In May 1945, as smoke still billowed over the ruins of Adolf Hitler’s empire, French opinion pollster IFOP asked citizens which nation they thought had contributed most to defeating Nazi Germany. A whopping 57 percent considered the Soviet Union the decisive actor, compared to 20 percent for the United States and 12 percent for Britain. Yet when IFOP conducted the same survey in 1994, after the USSR had itself collapsed, it found that perceptions had changed radically. Five decades on, just 25 percent believed the USSR had contributed most to the Allied cause, compared to 49 percent for the United States and 16 percent for Britain.
Historical memory can be rather fickle. It’s not just that history drifts into the distance as our image of the past fades. Rather, historical memory is something that changes through an active process in which each generation reinterprets the world handed down to it. In this case, it’s easy to see how changes in the dominant Western view of the USSR after 1945 — the Cold War, Nikita Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin, revolts in the Eastern Bloc, and its ultimate collapse — all undermined the prestige that this state had enjoyed at the end of World War II, as the lead actor in this noble cause.
More than simply changing, historical memory is actively reshaped by pop-culture representations as well as by active political forces. That’s how we should understand the passing, this September 18, of a European Parliament resolution “on the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe.” Backed by the S&D (center left), Renew (liberal), EPP (Christian-Democrat) and ECR (conservative) groups, the motion is presented as a condemnation of all “totalitarianisms,” taking the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 as the starting point of five decades of oppression, today ended by the European project and NATO.
There’s some rather dodgy history here. The pact was, indeed, the immediate trigger for the Wehrmacht invasion of Poland — provoking the British-French declaration of war on Nazi Germany. It also included secret clauses by which Berlin and Moscow divided up zones of domination in Eastern Europe, which endured until the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941. From Stalin’s side, this was not just “breathing space” to build up Soviet defenses, but a characteristic act of extreme cynicism toward the populations of Eastern Europe; it was also a shock to Communists around Europe, galvanized over previous years by a militant opposition to Hitlerism.
We might nonetheless doubt that the pact “caused the outbreak of World War II,” or that the war was nothing but a Nazi-Soviet division of Europe. What about the fact that Hitler had planned the war even in the 1920s, or the reality — soon proven by events unmentioned in the motion — that the USSR was both the main victim of his war policy (27 million dead) and the main actor in combating Nazism? What about the events of the 1930s, in which conservatives in Britain and France had “appeased” the Nazi leader — letting him break the Versailles Treaty’s ban on German rearmament, handing him territorial “concessions” in central Europe, and turning a blind eye to his armed intervention in Spain — while refusing the anti-Nazi alliance proposed by Stalin?
Anti-Communism Without Communism
These historical arguments are well worn. But more important for our purposes is the question invoked by the motion’s title — that is, what this particular version of history says about “Europe’s future.” This is, after all, a radicalization of mainstream anti-communism. As Primo Levi once put it, even Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not describe anything akin to Treblinka or Chelmno — yet this motion presents “communism” as simply genocidal. Building on Hungarian and Polish anti-communism as well as “anti-totalitarian philosophy,” the European Parliament motion condemns not just Stalinist atrocities, but the entire experience of state socialism — and even the communists who opposed Stalin — as equivalent to the Nazis and their death camps.
This does, at least, serve the purpose of portraying even the harshest Polish or Hungarian nationalism in terms of victimhood and redemption. It seems that the Nazis have been condemned quite enough already, but not the communists. As Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) put it, “Jews have been compensated for the events of World War II, but Poles, never” (a line also neatly dismissing the “Polishness” of the murdered Jews). Yet the motion also portrays communism as a cancer undermining European democracy, even in countries where there are close to zero actual communist forces. As in McCarthyite America, “anti-communism” attacks far more than just communists.
This is particularly notable in Poland, where PiS’s continuing call for the purge of “communists” serves as the glue of a resentful nationalism. While in the anti-communist revolution of 1989 its leader Jarosław Kaczyński presented himself as a centrist Christian Democrat, he is today a hard-right figure who wages the “anti-communist” battle even against forces who stand far from the political left. The so-called “lustration” (or “decommunization”) campaign claims that ex-communists have never been properly purged — and when the Polish Tribunal struck down PiS “lustration” measures as unconstitutional and antidemocratic, its judges were cast as mere communist stooges.
We can find similar developments in Hungary, where far-right leader Viktor Orbán (in 1989 a liberal) has waged the war on “communism” deep into the current decade. In 2011, he introduced a new constitution centered on the archaic spirit of the “Holy Crown,” family values, and Christianity, while dropping the word “republic” from the country’s name. He thus replaced even the 1990 constitution, claiming that this document preserved a “communist” framework given its republican and secular notes. In Hungary, all communist symbols (including the red star and the hammer and sickle) are banned; the fight against “communism” is routinely used to delegitimize all opposition.
This corresponds to what Richard Seymour has called “anti-communism without communism” — the practice whereby leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro and Italy’s Matteo Salvini (and before him, Silvio Berlusconi) wage a culture war on “communism” even where the Left has already ceased to exist or converted to centrist-neoliberal positions. In the absence of real communists, the far right either replaces them with some other demon (notably racial minorities) or simply presents democratic-republican values as themselves enemies of “national culture” and “common sense.” The fight against “cultural Marxism” plays a similar role in US alt-right discourse.
This version of anti-communism is also pushed by the European Parliament motion, and its specific way of invoking the “Stalinist” threat. Absent any mass Communist political formations, even where they once ruled, this history is instead weaponized against another great bogeyman — Russia — which is accused of “distort[ing] historical facts and whitewash[ing] crimes committed by the Soviet totalitarian regime” as part of its “information war waged against democratic Europe that aims to divide Europe.” Squaring the circle, Soviet war memorials erected after 1945 are portrayed as vehicles of “totalitarian ideology,” which Russia is apparently pushing on us still today.
For this reason, the motion represents an odd combination of interests among liberal centrists in the West and nationalist forces in Visegrád group countries, for whom the great enemy is “Russia,” in a renewed Cold War. For those who see a Russian hand in the victory of Trump, or Brexit, or attacks on Prince Andrew, it doubtless seems more heroic to think of themselves as crusaders against “totalitarianism.” Yet this anti-Russian obsession also leads to an unprecedented erasure of anti-fascism, even by parties like the Italian Democrats (a party largely descended from the Italian Communist Party) and the UK Labour Party, each of which voted for the European Parliament motion.
The history of World War II is no morality play. Winston Churchill was a great opponent of Hitler, in the defense of the British Empire; such a venerated German Resistance figure as Claus von Stauffenberg supported the use of Polish slave labor and the defense of Hitler’s territorial conquests. Those so motivated can surely find instances of unjust killings perpetrated by communist resistance fighters; there were also crimes unmentioned in this motion such as the mass rapes perpetrated by Red Army (and to a lesser extent, Western) troops.
These facts deserve proper historical investigation, as they have indeed drawn. What they do not do is relativize the history of ideologies that overtly promote race war, conquest, and the subjugation or enslavement of women and minorities. Yet the European Parliament’s comparison of communism, or indeed “radical ideologies” in general to Nazism can only do this. No one would try to make the Holocaust sound bad by comparing it to conditions under the postwar socialist regime in Poland — the polemical charge is inevitably focused in the opposite direction, claiming that the communists were “no better” than the Nazis.
Demonizing the Left
Aside from its historical illiteracy, the European Parliament motion is also motivated by a quite different purpose: to determine who the legitimate freedom fighters are. Judging by the motion’s sponsors, it seems this category stretches from Emmanuel Macron to Viktor Orbán, but not to the left-wing opponents of neoliberalism and NATO. Notable in this regard is the explicit reference to NATO as the mainstay of “freedom” and the “European family,” together with the “reforms and socio-economic development, with the EU’s assistance” conducted in the countries of central-eastern Europe. Here, not just the European project in general, but NATO as well as neoliberal restructuring are portrayed as the barrier to totalitarianism.
After 1945, many democratic countries banned the reemergence of fascist or Nazi parties — depending on the country, there was a greater or lesser purge of former regime personnel. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, this process was imitated in many central-eastern European countries that themselves banned communist parties. Yet if today the “Stalinist” threat is purely imaginary, the likes of Salvini, Orbán, and Kaczyński are using “anti-totalitarianism” to condemn the Left while denying that they are themselves fascists.
In a cogent article on the “Heritage of Totalitarianism,” Owen Hatherley evokes the Memento Park in Budapest, a “graveyard” of monuments to Hungarian Stalinism. There’s the boots of the statue of Stalin, felled by the revolution of 1956, but so, too, Soviet war memorials, and even the tribute to the International Brigades, the social-democrats and communists who went to fight fascism in Spain — now condemned as just so many totalitarians. In 1989, Orbán praised Imre Nagy, the Communist leader executed in 1958 because he stood up to the Soviet Union — in 2018, he had his statue torn down as just another monument to totalitarianism. If communism really were equivalent to Nazism, this would be rather like burning copies of Schindler’s List.
This is why opposing the European Parliament motion on “totalitarianism” has nothing to do with defending Stalin, denying crimes like the Katyn Massacre, or claiming that the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was just a peace deal. It’s about opposing the unthinking recasting of history for the shallowest political ends, in which the Nazi Holocaust is relativized simply in order to make Russia look bad. Liberals often like to claim they’re standing up for “the facts” against the claims of figures like Orbán and Salvini, trying to undermine our democracy. If they are really so committed to this cause, they might start by refusing the far-right vision of history.