Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on September 16th, 2010

Memorial to anti-Nazi partisans, formerly on Pylimo g. (click to enlarge)

The conservative Eastern European dogma of “dual genocide,” which argues that (take your pick) the hammer and sickle is equal to the swastika or that red is equal to brown, was denounced in a sympathetic Jonathan Freedland article in The Guardian a few days ago.1 Freedland tries to understand the Lithuanian motivation of trying to equate both scourges, but

no matter how great an effort of empathy I make, I cannot go along with the “double genocide”, especially not now that I’ve seen how it plays out in practice rather than in theory. For one thing, the equation of Nazi and communist crimes rarely entails an honest account of the former. The plaque at the Ninth Fort, for instance, identifies the killers only as “Nazis and their assistants”.

This is in line with Žižek’s often repeated (by me) warning that, in arguing for equivalence between Nazism and Soviet communism, we end up with a narrative in which Nazism is merely a response to Soviet communism (embodied in the claim that Lithuanians were exacting revenge on Jewish communists in their performing their roles in the Holocaust).2 This narrative, generated by well meaning “anti-totalitarian” liberal attitudes, is dangerous and false. As Žižek writes,

The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat.

Anyway, this is a well beaten drum by me. Freedland’s article did provide something I do not think I had ever seen in print before, though: a critique of the “Genocido aukų muziejus” for being a museum dedicated to something that was not, actually, a genocide, while effectively ignoring the very real genocide that happened in Vilnius in the years leading up to the historical epoch covered by the museum:

Second, even if the theoretical intention is to remember a “double genocide”, it rarely stays double for very long. Take the Museum of Genocide Victims, off Vilnius’s central Gedimino Boulevard. You would think such a place would feature the genocide of which Vilnius was close to the centre, namely the slaughter of the Jews. But you’d be wrong. The Holocaust is not mentioned. The focus is entirely on the suffering inflicted by the KGB. Outside, there are two prominent stone memorials for Moscow’s victims. If you wish to remember Lithuania’s 200,000 slain Jews, you have to wander far from the main drag, up a side street, to the tiny Green House – which is anyway closed for renovation and whose director, under pressure from state officials, is fighting for her job.

I’ve made this complaint myself, but never as forcefully, or with such an audience, as Freedland has, so I commend him for it, even if he takes advantage of geographical chance to enhance his claim about the relative importance of the two museums. In fact, in his entire article, I could only find one real complaint, which was in his description of the “Naujasis muziejus” at the IX Fort in Kaunas. My recollection of the museum was that it was a museum dedicated generally to “occupation,” and that it included exhibits from the Russian imperial era as well as the Soviet occupation. But even the museum’s own description states that its focus is on the history beginning with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; so maybe I have misremembered.

Still, Freedland’s article has caused a bit of a stir in Lithuania and elsewhere (including on The Guardian‘s own comment section; tread if you dare). But I was struck by Andriaus Užkalnio response on his blog, which begins with the above suggested, well meaning liberal disinclination towards getting involved in an argument that could devolve into a comparison of body counts–something he accuses Freedland of doing, even though Freedland explicitly, repeatedly, explains that body count comparison is not the source of his complaint against “dual genocide.”

Then Užkalnis adds a critique of The Guardian that, in its overwritten sneer, teeters on the edge of ideological incoherence:

Pasakiškai nuostolingas ir prie bankroto artėjantis The Guardian (kaip ir dar mažiau įtakingas The Independent) yra įvairaus plauko skirtingai nuprotėjusių kairiųjų, Stalino apologetų, apsirūkiusių trockistų (išpopintų milijonierių šeimose), latentinių maoistų ir zoologinių antisemitų, antiamerikiečių ir antikapitalistų lindynė.

Užkalnis is at his most infuriating/amusing when his sophistry allows him to channel his inner Rush, and the rest of his post, basically accusing The Guardian of being run by anti-Semitic communists, rehashes rather familiar complaints heard and yawned about throughout cobwebbed right-wing hideouts in the UK and North America. That is, The Guardian is anti-Semitic because it is very critical of Israel. Hence Freedland’s complaint about “dual genocide” ends up being not about the Nazis at all, but, rather, some kind of critique of the Lithuanian nerve in building institutions that commemorate Soviet horrors. The Guardian could not possibly come out as being in favor of highlighting awareness about the Holocaust as the ne plus ultra example of human evil, so, instead, Freedland must have another incentive: rehabilitating the USSR.3

In other words, Užkalnis enacts Freedland’s very complaint in his response. Claiming to be above a discussion of the relative equivalences of the two atrocities, by calling attention to The Guardian‘s anti-Semitism, he still implicitly argues that the Lithuanian suffering was worse than the Jewish suffering. Freedland’s implicit pro-Soviet bias (true because he’s writing in The Guardian) means that his argument that “The oppression of the Soviet years was terrible, but it was not genocide: to be arrested is not to be shot into a pit” is pro-Soviet propaganda. There must be an equivalence after all between the two atrocities, since the propagandist argues against it.4 But then it gets dark, since if the article is not, as Užkalnis argues, actually about the genocide of the Holocaust, then it is about an imagined pro-Soviet cover-up of the crimes of the Soviet regime. As such, the Soviet atrocity becomes more insidious than, wait for it, the Holocaust itself, because it, unlike the Holocaust, remains obscured, hidden in shadows.

The result is, as Freedland worries, exactly a relationship of inequivalence, with the sides flipped: Brown is equal to Red, but since no one knows that Red is equal to Brown, we have to advertise Red (while letting Brown stand on its own), to the degree where we end up not talking about or obscuring our own relationships with Brown. Suddenly, in Lithuania, the Holocaust is an afterthought, and the Soviet occupation becomes the primary/sole crime against humanity on that blood-soaked soil, a claim that is, basically, just really fucking offensive.

  1. Freedland points out that the swastika has been salvaged as an ancient Baltic symbol, reversing the equality. []
  2. The other version of this narrative, forcefully and brilliantly debunked over the course of two volumes by Klaus Theweleit in his magisterial Male Fantasies, is that fascism was a one-time fluke, an unrepeatable freak of nature, which pathologizes communism as the threat that, ingrained in human nature, is the one that could possibly return to haunt us all and destroy civilization. []
  3. For the record, this is a perfectly fine incentive to have, considering that there doesn’t exist an uncorrupted history or disinterested reckoning of the USSR in the world. []
  4. This is being charitable, as the strong reading would be that if Freedland is being a propagandist when he says that “The oppression of the Soviet years was terrible”–but still not comparable to genocide, then not only are they comparable, but the Soviet atrocity might even be worse. But I think Užkalnis ends up implying this even with my charitable reading. []

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2 Responses to ““Dual Genocide” condemned in UK paper; paper subsequently condemned”

  1. Thank you for your analysis. I think you may have missed a sentence in my article where I said that the very act of comparison of two evils comes from a hidden motive to vindicate one of them where, in fact, none of them deserves forgiveness.

    I find the very attempt of such comparison immoral and driven by the lazy habit which Edward Lucas described as whataboutism where an appraisal of any evil is considered invalid and intellectually dishonest because it does not also make a reference to every other existing evil. It is employed willingly by anyone guilty of pretty much anything anywhere in the world and is always a deflection tactic.

    When accusing the Lithuanians (and we deserved to be accused – but not by anyone from the Guardian, which is a point I make rather bluntly as you spotted) of invoking this tool, Freedland cannot help but have a go at playing with the same mirrors.

  2. I like to think that I’m not in the motive-hunting business, but, rather, in the effect-reading business. Nor do I think that the comparison has the effect of vindicating either the USSR or the Holocaust (as perpetrated by the Nazis and their collaborators).

    But I *do* think that comparison is not only ok but necessary, because it underscores the differences *in kind* of the effects of the regimes. It might be too flip to say “to be arrested is not to be shot into a pit,” but it is a distinction that is of vital importance in understanding the history of the moments. By calling both “genocide” (or agitating to do so), one erases this distinction.

    Lucas’s whataboutism sounds like a strawman and decidedly not the tactic I took here or that Freedland took in his piece, collapsed into this point: The GENOCIDE Museum mentions the Holocaust ONCE in the ENTIRE museum, in PARENTHESES, and not by name, but only as a number of additional “Jewish victims” to the total body count (the next time I go, I’ll take a picture of this offense).

    Call the KGB Museum what it is: the KGB Museum (as many English travel sites already do). Or, perhaps even more to the point, the “Resistance” or “Partisan” museum (as the tortured/executed partisans make up far more of the exhibition than their torturers/executioners).

    I’m not asking that this museum include exhibits on Armenia or the famine in Ukraine (which is what a whataboutist position would seem to demand). It’s fine as it is, save the name. The name pushes a sickening project of Lithuanian political victimization that is offensive in these invited comparisons. And that’s the point Freedland was making and I was hoping to amplify. Even if there is a hidden motive of USSR rehabilitation (by being a Guardian piece), it does not change the fact that Lithuania continues down this path of ghastly, ignorant false equivalence at its own risk.