Körber History Forum
  • Norman Naimark<br />(Photo: Linda A. Cicero/<br />Stanford News Service)

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    “Refugees and the Emmigration crisis were used to stoke resentments”

    Interview with the American historian and political scientist Norman Naimark on the question why some of the Central and Eastern European countries refuse to accept refugees.

    In their search for a future in peace and security, hundreds of thousands are making their way to Europe from the world's war and crisis areas. Immigration, flight and asylum are not recent phenomena on the continent, but reach far back historically. The two World Wars of the 20th century led not only to millions of war dead; in their aftermath empires and oppressive regimes were shattered and new nation states and borders emerged. Forced migration, flows of refugees and major challenges for the integration of refugees in the post-war societies of Europe were the result.

    The American historian and political scientist Norman Naimark is a leading expert on the history of genocide in the 20th century and on postwar Soviet policy in Europe. At the Körber History Forum in September he will – with other experts – discuss what Europe can learn from its own past for the integration of refugees today. In this interview, he explains, why some of the Central and Eastern European countries refuse to accept refugees.

    Europe' s Central and Eastern European countries and its citizens have suffered from dictatorship(s), ethnic cleansing and unprecedented violence throughout 20th Century before some of these countries finally joined the EU in 2004. Why are they today so averse to helping others in a similar situation?

    There is no single answer to the question of why the East Europeans have generally been unwilling to come to the aid of the refugees from the Middle East. I say generally, because there have some notable exceptions. For example, the Serbs have been remarkably generous and forthcoming when it comes to housing, feeding, and helping the refugees. Perhaps it is their own painfully fresh experience with dealing with Serb refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia that has heightened their humanitarian instincts when dealing with refugees. Still, there are new tensions as a result of the recent crowding of refugees on the Hungarian border.

    The most frequently cited counter-examples are Poland and Hungary, as well as Slovakia. The first factor has to do with the political situations in all of these countries, where populist-oriented parties have used the refugees and emigration crisis to stoke nationalist fires and resentments, win elections, and consolidate political power. That populism remains a powerful political force these days should surprise no one, given the unexpected Brexit decision and the strength of Donald Trump in the presidential campaign in the United States.

    The second factor has to do with the uneven historical interpretations in the region of the events of the last 75 years or so, meaning of World War II, the Cold War, and the accelerated globalization that has occurred since the fall of communism, all of which are too frequently rendered in an exclusivist, chauvinist, and xenophobic fashion.

    What is it the citizens in the Northern and Western countries of Europe need to learn about the history of the former communist states in order to understand their current political decisions?

    Communist systems inhibited the development of political responsibility and accountability. They encouraged hypocritical behavior on the part of leaders and populations alike. They made corruption a part of life and cheating the state a matter of indifference. Ethnic, religious, and national rivalries were suppressed, and never properly addressed or worked through. One could say the same about history, which was manipulated for the sake of the political leadership and its goals rather than dealt with as an autonomous area of inquiry or used to come to terms with the past and to formulate appropriate lessons for the future. The history of relations with the Soviet Union also helped create a cult of victimhood among many East Europeans that makes it even harder to face their own past and present transgressions.

    You have researched and documented the genocide and purges of both the National Socialist as well the Stalinist Era. How do you evaluate the shift that has recently been made in Russia when it comes to the assessment of Stalin's role in 20th Century European history, particularly in connection with WWII?

    There has unquestionably been an upswing in the popularity of Stalin in Russia over the past several years. The respected Levada Institute polls show that the percentage of Russians who believe that Stalin played a more positive than negative role in history went from 27 percent in 2012 to 52 percent in 2015. The data are consistent that Stalin’s image has improved. However, it is also important to emphasize that at least half of the population can be considered “anti-Stalin.”

    The reasons for Stalin’s recent popularity are several: 1) the growing propaganda about the importance of Russian state power and authority 2) Putin’s ambivalent statements about Stalin, 3) Moscow’s increasing emphasis on Russia as a Great Power, 4) the ongoing relevance of the victory in World War to Russian national consciousness, 5) the popular perception of Stalin as someone who would not tolerate crime or corruption, 6) Stalin’s aura as a Russian nationalist, which plays out in particular in the Ukrainian conflict.

    How does that reevaluation influence the relationship between Russia and the countries in Central and Eastern Europe?

    It is clear that the East Europeans do not have the same sympathies for Stalin as do the Russians. On the contrary, for many – in Poland, Hungary, the Baltic States, parts of Ukraine, and elsewhere – Stalin represents a level of historical evil commensurate with (and even surpassing) that of Hitler. A history of Stalinist subjugation, terror, deportations, and labor camps evokes painful memories for many East Europeans. Thus, the Russian reevaluation of Stalin’s role in history makes it even more difficult for the countries of the region to achieve positive relations with Moscow. In particular, the rehabilitation of Stalin strikes fear into the hearts of those countries that were the victims of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and of the postwar division of Europe, both of which were at least partly designed by Stalin. Will the Soviets march in again and deprive them of their sovereignty? Behind the recent NATO summit in Warsaw were many of these kinds of considerations.

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