The problem with the monument to victims of communism

There have been plenty of complaints directed at the proposed monument in Ottawa to victims of communism, but the monument as proposed oversimplifies the difficult and tragic history of the Second World War, writes Dougald Lamont.

Some of 'victims' were Nazis, while some of the Communists were Jews fighting for their lives

The winning design for the new National Memorial to Victims of Communism on Wellington Street in Ottawa. Numerous people and groups have been critical of the monument's location, design or both. (Tribute to Liberty)

There have been plenty of complaints directed at the proposed monument to the "Victims of communism" in Ottawa on P​arliament Hill: a lack of consultation, the wrong location, or that the private monument — which feature donors' names, not those of victims — is in questionable taste. 

However, the monument as proposed oversimplifies the difficult and tragic history of the Second World War, because some of the "victims" of communism were Nazis, and some Communists were Jews fighting for their lives in the Holocaust.

What's more, some of the Eastern European politicians and governments involved in pushing for the recognition of the victims of communism in Europe during the Second World War have an ulterior motive. Not only are they engaged in in Holocaust revisionism to diminish their own governments' complicity in Nazi war crimes, they are doing so even as they honour politicians who were Nazi sympathizers or outright collaborators.

The complexity of the history is embodied in the person of Yitzhak Arad. Arad was a Communist partisan fighting in Lithuania who fled to Palestine in 1945 and became a brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces, then a historian. Between 1972 and 1993, he was director of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum.

In 2006, Lithuania tried to have Arad charged with crimes against humanity for his role in killing members of the "anti-Soviet resistance." The charges were politically motivated retribution for Arad's vocal criticism of that country's failure to come to grips with — or prosecute — war criminals complicit in the Holocaust.

'Double genocide' theory

That same, year Arad wrote about the political push across Europe for recognition that a "double genocide" had taken place — a Communist "Red" one, and a Nazi "Brown" one:

"The concept of a "Red and Brown Holocaust" has been slipped into the proceedings. According to this new paradigm, the Brown Holocaust refers to victims who were primarily Jews with the Germans and a few hundred Lithuanians responsible for it; while the Red Holocaust refers to events whose victims were Lithuanians, and for which the allegedly Judeo-Bolshevik Communist regime is responsible."

The "double genocide" theory gained widespread acceptance in Europe with the  2008 "Prague Declaration," whose signatories include such liberal luminaries as Vaclav Havel.

In its preamble, the declaration states that "Prague is one of the places that lived through the rule of both Nazism and communism" and that "that millions of victims of communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized."

Aside from the peculiar choice of the word "enjoy" — possibly a tin-eared translation — history is more complicated and tragic not only in Prague but across Europe and around the world. The great Canadian-Czech writer Josef Skvorecky wrote that the similarities of the totalitarian rule under the Nazis and the Communists was so great that the same people often worked for Nazis and Communists alike.

August commemoration controversial

Canada and the U.S. have taken to recognizing the victims of Stalinism and Nazism with "Black Ribbon Day," held on Aug. 23, the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact where Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R. agreed to carve up eastern Europe between them. 

Yet even this day is not without its controversy: writing for the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, Rabbi Abraham Cooper said, "Latvia and Lithuania are in the forefront of a campaign that would drop January 27th as International Holocaust Memorial Day and fold it into a new annual commemoration in August that would simultaneously 'remember' both the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and of communism."

Cooper said that this created the appalling prospect of paying respect to the victims of the Holocaust and its perpetrators in a single ceremony that emphasized Communist and Nazi collaboration, while ignoring that it was the Red Army, not the Allies, who liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27.

More damning, the same politicians who are pushing for an "equivalence" in genocides have been actively rehabilitating and paying respect to politicians who were active participants in the Nazi Holocaust.

As Professor Dovid Katz pointed out, some of the same groups who successfully lobbied the U.S. to adopt "Black Ribbon Day" in 2014 were also behind the 2012 repatriation of the remains of Juozas Ambrazevičius, a wartime Lithuanian prime minister.

Ambrazevičius was a Nazi puppet who sent thousands of Jews to a concentration camp to be murdered, and ordered the rest imprisoned in a ghetto. Yet after repatriation, his remains were buried with full honours at a funeral attended by two former heads of state.

In 2012, Elie Wiesel returned Hungary's highest honour when several Hungarian lawmakers took part in a memorial ceremony for Jozsef Nyiro, a Second World War member of Hungary's parliament who was a supporter of Hitler.

At the time, Wiesel wrote, "It has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary's past, namely the wartime Hungarian government's involvement in the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of its Jewish citizens. I do not wish to be associated in any way with such activities."

An argument no one can win

While in Germany denying the Holocaust is a crime, Hungary passed a law in 2010 that criminalizes saying there was only one genocide in World War II, punishable by three years in jail. Lithuania passed a similar law, with two years in jail, and in 2014 Latvia followed suit, with offenders risking five years in jail.

The argument over whether one group's suffering is worse than another's is an argument that no one can win, and it pits victims of one totalitarian regime against another. 

It is not that the lives lost under communism are worth less, or that the Nazi Holocaust was worse, but that in so many ways it was unique — not in its victims, but in its intentions. 

Other totalitarian governments build prison and labour camps and engineered famines. But the Nazis were unique in designing and building infrastructure for the deliberate, planned slaughter of millions of humans on an industrial scale, with the purpose of eradicating every last Jewish man, woman and child. The crimes of the Holocaust plumbed the greatest depths of deliberate human evil.

As the philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote, "The extermination of the Jews had no political or economic justification. It was not a means to any end; it was an end in itself."

Even Nicolas Werth, one of the authors of The Black Book of communism, pointed out that for all its evils, the U.S.S.R. did not have death camps.

There is no denying the crimes of totalitarian Communist governments — show trials and mass executions, forced labour camps, grinding oppression and tens of millions dead in famines and war.

To Canadian politicians of all stripes, the monument may be seen as an opportunity to affirm the values of liberal democracy and freedom against the crimes of totalitarianism.

But as a category, "communism" or "totalitarianism" are categories that are too abstract and too general. Specificity is the soul of narrative, so to do justice to the victims, we need to tell a more specific stories — of the Holomodor, or the Chinese famine, or the Cambodian genocide.

The purpose of memorials serves to remember and humanize the victims, but should also stand as a reminder of the human capacity for evil — even, as Hannah Arendt would say, when it is banal.

Dougald Lamont is a writer and strategic communications consultant in Winnipeg.