70 years after the massacre of more than 27,000 Jews in Rostov, on
the banks of the River Don, the Russian Ministry of Culture has announced
it will replace the plaque adorning the monument to the dead. But
once the text of the new inscription was revealed, it became clear
that this was not merely an exhibition of the low level official’s
love of new unveilings and plaque dedications. Rather it was another
attempt by a European state to revise the history of the Holocaust
and remove the stain of genocide from the national consciousness.
The original plaque recorded the event soberly and factually as follows:
“On 11/12 August 1942 there had been destroyed by
the Nazis more than 27,000 Jews. It is Russia’s largest Holocaust
The new inscription immediately smacks of the sort
of flowery, bloated language of patriotism more in tune with Stalin’s
Russia than with a modern state. And it foreshadowed a return to
the sort of euphemisms and terms of convenience rather than truth
which were a feature of the old rule – and are increasingly becoming
a feature of the new.
"Hitler's occupiers massacred more than
27,000 peace-loving citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners
of war. Among the murdered are members of many nationalities. Zmiyevskaya
Balka is the site of the largest massacre of Soviet citizens in the
Russian Federation by Fascist invaders during the Great Patriotic
The amendment to the text was not merely an exercise
Firstly, the victims of the massacre were no longer
Jews, rather, “peace-loving Soviet citizens of many nationalities”.
Gone too is any reference to the Holocaust. Now the
massacre is described as having occurred in the context of The Great
And perhaps most significantly, the perpetrators are
now referred to as “occupiers” and “invaders” to stress the foreign
origins of the guilty.
But how far removed this new inscription is from what
truly took place at Zmiyevskaya Balka on the 11th and 12th of August,
This was not The Great Patriotic War. This was no
Battle of Stalingrad or Kursk. The victims were not executed as peace-loving
Soviet citizens. They were executed as Jews. And the killing squad
was made up of German conscripts and local collaborators alike.
The actions of the Russian Ministry of Culture are
a conscious attempt to obscure the confronting reality of Russia’s
single biggest Holocaust massacre. Like all massacres of Jewish communities
in foreign lands, the Germans relied heavily on local collaborators;
both to identify and round up Jewish citizens and to murder the women
and children if ever the Germans lost their nerve.
But by casting the massacre as a crime against “Soviet
citizens” carried out by “invaders”, the truth gives way to the preferred
history that the Soviet Union remained united and honourable in the
face of foreign invasion. How could Soviet citizens have participated
in the massacre if Soviet citizens are themselves the victims?
The haunting poem of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “Babi Yar”
which places the slaughter of 33,771 Jews in Kiev in the context
of an unbroken Soviet/Russian history of antisemitism, was deemed
so provocative that it was confined to the literary underground.
Particularly objectionable was Yevtushenko’s recognition of a genocide
of the Jews – something the Soviet Union preferred to avoid as it
could lead to the logical conclusion that such a massive undertaking
could not have occurred without local assistance. Instead, the Soviet
protocol was to refer to such massacres as those of “Soviet citizens”
to present the illusion of a common national suffering at the hands
of a common (and external) enemy. It is significant that through
its actions in Rostov, the Russian Ministry of Culture is seeking
to revive the historical distortions of its Soviet predecessors.
And so, with a few innocuous strokes of a bureaucrat’s
pen, the record of the atrocity at Zmiyevskaya Balka is revised,
updated to avoid an uncomfortable truth and to remove this burden
of history from Russian consciousness and national pride.
The recent events in Rostov are hardly unique. As
we witness the rise of economic and strategic blocs in Europe, their
member states are desperately seeking to secure a national narrative
that will withstand the homogenisation of the continent. A narrative
based on patriotism but not nationalism; the struggle for freedom
without taking the freedom of others. But the history of the Holocaust
flies in the face of all that. It is a shameful reminder that not
only did nations partake in the dispossession and destruction of
the Jews of Europe under cover of war, but that they are responsible
for creating national traditions of antisemitism without which such
a thing could not have occurred. The Holocaust is an albatross around
the neck of Europe it is desperate to shed.
And so, Estonians who served in the Waffen-SS are
being honoured with official “freedom fighter” status as the country
chooses to revere those who resisted Soviet rule while whitewashing
the efficiency with which the same people destroyed Jewish life.
In Lithuania, the former Foreign Minister has recently
sought to characterise Nazi rule as a “respite” from Soviet oppression
in a statement which shows utter indifference to the 212,000 Jews
murdered during the clearly welcomed change of dictatorial rule.
Perhaps this statement says more about the lack of Lithuanian guilt
rather than any attempt to unburden the nation from it.
The Croats hold memorial masses in honour of Hitler’s
emissary in the Balkans, Ante Pavelic; celebrating the Ustasha leader
as a great Croatian patriot and forgiving his wholesale slaughter
of Serbs, Jews and other ethnic groups unwelcome in an independent
You can stir up far more national pride by remembering
the patriot who valiantly fought to liberate his people from the
yoke of foreign rule without also recalling his murder of innocent
men, women and children.
The form of revisionism we see in Rostov and elsewhere
presents a far greater challenge than Holocaust denial. The latter
is easy to spot and condemn and is generally the refrain of hardened
antisemites seeking to further injure the Jews by denying that their
families ever lived and died. Revisionism on the other hand, is the
work of the political and academic mainstream - as the actions of
the Russian Ministry of Culture demonstrate. And because this subtle
re-characterisation of events does not directly deny the Jews their
suffering, the revisionists are rarely challenged or condemned. In
this way, the truth makes way for distortions of fact which form
the basis of a new history.
The atrocities of the Holocaust stand alone in history.
The six million dead were not combatants nor were they civilians
caught up in the chaos of war. They were a defenceless, scattered,
civilian population, hunted down and murdered regardless of age or
gender, let alone citizenship or political persuasion. This is what
distinguishes the Jewish dead from the other “peace-loving Soviet
citizens” and this is why the true record of this crime, unparalleled
in history, must be preserved in its fullest, truest, most inconvenient
form, even if national pride is the worse for it.