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Europe’s Victimhood Olympics

By Michael ColborneApril 29, 2020

Europe’s Victimhood Olympics

Yellow Star, Red Star by Jelena Subotić

THE LATTICEWORK TOWER pokes up from the banks of the Sava, the river that divides the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Laundry clipped up on clotheslines flows in the breeze next to the faded white structure, as it looms without apparent explanation alongside roaming dogs, junkyards, and squatters’ homes.

Down closer to the banks of the river is a monument that will tell you something about what used to be here, at a place called Semlin. “This is the place where the Nazi concentration camp at the old Belgrade fairgrounds used to be,” the plaque on the monument reads in Serbian and English. “The victims were mostly Serbs, Jews and Roma.”

Still, that doesn’t tell you that in a period of just a few months in 1942, half of all Jews in Nazi-occupied Serbia had gone through here and been exterminated, with the help of local collaborators. An estimated 6,300 of Serbia’s Jews, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were murdered in mobile gas vans driven by Nazis all around the streets of central Belgrade. But Semlin’s period as a temporary detention camp is arguably more widely known than its role as an extermination camp for Jews and Roma.

The same thing happens a few hundred miles up the same river, in neighboring Croatia. The Jasenovac camp, run by the fascist Ustashe party, saw about 85,000 inmates killed. But the modern Croatian government emphasizes the Croatian casualties — most of which were dissidents and communist supporters — over the suffering of non-majority ethnic groups like Jews, Roma, or, of course, Serbs, who made up a third of the population.

These are just two examples of erasure from the recent book by Jelena Subotić titled Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism. The professor of political science at Georgia State University argues that many European countries have appropriated Holocaust memory to emphasize majority ethnic group status. Worse, it’s a process that has helped re-legitimize fascist ideologies. Resurgent fascism, Subotić reminds us, has a lot to do with the ways countries have chosen not to talk about painful or uncomfortable episodes in their pasts.


At the core of Subotić’s argument is the concept of “ontological insecurity” — basically, a state’s insecurity over its national identity. Since the end of the Cold War, these countries have sought to cement their national identities which they thought were muffled by the communist goal of establishing an international identity over local ones.

How the Holocaust is remembered became a fundamental part of every European state’s identity. For many of us raised in the West, especially those near the bloodlands of World War II, there is no discussion about who was the bigger victim. But in formerly communist countries, the murders of millions of Jews were largely subsumed under the broad category of “victims of fascism.” This narrative was made easier because most Soviet Bloc nations weren’t free from periods of their own state-sponsored antisemitism.

Communism and Nazism are often held up as equal totalitarianisms and equal evils, and the trouble with this is the heart of Subotić’s book, divided into multiple case studies.

In Lithuania, the government pursues what Subotić calls “memory conflation,” in which the crimes of the Holocaust are lumped in with crimes of the communist era, especially the atrocities of Stalinism. In doing so, the government recognizes one extended period of mass terror that grants little recognition of the Holocaust as a unique event. It all obscures Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust, which is still the subject of cover-up by way of proposals to legally declare that neither Lithuania nor its leaders had any complicity in the Holocaust.

As nationalist arguments always seem to go, their nations and people are constantly on the verge of being victimized by the same perpetrators as before, sometimes in slightly different guises. The Law and Justice ruling party in Poland treats LGBT citizens as threats to the nation and directly evokes the communist era in so doing. Nationalists in Hungary talk about Muslim migrants as some rehashed Ottoman Turkish invasion, and many Croats and Serbs see each other as having irredentist designs on each other.

Victimization is at the core of these fractured senses of national identity, and it’s not limited to the primary European theater of Holocaust memory. It’s a way of looking at the world that caused a relatively wealthy 28-year-old Australian male to see himself and his ethnic siblings as such victims, and murdered dozens of Muslims in New Zealand in what he and his online fanboys continue to see as some kind of defensive act.

The United States, of course, is also one of these countries that has never properly reckoned with slavery or military defeat in Vietnam and Iraq. To that end, Subotić sees the election of Trump as a sort of culmination of this sense of victimhood, a sense that Americans are indeed the good guys who have been unfairly maligned and victimized by a range of enemies, made to feel guilty and weak — something which can be undone, of course, by making America great again.

Subotić ends her book with a plea for what she calls “memory solidarity,” which means jettisoning the idea that victimhood is some competitive exercise or that accepting guilt is somehow tantamount to giving up national identity. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt, writing in On Revolution in 1963, devotes a lot of space to this idea, which she defines as a sort of perverted compassion instead of pity. “It is out of pity that men are attracted toward les hommes faibles, but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited,” Arendt writes.

The 21st century’s fascists are already hard at work practicing their own perverse kind of memory solidarity. They’re meeting up at marches and conferences and seminars to not only share ideas about how to sanitize fascism and push it into the mainstream, but also to share and promote their own interpretations of the past to mobilize the far-right fringes. We had better figure out how to establish real memory solidarity before the new fascists do it for us.


Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers Central and Eastern Europe.

LARB Contributor

Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers central and eastern Europe. His work has appeared in Haaretz, Foreign Policy, Bellingcat, The New Republic, and others.


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