Comes the reckoning

History was a weakness for communist regimes. Now it has become a weapon for populists

Features
The National Remembrance Day of the Cursed Soldiers, Krakow, Poland (© Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

My Polish friend had a request. Could he borrow my book for a couple more days? “You see, we are typing it,” he explained. The second volume of Norman Davies’s God’s Playground was the literary equivalent of an incendiary bomb. The first full history of modern Poland to be published in the West laid bare the crimes and lies of the usurpers installed by the Soviet occupiers after the war. Contrary to the official narrative of competent cadres rebuilding a grateful nation after its betrayal and destruction, Davies noted that there were “hardly enough native Polish communists to run a factory, let alone a country of some thirty million people”. Unsurprisingly it was banned in Poland, and equally unsurprisingly, people yearned to read it. My friends were working in shifts to type out my smuggled copy, using carbon paper to make four copies of each page.

As a student, journalist and activist in communist Poland and other parts of the Soviet empire, I would hear from official propagandists that history was on their side. But in fact, it was their enemy. The blind historical forces analysed by Karl Marx indeed helped shape the world in which revolutionaries took power. But the communists’ accounts of their origins, backers and tactics were myths and legends, not history. In particular, the ruthless violence they employed struck all but the most fervent believers as abhorrent. So they had to exaggerate the benefits and cover up the costs. Falsification of history was intrinsic to the survival of the revolution—tactically successful and strategically disastrous. A system founded on lies was always vulnerable to the truth. Within the Soviet empire, repression could prevent all but whispered truth-telling about history. This merely intensified the importance of scholarly and polemical studies abroad, and samizdat publication at home. For those wishing to resist and undermine communism, telling the truth about history was a potent weapon.

The collapse of the Soviet empire in the years 1989-91 represented the ultimate defeat of communist historiography. Every element of the Kremlin-authorised version of history was proved to be wrong. Russia before the Bolshevik revolution was not doomed or stagnant. It had been developing fast. The planned economy squandered human and natural resources only to reach the dead-end of the Brezhnev years, with widespread shortages, industrial obsolescence, pitiful infrastructure and mountainous internal and external debts—failures made all the more devastating by systematic deceit about their nature and extent.

‘The captive nations never believed the Soviet version to start with. They knew that their countries had been occupied, not liberated, in 1944-45’

At home and abroad, the Soviet leadership had behaved not as liberators, but like the imperialists that they decried. The history of the Russian Civil War, it turned out, was a lie. So too were the hagiographies of Lenin. The full horrors of Stalinism emerged, after decades of whitewash. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, whose existence had been denied for decades, were found in a safe in the Kremlin and published.

For Russians, the realisation that official history had been falsified was a shattering blow. The captive nations—Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians and others—never believed the Soviet version to start with. They knew that the interwar republics, for all their faults, were not the fascist hellholes of “bourgeois nationalism” depicted by communist propaganda. They knew that their countries had been occupied, not liberated, in 1944-45. They knew that Soviet-backed regimes had brought backwardness and isolation, not modernisation. They knew that the people implementing Kremlin instructions were thugs and grifters, not noble idealists. They knew all these things, even if they could not say so.

The final years of the Soviet empire brought the beginnings of free speech. Many taboo issues could be discussed. But the hottest topic was history, and it ignited a furnace of political change.

In Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, for example, the central issue was the events of 40 and 50 years earlier. What really happened in June 1940? The pre-war republics had not voted voluntarily to join the Soviet Union. They had been terrorised into doing so, after sham elections. That laid the foundation for the restoration of independence, not as “new” former Soviet Socialist Republics, but as countries that had never lost their de jure statehood. What about the deportations of 1941 and 1949? Soviet rule whitewashed these huge national traumas.

Poland’s history had been subject to particular contortions under communism. The failure of the pre-war republic was exaggerated, the Soviet invasion of September 17th 1939 all but ignored, and the role of the non-communist resistance overlooked. The massacre of the Polish officer corps at Katyń and other locations in April-May 1940 was, quite ludicrously, blamed on the Germans. The Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and the fate of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) at Soviet hands after the war, was all but ignored in favour of the modest feats of the much smaller, communist-led People’s Army (Armia Ludowa). The movement of Poland’s borders and populations as a result of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences was treated euphemistically.

Viktor Orbán speaks at Imre Nagy’s reburial, June 16 1989 (©Istvan Csaba Toth/ MTI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In Czechoslovakia, taboo topics included the Soviet-backed regime’s seizure of power in 1948, accompanied by widespread repressions, including the mysterious death of Jan Masaryk, the last non-communist foreign minister; and the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 which crushed Alexander Dubček’s experiment in reformed socialism. In Hungary, the main business was restoring a proper history of the 1956 invasion. The reburial in 1989 of Imre Nagy, the country’s leader during the brief period of liberalisation, was a cathartic moment, involving huge crowds and a fiery speech by the then leader of the young liberals, Viktor Orbán (above).

Stripping away decades of deceit and obfuscation was an intellectual liberation that complemented the political transformation. Central and east Europeans, and their friends in the West, felt vindicated. For decades, the Soviet Union had used its military and diplomatic might, plus ruthless intelligence means, to enforce a distorted version of history. That attempt had failed, and failed catastrophically.

Social revulsion at communist crimes and lies provided political energy for painful economic and other changes. The “Western” approach involved clarity about the crimes of communism, rectifying injustice, and taking a fact-based approach to history. The move to market economics and a multi-party system, the building of the institutions of a free society and integration with US-led international organisations all benefited from the same rejection of the past and admiration for the West’s stance during the Cold War.

The effect of this was intensified by the Russian Federation’s ambiguous approach to history. Hopes of a German-style Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) were soon dashed. The Russian state showed some interest in exploring its own peoples’ suffering under totalitarianism, but little in rectifying injustices done to other countries. There was no restitution of confiscated property, nor compensation to foreign victims of slave labour and other repression. For the ex-captive nations, the “Russian” approach involved continuing concealment, without even the cloak of communist ideals..

Moreover, the lessons of history pointed firmly towards internal and external cohesion. Freed to examine the real history of the interwar period, historians and the public could see clearly how Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had exploited divisions and weakness. Czechoslovakia’s alienation of its German minority, for example, looked like a lethal mistake, which paved the way for Hitler’s irredentist politics. The diplomatic failures of the 1930s, such as the conflict between Poland and Lithuania, or Hungary’s tortured relations with its neighbours, also looked self-defeating and self-indulgent. The countries of central and eastern Europe might—had they only cooperated—have resisted the great-power politics being practised in both Moscow and Berlin. The future, it was clear, was integration. Historical issues with neighbouring states were to be downplayed in favour of cross-border cooperation, adherence to international standards on minority rights, and the overwhelmingly important goal of integration into the EU and Nato.

The tragic events in Yugoslavia in the early and mid-1990s underlined the importance of this approach. While the rest of Europe was trying to look towards the future, Serbian and Croatian nationalist leaders ruthlessly exploited long-standing historical grievances: in the case of Serbia, dating back to defeat at Turkish hands on June 15th, 1389. The result, after 130,000 dead, was a US-brokered deal in which no country could claim victory. During the same time period, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary had laid the ground for their accession to Nato in 1997, with scrupulous attention to maintaining friendly relations with their neighbours. Under Václav Havel, the Czechoslovak and then Czech president, agreement was reached with Germany on a common approach to the traumatic deportation of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Poland and Germany had reached agreement on the finality of their frontier (which included historic German territories awarded to Poland after 1945). Hungary pursued policies of rapprochement with both Romania and Slovakia, despite the election, at times, of nationalist and authoritarian parties in both countries.

In about 2005, everything changed. The grounds for optimism were strong, although in retrospect this looks very much like complacency. De-toxifying history had seemed not only morally wise but politically sensible. It improved national security, the investment climate and foreign trade. The passage of time was steadily reducing the risk of a change of course. People who harboured personal grudges were dying off; those with a personal stake in a future of cross-border integration and friendship were growing by the year.

‘The biggest threat to the security of the region is the use of history to undermine democracy at home, and to stoke rows with neighbours’

Yet the treatment of history post-1989, and history itself, were not as clear cut as anti-communist campaigners wished. Perhaps the thorniest issue concerned the captive nations and the Holocaust. Soviet historiography exaggerated and distorted the past, but it had not completely invented it. The Nazi occupation of eastern Europe had enjoyed some local support, part opportunistic, part sincere. Score-settling against the Jewish population intensified in the chaos of wartime, particularly in Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. Participation in the mass murder of Jews was not systematic enough to sustain the Kremlin’s “grand narrative”, in which everyone who opposed Soviet rule was a Nazi, but neither did it permit the construction of a flawless alternative story, in which every anti-communist was a hero.

The main current historical narrative in the region treats Nazi and Soviet occupiers as morally equivalent. This overlooks the sharply different experience of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the two regimes. For Jews living under Nazi rule, the Soviet military victory in 1944-45 was indeed liberation. For their Gentile counterparts, it typically heralded a new, and in many respects, worse occupation. Although this issue is aggravated by Russian propaganda and the activities of local proxies, it reflects a real, unresolved conflict, and fosters political problems in countries whose relations with the United States are central to national security.

These issues burst quickly into the open in newly independent Lithuania, where the authorities were eager to rescind the sentences handed down by Soviet “Troika” courts in the late 1940s, which typically condemned anti-communist Lithuanians to death or exile. A standard charge in these cases was participation in war crimes. Although often unfounded, and handed down by courts that did not meet even elementary standards of justice, these sentences were not always unmerited. Jewish groups, particularly the Simon Wiesenthal Center, were quick to highlight what could be depicted as the exculpation of Nazi accomplices by the new Lithuanian state.

Related rows broke out in Poland, not least over the restitution of property that had been seized from Jews by the Nazis, then passed on to new owners by the Communist regime. The Polish government’s recent attempt to criminalise the description of the Nazi extermination camps on the soil of occupied Poland as “Polish death camps” exemplifies the issue. The current Polish perspective sees Poles, especially Gentile Poles, only as victims and never as perpetrators. In recent years historians such as Jan Gross, a Polish-American academic, have encountered furious criticism, including criminal prosecutions, for their scholarly work on Polish anti-Semitism during and after the war. The 2013 film Ida by the award-winning Anglo-Polish film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski, which depicts Polish complicity in the deaths of some Jews, was shown on state-run television only accompanied by a fiercely critical 12-minute
denunciation.

A further issue is the role of local militias and other military units which fought alongside the Nazis against Soviet occupation. The Estonian, Latvian and Galician divisions of the Waffen SS were battlefield units, not part of the Nazi party’s notorious private army. But this distinction is easily overlooked amid wider concerns about the overlap in some cases between these military units and local police auxiliary organisations directly implicated in the murder of Jews. Coupled with the conspicuous if marginal presence of (in Ukraine) avowedly Nazi and (in Estonia) avowedly racist political groups, this issue is ripe for exploitation by Kremlin propagandists.

The biggest threat to the security of the region, however, is not issues relating to Nazi Germany and the Second World War. It is the use of history to undermine democracy at home, and to stoke rows with neighbours.

The foremost examples of this are Poland and Hungary. Poland had excellent relations with its neighbours, and from 1990 to around 2005 enjoyed a political consensus based on the “thick line” drawn between the pre-1989 communist regime and what came afterwards. The transition to democracy agreed at the Round Table talks of 1989 was based on what at the time was seen as the principled avoidance of vindictiveness. Communist officials gave up their power and privileges, in return for, in effect, an amnesty. But the avowedly patriotic forces in Poland most recently mustered under the ruling Law and Justice party banner see that as a betrayal. Though their leading figures supported the Round Table at the time, the thick line in their view now was an układ (deal or stitch-up) between the communist elite and the liberal, secular (and often ex-communist) elements of the opposition. The crimes of the past are whitewashed and their perpetrators amnestied.

The rhetoric of the ruling party is imbued with history. Jarosław Kaczyński, the party leader, said in an interview with TV Republika in December 2015 that “a tradition of betrayal is genetically embedded within the worst sort of Poles”. This deliberately linked his political rivals to those who at disastrous junctures in the country’s history collaborated with hostile foreign powers. The use of history to delegitimise and then demonise political rivals as traitors lays the ground for the use of counter-intelligence means against them, and the conflation of political opposition with national security threats. Another politician, Dominik Tarczyński, told wPolityce.pl that the conflict between the government and opposition parties is in effect a reflection, even a continuation, of the fight between the democratic opposition and the communist regime. 

Among the lightning rods for these sentiments was the WSI military intelligence agency. After becoming defence minister in 2005, Radosław (“Radek”) Sikorski launched an initial attempt to purge the organisation, citing its institutional continuity with the Warsaw Pact era intelligence structures. Any gains from Sikorski’s shake-up were outstripped by losses incurred under a successor, Antoni Macierewicz, who, despite what critics regarded as his own questionable ties to Russia, pursued the WSI with an obsessive focus. The result was debilitating for Poland’s intelligence effectiveness, and corrosive for its relationship with Nato allies. In 2015 Macierewicz alarmed Poland’s friends with a late-night raid, accompanied by military police, on a Nato-affiliated counter-intelligence centre in Warsaw.

A second, more broadly-based example, is the growth of interest in the anti-communist resistance, in particular the Żołnierze wyklęci (Cursed Soldiers). These partisans, numbering between 120,000 and 180,000 continued resistance, including armed struggle, against the communist regime after 1945. Their story is not widely known: though the last organised units were defeated in the winter of 1953, the last fighter, Józef Franczak, was mortally wounded resisting arrest as late as 1963.

‘The underlying point is to contrast a virtuous distant past with the lazy and forgetful post-1989 years, in which Poles were making money and bettering themselves’

The issue was largely ignored in the 1990s (at a time when at least some survivors were still alive). Indeed, even the terms are new: the 2007 Atlas of the Underground Resistance 1944-1956, published by the official Institute for National Remembrance, does not use Żołnierze wyklęci. The revival of interest in their fate owes more to politics than to scholarship. A public holiday to mark the resistance struggle was instituted only in 2011; in recent years, the soldiers—especially their wolf emblem—have become part of popular culture, with T-shirts, office paraphernalia and other souvenirs. Overlooked in this are complexities and nuances of the history of the resistance, including its deep, disastrous penetration by the communist security services, and the fierce (and sometimes lethal) rivalry between different groups. Despite many lurid popular-history books and pamphlets on the topic, no academic monograph or definitive history has been published. As the Polish historian Marcin Czajkowski notes: “Despite the weight and popularity of the subject, there is no significant increase in knowledge of the phenomenon—it remains just ammunition in the political struggle.” The underlying point is to contrast a virtuous distant past with the lazy and forgetful post-1989 years, in which Poles were busy making money and bettering themselves, forgetting the sacrifices of their forebears.

The official Polish approach to history has two features. One is to minimise the room for discussion. Any questioning of the central narrative is borderline treason. The other is to integrate all historical events into that narrative. A striking example of this is the linking of the Smolensk plane crash of 2010 with the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Objectively, these have little in common. The Warsaw Uprising was a colossal disaster with roots that lie deep in Poland’s geopolitical weakness, and with devastating, generational consequences. The crash of the presidential plane at Smolensk in Russia, killing all 96 people on board, including many of the country’s most senior public figures, was indeed a tragedy. But it was not the result of foul play. No serious outside investigation has produced evidence (or motive) for sabotage, by Russia or anyone else. At worst, its roots lie in carelessness on the ground coupled with recklessness in the air. And, apart from entrenching Law and Justice’s martyrdom-based narrative, it had no lasting consequences for Poland’s foreign, security or defence policy. Yet in 2016 Law and Justice added a roll-call of the Smolensk victims to the Uprising’s anniversary commemoration.

Another example is the rewriting of Poland’s post-1989 history to depict figures such as Lech Wałęsa, the first post-communist president, and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first democratically elected prime minister, as foes of the country’s pro-Western stance. In truth, Poland’s accession to Nato and the EU owes a deep debt to the politicians of the centre and left, and enjoyed almost unanimous cross-party support. That is not the way the story is presented now.

In both cases, conspiracy theories play a troubling role. The idea of sinister forces manipulating events from behind the scenes is entrenched in Poland (and to some extent in other countries). It has roots in the historical experience of powerlessness during more than a century of partition, and during the more recent Nazi and Soviet occupations. Though this thinking often harms discussion and rational analysis, it is not necessarily ill-founded. There were secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Katyń massacre really was
covered up. The West was warned about the impending imposition of martial law in December 1981, but chose to do nothing. Building trust in institutions, public figures and foreign countries will be a long process.

Poland’s notably harmonious relations with its neighbours also deteriorated under the weight of history. Sikorski, as foreign minister (2007-14), fuelled rows with Lithuania over its policy on the use of the Polish language in official documents, street signs and education for the Polish-speaking minority. Pressure from the bigger neighbour prompted a predictable if regrettable response from the Lithuanian side, which drew comparisons between the Soviet occupation of the country in 1940 and the Polish seizure of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius (Wilno) and surrounding area in 1920. However Sikorski also cultivated a deep rapprochement with Germany (pledging Polish support for Angela Merkel’s leadership of Europe) and with Ukraine (notably in defusing long-standing animosities about the bloody fighting between Polish and Ukrainian partisan forces during and after the war).

These relationships have deteriorated sharply since Sikorski’s departure (though ties to Lithuania have warmed). The post-Maidan Ukrainian government accentuated the role of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army) which in Polish eyes was responsible for ethnic purges in the Volhynia region of what was then eastern Poland in 1943-44 that killed 100,000 civilians. Ukraine’s adoption of the Fighters for Independence Law in April 2015 made it a potentially criminal offence to denigrate the UPA and the related political organisation, the OUN. Poland responded in July 2016 by recognising the Volhynia massacres as genocide. The Kremlin has eagerly seized on these difficulties, paying provocateurs, posing as nationalist zealots, to damage military cemeteries in both countries.

It is perhaps unsurprising that opinion polls show that whereas the proportion of Poles saying that they are “somewhat or very” interested in history is growing, the proportion who can actually name important dates and figures in their country’s history is dropping.

The story in Hungary is broadly similar. Before Viktor Orbán took power in 2005, Hungarians enjoyed a broad consensus about their past. The pre-war authoritarian regime was seen as regrettable, not admirable. The war-time alliance with Nazi Germany was seen as a lamentable if understandable response to a geopolitical impasse. Participation in the Holocaust was shameful, albeit not systematic. Hungarian territories lost under the Treaty of Trianon deserved sympathy, and intensified cultural and other contacts, but irredentism was a dead end. The best approach for Hungary and Hungarians was integration in Euro-Atlantic security and other structures, to decrease the importance of national borders. History was an academic discipline, not a political weapon.

Every element of this has come under attack since 2005 with the Orbán ascendancy. Speaking this summer at a festival in Transylvania (a Hungarian-populated part of Romania) the Hungarian leader announced that the political system would be embedded in a “cultural era”. Governments have dismantled the independent study of history, and elevated the state-run Veritas Institute to be the official custodian of national historiography, also taking direct control of the previously independent Hungarian Academy of Sciences. New memorials mark the victims of the short-lived communist republic of 1919, and of the “German invasion” of 1944, which ended the limited independence previously enjoyed by the regime of Admiral Horthy. Yet the idea that Gentile and Jewish Hungarians were equal victims of the war is fiercely contested by most Holocaust historians. Even before the full German occupation of Hungary, Jews faced violent
repression, deportation and forced labour. The director of Veritas, however, Sandor Szakaly, described the deportation of Jews under Horthy in 1941 as “police action against aliens.”

A Holocaust museum in Budapest has yet to open because of disagreements between scholars. The authorities are spending heavily on the commemoration of the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon; a planned monument will include the names of cities and provinces that have not been part of Hungarian territory for a century. With regard to the struggle against communism, official history now depicts Orbán as a central figure, ignoring the role played by the liberal and regime-critical elements within the then-ruling Communist Party.

The overall aim here is clear: to create a narrative of Hungarian victimhood, in which the country’s misfortunes are the result of externally imposed disasters, and its salvation lies in strong leadership. Rather than relying on allies and multinational security, therefore, Hungarians should focus on national sovereignty. Another message—as in Poland—is that 1989 marked not the end of the reckoning with communism, but only a false start. The real job, of thoroughly reforming the country’s institutions, began only when Orbán took power in 2005, and is far from complete. A third and related message is that the country, then and now, is divided between loyal, pious, patriotic country-dwellers (“true Hungarians”) and treasonous, secular-liberal metropolitan elites.

This selective approach to history has had a considerable impact on Hungary’s domestic politics—diminishing the country’s attractiveness as an ally. Much more worrying, however, is Hungary’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Ukraine. Orbán stood out among central European leaders in his lack of enthusiasm for the democratic revolution in Ukraine in 2014. At the Globsec security conference in Bratislava, his narrowly focussed concern on the fate of the Hungarian minority in the Transcarpathian region of Western Ukraine earned him a stinging public rebuke from Donald Tusk, the then Polish prime minister. Hungary went so far as to veto publicly Ukraine’s talks on Nato accession, citing a new language law which elevates Ukrainian over other minority languages, including Hungarian. In truth, the disagreements are trivial. Hungarians in Ukraine are not badly treated. Difficulties could be resolved through normal diplomatic channels. For those who support Ukraine’s westward orientation and integration, Hungary’s instrumentalisation of trivial historical differences in order to create a diplomatic blockade is a prime example of the toxic role of memory in contemporary geopolitics.

The increasing abuse of history in the countries of central and eastern Europe reduces the internal and external cohesion that is the foundation of our international and domestic political order. But just as in the Soviet period, government control of history creates long-term vulnerabilities. If you discover that your government is misleading you on, for example, your country’s role in the Holocaust, you may be disinclined to believe it on other issues—such as, say, the threat from Russia or China.

The lesson of the past is that officially mandated historiography is doomed to failure. Neither the Polish nor the Hungarian governments has the resources to prevent discussion of the past outside official academia, or in foreign countries. In the long term, history wins out. In the short term, however, abuse of history can entrench authoritarian rulers, providing them with legitimacy, especially through manufacturing and aggravating grievances against “outsiders” (either minority populations or neighbouring countries). An issue that was largely unforeseen in 1989 will shape the region’s strategic landscape for the coming decades.