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Holocaust and of Communist Repression in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia: A Battle for (European) Memory

Open Panel

Abstract

This short comparison of the memory of the Holocaust and communist repression in Central Europe illustrates the relationship between identity and collective memory, and how both are guided by national interest. National interest is understood differently in Western and Central Europe, with regard to both the memory of the Holocaust and that of communist repression. The communist regimes themselves ‘nationalized’ the collective memory of the Second World War in order to achieve and/or reinforce a flawed national legitimacy. That is why in 1989 none of the Central European populations felt in any way responsible for the Holocaust, as opposed to Western European populations who had undergone a long process of universalization of the question and had come to a feeling almost of collective responsibility with a “duty to remember” the victims. This is also why there is a clear misunderstanding between the former ‘east’ and the former ‘west’ concerning the memory of communist repression in relation to the Holocaust. For the west, the idea that communist repression can come anywhere close to the Holocaust in terms of evil is almost a heresy. For many people in Central Europe it is normal, and denying it is perceived as an insult to the memory of its victims. These misunderstandings over Holocaust and communist repression memories between east and west can certainly be largely overcome, at least if both parties take the trouble to try to understand the other side. It should be expected that this will not be a spontaneous process, and it would be a mistake to hope that the mere accession of the Central European countries to the EU would bring this into being. There is much memorial work still to be done, but while collective memories cannot be shaped at will, dialogues and exchanges could be a good start.