Posted on Aug. 7, 2003
Still much too reluctant to talk
A recent report chastises central Europeans
for dodging recent history
“NOT trying hard enough; could do
better” would sum up the verdict of the Simon
Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human-rights foundation,
on the efforts of most European countries to hunt down
the last surviving perpetrators of Hitler's Holocaust.
The Wiesenthal Centre singles out Austria for doing
the least to pursue old war criminals, relative to the
number probably on its soil. And it scolds Sweden and
Norway for allowing statutes of limitation to rule out
But the centre, in a report on the investigation
and prosecution of ex-Nazi war criminals around the
world, reserves much of its criticism for countries
of central and eastern Europe. There, it says, the fall
of communist regimes and the access to previously secret
archives should have meant “numerous new opportunities”
for identifying and prosecuting war criminals. It finds
instead that of all the countries in the region, only
Poland has been making any serious effort to prosecute
Nazi criminals—and then only with very limited
success. The three Baltic countries, Belarus, Romania,
Russia and Ukraine have shown very little political
will to pursue Holocaust crimes, it says.
The centre has been trying to prod the
Baltic governments into fresh efforts at investigation
and prosecution. Last year it launched publicity campaigns
in all three countries under the slogan “Operation
Last Chance”, offering rewards of up to $10,000
for information leading to the investigation of war
criminals. The centre said last month it had received
the names of 174 suspects in Lithuania, 37 in Latvia
and six in Estonia. But one Lithuanian prosecutor says
the information passed on to his office is of more use
to historians and archivists than to courts of law.
As the Wiesenthal report shows, the ex-communist
countries have special difficulties still in confronting
the Holocaust. The problem afflicts not only those countries
which collaborated with Hitler but even those which
suffered terribly under him.
One reason is that the Holocaust was a taboo subject
in communist countries for decades after the war. Accurate
information was scarce or non-existent, dulling public
understanding of the crime for generations. Communist
history insisted on the communists themselves as both
the main fighters against fascism and its main victims.
A second obstacle is the feeling among
many people in ex-communist countries that their national
sufferings under communism should command the world's
attention and sympathy as much as, if not more than,
the suffering of Jews under Hitler. They think it smacks
of double standards to pursue ex-Nazis more vigorously
than ex-KGB men. Anti-Semites add poison to the argument
by caricaturing communism as a Jewish-dominated movement.
Countries such as Slovakia, where a national regime
allied itself with the Nazis, have an even stronger
incentive to downplay the Holocaust. Many who regret
wartime collaboration would prefer to see it forgotten.
Those who admire it would rather emphasise its nationalistic
aspect than its genocidal one.
Even heads of state can trip themselves
up when talking on the subject. Recently President Ion
Iliescu of Romania said that the Holocaust “was
not unique to the Jewish population in Europe”
and that “Jews and communists” were treated
“equally” in Romania in the Nazi period.
He said he opposed restitution of properties seized
from Jews, because “the wretched Romanian citizen
of today” should not “pay for what happened
then”. The interview caused an outcry—but
not in Romania, where such views would have passed easily.
Mr Iliescu's mistake, beyond voicing such comments at
all, was in offering them to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.