Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.


  • Updated
  • 0

The disestablishment of communism in Europe may be the happiest development since the end of World War II, but no one should think for a second it will usher in a utopia.

For communism was a most thorough totalitarianism; as it stifled the good and creative instincts of the people of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, it also subdued some of their darker ones as well, two of which are flourishing today: extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism.For too many years nationalism was the bane of Europe, especially in the East. It provided the emotional fuel for the two big wars the Europeans gave the world in this century. Emergent again, it tears at the cohesion of the Soviet Union and may bring about the disintegration of that huge, multinational empire.

It is simmering as well within the East European countries. Recall the difficulties the new leadership in Czechoslovakia had putting together a provisional government after the neutralization of the communist leadership.

If the president was to be a Czech, the prime minister had to be a Slovak. This was the kind of arrangement under which Lebanon was governed for many years, and which ultimately failed when the pull of religious loyalties proved stronger than any allegiance to the idea of the nation. The need for such formulas is always a sign of political underdevelopment.

Among the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe are the Albanians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Germans, Hungarians, Macedonians, Poles, Romanians, Serbs and Croats, Slovaks, Slovenes, Turks, Ukrainians and Byelorussians. And there are many others.

They are not all snug within the borders of nations congenial to them or receptive to their aspirations. Hungarians live in Romania and are oppressed. So are the Turks in Bulgaria, the Germans in Czechoslovakia.

Through the years many of these ethnic groups have gone to war with one another, seized pieces of one another's territories, expelled and annihilated entire populations. Even today - in places such as Yugoslavia - Serbs, Croats, Albanians and various other groups live in uneasy condominium.

The former communist regimes of Eastern Europe did not succeed in erasing these specific ethnic animosities, though they did manage to suppress them to a certain degree. Helping them in this was the Soviet Union, which was always prepared to snuff out any spark that might also find tinder on its own home territory.

But virtually all restraints are off now and it is likely that many of the smaller, more exaggerated nationalisms might begin expressing themselves anew.

Western Europeans today, convinced that prosperity and felicity are more likely to be found in larger, supranational groupings, are moving deliberately, if slowly, away from nationalist divisiveness.

It is hoped that the new governments of Eastern Europe, once they are constituted by their elections, will see the wisdom of this and try to emulate it.

In resurgent anti-Semitism the new East European leaders face a more ancient problem than nationalism, and maybe a more intractable one. People are worried.

Adolf Shayevich, the chief rabbi of Moscow, said in a recent interview in the East German newspaper Junge Welt, ``Today anti-Semitism is a very real phenomenon in the Soviet Union.'

He referred to the activities of the extremist nationalist organization, Pamyat, which reportedly is under investigation by Soviet authorities for instigating anti-Semitic actions. Shayevich's observation has been confirmed by Soviet Jews arriving in Israel who report with relief and alarm of the anti-Semitism flourishing in the land of glasnost and perestroika.

A growing number of incidents also have been reported in Romania and Hungary. Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister of Israel, said recently that the people of his native Poland ``suck in anti-Semitism with their mothers' milk.'

His remark produced a strong negative reaction in Poland and elsewhere, of course. But many people were less inclined to doubt the truth of the Israeli's statement than to wonder at his lack of diplomatic tact.

Nothing preoccupies Jews and others fearful of a reflowering of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe more than the prospect of a reunited Germany. Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Britain's chief rabbi, articulated these concerns in January when, in an interview with The Times of London, he said:

``No group needs greater reassurance than the group that has suffered by far the most from domination by a united Germany, the Jews. However grim the losses were of Russians, Frenchmen, Dutchmen and so on fighting the Germans, they were incomparably smaller than the losses of the Jews. We lost one third of our people, 6 million out of 18 million.'

Are these fears justified? Is rough and generalized criticism like Yitzhak Shamir's unfair? Not entirely.

The recent history of Eastern Europe reminds us that during the war it was not only the Germans who killed the Jews. They had a lot of help from Poles, Austrians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Hungarians.

Paul Johnson, in his book, A History of the Jews, writes that when it came to the implementation of the Holocaust, the Austrians were eager participants who ``provided one third of the personnel of the SS extermination units ... commanded four out of the six main death camps and killed almost half of the 6 million Jewish victims.'

After the war Austria was declared a victim nation.

The Romanians participated in the murder of half their Jewish population of about 800,000. Then, as an ally of the Germans, they helped murder hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews.

Ninety percent of Poland's three million Jews were murdered, with no small amount of help from Poles, and the Hungarians participated in the transport to death camps of nearly 600,000 Hungarian Jews.

All this is more or less known, and one might say that it is all in the past. But is it? Unlike the West Germans, those who fell under the communist regime in the eastern part of Germany were never asked to accept responsibility for their part in the destruction of the Jews.

The communist government of East Germany executed major Nazis but heaped the guilt for the murderous excesses of the Hitler regime on West Germany, thereby exculpating their own Germans. Thus was born a nation of victims, not perpetrators.

The communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe followed policies similar to that of the East Germans. The Western powers were linked to the recently defeated fascists. All the guilt lay in the West.

There was no atonement in the East by many who participated or connived in the genocide. None was demanded of them.

This is not to say that Eastern Europe is populated entirely by anti-Semites. Many Poles, Hungarians, Austrians and others actively helped the persecuted Jews. But many did not when they could have.

They know who they are, and they have never been asked to atone for it, never been asked to accept that they participated in the century's greatest crime.

Their generation has fathered an entirely new generation who may be free of guilt, but may also be free of an understanding of the truly malignant nature of anti-Semitism.

Richard O'Mara is foreign editor of the Baltimore sun

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


Breaking News