Today marks Black Ribbon Day, more formally known as the Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazis. With its roots stretching back over four decades, Black Ribbon Day came about as a reaction to investigations by the United States and Canada into the possibility that war criminals escaped justice and settled in North America after World War II.
But these prosecutions stalled at roughly the same time as the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the commemoration took on a new role as the histories of postcommunist Eastern European nations from the Baltics to the Balkans and the Black Sea were rewritten from a nationalist perspective. This rewriting of history is closely intertwined with the resurgence of far-right, ultranationalist movements throughout Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism. It’s equally connected to the triumphs in rehabilitating the reputations of wartime collaborators, Holocaust culprits, and various other fascists.
This historical distortion was seized upon and exploited by the agents of American imperialism in the immediate post-Soviet era. The long-term effects of this retelling of history are amply evident today, as warmongering Western media commits feats of cognitive gymnastics to downplay, distract, and dismiss the rise of Europe’s far-right into the political mainstream, where it wields influence over NATO.
Black Ribbon Day and the Double Genocide Theory
Black Ribbon Day is recognized by the governments of the United States, Canada, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and other nations around the world. It takes place on August 23, a commemoration of the date in 1939 that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The pact’s signing was followed by the commencement of World War II just over a week later. This pact, often viewed as a division of Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres, marked the unpardonable Soviet détente with the Nazis. But it is not widely known that the Soviet Union had actively sought a formal military alliance with the United Kingdom and France in the eighteen months leading to the war’s onset, only to be rejected by those countries. The Soviets had few other options left.
Central to the commemoration is the idea that Nazism and Communism were simply two different kinds of totalitarianism that caused two genocides. This perspective, referred to as the Double Genocide Theory, posits one “red” (Communist/Stalinist) and one “brown” (fascist/Nazi).
The differences in historical memory underlie how the narratives of Black Ribbon Day inform geopolitics today. “The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact deserves to be remembered, and people may need a reminder about how World War II started,” says Lund University history professor Per Anders Rudling. “In the USSR and today in Russia, the doctrine is that the war started on June 22, 1941, with the Soviet Union as a victim of aggression.” Rudling explains that Russia has attempted to justify its current aggression, particularly the invasion of Ukraine, “with a perverse mischaracterization of Ukraine as a Nazi state in need of denazification.”
According to Rudling, the contemporary manipulation of the historical record can be traced back to the efforts of ultranationalist Eastern European diaspora groups’ spin on historical events:
Take, for instance, what the Ukrainian Canadian Congress has done this year, spinning a narration in which ‘the malign doctrines of Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism . . . targeted Ukraine and its people for conquest and annihilation.’ This claim is a cornerstone in what is sometimes referred to as the ‘red-brown equivalence,’ the idea that Nazism and Communism are equal, and that Ukrainians were the targets of genocide.
Rudling points to the famines that plagued the Soviet Union in 1930–1933 that were particularly brutal in Ukraine. Groups like the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) claim that the famines were a deliberate genocide aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people. The use of the term Holodomor (which can be translated from Ukrainian as meaning “death by hunger”) has been criticized by some historians and Holocaust scholars over the past several decades for its similarity to the word Holocaust, which may confuse the public by implying a similarity between the two events.
“The preferred nomenclature starts with ‘Holo’ and is used competitively and instrumentally by the UCC, which for decades have falsely claimed over ten million Ukrainians were murdered. The victim tally of their genocide beginning with ‘Holo’ is inflated to trump the highly symbolic figure of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.” Most scholars agree that roughly 3.9 million perished.
It seems perverse to be parsing the numbers of staggering death tolls in what seems a bead-counting competition. But while it might appear unsettling to engage in discussions that seemingly reduce the enormity of death tolls to mere statistics, the underlying issue here pertains to the official recognition of the Holocaust’s place within twentieth-century history.
Through attempts to elevate the Holodomor’s significance above that of the Holocaust, ultranationalist factions endeavor to undermine the magnitude of the Holocaust and to revise the historical narrative surrounding it, including the involvement of civilian populations in the Holocaust in countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Croatia. And framing the Holodomor as a graver crime than the Holocaust serves a dual purpose: it diminishes the perception of Nazi Germany’s atrocities, while also positioning ultranationalists from Eastern Europe as heroic figures for their anti-Soviet stance.
This aspect of Holocaust distortion is not limited to the ultranationalist Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora either. It is an unfortunate reality of contemporary Eastern European society and politics, particularly among some of the most bellicose latter-day additions to NATO. Commemoration is often ground zero for the misrepresentation of history for political ends.
“In Eastern Europe I have seen the delight of history apparatchiks in having museums and memorials to ‘genocide’ where the only word that starts with “Holo” is Holodomor,” says Dovid Katz, scholar of the Holocaust and the Yiddish language, as well as the publisher of Defending History.
“Until armed police came looking for two of my closest friends in 2008 — both women in their late 80s, and Vilna (Vilnius) Ghetto Holocaust survivors accused of war crimes because they escaped certain death to join the anti-Nazi Soviet-sponsored partisans — I was a happy professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University,” says Katz. “My rapid education on the history revisionism that underlaid these kangaroo prosecutions was the Genocide Museum (in Vilnius) and its Holodomor exhibit which explicitly said that it was much worse than Auschwitz.”
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was once called the “Jerusalem of the North.” Katz refers to it as “ground zero” of the Holocaust, as an alarming 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population fell victim to mass killings between 1941 and 1943. These tragic deaths often had the support and involvement of an eager local Catholic populace. Lithuania today is aggressively attempting not only to rewrite the past, but prosecute as war criminals those who fought against the Nazis.
No one denies that the Holodomor was brutal, one of the worst mass-death experiences in a century filled with them. But whether it was a genocide is a matter of serious scholarly debate. If a genocide is defined as the murder of one particular nation or ethnic group with the explicit goal of eliminating that nation or ethnic group, the postnational and pan-ethnic nature of the Soviet Union introduces complicating factors almost immediately. The famines of the early 1930s killed many people who weren’t ethnically Ukrainian — including Russians (the predominant ethnic group in the Soviet Union), and Georgians (Stalin’s ethnicity/nation). The Holocaust, meanwhile, was first and foremost the targeted murder of six million of Europe’s Jews.
Additional complicating factors include the fact that Stalin was a brutal, tyrannical dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions of other people, and that his economic and industrialization policies likely aggravated a crisis started by droughts and bad harvests. He deserves vilification for his staggering atrocities.
Ukrainians suffered disproportionately during the Soviet famines of the early 1930s, and Stalin played an integral role in exacerbating the situation. But even if the Holomodor was a genocide, not all such crimes against humanity equate to the Holocaust.
The Holocaust’s extent in Eastern Europe involved enthusiastic collaboration between locals and Nazis, leading to what’s termed the “Holocaust by Bullets.” This sheds light on a different dimension of the Holocaust beyond concentration camps and gas chambers.
This phase of the Holocaust — which began with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 — actually predated the Wannsee Conference of 1942, where the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and the network of concentration and extermination camps were formally planned. During this phase of the Holocaust, an estimated 1.5 million Jews were murdered in the Baltic republics, Belarus, and Ukraine. According to historian Jennifer Popowycz, the Leventhal Research Fellow at the US National WWII Museum, roughly one in four Jewish victims of the Holocaust were murdered within the present-day borders of Ukraine.
Black Ribbon Day is part of a campaign to distort the reality of the Holocaust that serves the interests of Eastern European ultranationalists who have been elevating wartime collaborators to the status of nationalist heroes in the post-Soviet era.
The invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war adds another level of complexity to this issue. Putin is fully aware of the widespread historical revisionism taking place in Eastern Europe, as well as the rehabilitation of the legacies of Nazi collaborators, and has used this to his advantage in his propaganda campaign. Even though the majority of Ukrainians are obviously not Nazis, nor supportive of Nazi ideology, the extent of the historical revisionism concerning Ukraine’s wartime ultranationalist collaborators may partly explain the pervasiveness of Nazi symbols among Ukrainian and other Eastern European volunteers.
NATO’s attempts to mischaracterize all references to this reality as Russian propaganda is demonstrative of its own involvement in deliberate historical distortion. The very real presence of the Azov battalion among other far-right and neo-Nazi elements currently fighting against Russian forces in Ukraine — and NATO’s reluctance to forcefully condemn them — is further evidence of the very real consequences of over thirty years’ worth of historical distortion.
“It is more important than ever that we in the Western family of democratic nations do not become unwitting patsies of the elite Nazi-glorifying and racist far-right of the ‘far east’ of the European Union and NATO, or of Ukraine itself,” says Katz. “Those far-right elites represent small but powerful concentrations of power in these nations’ governments, academia, media, the arts. They are obsessed with ‘fixing the history’ of the Holocaust and World War II by way of a number of cunning ruses.”
“Some of the most brutal and prolific collaborators and perpetrators of the Holocaust are elevated to the status of national hero on the grounds that they were ‘anti-Soviet activists.’” Katz explains that this revisionism extends into the international academic, political, and diplomatic spheres, as the Double Genocide theory is
slowly but surely insinuated into an unsuspecting and naïve West via endless Eastern European state-sponsored conferences, resolutions, and commemorations which all share one common denominator: to formally, and as a matter of sacred principle, equalize Nazi and Soviet crimes in the spirit of postmodernist mush and for the purpose of relegating the Holocaust to some kind of secondary reaction to the “first genocide.”
Contrary to claims of a “first genocide” by the Soviet Union, Katz emphasizes that, as bad and as repressive as the Soviet Union was, “it left Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine as advanced societies ready for rapid integration into the West. Had Hitler won the war these nations would not have been there to become independent in 1991, as they were slated for later destruction for German lebensraum.”
Ironically, historical revisionism and distortion was a hallmark of the Stalinist era. Yet it is the ostensibly free, liberal, and democratic former Soviet republics and client states that have aggressively pushed such distortion in the post-Soviet era.
“One of the most notorious European Parliament documents was the Prague Declaration of 2008, which called for all of Europe and the world to overhaul textbooks to ensure that Nazi and Soviet crimes be ‘equal by law,’” says Katz. “It’s Orwellian.”
“By way of disguising far-right activity as mainstream, Eastern European revisionism has made its way into North America, not least by the virtually un-debated, under-the-radar, sneaking in of Black Ribbon Day into some kind of formal status in Canada and the United States,” says Katz.
Of course the victims of Communism deserve a day of remembrance. Indeed, they deserve a separate day so that the world can begin to produce the education, history, literature and cultural artifacts to secure the memory of the millions who suffered. But by the mix-and-match politics of artful and devious “equalization via unification in a single day of memory,” their cause does vast damage to the memory of both sets of victims.
For those of us who live in Eastern Europe, the public impact of this “confusionism” has reached a higher level, along the lines of: “In those complicated times, everyone was killing everyone, the same person was both a victim and a perpetrator, and now we achieve reconciliation by equalizing all sides.”
“It is time to relegate Black Ribbon Day to the proverbial dustbin,” says Katz, “and to understand that efforts to downgrade the empirical reality of the Holocaust’s genocide must be resisted.”