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Aug 2004 Journal

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'Hero' and 'villain' nations

During the current Olympic games events linked to Greek place names resonant with history - such as Marathon - remind us that Ancient Hellas defended democracy against Persian despotism. Ever since, the ancient Greeks, and especially the Athenians under the leadership of Pericles, have been universally regarded as a heroic nation.

There is, of course, a huge difference between defensive and offensive war. Alexander the Great conquered a large part of the world, and one of his successors' attempts to hellenise Judea by force triggered the revolt of the Maccabees.

Is there such a thing as a 'hero nation' in our own time? The Russians appear to qualify for that accolade in view of their superhuman endurance during the war, but when one looks at their meek acquiescence in Putin's pseudo-democracy doubts creep in.

What about the Brits? We imagine they would have behaved better than the French under occupation. Certainly Mosleyites were far thinner on the ground in this country than anti-Dreyfusards were in France - but can we be absolutely certain?

To avoid conjecture, it might be advisable to look at the actual historical record of near-neighbours of the above-mentioned, that is, the Netherlands and Poland.

The Dutch emerged from the war with their historical reputation as doughty freedom fighters intact. Their queen and government had gone into exile, they had sheltered Anne Frank, and the Germans had punished them for their resistance activities by causing a quarter-million deaths from starvation.

Later, a more nuanced picture emerged. It appears that while every tenth Dutch person was a resistant, a roughly similar proportion collaborated actively. However, the sympathy of the silent majority was undoubtedly with the Allies.

As a Slav country, Poland received very harsh treatment at the hands of the Nazis from the outset. Collaboration was restricted to unscrupulous individuals, while an all-encompassing anti-German mood led to the devastating Warsaw uprising of 1944. Though anti-Nazi, most Poles were far from philosemitic. Postwar, this indifference was glossed over by the Communist rulers and the anti-Soviet opposition alike. Even after the advent of democracy in 1989, the notion that under Nazi occupation the Poles had been impotent witnesses of the Holocaust was perpetuated. It was not until 2001 that the publication of Jan Grosz's study of the Jedwabne massacre, in which Poles had murdered their Jewish neighbours, exploded that particular myth. At that late date the painful process of Poland's Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) began in earnest.

In the Baltic republics, while laudable efforts in that direction have been made, they have not yet fully percolated to the popular level. The difference between them and Poland is that the latter has historically viewed Germany and Russia as equally hated enemies. The Baltics, on the other hand, subscribe to a myth that the Russians had treated them as colonial overlords and the Germans had freed them. Baltic nationals who had fought in the ranks of the Wehrmacht or SS were looked upon as patriots and their involvement in atrocities was glossed over. (This explains the recent unveiling of the statue of an SS 'hero' in Tallinn and the cool welcome for the crew filming Joshua Sobol's Ghetto on location in Vilnius.)

However, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have now joined the enlarged EU. No longer cocooned in their post-Soviet isolation of the last 15 years, they will have to fully confront their own past. The world knows of the great contribution Baltic-Jewish immigrants made to the UK (Isaiah Berlin), the USA (Bernard Berenson) and South Africa (Solly Zuckerman, Joe Slovo) and will want to know more precisely what happened to their co-religionists.
Richard Grunberger

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