2. Reflections on the Cold War and the Memory of the Holocaust

Henry Rousso, Institut d’histoire du temps présent, CNRS, Paris

This is a kind of a cliché to underline that the aftermath of the Cold war had a notable influence on the narratives related to the history of the Holocaust and on the policies of the past. Recently, among other examples, the British historian Tony Judt wrote in his book on Postwar Europe that the fall of the Berlin Wall, among others tremendous effects, opened the way to a more accurate perception of this issue neglected or ignored after 1945. He even went further, pretending that the “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket” [1] – an assertion which concerns the new members of the European union, but not the old members which determined in fact the amount to pay.

Emphasizing the end of the Cold war as a landmark in the history of Holocaust remembrance is grounded on several factual elements. There were undoubtedly a growing attention to this issue in many former Communist countries after 1989, and there were notable changes in their collective representations of the Second World War not without deep ambiguities or strong misunderstandings: in many cases, to talk about the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis was more a way to emphasize a comparison with the Communist crimes, seen as another kind of a genocide, than to remember the specific fate of the European Jews who precisely lived for most of them in Central and East Europe. [2] There have been major changes in many western European countries as well, in Germany, in France, in Italy, even in the United Kingdom, where the memory of the Holocaust became in the 90’s a major political issue at the highest level: policies of apologies, policies of reparation, new museums and memorials, new commemorations like the growing tendency all over the continent to establish “negative” commemorations, new wave of trials against former Nazis or Collaborators, especially in France. [3] In the last decade, most of European countries gave the impression that they wanted to put an end to the XXth century by inaugurating a new step in the age of memory, characterized by the launch of new public policies of the past, at a national and international level, as if it was the last chance to remember that the continent of the Enlightenment was actually, during decades, a “dark continent”. [4]

Last but not least, one can notice an evolution since 2000 at the European Union level. Following the “Task force” recommendations, the EU supported explicitly and extensively specific policies of education regarding the so-called “transmission” of memory through learning, edifying trips to Auschwitz, etc. It gave much more importance to the commemoration to the 27th of January – the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army –, than to the 9th of May celebrating the 1950 Robert Schuman’s proposal for a European union, and which supposed to be the official “Europe day” – but who knows that ? [5] And finally, it decided to reinforce the laws punishing the denying and trivializing the Holocaust and other genocides, like the proposal signed on April 19, 2007 by the Justice Ministers: “The proposal criminalizes all intentional behavior aimed at inciting violence or hatred and at denying or trivializing the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes as defined by the Tribunal of Nuremberg. Such crimes must be committed on the grounds of race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin”. [6] The recognition of the Holocaust became a major indicator for the Europeaness – the “toll” to join the EU prestigious club –because its remembrance became a crucial component of the official European ideology of human rights.

Undoubtedly, some of these major changes occurred in the two last decades. But what sort of link can we establish with the end of the Cold War ? Is there anything more than a historical concomitance? There is a risk here to consider like many commentators including respectful scholars, that any major historical process which took place in the years 1990-2000 is related to the end of the Cold War – if we accepted to define the whole period between the end of the 1940’s and the 1990’s by such a simplistic notion, not to mention the idea that it was just a huge postwar period. Such generalizations can over-determine the weight of the original event – the Holocaust –, and underestimate explanations rooted in the present, linked less to the remembering of the war than to major cultural changes in the way contemporary societies are coping with the past.

Nevertheless, in the context of a general reflection on the history of the Cold war, I will try in this paper to answer to the following question : what are the elements related to the Cold War and its aftermath which can explain part of the evolution of the memory of the Holocaust since 1945 ? I also keep in mind the EURHISTXX’s project launched a few years ago on the comparison between the three majors postwar periods in European contemporary history (1918, 1945, 1989). I consider here the end of these wars not only as successive processes, in a diachronic perspective, but as parallel processes, in a synchronic one : since the 90’s, it seems quite obvious that most of the European nations had to cope with the legacy and memory of these three major wars together. Even, one can say that the memory of the two world wars have been more vivid after 1989 than before and than the memories of the Cold War itself : a new trauma doesn’t erase the sequels of the previous ones.


What are the links between the evolution of the memory of the Holocaust since 1945 and the Cold War as such? Is the Cold War here more than a general and vague context ? On the one hand, the underestimation of the Holocaust after 1945 is the consequence of many causes : the general will to forget, the needs for reconstruction, the inability or the refusal to understand the very nature of a genocide, the necessity for psychological recovering and resilience, the tradition coming from the Great War to pay attention in terms of commemoration to the fighters and not to the civilians, even here and there, the persistence of deep-rooted Antisemitism. On the other hand, representations of the war varied greatly depending on national singularities and offered many differences whether you belonged to the winners or the losers, to a big power or a small nation, to a country devastated by the Nazis or to a country which succeeded to survive without too many damages.

One of the major difference was of course the kind of historical narratives related to the Second World War developed in the Eastern block and those developed in the West. These differences were strongly visible in the case of the two Germanys where the territorial division led to a « divided memory » to quote the historian Jeffrey Herf. [7] While in the Federal Republic of Germany, there was a feeling of guilt, mainly imposed by the Allies and not really accepted by the population and the German elites as well, the German Democratic Republic behavior as a winner and as if it represented the « healthy » part of Germany , the one which defeated the Third Reich.

Nonetheless, what is more surprising retrospectively are less the differences between the communist interpretations of the war and the western ones than their common points, especially the forgetting of the Holocaust, or at least the denying or the unwillingness to underline its specific nature, at least until the 70’s. This was the case in Germany, at least until the 60’s, this was the case in France, at least until the 70’s, this was the case in Austria until the 80’s, as well as in many other Western countries. And this was the case in all the communist states until the fall of the Berlin wall. With great differences and in very different contexts, most of these countries (except West Germany) developed official narratives based on heroization, national unity, celebration of the martyrs of national resistances, a cultural framework into which the Jewish victims had no specific place. Despite the gap between Communist and Democratic European nations, most of them shared in common the idea that they have been the victims of the same evil. Actually, in this perspective, only Germany knew a “divided memory” while the rest of Europe could at least share common memories of the Nazi occupation. Even the “Anti-Fascist paradigm” which proposed a very specific interpretation of the Second World War was not a monopoly of the Communist block : it played a great role in France or in Italy. Then, one of the main argument related to the Cold War – the division of Europe – is not relevant or at least not sufficient to explain the underestimation of the Holocaust from one side of the continent to the other in the first decades after 1945.

Meanwhile, the Cold War played an indirect role in the first steps which will led to the anamnesis of the Holocaust in Western Europe. During the 50’s and the 60’s, in Germany, in France, in Italy, the context of a vivid ideological battle and the fear of a Soviet intervention with the complicity of indigenous Communist parties, helped former Nazis, Fascists or Collaborators to get prominent positions in politics, in intelligence services, in police organizations, despite the purges or the denazification processes or thanks to their weaknesses. In 1968 and afterwards, these situations were strongly denounced by new generations, even in terms of violence : the Baader-Meinhof movement as well as the Brigade Rosse used the argument of a so-called continuity of Nazism, Fascism and Capitalism to justify their terrorist assaults, presenting themselves as the new « resisters ». With a very different behavior, the Klarsfeld’s struggle against former Nazis began on November 7, 1968 when Beate slapped the German Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who was member of the Nazi Party and worked during the war at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She justified her gesture declaring that the young German generation couldn’t bear to see former Nazis occupying such offices. Then, the ideological statement that necessities of the Cold War could justify a kind of reconciliation with the Nazi past came to an end.

The general context of 1968 and the pause, in the following years, in the ideological battle between East and West during the Détente and the beginning of the Ostpolitik, brought to a significant change the historical narratives related to the War, even if we must take in account other events, like the Eichmann trial, in 1961, in Jerusalem, or the Auschwitz trial, in Frankfurt, in 1963-1965. The action of the Klarsfeld and other movements led, for example, to the first indictments for crimes against humanity in France, in 1973 (the Touvier case) – even if nobody believes at that moment that the French judicial system will have the courage to follow through the process. It led to the Köln trial, in 1979, where three of the main Nazi criminals involved in the implementation of the Final Solution in France (Lichka, Hagen, Heinrichsohn), were condemned. Since the 70’s, one can say that West Germany conducted policies of the past (trials, policy of apologize, policies of reparation, public debates) that have been more or less a kind of a model followed by other nations, and notably France.

So, in many senses, the evolution of the Cold War had an influence on the evolution of the memory of the Holocaust in the Western part of Europe, at least in some countries.


What kind of a link can we establish between the state of the Holocaust anamnesis in the 90’s and the end of the Cold War? Is the « memory boom » which brought since the mid-90’s in the public sphere many other historical controversies than the sole legacy of the Holocaust, a consequence of the end of the Cold War ?

There have been obvious changes in some former Communist countries which pay much more attention to the memory of the Holocaust and the consequences of a long silence on these events. The Anti-fascist paradigm has partly disappeared. But this general movement, not to take in account national singularities, presents many ambiguities and raises new controversial issues. The recognition of the Holocaust is probably more difficult in Central and Eastern Europe than in France, Belgium, Italy or even in the Netherlands while the number of Jewish victims in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Russia is simply not comparable to what happened in the western part of occupied Europe. The tendency to pay attention to the memory of the Holocaust clashed on the one hand with the parallel tendency to emphasize the Communist and/or Soviet crimes and, on the other hand, with the necessity to rebuild a national proud after 1991. In this perspective, the question of Collaboration became again quite controversial : how to consider those who helped the Nazis as heroes or Resisters in the struggle against Communism if, at the same time, one was discovering or remembering to what extent the same have been active and enthusiastic accomplices in the Final Solution ? And there is probably another difficulty. Whatever were the wishes in former Communist countries to join the European free market and the delights of democracy, to what extent the « toll » to pay – the recognition of the Holocaust – has been fully accepted ? To what extent is it seen as a part of an imported element of « globalization » and not something which fully concerns all the European countries ?

This is a general problem all over Europe, including in countries where the recognition of the Holocaust began a long time before the end of the Cold War. “By the 1990s the Holocaust had been reconfigured as a decontextualized event oriented toward nation-transcending symbols and meaning systems such as the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. Memories of the Holocaust helped shape the articulation of a new rights culture. Once that culture was in place, however, it no longer needed to rely on its original articulation to take on strong normative powers. [...] The Holocaust [could be seen] as the dominant symbolic representation of evil in the late twentieth century and as a foundation for a supranational moral universalism.” [8] If this is true or partly true, it is obviously related to end of the Cold War, the homogenization of European culture, the constitution of a new public space, etc. But it also raises new problems, which I mention here very briefly. Tendencies reluctant to Europeanization or Globalization – and not only in the extreme right or nationalist circles – challenge this movement, considering – what of a dangerous paradox – that this is a « foreign » issue. One of the aim of the policies of the past regarding the Holocaust was precisely to emphasize the universal dimension of this crime (« this the problem of all European citizens not only the Jews »). But to what extent, it has been achieved ?

In Germany, in France, at the level of the European Union, the debates over the Second World War have focused mainly on the persecution of the Jews, creating « competitive memories » firstly between different categories of victims of the war, and afterwards, between victims of other crimes in History. Then, many other claims have emerged in the last few years declaring that what have been done for the Jews has to be done for the others : Armenians, Algerians, Ukrainians, formers slaves, etc.


In the current situation, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are many tendencies regarding the best way to commemorate the past at a European level. Many politicians or intellectuals are promoting the memory of the Holocaust as a European negative myth which could be considered as a possible shared memory. In a cynical perspective, this choice presents the advantage to consider Nazism as the only common enemy, a good choice while it is fully dead, and while no significant political group is really defending its legacy. Others are promoting a new kind of denunciation of western or democratic values by emphasizing their historical failures: i.e. colonialism and slavery (the last has been recognized as a crime against humanity in the French law), seen as a “precedents” to the Holocaust, and which deserves public policies of recognition as well, considering the weight of citizens who have a background in former European colonies. At last, there are many claims all over Europe to give a substantial place to the memories of the crimes committed during the Cold war by the Communist regimes. But what is really targeted? It is quite difficult to denounce the Soviet crimes, in a perspective which could emphasize a new national proud, without playing down the indigenous responsibilities in these crimes – what precisely happened in many European countries after 1945 regarding the weight of an indigenous process of collaboration, and led to an underestimation of the national complicities in the Holocaust. If Europe is leaving the Cold War or a long post-war period, then any question related to memory must answer to this simple question: what is the best enemy to remember ?

[1] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. London: 2005, p. 803.

[2] On this issue, among general works, see: Henry Rousso (ed), Stalinism and Nazism. Lincoln: 2004 (part II). George Mink et Laure Neumayer (dir), L’Europe et ses passés douloureux. Paris: 2007. Konrad Jarausch and Thomas Lindenberger (ed.), Conflicted Memories. Europeanizing Contemporary Histories. New York/London, 2007. Marie-Claude Morel, François Meyer (dir), L’Europe et ses représentations du passé: les tourments de la mémoire. Prag: 2008.

[3] There are numerous works on any of theses issues which became research fields as such. Among some recent titles which are close to the spirit of my own perspective, see: Peter Homans (ed), Symbolic Loss. The Ambiguity of Mourning and memory at Century’s End. Charlottesville/London: 2000. Sandrine Lefranc, Politiques du pardon. Paris : 2002. Mark Gibney, Rhoda E. Howard-Hassman, Jean-Marc Coicaud, Niklaus Steiner (eds), The Age of Apologies. The West Confronts Its Past. Philadelphia: 2007.

[4] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s twentieth century. London, 1998.

[5] Henry Rousso, « History of Memory, Policies of the Past : What For ?", in Konrad Jarausch and Thomas Lindenberger (ed.), Conflicted Memories. op. cit., p. 23-38.

[6] “EU Justice Ministers agree on racism and xenophobia proposal (19 April 2007: Luxembourg)”

[7] Jeffrey Herf, Divided memory. Cambridge: 1997

[8] Daniel Levy & Nathan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Philadelphia: 2006, p. 5.