They just got a different tool to use than we do: They kill innocent lives to achieve objectives. That's what they do. And they're good. They get on the TV screens and they get people to ask questions about, well, you know, this, that or the other. I mean, they're able to kind of say to people: Don't come and bother us, because we will kill you. Bush - Joint News Conference with Blair - 28 July '06

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Eastern Europe, news agendas and Simon Wiesenthal

the observer blog: Don't forget - By Rafael Behr

A short story about Eastern Europe, news agendas and Simon Wiesenthal:

I used to be a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe. I was based in Riga for a while, from where I covered the Baltic states. These countries have a turbulent history, occupied and brutalised through history, subjected to an exceptionally bloody to-and-fro between Soviet and German armies in the first half of the 20th Century. In the early 1940s the Baltic region's large Jewish population was murdered, by both German armies and zealous Baltic collaborators, civilian and military. On that last point, the ruling elites of the Baltic states, having just won independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, used to get a bit touchy. The victims in their narrative of history were the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians who had been deported to the Gulag, murdered, had their culture and history erased from the land. The tragedy of the Second World War for Balts was Red Army occupation, not the Holocaust.

This was the only part of the world I had been to where it was legitimate, indeed culturally normal, to lament the outcome of the War. For a lot of Balts, the wrong side won.

The problem was, conspicuous nostalgia for the SS didn't look too good when you were trying to negotiate accession to the European Union and Nato. It seemed to be in everyone's interests to just drop the genocide subject and move on.

One of my editors at the time (from a different newspaper) told me to avoid the whole wartime, competing versions of history, marching SS 'story'. "We're not interested in ageing Nazis," he told me. Banking reform and oil transit were more likely to get into the paper. The problem was, everywhere I looked, whatever the story - even the oil transit stories - the nation's collective denial about its history crept in. Arguments about the economy always became arguments about politics, which became arguments about Russian influence, which became arguments about the occupation, which became arguments about the War. There were ageing Nazis hiding in shipping privatisation stories.

Representatives from the Simon Wiesenthal centre would sometimes visit. It never amounted to a 'story' for the newspaper. But I would get emails and updates about cases of ageing Nazis - Estonians, Lithaunians and Latvians among them - who had been tracked down and put on trial.

Eventually I persuaded the weekend edition of the paper to run a feature in which I went to a rural area of Lithuania that had once been the centre of a thriving Jewish community. Some of the older residents recalled the Jews being slaughtered, some didn't. "There were never any Jews here," someone claimed.

One old guy I met remembered being taught German by an SS officer who had been recovering from an injury in the town I was visiting; but when I asked him about the Jewish population he recalled that in fact he had never been in the town during the war after all; that he had been somewhere else. He couldn't remember where. He didn't want to talk any more after that.

I wrote the piece. (Sadly now behind a subscription wall, so no link.)

Meanwhile, under international pressure - mainly from Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State - the Baltic governments started to put the Holocaust in their history books, to distance themselves from SS nostalgia and generally get to grips with the ugly complexity of history. Holocaust denial, they realised, wasn't doing anyone any favours apart from the ageing Nazis, so they dropped it.

It would have been a different story had it not been for Simon Wiesenthal, who died today. He has been described as "the conscience of the Holocaust". I can vouch for the fact that that he pricked my conscience, and the conscience of a troubled corner of Europe that I know. Link