May 1 1990

The Antisemitic Roots of Eastern European Nationalism

Swatiska on Jewish tombstone, Shumen Cemetery(cc photo: Anthony Georgieff /Wikimedia)

Vandalized Jewish cemetery, Bulgaria (cc photo: Anthony Georgieff /Wikimedia)

Press coverage of the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe in late 1989 and early 1990 has failed to provide adequate context concerning the antisemitic and fascist currents in Eastern European nationalism. Reporting on the current resurgence of antisemitism in Eastern Europe has also been limited and uneven, although several smaller publications have covered the subject in greater depth.

As the New York Times has noted (10/8/89), the term “nationalist” has a “more extremist connotation here [in Eastern Europe] than in the West.” But most reporting on Eastern Europe’s nationalist movements, including that of the Times, has been rife with euphemistic references to “Christian values” and “Christian nationalism” without an explanation of the historic antisemitism that echoes in such rhetoric.

News coverage of Eastern Europe has generally overlooked the region’s historical alliance with Nazism. Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria all joined the Axis powers; Nazi puppet states such as Slovakia and Croatia were also allied with Germany. But in much newspaper coverage, Eastern European history does not include World War II.

For example, one timeline of Czechoslovakian history leaped from March 15, 1939, to May 16, 1945 (New York Times, 11/22/89); another chart began in 1946 (L.A. Times, 11/25/89). A New York Times article (3/26/90) describing the history of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe jumped directly from the 1930s to the post-World War II era, skipping over the murderously antisemitic clerical fascist movements, which were often led by Catholic priests.

The New York Times reported (3/26/90) that a new Ukrainian student group revered Stepan Bandera — described by the Times as “a militant nationalist” who fought “Polish and Soviet rulers in the 1930s and 1940s.” The article failed to mention that Bandera fought as an ally of Hitler’s Germany, leading the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists-Bandera, which roamed the Ukraine during World War II, killing Jews and others.

Media coverage of antisemitism in Hungary, which has the only significant Jewish population remaining in Eastern Europe outside the Soviet Union, provides an interesting case study. The now-ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was routinely described as a conservative, center-right or even centrist party. The Los Angeles Times (4/11/90) even referred to MDF’s “politics of national pride.” Articles that described the party’s appeal to “Christian nationalism,” “Christian democracy” and “Christian values” often failed to report the recurring charges of antisemitism.

The Washington Post, which in general provides scant coverage of Eastern Europe, did not mention the antisemitism allegations against MDF until late January, although the reports had first surfaced in the mainstream press in November. The Post (3/21/90) later described Istvan Csurka, an MDF party founder, as an “outspoken nationalist writer,” ignoring the controversy over his antisemitic claims that a “dwarf minority” was dominating Hungary.

Some papers mentioned that the party had distanced itself from, but failed to denounce, these antisemitic remarks; few quoted the language used by party leaders. The New York Times (4/10/90) did quote Jozsef Antall, leader of the MDF and soon to be Hungary’s prime minister:

There is nothing more harmful to the Jewish community than debates over antisemitism…. These people, if anything is brought against them, because they are Jewish, they scream antisemitism.

The Hungarian Independent Smallholders Party received even less scrutiny. Described by the New York Times (3/26/90) as one of the “older, historic parties that have reemerged under Communism” and as “liberal-democratic” by the Los Angeles Times (11/27/90), the Independent Smallholders was actually a hard-right party associated with Hungarian Premier Gyula Gombos, a self-proclaimed Nazi.


Romanian fascist leader (Holocaust Encyclopedia)

Horia Sima, leader of Romania’s Iron Guard.

In Romania, the National Peasant’s Party (NPP), now called the National Christian Peasants Party, which the Washington Post (2/23/90) described only as “traditional,” has also been charged with antisemitism. A well-researched cover story in Newsweek (5/7/90) reported charges that the NPP vice president had belong to the Iron Guard, the Romanian affiliate of the Waffen SS, which murdered many Romanian Jews.

In These Times (4/4/90), in a series of in-depth articles by Paul Hockenos, claimed that the NPP has also directly incited ethnic violence in Romania, supplying alcohol, transportation and gas money to Romanian farmers who attacked ethnic Hungarians with scythes and pitchforks. The New York Times (3/22/90) reported in passing that a resurgent Iron Guard may have played a role in the ethnic violence; it also mentioned that three Romanian-born Canadian citizens had been expelled from Romania for fascist proselytizing.

Several investigative articles went further in scrutinizing the involvement of the US and Canadian right with Eastern European nationalists. In the Toronto Star (4/14/90), Howard Goldenthal and Russ Bellant reported that Dusan Toth, an adviser to Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, was the secretary-general of the Toronto-based Slovak World Congress; a number of officers of the Congress are former officials of the Nazi-allied Slovak regime. An April 2, 1990, Nation article by Holly Sklar and Chip Berlet (an analyst for Political Research Associates) exposed the role of convicted Nazi collaborator Laslo Pasztor in recommending Hungarian nationalist groups for funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

There seems to be an unwillingness at some media to synthesize even the information that appears in the major papers. The Washington Post (2/18/90), for example, described the Russian newsletters Literaturnaya Rossiya, Molododaya Gvardiya and Nash Sovremennik as being connected to Pamyat, the antisemitic, pro-Stalin nationalist organization. But when individuals connected with these same three publications toured the US under Washington’s sponsorship, the visitors were blandly described by the New York Times (4/18/90) as “rightists.”

Perhaps the most disturbing facet of media coverage is the recurrent explanations of the origins of anti-Jewish feeling that use rhetoric that seems to reflect rather than report antisemitism. For example, a New York Times article  (4/10/90) reasoned, “Since many prominent Hungarian Communist leaders were Jewish, particularly in the early years after the war, antisemitism has become linked with anti-Communism.” The Guardian (12/27/89), a socialist weekly, printed a variation of the same argument in an interview with Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner:

This [increased antisemitism] is because the Soviet people tend to see emigration as a sign of political betrayal rather than an economic choice…. There has been a merging of the concept of Jew and traitor. That’s increased antisemitism.

Ignoring the historical resonances of these arguments is irresponsible. The equation of Jews with Bolsheviks and traitors has been and is the antisemite’s stock in trade. Journalists should avoid the appearance of accepting these rationales.