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Rights Museum: Is it proper that the Holocaust gets special billing?
More than three million Ukrainians were intentionally starved by Stalin between 1932 and 1933.
Charles Lewis January 7, 2011 – 9:11 pm
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is intended to promote the idea that there exists no greater crime than the abuse of individuals because of their creed, colour or religion. It is also meant to convey the noble notion that such affronts should create revulsion in everyone, not just the victims.
But some say that noble intention could be tarnished by plans to give more attention and space to some victims over others — opening an uncomfortable and highly emotional debate about the hierarchy of suffering, something that touches on grievances that have gone on for decades in Canada and elsewhere.
The museum, set to open in Winnipeg in the spring of 2013, will give primacy to the murder of six million Jews during the Second World War, through a dedicated “zone” to the Holocaust.
All other “mass atrocities” will be put together and housed in a separate zone and will include, among other events, the Rwandan massacres, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Holodomor — the planned starvation and execution of at least 3.2 million Ukrainians in the early 1930s under Stalin.
For Ukrainian Canadians especially, this decision is emblematic of a long history of vying for recognition of the terror their people suffered at the hands of one of history’s most murderous tyrants.
Any competition for attention could regrettably start to look like the “genocide Olympics,” said Lubomyr Luciuk, director of research for the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. “Intentionally or not, it leaves the impression that the horrors that befell some of communities are somehow more worthy of memory. That kind of partiality is unacceptable in a taxpayer-funded national museum.”
This is not the first time such controversies have erupted about the recognition of suffering. For example, two years ago, a group lobbying for a memorial in Ottawa to the victims of communism — 100 million in the 20th century in the former Soviet Union, China, Cambodia and elsewhere, according to some counts — encountered resistance from a parliamentary committee over labelling all communists as mass killers. In the end, a compromise was reached in which the term “totalitarian communism” was settled upon, and the memorial is approved for construction.
Angela Cassie, the director of communications for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, said the Holocaust is given particular prominence because it acts as a template to understand the broader idea of genocide wherever it occurs, a kind of window into how genocides begin in the first place.
“We don’t want this to be a competition on suffering,” she said. “But the Holocaust is the most documented of all mass murders so it can be used to deconstruct the steps that lead to all mass murder.
“But I know that many people will still not be satisfied with our decision.”
Arthur Schafer, the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, said the decision to give the Holocaust a particular place of recognition in the museum should not be viewed as “diminishing the suffering of others,” because the Holocaust is unique.
No matter the venue or context, he said, the Holocaust always has to be given primacy of commemoration because of the ideology that was behind the murder of the Jews.
“The very rationale for killing Jews was part of the official ideology of Nazism while forced starvation of Ukrainians was not the official ideology of communism. What makes it unique was that it was the end result of planned dehumanizing of people. It was an ideology that said Jews were sub-human, they were toxic and the world needed to be freed of them.”
British journalist Peter Hitchens, author of The Rage Against God, which argued that the Soviet Union became one of the most “disgusting societies” ever to have existed, is well aware of the crimes of the former communist state. He has also wondered why there are no major museums dedicated to the crimes of communism.
Despite this, he said, there is still no crime equivalent to the Holocaust, and any attempt “to pretend that other events — however horrifying — are equivalent [is] dishonest and detracts from that uniqueness a uniqueness which provides an unanswerable case for the existence of the Jewish state.”
U.S. historian Timothy Snyder shines a light on Stalin’s crimes in a new book, and places those awful events along a continuum that climaxed with the Holocaust. Bloodlands looks at how the region between Berlin and Moscow became a region of mass murder perpetrated by both Hitler and Stalin, and how the two maniacal leaders fed off each other. Many forget that the two states were allied for about two years and collaborated on the destruction of Poland.
His description of the Holocaust is even grimmer than most people have understood — and makes the crimes against the Jews even more personal and vile, if this is possible.
But Mr. Snyder also notes that by 1933, the year Hitler came to power, more than three millions Ukrainians had already been killed by Stalin and that the regime continued to kill millions more of its own citizens before and through the war.
In Bloodlands, and in the works of other scholars, it is made clear that Stalin’s strategy was well thought out, even methodical, and was a likely template for the crimes of the Nazis.
Stalin first got rid of Ukrainian intellectuals, he destroyed the Kulaks, the more prosperous peasants, and then set about making sure that millions of men, women and children were denied enough food to survive. Later, Stalin created a form of ethnic cleansing by settling the Ukraine with ethnic Russians.
“In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in the Soviet Ukraine,” wrote Mr. Snyder. “He shifted to a position of pure malice, where somehow the Ukrainian peasant was the aggressor, and he, Stalin, the victim.”
Carolyn Foster, the project co-ordinator for Tribute To Liberty, the Canadian group that lobbied for the communism memorial in Ottawa, said it is not a surprise that there is so much ignorance about the crimes of that ideology — be it the millions in the Soviet Union or the up to 45 million who died under Mao in the Chinese famines of the late 1950s.
“The communists’ stock in trade was killing and propaganda. That’s sort of what they use to basically do what they want to do, to consolidate their power. The propaganda is why there is a veil around what happened. And what better way to hide a crime than by calling it a ‘famine’?
“The Holocaust was a more isolated incident. It began, it ended, and the Germans were the enemy. With communism it was going on before and is still going on, in many different countries under different regimes and targeting many different peoples. It is doesn’t have the containment of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is easy to identify.”
Ms. Foster said working on the Ottawa memorial revealed that the myth of good communism persists — “that if was implemented properly it would be the best system” — and there is need for more education on the history of all genocides.
The Holocaust is better known and understood than the consequences of Stalinism for a number of reasons. The Soviets were allies of the countries fighting fascism. Because the Germans were defeated, the perpetrators fell into Allied hands and so could be brought to justice. The Holocaust was filmed and photographed; almost everyone has an image burned in the mind about the Holocaust, but few would be able to recall a scene from the Holodomor. Moreover, the Germans kept meticulous records, which acted as a paper trail to their own crimes.
Stalin’s crimes came mainly before the war started, whereas the Germans conducted their worst atrocities during it. Once the war was over, the communist crimes stayed hidden behind the Iron Curtain.
Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, declines to compare the 20th century horrors.
“To be clear, this is not about the Holocaust versus the Holodomor, it is about the educational value of having both displayed equitably in the museum,” said Mr. Grod, who said he is proud of his close relationship with the Jewish community.
“Our community was supportive of the museum based on an understanding … it would be equitable, inclusive and fair. We do not see that principle being applied in the proposed content and layout of the museum.”
Every story of mass killing is distinct comes with its own unique circumstances and the danger of filtering one through another risks obscuring how different people were targeted for different reasons, Mr. Grod explained, which is why he objects to other “mass atrocities” being filtered through the template of the Holocaust.
In an interview, Mr. Snyder, author of Bloodlands, said the crimes of the Soviets will become clearer as more scholarship emerges. It has only been 22 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it took till the early 1980s before scholars truly grasped the breadth of the Holocaust, despite the plethora of documents and testimony.
“I don’t like the word ‘unique’ to describe the Holocaust because everything then stands in the shadows of that event. The Holocaust was different; it was a crowning moment in a longer destructive process that began with Stalin,” he said.
“The Holocaust was more horrible than anything else, but you can’t say that unless you put everything else in the picture.”