews, and moreover prohibited any property restitution from the Holocaust. There is even a Polish Anti-Defamation League that finances cases that prosecute historians that investigate Polish complicity with the Holocaust. (Notably, in Turkey/Armenia and Rwanda, “double genocide,” stands in for a deliberate attempt to vandalize understanding of genocide by recasting it as a “civil war.”)
The Snyder narrative empowers and gives license to the memory destruction of all things Soviet, and diverts attention away from the even more widespread landscape of fascist-collaborator memory and monuments. If such a line is successfully enshrined, the label “communist,” sufficiently demonized, can be weaponized against any and all dissent, silencing system alternatives, and crushing all faculties for understanding the ongoing crimes of capitalism. The rehabilitation of Nazi-collaborator legacies beyond the Baltic cannot but be a consequence, as witness the rise of far-right parties in Sweden and Italy, which grew out of these circles. The yearly fascist “pilgrimage” to Mussolini’s tomb in Predappio, celebrating the March on Rome, mobilizes growing numbers who can today see blessing from their government. Meanwhile in the United States, House Republicans are pursuing legislation of “teaching acts” to enforce vilification of communism.
The ground zero for these narratives are the well-funded and centrally established Museums of Occupation in Baltic countries. Founded in the early 1990s, in addition to state budget largesse, the lavish support is owed to some undisclosed private foundations with small boards of a dozen private individuals who heavily fundraise in the United States. Inarguably, these are complex exercises in Holocaust minimization, with 90 percent-plus of permanent exhibition space devoted to crimes of Communism with less than 5 percent (usually in harder-to-reach corners) devoted to the Holocaust.
Entirely left out are the other Nazi genocidal campaigns against the Sinti and Roma and those broadly deemed to be “disabled.” This deliberate disproportionality may be both despite and because of the fact that the Baltic had the highest local participation in the murder of the Jews, among all the Nazi-occupied. In fact, this was one of the only regions of Europe where killers were volunteers and recruited from the general population. Also unique was that these mass murderers of the defenseless were then exported to other countries to kill Jews, not just their own compatriots. The line in these museums to outright Holocaust denial is perilously thin. For instance, the Riga museum, founded in 1993, suppresses evidence that the Nazis operated a death camp with experiments on children on Latvian territory.
The narrative of these museums enshrines the “Molotov-Ribbentrop pact” as a Nazi-Soviet alliance to destroy the small peoples of Central and East Europe. Regularly and inaccurately framed as an “alliance,” this distressing “nonaggression” pact with its secret clauses only emerged out of a fraught and desperate chain of events. In brief, countries in West and East had already signed such agreements with Nazi Germany before — a naval arms agreement with Britain in 1934, and a nonaggression pact with Poland that same year. Two years later, it was almost only the Soviet Union that confronted the fascist regimes on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War, where no other powers came to the aid of a democratically elected republican government fighting off a fascist coup.
Finally the infamous Munich agreement of 1938, where Britain and France agreed to the dismemberment of the last democratic and multinational state in Central and East Europe, Czechoslovakia, occurred without any consultation with the Soviets. In fact, Nazi occupation of Baltic lands began without Soviet cooperation or involvement with the March 1939 seizure of Klaipėda. Establishment circles in the late 1930s clearly saw Hitler and Mussolini as the lesser evil, as the occidentalist line of defense between “Western civilization” and “Eastern barbarism,” a viewpoint incredibly returning now to widespread acceptance. Collective security agreements that included the Soviets were by too many deemed as unthinkable, a view that made the war inevitable and unthinkably worse than it almost certainly otherwise would have been, a burden of horrors carried mostly by the peoples of the USSR.
The permanent exhibits in these “occupation museums” draw a direct equivalence between experience under Nazi occupation and that as a Soviet republic, and are a mandatory part of all childhood education in each of the Baltic countries. From the very entryway and throughout the halls, portraits of Hitler and Stalin are everywhere paired, to form an indelible association of the two. Particularly ironic, and left unmentioned, is that the Baltic Soviet Republics were explicitly an experiment in a reversal of the traditional imperial flow of resources away from the periphery and onto the metropole. Instead, they were “showcase republics,” whose industry catapulted fifteen times over their own past levels, and that of other Soviet republics, in the postwar era. These countries were also spared from cultural repression, with banned books and exiled writers freely available as resources denied elsewhere in the USSR.
These memorials these Baltic states are determined to destroy largely served as yearly pilgrimage points for the Russian community, paying tribute on Victory Day to family members’ sacrifices in the anti-fascist cause. The destruction of these monuments has been increasingly spectacular, greeted by adoring crowds, applauding as they crash to the ground. These acts of historical negationism hearken back to the damnatio memoriae of ancient times to posthumously condemn and remove unpopular elites and emperors from the public record. Yet these were an essentially incomplete practice; for instance, the carved out absences on statues and mosaics were left visible to preserve a “negative memory” of the act of damnation itself.
This recent wave reflects a deeper desire and perhaps a more completist agenda of entirely eradicating historical evidence. In Ukraine, for instance, already in 2015, all fifteen hundred–odd statues of Lenin were entirely removed. (Neither is the distant past safe as almost a dozen monuments to the nineteenth-century Afro-Russian literary genius Alexander Pushkin have been demolished in Ukraine, with even the eighteenth-century Catherine the Great having similarly followed into oblivion.)
Beyond communist icons, now whatever solemnity still retained for war dead in the anti-Nazi fight seems to fall by the wayside. Lithuania has moved to retain only instances where actual names of soldiers appear on such monuments — a distinction without a difference, as such names are rarely included. And in a sign that once a purge begins its momentum radicalizes, even statues and monuments of Lithuanian artists and writers believed to have communist sympathies have been set for the chopping block. In Helsinki, even a 1989 Soviet monument to world peace has been dismantled, a decade after some in Finland had tried to blow it up.
Germany is a special case, uniquely bound by treaty to care for and protect Soviet-era monuments and it is perhaps the only European country where a statue to Lenin has recently gone up — a Communist statement to raise awareness to the widespread razing elsewhere. Yet on a less obvious level, Germany, as Europe’s hegemonic power, may well have set the stage for this purge of the public sphere with its 2006–8 demolition of Berlin’s GDR-era Palast der Republik and its replacement by the resurrected imperial Stadtschloss palace. East Germany’s Palast der Republik, a 1970s late-space-age construction, was unconnected to any communist-era human rights abuses. If anything, it was a showplace for at the least the potential of a socialist society to prioritize shared investment in a common good.
Adjacent to the parliament, were several restaurants, event halls with rock concerts and fashion shows, and even an underground bowling alley. Its destruction and replacement by the near-billion-dollar former house of the Kaiser in Europe’s financially leading state, sets a tone of imperial capitalist prosperity as the ultimate value, while indulging in some not so clandestine far-right nostalgia; here is Europe’s “leading” country with nowhere to look but backward. (Even if the destruction may have been impelled by the presence of asbestos, would that necessitate the rebuilding of the Imperial Palace?) The underlying message, of an outright memory purge, as graffiti near the site had it: Die DDR hats nie gegeben (The German Democratic Republic never existed).
The wish to erase all signs of communism comes from a deep wellspring of obsessive emotionalism, an almost Oedipal style conflict with the “bad parent” (already in May of 1945, General Georgy Zhukov was said to have uttered to General Konstantin Rokossovsky that “we liberated them and they will never forgive us for this.”) It is remarkable, in the Baltic case, that the moniker “occupation” is only applied to the Soviet period, not to the almost two-and-a-half centuries of Russian rule during the autocratic tsarist empire, during which Baltic peoples were barely allowed physical access to their current capitals that house these occupation museums.
A further irony is that since accession to the European Union, very little of major industry or real estate remains in the hands of Baltic peoples, not mostly owned by Germans, Swedes, and even some Irish. The spate of memorial destruction is posthumous vengeance, deeply antidemocratic despite supposedly celebrating democratic values. A performative contradiction, the recent demolition in Riga, occurred against the explicit desires of most of the Russian-speaking community, which makes up close to 40 percent of the total population. Much of its older generation have, moreover, been denied basic citizenship rights, as well as cultural and educational autonomy, since independence via an arcane set of requirements and surveillance that resembles a repression of those deemed second-class.
The destruction of memorials is also a profound symptom of the poverty of imagination, and an undermining of cultural heritage and the necessity and discipline of history. It simply negates historical sources and evidence, and purges the public sphere. As many have suggested, the power of these figures could be symbolically diverted, e.g., turned upside down or half dug in the ground, or even colorfully paper-macheed as with the Bismarck statue recently in Berlin’s Tiergarten.
Today’s revisionist damnatio memoriae is now riding the wave, not coincidentally, of far-right “occidentalist” ultranationalism supplanting traditional conservatism. What was earlier a steady hum has since roared into overdrive: this intellectual casualty of the Ukraine war is a collectively binding narrative of World War II that set anti-fascism front and center. This rising drumbeat of obsessive revisionism might well be the new neoliberal orthodoxy, as well as a desperate revival of opportunistic anti-communism. The zombie-like struggle against communism, bizarrely waged some three decades after the collapse of the USSR is more than a back door for ultranationalism. It is a cultural cannibal, consuming memory and history. After all, just behind “double genocide,” are the specters of “white Genocide,” “Weimar 2.0,” and “race war.”
Adam J Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York.