At least 3400 alleged ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ are currently awaiting trial in Belarus. According to Alexander Lukashenko, protesters against his government have been ‘literally’ inspired by Mein Kampf. Contemplating tensions on the Lithuanian border, he warns that ‘true Nazis’ are on the warpath.
For a year now, Lukashenko has been branding his enemies fascists. The rhetoric has escalated steadily since May, when he pushed through a law to prohibit the ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. The statute was modelled on a Russian edict passed after Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, and mirrors legislation enacted by nationalist governments throughout Eastern Europe. What distinguishes the ‘memory laws’ is their targets. Beyond Minsk and Moscow, they’re hostile to Communism as well as Nazism.
Lithuania was annexed by Stalin in 1940, invaded by Hitler in 1941 and then incorporated into the Soviet Union for half a century. Thousands of Lithuanians were murdered by Soviet forces, and around 100,000 were deported to the Gulag and Siberia. Jews were then annihilated by the Nazis in far greater numbers, but the Red Army’s return wasn’t universally welcomed. By the late 1940s, the Soviets faced a guerilla war. Among their tens of thousands of Lithuanian adversaries were many who had served alongside German troops. The last gunbattle was in 1965; one straggler didn’t emerge from the birch forests until 1971.
Independent Lithuania cut through the complexities with a simple legislative assertion. In April 1992, its parliament equated Soviet crimes with German ones. Any act of ‘killing, torturing and deportation’, whether committed by Communists or Nazis, was deemed to be ‘genocide as defined by international law’.
It was a quixotic move. The Genocide Convention of 1948 penalises lethal violence targeting ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious groups’, and its exclusion of ‘political’ groups was a postwar concession to Stalin; though Communist regimes would destroy countless lives, they did so in the name of suppressing irrational prejudices. Lithuania couldn’t unilaterally modify international law, but the ‘double genocide theory’ – the legal equation of Communist and Nazi crimes – has had an effect on European politics ever since.
Building on the prohibitions of Holocaust denial that started spreading across Western Europe during the 1990s, Eastern European governments persuaded the EU in 2008 to urge member states to clamp down on totalitarianism denial. In Lithuania you can now go to prison if you deny (or ‘grossly trivialise’) Nazi or Soviet crimes. To make it easier to convict Communists, the government has also re-redefined genocide: since 2003, the domestic offence extends to violence against ‘social and political groups’.
You don’t need to have Nazi sympathies to understand why anti-Soviet sentiment in Lithuania remains strong. When the Red Army rolled in for the last time, on 13 January 1991, fourteen protesters were killed and more than seven hundred badly injured. But the double-genocide theory has had baleful effects. It has stoked ‘deflective negationism’ – tendencies to downplay Nazi collaboration and shift blame – and though the ultra-nationalists are loudest in Poland and Ukraine, Lithuania’s record is poor.
Its courts have never punished anyone for siding with the Nazis or for killing Jews, despite ample incriminating evidence. Ageing KGB officers have been sentenced to jail for genocide, though, and extremists still demand the prosecution of anti-Nazi partisans. Parliamentarians have proclaimed 2021 the year of Juozas Lukša, a fighter shot dead in 1951. He was no doubt brave, but some eyewitnesses to a 1941 pogrom said he also beheaded a rabbi.
The memory laws of Eastern Europe can’t simply be dismissed as false or futile. They contribute to political projects of the kind Svetlana Boym once called ‘restorative nostalgia’: they offer post-totalitarian societies reassurance that, regardless of modern tribulations, the nation is stable and morally just. Hazards arise, however, whenever state officials weigh in on controversial aspects of the national record – Michael Gove’s efforts to celebrate Britishness spring to mind – and it’s particularly dangerous to shield narratives by statute in a region where arguments about the recent past have claimed millions of lives. Associating states with heroism or victimhood obscures the fact that governments in search of legitimacy often exploit popular emotions. Once that is forgotten, dissidents are demonised, corruption is institutionalised, and military adventures begin.
The risks aren’t being ignored, even in the countries where ethno-nationalism is strongest. Ukraine denigrates its Soviet past in many ways, but legislators have balked at criminalising the acknowledgment of historical embarrassments: the fact that national heroes sometimes co-operated with the Nazis, for example. And though the Law and Justice Party in Warsaw recently passed a defamation law that threatens to stifle critical research into Polish collaboration, its attempts to legislate history have stalled. Provisions that made it illegal to deny Polish suffering or to assert collusion were repealed after criticism and judicial challenge.
The only state that has actually fined or imprisoned people for historical incorrectness is Russia. Since 2014, the courts have convicted at least sixteen defendants of ‘rehabilitating Nazism’. Social media users and professional historians have been punished for commenting on demonstrably true events. The first casualty, Vladimir Luzgin, wasn’t said to have lied; his crime was to describe the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 as ‘active collaboration’.
The convictions in Belarus will now doubtless multiply. In a country that’s traditionally been highly respectful of the Soviet war record, Lukashenko’s move is doubly cynical: in the name of combating a unique evil, it caricatures everyone opposed to the present regime as a Nazi. Protesters who now find themselves labelled war criminals might take comfort from an old Soviet joke: ‘The future is certain; it’s the past that’s unpredictable.’ But in a region where twentieth-century conflicts remain unresolved, that isn’t funny, and historical accuracy won’t be all that suffers.