Friday, February 04, 2005

The perils of symbolism

[Health warning: parts of this posting may upset some of our readers.]

There seems to be a certain amount of excitement around because of calls to ban totalitarian symbols in the EU. I cannot understand why this should be so. Surely it was clear that whatever else may happen after the accession of the post-Communist states, attitudes towards Nazism and Communism will never be the same.

If the previous EU Justice Commissioner had had any sense at all and if the banning of Nazi symbols really did appear to be the most important thing the EU needed to do, then it would have been done before May 1, 2004.

It all comes from not knowing any history and not realizing that the twentieth century was very different in one half of the Continent from that in the other. It also comes from the vaguely left-leaning aspect of the “project” and the reluctance to come to grips with the horrors of Communism, which is responsible for something like 100 million deaths world-wide.

One of the things I have complained about vociferously is that Communist propaganda is viewed as “art” while Nazi propaganda is reviled. As a consequence, one can see any number of Soviet and Chinese posters, photographs, films. Indeed, the imagery is still used in advertising and is seen as being rather cool. Similar Fascist and Nazi works are exhibited, if at all, with endless shuddering commentaries. Their use in modern life is greeted with horror.

Interestingly, there is one exhibition in London at the moment that has broken through that barrier. An otherwise so-so event at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, entitled Faces in the Crowd, has an interesting selection of early Soviet posters and photographs by the extremely talented Alexander Rodchenko.

Unusually, these are exhibited next to a collection of Nazi propaganda photographs and some rather untalented snaps by the egregious Tina Modotti, supposedly a great emblem of Latin American and feminist art.

The conclusion becomes inescapable: there is next to no difference between the Soviet and the Nazi stuff and the Modotti photographs can be seen as second-rate imitations of either.

(Incidentally, there are also some fascinating and more than a little ambivalent photographs by the great Cartier-Bresson and almost as great Robert Capa of the vengeance wreaked in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of western Europe. I fear that the French peasantry and bourgeoisie do not come out as well as they would like to.)

One cannot help musing about the subject as the EU in its wisdom is pushing through legislation that would ban Nazi symbols like the swastika and … um … the swastika. Well, there must be other things and they cannot really mean the swastika because turned the other way it is an ancient Hindu symbol and, in any case, how on earth they are going to police this nonsense, but hey, a ban is ban.

Setting aside the difficulties such as what do you do with model tanks and aeroplanes, there is, unfortunately for EU Justice Commissar Franco Frattini, the question of the other totalitarian system that bedevilled twentieth century history and is not yet over.

This problem has come out into the open through statements by Czech, Hungarian, Estonian and Lithuanian MEPs, all of them representing countries that have suffered both from Nazism and Communism.

They have made it quite clear that they do not really want to ban anything but they do want a clear and coherent analysis of the past. Neither Nazism nor Communism should be written out of the history books; they should be discussed and assessed together with the after-effects.

Therein lies the rub. The EU, as Hungarian MEP Thomas Szájer has pointed out, is exceptionally nice to existing left-wing totalitarian dictators. (It is exceptionally nice to most dictators but let’s not split hairs.) He pointed to the recent recognition of Cuba, one of the last bastions of old-fashioned Communism. He could equally point to the EU’s anxiety to get the good will of the Chinese Communist leadership at no matter what cost.

Above all, it does not want to go into the details of what sort of horrors the Communist system inflicted on its unfortunate victims.

(By the way, did all those officials and politicians who went on the jolly to Auschwitz and gawped at the place where millions suffered and died know what happened to it after its liberation? Did they know that it was used by the Soviet secret police? Did they know that the same Soviet secret police took over the Gestapo headquarters in all the “liberated” east European cities and used the buildings, the interrogation rooms, the prisons, the torture chambers and the lists of people to be arrested? No, I thought not.)

It seems that the swastika is not to be discussed in the same breath as the hammer and sickle or the red star. Well, you can’t really, with all those western Communists in the European Parliament. It is to be discussed entirely within the framework of xenophobia and racism.

Presumably Stalin’s own pogrom of the Jews in the early fifties does not count, as that was carried out in the name of … well, something else. It was as murderous as the Holocaust.

What is so ironic about this obsession with Nazi symbols to the point of forgetting why it is that they are hateful, is the continuing growth of anti-Semitic attacks in many of the member states and the frenzied hysteria of the left-wing hatred for Israel, that has transgressed pure dislike of a particular government or policy.

When academics start banning Israeli colleagues from conferences or publications; when Franco-German art programmes talk of the Holocaust being the fault of the western allies because they did not act fast enough; when Jewish schools are attacked, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated and synagogues need police protection while the left-wing media solemnly intones that it is all the fault of the nasty Israelis; then you have gone beyond the symbols. Banning them will not help.

And the roots of the problem are the ones defined by those Central European MEPs, whose understanding of the real European history is more profound than that of their spoilt and posturing western colleagues.

As they explained to the journalists of EUObserver:
“Asked whether it is right to compare a Nazi symbol such as a swastika, used by a regime promoting racial hatred and anti-Semitism, with the hammer and sickle of Communism used by a regime promoting social hatred, the MEPs insisted there should be no distinction.”
In other words, neither should be banned and free speech should be preserved. Otherwise, the totalitarians would have won.

It has been noted that until the post-Communist states (or not so far post-Communist ones like most of the former Soviet republics, including, alas, Russia) face up to the truth of their past and its consequences, they will not be able to move forward.

The same, it seems, applies to Europe as a whole. The most recent past includes two monstrous regimes. We must face up to the truth of both of them and we must overcome their heritage with freedom. Otherwise, we are lost.

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