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Opinion Historical revisionism – it's coming home

The conflict in Ukraine means that the struggle over historical revisionism — especially equating the Nazi regime with the Soviet Union — has now taken a great leap forward, warns PHIL KATZ

IN the many public meetings I have spoken at on this subject I always end by saying that the search for historical truth and opposition to historical revisionism and Holocaust relativism is an important ideological struggle for our labour and peace movements.

Last week’s attack on transport union leaders is a case in point. The implication of the Daily Mail attacks on figures in the RMT is that the union supports appeasement and the wrong side of history.

The RMT of course is one of a number of unions balloting to take action against the cost of living crisis so the attack seeks to stigmatise the left and disorientate members.

But it’s no mere academic exercise to put the war record of RMT’s predecessor, the National Union of Railwaymen, against that of Ted Verity’s Daily Mail. While in the ’30s the Mail wrote in support of the Nazis and Franco, during the war it was the rail workers who literally kept the war effort running on the home front and led the campaign for the opening of a second front in Europe.

RMT histories and union educators of lay representatives could usefully revisit this war record and join the struggle against historical revisionism. They have nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

In the mid-1930s, the anti-fascist struggle reached a crossroads with the election in Spain of a progressive republican government. This set the course for a violent clash with opposing landowners, church and capitalist forces, backed by Salazar in Portugal, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The arch-appeaser Chamberlain ensured Britain supported Franco as did important forces in ruling circles - grouped around the oil industry- of the United States.

Spain became known as the “cockpit of Europe.” The current conflict in Ukraine also has its roots in the run-up to WWII and its aftermath.

When I first began writing about historical revisionism and Holocaust relativism 20 years ago, I always felt the left was behind the curve. How could it be that some countries, including Britain, were still erecting statues and monuments to their achievements in World War II, while others were frantically pulling them down?

In Britain it seemed inconceivable that anyone would see a future in a kind of society envisaged in Germany or Italy in the ’30s. But in eastern Europe things were different. There, the Prague Declaration movement, which prettifies fascism, has become the most dynamic and successful ideological current on the right since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ideas only have power when they become a material force in the actions of people and movements. So it was a matter of time and circumstances before historical revisionism became something altogether uglier and more violent.

When did historical revisionism pick up steam?  In 2000, Holocaust denial experienced a crushing defeat when failed historian David Irving lost his court case against Deborah Lipstadt. Thenceforth denial of the Holocaust became impossible. But the project Irving was a part of cast a far wider net than the mass murder of the Jews, the Roma people and Soviet POWs. This wider project morphed into the movement round the Prague Declaration in 2008.

At that time, I wrote that the theory was in place along with the arguments for a resurgence of fascist ideas, but as yet there were no boots on the ground. The Maiden coup provided these boots and began a localised war against citizens of the east of Ukraine.

Elsewhere, the symbolism of the anti-fascist war was expunged in the battle of the statues and gradually the left in countries like Poland, Hungary and Ukraine were put under extreme pressure. Governments began to ban newspapers, then workers’ parties. Since then, the Ukrainian government has outlawed all opposition and critical media.

In recent years, historical revisionism was swept under the carpet, as successive countries were integrated into the anti-Russian alliance around Nato, though the US involvement with right-wing extremists goes back to the cold war.

With the conflict in Ukraine, historical revisionism has been buffed up and co-opted by Nato, becoming seriously weaponised.A case in point is how far-right divisions of the Ukrainian army are being organised by officially sanctioned British trainers.

Putin’s claim to be completing the unfinished business of 1945 is made in order to win over popular and left support in Russia.

The symbolic defeat of the Azov Battalion does suggest there is an anti-fascist character to what began as a civil war in the east, with origins that long pre-date the current conflict.

But this civil war has become a component of a generalised armed intervention that goes against the interests of all peoples involved and which will only make the contradictions harder to unravel and put back together.

So historical revisionism has gone from courtrooms to the floor of the EU parliament to the street protests of Maiden and is now emblazoned in the mix of symbolism on the epaulets of the Ukrainian army.

The origins of today'’s violence lies in the fractures, trauma and divisions of the second world war. Ukrainian history is not a straight path.

Once a part of Poland, then of Lithuania, it is strongly regionalised and in existence on its current territory for about a century. During WWII, the country was divided between partisans who fought for Hitler opposed by others who served alongside the Red Army. These fought a civil war, echoing what has been happening in the east of the country since 2014.

At the end of the first world war, Ukrainians fought simultaneously against the Polish and the new Bolshevik government. Over a century there have been major population shifts. The only reason we no longer see the Polish population in the south and west, or the Jews of what was once called Galicia, is because they were murdered en masse, in many instances by Ukrainians, or were exchanged in population movements after the war.

By the time Auschwitz was built the vast majority of Jews in the east had already been murdered. Nearly as many Jews died in Ukraine as in Auschwitz. Mostly by club, bullet to the head or mobile gas units.

Until Ukraine gave itself over to capitalism and oligopoly, Russians were considered an integral part of the country. The Crimea was a part of the USSR, which Khrushchev reassigned to Ukraine. Modern-day Ukrainian state is very much a political construct and this is what is being contested in today’s clashes. Since February 24, Ukraine has lost land area the size of Britain; today the Polish-Ukrainian border is still disputed. How ironic that the period when Ukraine enjoyed most internal peace and prosperity is precisely when it was a Soviet republic.

There is another factor at work. The European Parliament gave the green light to historical revisionism when a motion on European Remembrance in September 2019 was adopted.  Supporters of the Prague Declaration were able to co-opt support of social democratic forces, including Labour MEPs.

Now the Labour Party is effusive in its support for Nato and unquestionably for its expansion, which involves not just a push to the north and the east to surround Russia, but to site nuclear missiles - weapons of mass destruction - in Suffolk at Lakenheath.

So we must redouble the struggle against historical revisionism and bring it home. Whether left Nato apologists like it or not historical revisionism includes Holocaust relativism. We need a full-on debate in our movement in order to win over the many labour supporters and trade unionists who would be appalled at such a thought.

Attempts to import historical revisionism in Britain include attacks on union leaders and proposals to establish a Crimes of Communism museum to reduce the impact of establishing a Museum of the Holocaust in Westminster.

Here we have the advantage in that Britain was very much an anti-fascist country, and a victorious one. We see the war differently from the ruling circles of Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary who flirted with fascism and who's populations paid a massive price for that treachery.

We have much ground to make up. In the early 2000s we paid the price for promoting a history of World War II which ignored Spain and the carve-up of Czechoslovakia at Munich, tried to evade blame for appeasement by offsetting the cause of war on the USSR (through the 1939 non-aggression pact) and reduced war history to Churchill’s leadership, Dunkirk, El Alamein and Tobruk (evading the biggest single loss in our military history at Singapore) and D-Day.

In reality, the war was largely fought on the eastern front and it was the Soviet peoples who broke the back of Nazism at a tremendous price in terms of death and destruction. No matter what the Daily Mail might say, this historical truth remains the touchstone and guiding path in today’s struggle against fascism and for peace. It is one the labour movement here in Britain should eagerly take on.

Phil Katz is the author of Freedom From Tyranny – the struggle against fascism and historical revision (Manifesto Press).

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