Ancient history and modern politics

Among the typical reactions I receive when stating that ancient history should be studied is “Why would you study ancient history?” and “Isn’t all about long-dead people and civilisations? What has that got to do with today?”. Well ancient history, besides being a boundlessly fascinating subject, has implications for what we do today and how we understand modern politics. Perhaps Australians do not appreciate ancient history because our own (white) history is only around two hundred years old. However, ancient history still has explosive consequences for today. Let me illustrate by using one example.

In the city of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the government has erected a statue to Alexander the Great, the ancient Macedonian conquistador who is still celebrated today on both sides of the Greece-Macedonia border. This statue has reignited a long-simmering dispute between the Greek and Macedonian governments – was Alexander the Great (more correctly, Alexander III of Macedon) Macedonian or Greek? While this dispute may seem antiquated to us in Australia, it is the latest in a series of counterpunches between the two cultural antagonists. The current Macedonian government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is leading the campaign to celebrate Macedonia’s classical heritage through a series of cultural and architectural projects throughout Skopje, commemorating Macedonia’s antiquity. The statue of Alexander the Great has been criticised by the Greek government, who claim that Alexander was rightly Hellenic, and any attempt by Macedonia to claim his mantle as part of their heritage is unjust, and masks Macedonia’s territorial ambitions to claim Greece’s historic province of Macedonia.

I am not going to take a ‘position’ on this debate; I think that Hajrudin Somun, Bosnia’s former ambassador to Turkey and lecturer at the International University in Sarajevo, has hit the nail on the head by stating that while Alexander belongs to the Hellenic tradition, modern Greece has no monopoly over everything Hellenic. There are numerous Hellenic historical sites located in Anatolia (modern-day Greece) and the Middle East, even going as far as Afghanistan. Do all these territories have to pay homage to Greece before commemorating their heritage? I think they have the perfect right to memorialise the Hellenic input into their history. As Somun states, Alexander belongs to both modern Greece and Macedonia. The establishment of Alexander the Great as a credential of nationhood began in the late nineteenth century, with the fight by Macedonia and Greece for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule.

Prime Minister Gruevski has ordered the construction of museums, scores of sculptures, philharmonic orchestra and the preservation of hundreds of archaeological sites to commemorate the period of Macedonia’s classical antiquity. This is a way of saying a big “up yours” to Greece, as the former foreign minister of Macedonia stated in an interview last year. An intended statue of Alexander’s father, Phillip of Macedon, is expected to be even bigger than the current sculpture. The classical period of Macedonia’s history (and Hellenic history) should be studied and remembered for its importance to our lives. Much of our political structures, scientific questions, cultural debates and social mores trace back to classical antiquity.

The title of Gruevski’s part is the Democratic party for Macedonian National Unity – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO-DPMNE). Why such a long name? That name harks back to the time of Macedonia’s own struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule. Gruevski hopes to acquire the historical legitimacy conferred by tracing the origins of his party’s political program to the Macedonian independence struggle. The VMRO-DPMNE is today a rightist, Christian Democrat party. Gruevski’s party is claiming that the fight for independence by the original VMRO-DPMNE should be respected and is the reason why Macedonia is still standing today. That is certainly the case, but then Gruevski’s government has a serious problem.

The monuments, museums and buildings commemorating the struggle by the Communist partisans to liberate Macedonia (and indeed Yugoslavia) from the tyranny of Nazi rule have been deliberately neglected since the VMRO-DPMNE assumed power in 2006. While Gruevski’s government is spending enormous sums of money to celebrate classical antiquity, the heroic struggle of those Macedonians who fought as partisans during World War Two is being studiously ignored, and the monuments to that struggle are victims of neglect. Macedonia is still standing today, and is named (somewhat clumsily) as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because of the courage of the partisans and their vision of a united Yugoslavia. The main opposition party in Macedonia, the Social Democrats, state that they should be proud of their modern history and not neglect it like the VMRO-DPMNE government.

There are many Macedonians who are outraged that their capital is beginning to resemble a ‘mini-Las Vegas’, as one critic put it. It is interesting to note that in the same article, the academic Professor Blaze Ristovski, while hailing the campaign to celebrate Alexander the Great as a method of nation-building, admitted that during the communist era, churches and mosques were built in the republic. He was speaking from the communist-built Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which still operates until today.

The current Macedonian government, facing a bleak economic situation and rising anger over the deterioration in living standards, is using a populist reading of history to whip up nationalist sentiment and divert people’s attention from the worsening economic situation. This month marks ten years since the Ohrid agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and held out a promise of a better future. Ten years on, Macedonia has not made any progress towards joining the European Union (EU) and the peace deal remains fragile. Athens blocks Macedonia’s entry into the EU as long as the latter continues to use its current name. The financial problems of Greece and the wider EU have assumed centre stage for now.

Ancient history frequently intersects with modern politics and economics. It is foolhardy to ignore or dismiss it.

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World War Two anniversaries and Baltic neofascism

Early in August, two major World War Two anniversaries were marked in Europe; August 1 saw the 67th anniversary of the heroic Warsaw uprising by the Polish underground resistance movement against Nazi German occupation forces; and August 6 witnessed the 66th anniversary of the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The bombing of Nagasaki occurred on August 9. I raise these anniversaries to highlight the importance of commemorating the courageous struggles by the peoples oppressed by the Nazi regime, and to underscore the importance of historical debate for comprehending the tremendous social forces that have shaped the world today. But my point today is not to just go over old historical ground, but to highlight a growing problem in our midst; Baltic ultranationalism which has mutated to outright neofascism.

Consider the following commemoration of World War Two, this time in Estonia; the Moscow government strongly condemned the criminal connivance of the Estonian authorities in allowing a march of Estonian SS veterans in late July. The gathering of veterans of the 20th Estonian SS division not only promoted neo-Nazi and anti-immigrant ideas in the young generation, but also whitewashes the criminal actions of the Baltic SS veterans and their culpability in the crimes of the Nazi regime, in particular the holocaust.

This cannot be dismissed as just a one-off march by a band of senescent curmudgeons reliving their glory days. Last year in Latvia, a rally and commemoration was held for the veterans and supporters of the Latvian legion that served in the SS. Latvia’s Fatherland and Freedom party has practiced a kind of Baltic revisionism of World War Two, obfuscating the culpability of the Baltic fascists in executing Jews, and simultaneously exaggerating and embellishing the Soviet period in the Baltic republics as equal to Nazi fascism. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and holocaust historian, has spoken out against the menace of Baltic fanatic-nationalism, calling it a threat to European democracy, and highlighting that since independence in 1991, not a single Baltic Nazi war criminal has been prosecuted in a Baltic court of law.

Back in April 2007, just prior to the traditional May 9 commemorations of victory in Europe day, which are understandably serious and solemn occasions in Russia, a monument to the Soviet soliders who fell during World War Two was dismantled in Tallinn, the Estonian capital city. There were riots and ethnic clashes between rightwing Estonians and the Russian-speaking community, leading to arrests and at least one Russian dead. The Russian government tabled a resolution to the United Nations condemning the glorification of Nazism and demanding that desecrating World War Two monuments be outlawed. The motion was defeated and the United States voted against it. Marches by Waffen-SS veterans and their supporters, drawn from the extreme rightwing parties and anti-immigrant circles in which Anders Breivik circulated, are annual events in the Baltic states. Dismantling Soviet-era memorials dedicated to the commemoration of Soviet sacrifices during World War Two have become commonplace in the Baltic republics. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has repeatedly urged the international community to reject any attempts to desecrate or profane the memory of the dead and remember that victory in WWII was achieved at tremendous cost by the Soviet Union. Let us also not forget the incredible sacrifices that the Chinese made in their decisive contribution to defeat an aggressive and militarist Japan.

But I think there is something more insidious going on here – equating red with brown, and obfuscating the guilt of the perpetrators of the holocaust. They are not my phrases, but the words of Dovid Katz, chief analyst at the Litvak Studies Institute and editor of the website Holocaustinthebaltics. In a couple of articles for the Guardian newspaper, Katz underscores two crucial themes. First is the ongoing attempt to equate Nazi and Soviet crimes. After all, if both are equally guilty then the Baltic ultranationalist agenda to revise history can proceed, portraying the Baltics as the innocent victims of two aggressive, cooperating predators. Did not Hitler and Stalin sign a pact in August 1939 which included in its provisions, the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states? In the early 1990s, the newly-independent Baltic states set up state-organised committees to examine both Nazi and Soviet crimes. As Katz states, this project was a Baltic ultranationalist agenda to rewrite their participation in crimes against the Jews, and by promoting the ‘double-genocide’ interpretation, absolve the Baltic SS collaborators of their guilt, or at least to obscure their own responsibility for carrying out the genocide of the Jews. Secondly, by propounding the ‘double-genocide’ interpretation, and advocating an anti-Russian position, the Baltics further ingratiated themselves with the European powers and the United States. This reflected their political orientation after 1991. If Russia can be portrayed as a genocidal, homicidal equivalent of the Nazis, then the ‘Western democracies’ will firmly embrace the Baltic republics into the neoliberal, capitalist agenda of the major imperialist powers. Populist ultranationalism was used as an ideological battering ram to accompany the imposition of the IMF neoliberal austerity programme.

The Soviets committed terrible atrocities in the early 1940s when their troops and secret police moved into the Baltic states under the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. There were mass deportations of anti-Soviet sections of the ruling classes and intelligentsia; carrying out large-scale collectivisation of agriculture and heavy industrialisation caused massive dislocation. The Soviets invested heavily in large capital investment projects for the production of manufacturing and industrial commodities. This caused massive upheaval in a society that was largely agricultural and semi-rural.

As Dovid Katz points out, the only reason that the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians are still with us is because there was no genocide. However, the Baltic fanatic-nationalist motivation to label the Soviet period ‘genocide’ not only minimises Nazi criminality during the war, but plays up Soviet crimes in order to conceal Baltic accountability for antisemitic pogroms and massacres during WWII. It is interesting to note that with the capitalist economic crisis engulfing Europe, the once-hailed Baltic tigers are experiencing a severe economic downturn. One consequence of this has been the mass exodus of young Balts from their respective states, and the rate of exit is comparable to Stalin’s deportations of the 1940-41 period.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was unethical and immoral – Putin said as much in 2009 during a speech in Gdansk, Poland, to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. He also went on to condemn the appeasement of Nazi Germany by the western powers, noting especially the infamous Munich pact, the Hitler-Chamberlain agreement that sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany’s encroachments. Moscow’s overtures for a mutual assistance pact with Britain and France were repeatedly rebuffed. Russia faced a war on two fronts in 1939, being invaded by militarist Japan in that year. Now all this does not make the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact right, but it does indicate the selective condemnation of Moscow while ignoring the deep culpability of the western European powers in the appeasement of Nazism.

Seumas Milne states it plainly when he writes that with the resurgence of a xenophobic, ultranationalist right in Eastern Europe, some historians, particularly evident in the Baltics, are equating Nazism with Communism in order to dishonestly claim that WWII was caused not just by Nazi Germany, but also by the USSR. As Milne states in his article “But the pretence that Soviet repression reached anything like the scale or depths of Nazi savagery – or that the postwar “enslavement” of eastern Europe can be equated with wartime Nazi genocide – is a mendacity that tips towards Holocaust denial.” It is virtually impossible to deny the holocaust in the Baltics, an area covered with the mass graves of its victims. So holocaust obfuscation is a cleverer, more cunning ruse to play. Baltic perpetrators of Nazi crimes gain acceptance, even honour, if they can portray their fight as a yearning for ‘independence’ from Soviet rule.

With unemployment growing, social services being cut back, and racist violence occurring across Europe, it is time to put an end to holocaust obfuscation and the poison of Baltic ultranationalism. Australia has sizable Baltic communities who brought with them not only their cuisine and culture, but their fanatic-nationalist agenda. Let us commemorate those who gave their lives fighting Nazism by stopping this revisionist deceit from spreading.

The diseased political culture gave rise to a diseased mind

The details of the horrific terrorist attacks in Norway are well known. Most of the media commentary has focused on whether Anders Breivik, the perpetrator, was insane or mentally disturbed.

While Breivik may have had mental health issues, there is no doubt that a racist political culture gave rise to the diseased mind and criminal actions of Breivik. He circulated in a racist milieu created by the convergence of far-right parties, and the growing anti-immigrant and Islamophobic mainstream political culture. The growing European extremist far-right parties are the dangerous terrorist threat in our midst, more so than the much-hyped jihadist irritant. The Left has been warning about the interplay of economic degradation and anti-immigrant politics that results in the growth of racist, rightwing parties that advocate anti-immigrant policies, blame multiculturalism and Islam for Europe’s problems, and express their grievances through violence.

Hopenothate documents that Breivik was active in the anti-immigrant Progress Party in Norway, and strongly supported the English Defence League, a fascistic, racist group in England. His strongest admiration was for the Dutch Party for Freedom, the racist, Islamophobic party in the Netherlands headed by Geert Wilders.

As Michael Brenner states in Counterpunch; will the Oslo attacks prompt a rethink about the main terrorist threat from the extreme rightwing and make us question the purported monolithic Islamic jihadist threat, a rationale used to justify a ‘war on terror’, ongoing invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as covert military operations in Somalia, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries? The Norway attacks should compel us to question the underlying assumption that a tight-knit group of jihadist fanatics, taking a literal interpretation of the Quran and hating every value that the West stands for, are intent on unleashing acts of violence against targets in Europe. We must also question the widespread insinuation that Muslim communities in Europe are hotbeds of Islamic conservatism, a fifth column if you will, preaching hostility to their host country and plotting a takeover through the imposition of Sharia law and a high birthrate.  These are fundamental principle of most anti-terrorism measures since September 11, 2001. Will the Norway attacks compel us to rethink this assumption and change our policies to address the greater danger, the terrorist threat of rightwing racist violence, especially in Europe? I wonder if we will examine Christian fundamentalism with the same rigorous scrutiny that we examine Islamist clerics of every stripe?

As Seumas Milne states; ‘whatever Breivik has done, he hasn’t done in isolation’. Breivik’s repulsive manifesto is dripping with hatred of Muslims, multiculturalism and is based in Christian conservatism. That is nothing unusual in today’s far-right Europe. But what is even more disturbing is that this way of thinking reflects the ideas and values of mainstream conservative thinkers, at least since the 2001 September 11 attacks. The supposed ‘Islamification of Europe’, the alleged swamping of Europe and America with refugees, the appeasement of Islam by multiculturalism (whatever that is supposed to mean), and the constant sharia-hysteria – all these ideas have found a comfortable resonance within mainstream political culture, and conservative writers, while condemning the terrorist violence of Breivik, have all contributed to the poisonous ideology that gave rise to his violent behaviour. Melanie Phillips, a writer at the Daily Mail, has long spoken of the multicultural policies of Britain as ‘treachery’, undermining the British identity, and has repeatedly complained in her writings that mass immigration is going to swamp Britain. While there is a big difference between Phillips’ scholarly veneer and Breivik’s ranting, there is an underlying ideological continuum. Fixating exclusively on jihadism has made us ignore the ever-rising terrorist threat in our midst.

As Miriyam Aouragh and Richard Seymour note, ‘the “war on terror” licensed a period of intense imperial revivalism.’ The inspiration for Breivik came from mainstream intellectuals and writers, who have dehumanised Islam and Muslim as uniquely irrational, savage and barbaric, engaged in a ‘clash of civilisations’ against our western way of life – remember Samuel Huntington and his semi-scholarly ravings?

And it is not just in Britain, but across Europe, there is a convergence of Islamophobic politics, diatribes against the supposed threat of Sharia law, and the anti-immigrant far-right groups that have increased because of economic discontent. The words ‘Hitler was right’ were spray painted on a memorial stone in Vilnius, Lithuania, to the 72 000 Jews who were killed by fascist Lithuanian paramilitary forces in Ponary Forest during World War Two. The far-right has traditionally attacked Jews, but is now moving onto a new target. Interestingly, Breivik claimed admiration not just for far-right political parties in Europe, but also expressed support for Zionism, and the Serbian paramilitaries who murdered thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. I suppose that birds of a feather flock together.

The Socialist Worker newspaper has long covered terrorist violence from the anti-immigrant groups, while the hate-spouting neo-conservative writers like Daniel Pipes, Bernard Lewis and Bill O’Reilly simply shrug their shoulders and continue on their way disseminating hatred. Attacking Islam and multiculturalism from the right has long been a staple of the mainstream media, and now we see the results. But do not worry, the terrorism experts who have been bloviating for years about jihadism, now explain to us the cause of Breivik’s atrocity; Islam.

More importantly, this is the world that created Breivik and thousands like him; a world where government social services are increasingly privatised and unemployment is on the rise; where the 1991 US war on Iraq was televised as a spectacle to behold in awesome regard; where Muslims are regarded as terrible threat to ‘our’ way of life (I still do not know what ‘our way of life is supposed to be); where multiculturalism is under sustained attack as ‘appeasement’; where the labour unions have retreated and the major Labour parties have accommodated themselves to the capitalist agenda of cost-cutting and corporate profits; and since 2001, the US in cooperation with several European countries are waging criminal wars of occupation against countries with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Along with these realities are the culture wars – the attacks on migrants and refugees, the ‘jihad versus McWorld’ philosophy of rightwing blowhards like Benjamin Barber, (that was the title of his 1996 book)

The convergence of the Islamophobic culture and the far-right has resulted in parliamentary success – many current European governments are ruling in coalition with extreme rightwing parties, such as in Denmark and Austria.

The mass protests in Oslo in the wake of the terrorist killings, the thousands of people marching to oppose rightwing terrorism gives us hope for the future.