From the headline, “Eastern Europe’s Hitler nostalgia,” Michael Goldfarb’s cross-posted article in Globalpost and Salon (where I read it) feels like link bait. And maybe flame/trollbait. The subhead promises an article about “pro-Nazi sentiment” in “Lithuania and Latvia.” What follows is an article dispatched from, and largely about, Poland.1
It’s easy to say about an article on the internet I read on the phone in bed for free in a few minutes that, “well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.” But Goldfarb sets a lofty goal. Despite the specificity of the subhead, the article aims to tackle something general about Eastern European “ultra-nationalism.” And to provide a syncretic account of that, definitionally, one must make a muddle of a lot of things.
So we’re treated to a myriad of examples of “Hitler nostalgia” that initially make sense—the infamous “SS veteran marches,” the hounding of Fania Branstovsky and Rachel Margolis for fighting with Soviet partisans—and then we’re talking about institutionalized Polish anti-Semitism at soccer matches. Then we’re talking about the Latvian vote to only have one official language. And what, exactly is the discussion of the Lithuanian policies regarding the use of Polish orthography on official Lithuanian state documents doing for the argument about being nostalgic about Hitler?
Goldfarb ties the points together in a way I have not before seen by arguing that these “bloodlands,” to use Timothy Snyder’s useful term from his frequently unreadable book, are simply developmentally backward; these “newly liberated nations are only just being allowed to go through historical processes America and western Europe went through in the 18th and 19th century,” namely the “kind of nationalism that underpinned Hitler’s theory of ‘One People and One Reich.’”
I’d believe this astonishingly patronizing excuse more if, first, a ‘One people’ mentality did not seem to be the foundation of all of Western Europe and the US regarding its ‘One [liberal, (ex-)Judeo-Christian] People’ in response to the variously understood Islamic threat. I’d also believe it if it were the case that these Eastern European states did not, actually, enjoy varying levels of independence during the past century—time during which they could do some of the national developing Goldfarb suggests has been denied them.2
Most importantly, I would believe Goldfarb’s excuse if he considered more carefully the provocative opening to the second part of his article:
Historians and sociologists around Europe’s eastern edge all agree: the basic questions of politics in the area have been settled.
All the countries are ruled by right-of-center governments who buy into free-market economics.
Therein lies the answer, though not quite as Goldfarb imagines it. Hitler nostalgia (and ultra-nationalism) are results of (the fantasy of) the permanence of (neo-liberal) capitalism. Consider what a ridiculous statement that first sentence is. Universal agreement on the reached telos of politics. That reads like something out of Jameson or Žižek. And in an era of #Occupy, or of Jean-Luc Mélenchon polling at 15%, it sounds ostentatious in its triumphalism.
It is a serious problem that there is no high-functioning left in Lithuania, at least not one that I can recognize from half a continent away. There is an academic left, Naujoji kairė 95, which, as far as I can tell, has no active political presence. Then there is a political party, Socialistinis liaudės frontas, which seems perpetually in the shadow of its provocative leader, Algirdas Paleckis.3
Yet when the SLF has rallies, they are met by jeering youths who have decided it would be a gas to troll the “halfwits of little Paleckis.” Somehow the kind of behavior that seems appropriate in the US when the Westboro Babtist Church is involved, falls flat and feels astonishingly poundfoolish when transported to a state ravaged by a cratering economy and a political élite running out of ways to implement harsher austerity measures.
I lean on this anecdotal bit a lot, but it’s the first time I’m mentioning it here: over the summer, while in Vilnius, I was talking to a French businessman about my life here in Paris. When I said my apartment was “paid for,” he assumed I was getting state aid. He launched into a whole speech—and this is, mind, from a bourgeois businessman—about how Lithuanians are mortally afraid of the state. They fear that any action of state power is the beginning of communist recidivism, and so the state is abandoned. Mocked. Politicians are all clowns or corrupt or both. This level of antagonism toward the state, of fear, he continued, makes no sense to a French citizen. The French republican understands that the state exists to serve its citizenry, but to also protect it. Etc., etc.
Despite trafficking in extremes, I think my interlocutor has a point. The goal of the ethnic nation of Lithuanians was an independent state. Under such circumstances, the ethnic nation would have the space to “kvetch” (as one of Goldfarb’s Polish academics says), to have a moment of catharsis, to have the pie it had always seen in the sky. But it simply does not work that way. Ethnic self-determination, a relic of the early twentieth century as much as of nineteenth—and certainly far more than of the eighteenth, despite Goldfarb’s claims, was always much messier in practice than in theory, but that obvious fact seems to have been ignored in the excitement over reaching for that pie.
Now the Lithuanians have a state that is constitutionally separate from the ethnic nation.4 Efforts to reforge the ties look appropriately out of place, but anachronistic only in their boldness.5 In this way, Lithuania is like a little France. Nominally a republic with no official ethnic basis of membership, it still, just like France, has difficulty living up to that standard.6 But, unlike France, the state is hobbled by pervasively anti-communist electorate. And so the state moves to burnish its anti-communist bonafides by retreating to classic tropes of anti-communism: anti-Semitism, nationalism, anti-Statism, militarization.7
Would a strong state make the “Hitler nostalgia” go away? I doubt it. But reckoning with the political left and considering that it provides more than a boogeyman one must perpetually run from (or puff breasts against) would probably do the trick of bringing both history and politics back to the table, letting us bin the hackneyed Santayana quote.
- If you’re writing an article that presumes to be at least partly about Lithuania, and the only expert on Lithuania you seem to have contacted is Dovid Katz, then your article is going to have problems. I fully agree with Katz’s goals at Defending History, and I’m proud that he has linked to my writing on occasion. But talking only to him stacks the deck. For me, as we’ll see below, what is missing from Goldfarb’s account is an appraisal of the immanent anti-communism in the region (though I can only speak about Lithuania). This line of reasoning is not one I’ve yet sussed out of Katz’s work. It may be as simple as this: for me, contemporary ultra-nationalism and institutional anti-Semitism are functions of anti-communism. For Katz, I think, it’s reversed. It’s not a big difference, in the grand scheme of things, since, after all, our interests are aligned. Basically, I’m perhaps most miffed by the fact that the subhead, again, promises “Lithuania and Latvia,” yet Goldfarb seems to have spoken to mostly Polish academics. [↩]
- It is also certainly the case that national culture did not suffer within the USSR. Snyder makes a compelling case, for example, regarding how the USSR actually allowed a specifically Lithuanian culture to flourish in ways it had never done before in history, even during Lithuanian independence during the interwar period and during the medieval-era Grand Duchy. [↩]
- If I’m more diffident than usual here, it’s since I feel a bit out of my depth, as someone who isn’t politically engaged in Lithuania. But I’ll say just this: I learned about Naujoji kairė 95 not from anything they did, but, rather, from dismissive remarks made about them by columnist Andrius Užkalnis, whose bombastic Reaganophilia is well-documented. Paleckis and his party I learned about clicking about on the internet, but, again, I never read anything good about them. Something like the Guardian article above about Mélenchon, recast in a Lithuanian sphere, is so incomprehensible to me to be basically laughable. [↩]
- The Constitution says that the sovereign in the Lithuanian Republic is the “nation.” The Constitutional Court has decided that, in that line, “nation” means “citizenry,” not ethnic group. And since citizenship cannot be denied based on ethnic grounds, it means that there is a possible future where the “Lithuanian nation,” as far as the sovereign of the Republic, will have no ethnic Lithuanians. I’m fine with that. [↩]
- Consider the Polish orthography issue whenever getting one’s liberal dander up about “English only!” movements in the US. Unlike the US, Lithuania has an official language, and that language is Lithuanian, which does not have, officially, letters like “w” in it. The government, hence, has no obligation to provide the letter “w” on passports, etc. I think the issue is stupid, and I also think the government should let Poles spell their names however they want, but I understand the government’s position. [↩]
- See, for example, France’s own problems with dealing with linguistic minorities despite having an official language. [↩]
- We can add, of course, other tropes, like a reflexive pro-Americanism that lets the CIA use your territory to torture suspects. [↩]