EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Have Europeans Learned from the 20th Century for the 21st?

This is a lightly abridged version of the keynote address to the conference of the Europe for Citizens Forum in Brussels on January 28th, 2014. Goldfarb was asked to address the question of the title. Siobhan Kattago, Irit Dekel, and Anna Lisa Tota also contributed to the Forum. The latter two are forthcoming.

Open up the newspaper, even in the U.S., and almost every day there is evidence that many Europeans have not learned from the horrors of the 20th century. Although there are powerful forces working against this, the politics of racial and religious hatred is still very much with Europe.

There are alarming manifestations of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on a regular basis in Europe, east and west, north and south. The latest include the antics of the anti-Semitic “humor” of Dieudonne M’bala M’bala and his popularization of the “quenelle,” and the attempts of the French authorities to control this latest fad. Thus, as I composed this lecture, I read in my morning New York Times that a French appeals court ruled to uphold bans on Dieudonne’s performances.

Yet, the banning of new form of hate speech, such as this move, does not seem to have its desired effect, despite the actions of officials, and the approval of prominent intellectual celebrities, such as Bernard Henry-Levy. Many beyond polite official and intellectual circles persist in their politically incorrect convictions and actions.

There has been a documented rise in anti-Semitism, specifically as European Jews understand their own situation, according to an important EU study. And very much along with this rise of anti-Semitism, there is an even more significant rise in Islamophobia.

According to a study by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are rising in Continental Europe, with the level of Islamophobia outstripping anti-Semitism, as such xenophobic attitudes are in decline in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Britain. Muslim rights groups report a rising tide of Islamophobic acts in France and among its neighbors. And even the staunchly anti Zionist Electronic Intifada recognizes that the rise of European anti-Semitism and the rise of Islamophobia are two sides of a disturbing European coin, strongly suggesting that Europeans in this century have not learned some important lessons from horrors of the 20th.

And this is not just a matter of popular attitudes. There is an important political dimension to these developments. More or less openly xenophobic parties have gained representation in European Parliaments, with significant voter support: the Hungarian Jobbik Party, the Greek Golden Dawn, Svodoba in Ukraine, the National Front in France, The Swiss People’s Party, and the Freedom Party in Austria, among others.

And note also that in the name of secular liberal values and the assimilation of immigrants, Europeans are systematically challenging Islamic practice: from Switzerland’s passed referendum outlawing the building of minarets, when the country has at total of four, to Denmark’s call for a burqa ban while a study revealed that just three women wore it, and only 150 to 200 wore the niqab, along with many other signs of religious intolerance often in the name of tolerance.

Indeed, according the Gary Younge, traditional Muslim practices and beliefs are regularly interrogated. Muslims are tested on their commitment to “European values,” concerning attitudes toward gay and women rights, Palestine and freedom of speech. And this is not only the position of the hard right, but also of a significance portion of the center and the left. Thus, Younge concludes: “Europe is a hotbed of Islamophobic extremism.”

Now, I realize things are more complicated than these reports and surveys suggest, and that there are alternative readings of the studies about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and extremism. Indeed, I think we need to explore these complications, fighting against pessimism and despair, trying to figure out how to proceed. And in this fight, we also have to consider another dimension of the political problem: not only the persistence of xenophobia, but also the persistence of a more formal totalitarian temptation, the persistence of modern magical thinking and accommodation with it. This is what I take to be crucial, requiring not only official policies and critical intellectual recognition, but especially civic response and ownership, as I will consider in the concluding part of this post. I will build to this by referring to two case studies from Poland, (which I have closely analyzed elsewhere and which I discussed fully in Brussels).

The cases, the publication of and response to Jan Gross’s Neighbors and the reception to Zymunt Bauman last year in the city of Wroclaw are complicated, but each leads me to question the proposition that Europeans have properly and broadly enough learned lessons from the twentieth century.

Neighbors

The Neighbors controversy reveals resistance to a factual truth of 20th century. There is a simple refusal to remember accurately and learn from the results of modern barbarism (Hannah Arendt’s descriptive phrase for totalitarianism), as new facts that challenge established narratives become apparent.

The publication fundamentally challenged common sense understandings of Poles and Jews in Poland, as the world watched on. Gross described what happened in a remote town in Eastern Poland.

[O]ne day, in July 1941, half the population of a small East European town murdered the other half – some 1,600 men, women and children.

He reported in the introduction of his book that it took him four years between the time he first read the testimony of Szmul Wasersztajn describing the atrocities of Jedwabne, and when he really understood what happened. He read the description but was not able to process its implications. The debate that followed the publication of the book indicates that many people still have not been able to process the implications.

What Gross showed is rather straightforward and beyond questioning, in my judgment. There is the fact that a significant part of one half of a small town willingly and consciously on their own killed or were complicit in the killing of their Jewish neighbors and friends. This has been covered up since the moment it happened, by Soviet communist, Polish nationalists and Catholics and by the good citizens of Jedwabne.

Though I wonder how deeply, I have no doubt that the work of Gross, and the similar writings of many Polish journalists, historians and sociologists, have worked to enrich Polish collective memory, confronting moral complexity. This was clearly and succinctly demonstrated in an official ceremony in Jedwabne commemorating this chapter in Polish history. The President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski in his impeccable address:

We know with certainty that among the persecutors and perpetrators there were Poles. We cannot have any doubt that here in Jedwabne, citizens of the Polish Republic perished at the hands of other citizens of the Republic. People prepared this fate for people, neighbors for neighbors…We express our pain and shame; we give expression of our determination in seeking to learn the truth, our courage in overcoming an evil past, our unbending understanding and harmony. Because of this crime we should beg the shadows of the dead and their families for forgiveness. Therefore, today, as a citizen and as the president of the Polish Republic, I apologize. I apologize in the name of those Poles whose conscience is moved by that crime. In the name of those who believe that we cannot be proud of the magnificence of Polish history without at the same time feeling pain and shame for the wrongs that Poles have done to others.

On the other hand, the head of the Polish Catholic Church the late Cardinal Józef Glemp, most transparently, represented the willful ignorance.

Polish Jewish conflicts in the thirties had no religious basis, according to the Cardinal. Asked if he thought that Jews experienced a rise in attacks during Holy Week because of accusations of God-killing, he expresses astonishment:

This statement strikes me as improbable. The first time I ever heard of this rise in anti-Jewish feeling was in Mr. Gross’s book. Clearly the book was written ‘on commission’ for someone.

The Cardinal went on:

Polish-Jewish conflicts did occur in those times, but they had an economic basis. Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles.

He does qualify this point. I think realizing that it was not quite politically correct, adding: “In any case, that was the perception.”

The major lesson of Gross’s inquiry is lost on Glemp. He and many others were not open to learning. Arguing for the exhumation of the site of the atrocities, contrary to a request by Jews to honor religious law and refrain from desecrating the graves, he defended his position by asserting “Jewish law is not binding in Poland.”

In the reaction to the Jedwabne revelations, there is also much that is worse than is revealed in the Cardinal’s interview, with vile and more aggressive anti-Semitism. And, it seems to me, these are given support by the manifestly less pernicious and refined refusal to face the legacies of the past. They open a space for refined and vulgar anti-Semitism.

There are those who worry about the numbers, who think the evidence of the murder is still not in. There are those who ask “Is the hubbub surrounding Jedwabne intended to eclipse the responsibility of Jews for communism and the Soviet occupation of Poland?” And there are those who question Gross’s approach to survivors’ testimony: i.e. take them to be truthful unless proven otherwise.

Gross makes this recommendation because of the profound and systematic ignorance of Polish complicity in the murder of their Jewish compatriots when the more normal alternative skeptical approach prevails. He is suggesting a way of restructuring historical practice so that it encourages a systematic examination of dark corners in the European past, instead of systematically ignoring them. Prominent historians defend their professional ethics and accomplishments. Gross and his supporters question how it is possible that they have for so long overlooked the anti-Semitic atrocities both during and after the war.

In light of this, the noble and the base, I am deeply ambivalent. Let me be honest, as a long term Poland watcher, with many dear friends there, the ascendance of anti-Semitism in Poland after the fall of Communism has been a great disappointment. But on the other hand, the seriousness of the Polish debate about the legacies of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, I know, is very impressive. A Polish president distinguished himself and honored the memory of my ancestors in a way that would have astonished my grandfather who had very bitter memories as a soldier in an  army unit in the First World War. I am not sure that this would happen today, that the present Polish president would have so astonished my grandfather, but it did happen.

I must go a bit further, having to do with the limits of democracy.

I note and my Polish friends and colleagues underscore that the most rabid anti-Semitism is a marginal phenomenon, and the late Cardinal Glemp was a relic from the past. Nonetheless, I am struck how it keeps on coming up, and how significant cultural and religious authorities, and political leaders, some with ascendant power, keep on using anti-Semitism. It is so central that it persists for decades, even with the absence of Jews and even with open democratic discussion about that embarrassing fact. I think this is at the center of the most provocative of Jan Gross’s contributions to the consideration of Polish-Jewish relationships in Jedwabne.

And elite discussion and official ceremonies and pronouncements don’t seem to get to the heart of the matter. Collective memory does not seem to lead to broad societal wide learning. As Karolina Smagalska Follis observed in her study of the commemoration at which President Kwasniewski spoke, common sense, in the understanding of Clifford Geertz, for far too many people, has not been subverted—that anti Semitic common sense that has a long and deep tradition in Poland and in Europe. Somehow the democratic public discussion has not undermined the anti-Semitic common sense, the cultural code that could either act on its own, or be incited by the Nazis in Jedwabne, that was manipulated by the Communist party or was the work of indigenous Kielce locals in the infamous post war pogrom of that city. The communist period helped fortify this common sense with the cynical official use of anti-Semitic sentiment, and the ideological ignorance of the Holocaust. It is the common sense of every day practices that has deep and enduring effects. It comes in relatively benign and pernicious forms, but it endures.

The Bauman Affair

While the controversy over Neighbors reveals resistance to the factual truth of 20th century horror, “The Bauman Affair” suggests to me how ideological thinking, as it leads to modern barbarism, continues to be developed and supported, both intentionally and unintentionally.

The problem is straightforward. Bauman, an exile from Poland in the aftermath of the anti-Semitic campaign in 1968, returned to Poland to give a lecture as part of a conference commemorating the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the German Social Democratic Party. The lecture was in the Polish city of Wroclaw, which for most of its modern history was the German city of Breslau. Bauman’s talk was disrupted by an extremely loud, aggressive and crude anti-Communist, ultra-nationalist protest. [See here] And scandal ensued, not about the disruption of the lecture and the struggle to support free speech and academic freedom, but about whether or not, or more precisely to what degree was Bauman a Stalinist, and how he should be punished for the sins of his youth. Public debate was focused upon the invitation to a leading social theorist of our times, and not about the disruption of the lecture and those who enabled it.

My concern is rather straightforward, directly related to our theme today. It has less to do with the quality of the extreme right, reprehensible as it is, more to do with its relationship with the less extremist mainstream. While extremists are indeed at the margins of Polish public opinion, they, with their magical thinking about the sacred powers of the nation, are becoming more and more effective in making themselves visible to the general public and becoming more acceptable. Politicians are coming to accept the extremists’ definition of controversies and trying to take advantage of their impact, while the media, many public intellectuals and academics are following the extremists framing of events, or at least not forcefully opposing these frames.

The major opposition party, PiS (Law and Justice) seemed to be supportive of the actions of the extreme right, while the ruling party, PO (Civic Platform), seemed to be reluctant to too forcefully denounce the right. And intellectuals and professors, even those who privately find the attacks on academic freedom repugnant, are reluctant to speak up. PiS accepts the extremists definition of the situation. PO is reluctant to oppose it, as are many others.

Indeed, PiS seriously entertains wild conspiracy theories concerning the plane crash in Smolensk, in which Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, along with 94 others, including major public figures and civic leaders, were killed. The political paranoia that animates the extreme right is shared by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader, the former president’s identical twin brother, and former prime minister, who demonizes the current government as somehow implicated in “the assassination,” purportedly orchestrated by the Russians. Kaczynski has supported the “patriotic protests,” such as the one directed against Bauman.

Elsewhere, there is not much active direct support of neo-fascists, I trust even among many in PiS. Yet, indirect support and the absence of strong opposition is a serious problem.

I have a playful unprofessional theory about extremism in contemporary politics. Somewhere around 20% of the citizens of just about all contemporary democracies support extreme anti-democratic, xenophobic and racist politics, and couldn’t possibly learn lessons by remembering 20thcentury horrors. If these people had their way, democracy would be fundamentally challenged. (Close to home I think of the Tea Party, or at least the birthers and the clear Obama haters) The fate of democracy lies in what is done with this margin of the population. Encourage, tolerate or collaborate with this fringe, and a decent democratic politics is undermined or even lost.

Here a note of deep concern: I think I see a kind of post-communist treason of intellectuals. It is particularly disturbing, and uncharacteristic of what I have long admired in Polish cultural life. While in Poland, I heard about the calculations of academics surrounding the Bauman affair. There is ambivalence about one of the most distinguished men of Polish letters, supporting him may be dangerous: to do so might compromise one’s career or lead to a weakening institutional support. Suffice it to say that I admire and support my Polish friends who invited, listened to, and critically and deliberately considered Bauman’s talk, whether or not they agree with him (as by the way, I don’t on many issues of form and substance). I am disturbed by the problems my friends and colleagues face. There is a clear and present danger, and it is not the specter of communism.

The Challenge: Differentiated Collective Memory and Magical Thinking

Now, I put my cards on the table. When it comes to collective learning, this century has been a great disappointment. We, very much including me, are a long way from 1989 and its immediate aftermath. Back then in the last decade of the 20th century, I would have imagined answering in the affirmative the question posed in the title of this talk, with qualifications and concerns such as those raised by Habermas.

I was then pretty sure that there was a real advance following the short and cruel 20th century. I thought that the bloody ideological politics of the 20th century, Nazism and Soviet Totalitarianism, with their local variants, had ended, once and for all. I thought that the era of magical modern politics, the ideological era, was becoming a thing of the past. It had a beginning, sometime in the 19th century and an end, 1989. I thought that a kind of global collective learning had occurred in the aftermath of the century’s horrors. I thought that the great failures of the totalitarian left and the right would extinguish totalitarian temptations, or would at least leave them on the margins.

I did not anticipate the degree to which various forms of nationalism and xenophobia in previously existing socialist societies would be used by people to navigate through the difficult problems of the old bloc. I didn’t expect the Bauman affair and the like. I expected people to work to learn from difficult experiences, such as Gross’s revelation.

I did not then understand the meaning Islamist politics and its terrorism, nor did I understand the appeal of radical Islamophobia and global anti-terrorism.

Instead of the scientism of 20th century tyranny, now there is the distortion of religion, (religionism?), which I did not anticipate.

I did not imagine the lasting appeal of populism, anti-Americanism and a demagogic socialism, a la Chavez et al.

The idea that among certain leftist intellectuals there would be a new fashion for Lenin and the Party was beyond my imagination.

And I thought Europe would become a common identity, along with continuous regional and national ones, yielding not the end of history but the beginning of a new one.

I also did not anticipate the popularity of market fundamentalism, or neo-liberalism as it is often labeled (An important topic which I will only mention here, but hope we can discuss in the panel discussion).

Now it seems that history is repeating itself, sometimes on the margins as farce, but also more centrally as tragedy, as xenophobia gets in the way of people addressing the pressing problems they face, the challenges of a united Europe for example.

The intimate connection between “truth” and power defined what the totalitarian culture of the twentieth century was. I explored this in my book on the post – totalitarian mind, Beyond Glasnost. My understanding of this term didn’t hold. I thought I saw an exciting development in political culture, a political sensibility that had liberal, conservative and radical versions, in which all the versions started with an understanding that any attempt to unlock the key to history with a simple proposition concerning class, race, nation, and the like was over. This is what I meant by the post totalitarian mind.

Instead the term came to be understood not in terms of a break, as I saw it, but rather as continuity. A soft rather than a hard totalitarianism is the way Vaclav Havel defined post totalitarian. Not only did his understanding of the term prevail. The phenomenon he was describing is very much with us. Thus, there are depressing continuities between those who shouted down Bauman and who ignore Gross and the dark experiences of the 20th century. There is strong evidence of lessons not learned.

The neo-Nazi, along with the good old fashion Nazi know that the connection between past, present and future can be accounted for on the grounds of nation and race. The neo-Communist along with good old fashion Stalinists know the same on the grounds of class. And now the jihadists, along with the fundamentalist anti-jihadists, use religion or anti-religion in the same way. I thought all of this was over, but apparently not. More evidence of lessons not learned.

Yet, those who do not confront the history Jan Gross revealed are not likely to wash away the inconvenient truths of his research. The people who disrupted Bauman’s talk are not likely to accomplish the lustration they are seeking. The hidden Nazi salute (that which the quenelle is so clearly) will not prevail as a means to organize an effective anti-Semitic force in France and beyond. Those who celebrate Lenin today will never get the chance to realize their dreams to be empowered Marxist-Leninists. Thank goodness. To state the obvious, the post totalitarian mode of proceeding is not dominant, and is being opposed.

It is important to recognize that the metaphor of learning is misleading. The striking lessons of the 20th century have not and cannot be settled as one can settle the issues of ignorance and competence in the classroom, in a book or for that matter at a European Citizens Forum, though this is a more appropriate venue if we underline the word citizen. It is a matter not of education but of politics, of civic action and responsibility.

Lessons need to be learned no doubt, but crucially if political lessons are to be consequential they need to be shared, passed on and sustained. Lessons need to be not only learned, but also crucially be acted upon. This is the conclusion I draw from Neighbors and the Bauman Affairs.

The way the Communist and post—Communist experience has shaped collective memory of Nazi occupation was challenged by Gross. This led to a serious public discussion and commendable action by officials. But outside of central cultural and political circles, the changed official rhetoric does not seem to have had much effect. For many, all that appears is a change of official rhetoric, which experience tells them should not be taken seriously.

Thus the great challenge to civil actors who want their compatriots to learn from the 20th century is to work to change the common sense. Declarations from the President, and debates among historians and prominent public intellectuals and Catholic leaders do not teach the lesson.

I am, therefore, very interested in how local actors work on collective memory projects and the lessons they draw. I find Irit Dekel’s study of mediation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin particularly important in this regard. The facts on the ground tell us whether the lessons are being learned on the ground, Dekel, who will speak later this morning, shows. This is where the action is, where we can actually answer the question about lessons.

I remember quite vividly seeing a slogan on a banner draped over a wall at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk in 1980, “no bread without freedom.” It was a very moving image, linking demands for improved economic circumstance with freedom, but it was even more than this. It indicated a bridge between the workers, the bulk of the population, and the intellectuals, a privileged elite, who had been moving at cross- purposes in their opposition to the Communist regime to that point. I can think of no simple slogan at this moment that can do the work of that slogan addressing the problems of our times. But such a bridge is surely necessary. And of course, even back then, it wasn’t the slogan that created the bridge, but it was the civic action, which led to Solidarność, that the slogan named. Bridging between nations, regions and religions is necessary in today’s Europe, the task for civil society at the crossroads informed by collective memory, engaged in common action.

I close on a cautionary note: there are different lessons that can be learned about 20th century horrors, and the lessons often structure 21st century political conflict. One can learn about the Shoah as a way of hiding contemporary anti-Semitism, as Georg Konrad, the distinguished Hungarian writer believes is happening in Budapest today. One can link Communist tyranny as a national experience and view the Holocaust as an external matter, having nothing to do with national experience, as Siobhan Kattago reports is the case in Estonia. One can hope, as she does, that a more nuanced challenging history might correct this matter. But I fear this is unlikely. In the meanwhile, Holocaust fatigue sets in, while the evidence of the horrors of the Gulag are disintegrating. And Dieudonne and his imitators rail against the system. Europeans and non-Europeans alike certainly have learned from the 20th century, well but also quite badly.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

  • Pait

    The one thing that keeps Europe from devolving into barbarity, as it repeatedly has done since 385, are the US and English armies stationed in the continent. Less than 100 thousand soldiers defend Europeans from themselves.

    Do I exaggerate?

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