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Unqualified evil and politics

Halya Coynash

Politics, manipulation and hysteria with a vengeance as Victory Day approaches, but I will begin with unqualified evil. Not that there’s any less of that in our world, but unlike politics, unqualified evil brooks no division, comparison or justification. The murder of children is such an evil, as is the extermination of any group of people on the basis of race, nationality or any other criteria. There can be no excuse for ethnic cleansing, terror and the camps in the name of any ideology, however attractive it may seem.

            And who would contradict that? I am hardly going to claim that the victims in my family have more “weight” than those in another person’s family. The very idea is monstrous. Just as monstrous and unthinkable as the quantitative criteria which keep being pulled out like “proof” of greater, or after all not such a major evil. As though the killing of a million, even a thousand, people were not an evil! “He who saves one life saves the entire world”. And he who kills for an idea, for some diseased notion of racial purity, glorious future, or whatever, is implicated in unqualified evil.

            If you ask people in any former Soviet republic whether the Holocaust was unqualified evil, a heinous crime, only an isolated few would say they thought it wasn’t.

            So why don’t they ask? Why year in, year out with depressing regularity do we hear the same shouting about “a revival of Nazism”, along with unfounded accusations and appalling distortions of the truth? The question, of course is rhetorical. The shouting is repeated so that you get ever more absurd claims from all sides. So that people become outraged by the twisting of the truth and begin to put forward an opposite point of view, more often than not ladling it on, exaggerating the heroism and muffling less clear points. Do emotions simply boil over? Well, no, the emotions are being heated up, there are, after all, plenty of ways to incite enmity.

You don’t need to be a psychologist to understand (and make use of) certain reflex responses. Much more convenient to press a button or two, and people will get wound up, start making rash statements. Or coolly calculated comments, as, in my opinion, we see in the speeches and behaviour of the rightwing, supposedly nationalist, organization V.O. “Svoboda”.

What specific reactions they are seeking I leave to others to decide. No doubt, however, in my mind that those who brazenly manufactured a “pogrom” out of thin air in Lviv in late July last year knew very well what such rumours could lead to. We are observing no less cynical manipulation right now over the death of a young man in Odessa who died from knife wounds inflicted during a fight. Conclusions here would be inappropriate since the investigation is ongoing and the issue has been brazenly politicized by political groups, including some radical right-wing and purportedly “nationalist” movements and other, purportedly “pro-Russian”.

In an interview given last week to the Internet publication, the Head of Public Relations of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia Baruch Gorin called “”collaboration with Hitler unqualified evil”. I entirely agree, only, unlike Mr Gorin, I cannot forget how easy it is for me to have such understanding. After all, I have known of the Holocaust since childhood. For people forced to choose between two evils at the beginning of the War it was by no means obvious what Nazism could lead to. Yes, we can say now that it was clear from the pogroms and arrests of “Kristallnacht” on 9 November 1938, if not earlier. Moral weakness was immensely predictable, so were certain other negative phenomena, however I would seriously doubt that the absolute evil of Shoah could have been foreseen.

Failure to take this into account is unjust both to those people caught behind two satanic regimes, and to the victims. After all we seek the perpetrators first and foremost so as to prevent a repetition of the crime. Inability to bear in mind the complexity of the situation means failure to understand the complex nature of human responsibility. A person had to know and to have choice. For all my hatred towards Stalin, I cannot see the fact that the allies fought together with the Soviet Union from 1941 as bad since otherwise Hitler could have won, killing the last surviving Jews and Gypsies,, and moving on to his next planned target – Slavs. In my opinion, there was simply no alternative. On the other hand, if as some historians believe, Dresden really was bombed with such massive loss of life in order to please Stalin, then, sorry, there was a choice and there can be no excuse. Just as, in fact, there can be none for the Yalta Agreement which sent hundreds of thousands, if not more, refugees in need of shelter back to the Soviet Union to be shot or sent to labour camp.  

We need to try to understand the motives of people who decided to collaborate with Nazism, and not in order to justify their decision. That the young lads who signed up for SS Galizien were mistaken in their choice of lesser of two evils, of liberator of their homeland, is not in question. Yet I repeat, that is easy for me to say. It is not so very difficult to understand how they could have believed that they were fighting the main communist evil. I am convinced that those, both in Ukraine and abroad, who either shout about a purported “revival of Nazism” or, on the contrary, push the view that it was the SS Galizien fighters who were defending their homeland, are pursuing highly questionable aims.

Those forces, most notoriously, V.O. “Svoboda”, who have rushed to sing the praise of SS Galizien, are also betraying the memory of fighters of the Ukrainian Resistance Army or UPA, and helping those who are actively trying to associate UPA with Nazism. I am no apologist for UPA, and would simply note that from a historical point of view this is total nonsense which can be calmly refuted on the basis of historical documentation.

It is precisely for this reason that the issue is deliberately blurred and all kinds of myths and distorted versions of events are circulated. People from all camps (and in this case there is no simply binary divide in position) are supposed to get wound up, begin talking rubbish and insulting each other. It is frustrating how childishly easy it is to wind people up. Take for example the outrageous lies about the role of UPA in the Holocaust. The fact that some Soviet soldiers raped, murdered and committed atrocities on the territory they had liberated does not in any way diminish the role of the Soviet Army and our fathers and grandfathers in freeing the world from the Nazi scourge. Crimes committed by some UPA fighters against Jews, Poles or the civilian population cannot mean that UPA bears collective responsibility. This is absolutely obvious. So clear in fact that one suspects that the point is being skirted over quite deliberately. It is much more convenient for some that Ukrainians begin pushing the idea that it was the UPA who took the only correct, the only “heroic” stand. 

That way those of us who cannot agree get angry and offended, most often for the sake of our relatives. And they need this also to create a negative impression in other countries. People often complain that “they don’t understand in the West” that Stalin was also a monster, that Ukrainians “had to fight” on all fronts. I suspect this is mistaken. People in the West know what the regime was about. Purely intellectually, of course, about the same way that I know about Mao, Pol Pot, or what is going on at present in Darfur. We have to accept the fact that it will never touch them in the same way. This is nothing to do with any “information war”, it’s much simpler. The Nazis invaded their land and for a long time there was a serious risk that they would gain control of all of Europe. And, no less importantly, we view the entire War and all decisions in the light of our knowledge of the Holocaust.

It is entirely unrealistic, I believe, to hope to convince people that there was no difference at that time between Hitler and Stalin, that it was necessary to fight both simultaneously. This is not necessarily because people don’t know about Holodomor, the Terror and the camps, but because the Nazi plague was in their country, bombing their cities, and we know that the death machine was murdering ever more people by the day. I am on principle not prepared to place different manifestations of evil on any scale of importance however I also believe at that historical moment it was first of all necessary to destroy Hitler and his evil. On the other hand, I can, and believe we all must, try to understand and respect people who in view of different, no less difficult circumstances decided to fight all those whom they saw as occupiers of their country. That is assuming, of course, that they took no part in the Holocaust, punitive actions against the civilian population or other military crimes.

Unqualified evil did not end with Nazi capitulation and was not eradicated at Nuremberg. We need to fight it together and for that we have to understand one another. Some find it convenient that there should be no such understanding and would seem to have their own reasons for perpetuating rancid lies and stereotypes. We are seeing the old, painfully familiar, puppeteers, as well, it would seem, as some new figures on the scene with no less dubious motives. Let’s not help them – in memory of the victims of unqualified evil and to ensure that there are no more. (Ukrainian)

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