Far-right governments in Eastern Europe are rehabilitating past Nazi collaborators as national heroes, rewriting the history of the Holocaust to turn the Soviet Union into the villain. Historian Dovid Katz explains how the fascist-apologist “double genocide” myth is spreading
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.
Far-right governments in Eastern Europe are rewriting the history of World War II, and turning Nazi collaborators into heroes. In July 2017, NATO published a propaganda video that glorified Baltic Nazi collaborators as anticommunist heroes fighting the Russian menace. The film is about the so-called Forest Brothers, who were far-right ultranationalists in the Baltic states who fought the Soviet Union after many had been former members of Nazi Germany’s Waffen SS. The Baltic states- that is, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia- are all members of NATO and the European Union. And like much of Europe, they are also seeing a huge surge in far-right populist movements. A recent scandal in Lithuania highlights the increasing erasure of the history of the Holocaust amid these far-right movements.
The New York Times, surprisingly, published an article on September 10 that investigates this issue, titled Nazi Collaborator or National Hero? A Test for Lithuania. This piece is about General Storm, whose name was Jonas Noreika, and who is today seen as a local anticommunist hero. In 1947, Noreika was executed by the Soviet secret police. It was recently disclosed that Noreika was actually a Nazi collaborator.
Joining us to discuss this is Dovid Katz, the world’s leading expert on Jewish history in Lithuania. He has a long and impressive resume. Dovid has taught at Oxford University and Yale, and has won many awards. He is now a professor in Lithuania’s capital, where he lives, and he is the founder and editor of Defending History, which is a website and web journal dedicated to fighting Holocaust revisionism in Eastern Europe. Thanks for joining us, Dovid.
DOVID KOTZ: Pleasure. Thank you, Ben.
BEN NORTON: So let’s talk first about Lithuania, and then let’s move to other parts of Eastern Europe and look at how far-right movements are pushing a kind of Holocaust revisionism. So we’re going to look at Ukraine and Poland as well as LIthuania. But going back to this history here, can you talk about the history of Lithuanian Nazi collaborators? In 1941, the Nazis occupied Lithuania, and during the occupation Nazi German forces and Lithuanian collaborators murdered over 90 percent of Jews in Lithuania. That is around 200,000 people. And General Storm, this national hero Jonas Noreika, played a role in this genocide.
DOVID KOTZ: Right. Well, I’d like to preface my remarks, Ben, if I may, by stressing that I’m a Jewish New Yorker, as I hope you can still hear, who’s been living here 19 years in Vilnius, the beautiful Lithuanian capital. I find the people in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, in this entire neighborhood, to be warm, friendly, tolerant. Not far-right at all in general. I would say this is a problem of many of the mainstream nationalists. Now, they are far right, this nationalist elite in politics, the media, academia. They are far right in one major respect: that they want to make heroes out of Holocaust collaborators who, in the Baltic countries as in western Ukraine, were not only collaborators, they were tens of thousands of actual killers and assistants to killers in these countries who actually carried out the killing.
You mentioned June 1941. That was, of course, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In the week that followed, local nationalists in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine started to murder thousands of innocent Jewish neighbors before the Nazis, the Germans even got here, or before they set up their administration. In fact, these these countries’ record of success for Hitler was a major factor in the Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution six months later. In fact, it was 96.4 percent of Lithuanian Jews who were killed, along with Latvia and Estonia, hovering around the 95 percent mark, the highest in Europe.
Now, we of course blame the perpetrators. But the elites in these countries who want to make heroes out of the perpetrators are trying to say, in effect, that this participation in murdering tens of thousands of neighbors, ultimately hundreds of thousands, is not a big deal because they were anti-Soviet, and we have to make a hero out of anyone who is anti-Soviet. Now, all of us here hate the Soviet Union and Stalinism. We detest current Putinism. This is not at all about being pro-Soviet. This is about history and the truth of history. From 1941-1944 in these countries when the Holocaust took place, the Soviet Union was the only force fighting against Hitler and the only hope for survival of any Jew slated for extermination because of his or her birth. Whether it’s by escaping to Soviet-held territory that first week, that’s the way most of the survivors- they’re called the flight survivors- survived; joining the Soviet partisans in the forest.
So if we talk about the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, where the bulk of it occurred, that’s where most of the Jews live, we are talking about murderers who were all anti-Soviet. They all prayed for a Nazi victory and a Soviet defeat, just as every decent person and every victim of Nazism prayed for an Allied victory. And in those years, of course, the Soviet Union was in alliance with the United States and Great Britain.
So after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, a number of these countries, including the three Baltic states, started on a campaign to rewrite history. The campaign, or the revisionism, is usually called ‘double genocide.’ It doesn’t deny the Holocaust. It doesn’t deny a single death. So it’s a very strange phenomenon in the field of Holocaust denial. What it does is it downgrades the Holocaust, upgrades Soviet crimes, redefines genocide by inflation so it can include deportation, loss of religious freedom, loss of employment, imprisonment, all sorts of crimes that are not genocide. Then another component was the glorification of the perpetrators as national heroes, which is enormously painful to the remnant Jewish communities in these countries and to many, many other people who do not want their national heroes to be murderers. This is a decision of the elite.
Well, you mentioned the United States and NATO. Sadly, for some years now, NATO and the West, the United States, has been investing a lot in helping the Baltic states and Ukraine, among others, to help all this stay under the radar. In 2010 or so, the American Embassy here cut off relations with all of us who have a second opinion. This had to do, in part, with worsening relations with Russia. And that takes me to another component, that today’s political thinkers here somehow think that fixing the Holocaust is going to be a valuable weapon against Putin, which I think is total nonsense. They are two different questions.
BEN NORTON: Well, there’s a lot to address there, and you raise several important points. I want to come back to this phenomenon of double genocide. This is very important. But before that, let’s talk a bit more about some of the other countries in the region. We were talking about the Baltic states. Let’s look at Ukraine, because I mentioned General storm in Lithuania. And maybe you can talk more about him. But let’s also talk about Stepan Bandera. This has become a major national hero in Ukraine, even though he was also a Nazi collaborator. This is a Ukrainian ultranationalist leader. And now in Ukraine there are roads being named after him, and even government commemorations of Stepan Bandera.
DOVID KOTZ: Right. Well, here in Lithuania there are, sadly dozens, of Nazi collaborators, if not more, who have streets named after them. Jonas Noreika happened to be the one that made it into the news in 2018, thanks to his granddaughter Sylvia, for this very brave article in Slate. And that then being picked up in the New York Times. So we’re happy that finally something happened to bring this issue out of the secrecy the shrouds of taboo that has been surrounding it by the mainstream Western media and Western embassies in this part of the world.
Now, it’s important to state that in each biography of a Nazi perpetrator, as in any biography, there are many ins and outs. The person may have been a model citizen before the Holocaust and after the Holocaust; the person may have joined a post-war legitimate anti-Soviet protest group after the war. We are talking about the moral issue. If someone participated in the Holocaust, should they become a hero and have streets and schools and buildings named after them? What message does that send, not only about the Holocaust, but frankly about racism and genocide, and the minimisation of campaigns to eradicate a group of people of a certain birth?
Now, that issue, as I say, was brought to the fore with Noreika, but he’s one of many. In the case of Stepan Bandera in Ukraine, he was the leader, and the moral leader, of two major fascist organizations responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Polish people based on ethnicity. All civilians. Now, whoever writes a biography of Bandera will have occasion to find all sorts of of winding ins and outs. But none of that is relevant to the moral question. If an ally of the United States, of the West, of NATO, is glorifying a Nazi perpetrator, a Nazi collaborator, someone in part responsible for the millions of innocent people killed, we have a big problem. Because these are not the Western values we are seeking in our partners, or ultimately in ourselves. And I say in ourselves because the double genocide, or as the country, the governments and many of these countries have set up commissions with millions of dollars in budgets to spread double genocide to the United States, to Canada, to Britain, to Israel, in all cases taking advantage of current geopolitics. So it’s a danger of a ultranationalist, far-right revision of history masking itself, pretending to be center-right or mainstream, and in the meantime rewriting history at a moment when the last survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses are disappearing with with old age. So it’s a very sensitive moment in history.
BEN NORTON: All right. We’re going to have to take a pause in our conversation here. I’m joined by Dovid Katz, who is a world expert on Jewish history in Lithuania and Eastern Europe. We’re talking about the historical revisionism in Eastern Europe, and the attempt to turn Nazi collaborators into anticommunist heroes. Join us in part two for the rest of our discussion.