Many people on the right love nationalists. Especially East European nationalists, and especially ultra-conservative governments of Poland and Hungary, who stand up to the hegemony of the EU on issues ranging from judicial activism to immigration.
But there are some problems. Prior to WWII, European nationalists were often openly anti-Semitic, while the left stood up for Jewish rights. Remember the Dreyfus affair in the 19th century France, the Beilis affair in southern Russia in 1913, and in numerous other cases. Why? Because Jews, without a home country of their own and scattered among many nations, were perceived by nationalists to be inherently internationalist and cosmopolitan in nature, or worse, representative of a trans-national body, the world Jewry. Nazism was a culmination of these sentiments.
This all changed after WWII and establishment of the State of Israel. Jews established a state of their own, and indeed asserted their own nationalism. From then on, nationalists around the world gradually embraced Israel and Israeli nationalists as partners against internationalists and cosmopolitans. At the same time, the left became increasingly hostile to Israel and the Zionists, and by extension to the Jews, precisely because they, the left, opposed nationalism. This is the big picture, if somewhat oversimplified.
It so happens that nationalism is nowadays particularly strong in Eastern Europe, and, naturally, Eastern European countries are some of the strongest supporters of Israel. Yet old habits die hard. This was highlighted last week, when the Polish parliament approved a law that essentially criminalises any suggestions that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust. Israel and Jewish groups call this Holocaust denial (or distortion) , and the US State Department expressed concern. When confronted, Polish nationalist political leaders say that the law is needed to protect the truth and the good name of Poland. That is, we must conclude, the price of nationalism.
The Polish example is by no means unique. Minimizing or denial of complicity of their nationals in the Holocaust is common in Eastern Europe . Poland’s example is moderate by comparison. After all, the Nazis considered Poles and all other Slavs as sub-human and subjected them to brutal oppression. It is estimated that up to two million non-Jewish Polish nationals died as a result of Nazi occupation. Thus Poland may try to minimize the role of its citizens in the Holocaust but it certainly does not celebrate the Nazis or Nazi collaborators.
The situation is different in countries that were allied with Nazi Germany. In Hungary, there has been a revival of the image of its war-time leader Miklos Horthy, who was openly anti-Semitic, and by all accounts was very much complicit in the Holocaust, though not involved directly in the Final Solution. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to death camps from Hungary at the time of German occupation, at a rate at which crematoria were unable to cope with the new arrivals. This was organised by about twenty German officers with the help of an army of people from the Hungarian civil administration, while Horthy was still Regent. Recently Hungary’s PM Victor Orban suggested that Horthy was an ‘exceptional statesman’ and gave him the credit for the survival of Hungary. But why? I guess because of the need for national heroes. The price of nationalism…
The trend is even more visible in the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. In these tiny countries former Waffen-SS veterans and their supporters organise annual marches through their capital cities and are portrayed as freedom fighters who fought the bad guys (the Soviets). Given how much these countries suffered at the hands of the Russians and Soviets, this behaviour is somewhat understandable, but it is hard to comprehend how swastika bearing soldiers in SS uniforms are someone’s freedom fighters.
The case of the Ukraine is somewhat unique. On one hand, Ukrainians like Poles were regarded by the Nazis as sub-human. On the other hand, Hitler wanted to use Ukrainian nationalists to turn the Ukrainians against the Russians. To this end they courted Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera and allowed him to form his own army. However when Bandera attempted to create a Ukrainian state (allied with Germany, of course), Hitler would have none of it, and sent Bandera and his allies to a concentration camp. However Bandera’s army was allowed to continued its activities, which consisted mostly of massacres of Poles and Jews in what is now western Ukraine. Bandera is now celebrated as Ukraine’s national hero, and his collaboration with the Nazis is forgotten or excused (usually on the grounds that he was imprisoned for most of WWII). But this veneration of Bandera is strongly opposed by Poland, which is EU’s strongest supporter of Ukrainian independence. The law passed by the Polish Parliament last week also criminalises denial of Ukrainian massacres of Poles during WWII. We have come full circle…
So how come these countries, which are strong supporters of Israel, are involved in what is arguably Holocaust distortion? In the words of a prominent Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, the answer is simple. ‘They love Israel but hate the Jews.’
One Eastern European country that is strongly opposed to Holocaust denial and distortion is Russia. However Russia under Putin denies communist crimes, and is in the process of reviving the image of Stalin (along with Ivan the Terrible and Nicolas II). And Russian nationalism is arguably more dangerous than that of its neighbours, because it is imperialist in nature. The price of nationalism?