Germans view the interwar period and World War II through the lens of Nazism and the Holocaust. Central and East Europeans view the interwar period and World War II through the lens of Nazism and Stalinism as well as the Holocaust and Communist genocides and atrocities. Their moral issues are infinitely more complex than Germany’s, whose can more or less easily be viewed in black and white terms as a struggle of good versus evil and victims versus victimizers. Some Central and East Europeans were unquestionably bad; others were unquestionably good. But the vast majority—and that includes most Eastern European Jews—existed in a zone of reality that was simultaneously black, white, and every shade of gray. Victims were victimizers and victimizers were victims. Heroes could be villains and villains could be heroes. Most important, the vast majority of people were neither heroes nor villains. They simply tried to survive in awfully complex circumstances that usually offered them the choice between a very bad outcome and an extremely bad one. Ask yourself this: What was the right thing for an East Central European to do during the war? Support Stalin against Hitler, support Hitler against Stalin, fight both, collaborate with both, or try to survive both? From what I’ve seen of the behavior of Western policymakers, pundits, and tenured professors, I don’t doubt for a second that the vast majority of them, and certainly those that preach the loudest, would have opted for collaborating with both while insisting that they were actually resisting valiantly.
It is only if and when Germany and Germans finally come to appreciate their less than altruistic role in East Central Europe and come to terms with their own moral responsibility for that dark past that both Germans and East Central Europeans will be in the position to cooperate fully, and without resentment or rancor, in investigating the entire dark past in the region. It’ll help greatly if moral distinctions and complexities are treated carefully. In his recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Paul Hockenos quotes a German researcher as saying, with reference to Polish anti-Semitic actions after the German occupation, “The Holocaust didn’t end when the Red Army entered Poland in 1944.” Yes, it did, in the same way that genocides end when their perpetrators stop killing and wars end when attacking armies withdraw. The Holocaust—the name we give to Nazi Germany’s mass destruction of European Jews—was a distinctly Nazi German project and it existed only where Nazi power existed. (That’s why Poles rightly insist that Auschwitz be called a Nazi death camp in Poland, and not a “Polish death camp.”) To suggest that the Holocaust existed in the absence of Nazi Germany is to make the Holocaust coterminous with the history of anti-Semitism, to deprive the Holocaust of all meaning, to transfer responsibility for it from Nazi Germany to the world, and to engage in a brazen act of, ultimately, Holocaust denial. After all, if every act of anti-Jewish violence is part of the Holocaust, then Nazi Germany’s culpability is reduced to zero, Hitler becomes no more responsible than some Ukrainian camp guard, and the tragedy itself becomes diffused throughout all of time.
Just a little bit of reflection shows that without Hitler, without Germany’s embrace of Nazi rule, and without Nazi Germany’s initiation of World War II and pursuit of the Final Solution, there would have been no Holocaust. There would have been anti-Semitism in East Central Europe, there would have been discrimination against Jews, and there may have been pogroms, but there would have been no death camps, no Zyklon B gas, and no mass shootings. The causes of the Holocaust lie within Nazi Germany, the impetus for the Holocaust came out of Nazi Germany, and the moral responsibility for the Holocaust lies with Germany as well. Individual Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, and others collaborated with Nazi Germany, but their collaboration and moral turpitude was the situational product of Nazi Germany’s aggressive and murderous designs on East Central Europe, and not the cause of them. It would never occur to us to extend the blame for European colonialism to Africans and Asians, even though many Africans and Asians were deeply implicated in colonial institutions. It would never occur to us to blame apartheid on the relatively more privileged “colored” and Indian populations of South Africa. It would never occur to us to blame slavery on the blacks Malcolm X called “house Negroes.” And it would certainly never occur to us to place any blame for the Holocaust on the Jewish councils and Jewish police that administered the ghettos. Collaborators may or may not be odious, but they don’t plan or start or serve as preconditions of the wars and genocides in which they are implicated.
Now please “read my lips.” My call for moral distinctions is not a call for moral absolution or moral relativism. Quite the contrary, it is a call for moral responsibility. Let Germans come to terms with their moral failings and let East Central Europeans come to terms with theirs. No one should get off the hook, but let everyone hang on the proper hooks. As I write this, I know full well that readers who prefer their morality served up in the form of Hollywood Westerns will purposely misunderstand me: after all, simplicity is so much simpler than complexity and it’s so much easier to believe that you’re a hero and everyone else is a villain. And besides, there’s nothing like throwing around epithets to end rational discussion and assert moral superiority.
So let me be perfectly clear—again. Central and Eastern Europeans have their own manifold mortal and venial sins to atone for: racism, chauvinism, massacres, and other atrocities, whether committed before the war, during the war, after the war, or today. No nation in the region has a spotless record, and Lord knows the Ukrainians certainly don’t. Those East Central Europeans who aided and abetted Nazi Germany in the Holocaust must be held as responsible for aiding and abetting war criminals as those East Central Europeans who aided and abetted Lenin’s and Stalin’s genocides must be held responsible for aiding and abetting mass murderers. But to make “the Poles,” “the Ukrainians,” “the Russians,” or other Eastern and Central Europeans responsible for “the Holocaust” is to engage in moral relativism, moral shirking, moral buck-passing, and, ultimately, astoundingly bad faith. And the one thing that is sure to transform a well-intentioned German investigator of East Central Europe’s dark past into an “ugly German” is bad faith about Germany’s contributions to that dark past.