Monday 29 November 2010 18.30 GMT
US must take a tougher line on Baltic revisionism
Efraim Zuroff

Why has the US remained silent while European nations roundly condemn Holocaust denial by a Lithuanian government official?

The resignation late last week of historian Petras Stankeras from his post as a "senior specialist" at the Lithuanian ministry of the interior received little attention in the US, but the scandal that prompted his decision to give up his job should set off a red warning light in Washington, and especially in the state department and the US embassy in Vilnius.

The story began two weeks ago with the publication in the 8 November issue of the popular news weekly Veidas of an article by Stankeras to mark the 65th anniversary of the opening of the Nuremberg Trials in which he described the proceedings as a "clearly wrong judicial investigation", and openly and unequivocally denied the Holocaust. According to the now former government official, one of the major failings of the Nuremberg trials was that they "provided a legal basis for the legend about 6 million supposedly murdered Jews, although the court did not have a single document signed by Hitler on the extermination of Jews (no one has found this document to this day, if it even exists, although a million-dollar prize has been promised)."

While such a blatant assertion of Holocaust denial has never been the norm in Lithuania, a member in good standing of the European Union and Nato, anyone closely following the policies of the government on Holocaust-related issues over the years could not have failed to discern a deepseated reluctance to honestly confront its Holocaust past and especially the extensive collaboration of local Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of Jews, primarily inside Lithuania, but outside its borders as well. From an abysmal failure to punish any of the Lithuanians who participated in the annihilation of Jews to a clear tendency in history books and textbooks to hide or minimise local complicity in Holocaust crimes, to a total failure on the issue of restitution, Lithuanian society has not even begun to tell the truth about its Holocaust history and truthfully deal with its implications.

Worse, Lithuania has been the leader of a insidious campaign to try to distort the history of the Holocaust by seeking recognition that Communist crimes were just as terrible as those of the Nazis. This false equivalence would unjustly rob the Shoah of its universally-accepted uniqueness and historical significance, turning the worst case of genocide in human history into merely one of many tragedies.

All this has been going on with increasing intensity in recent years, virtually unopposed and unchallenged, neither within the European Union nor in Nato, but Stankeras' article has now proved the catalyst for action in Europe. In a letter signed by the ambassadors to Lithuania of six EU members – Britain, Estonia, France, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden and Norway – there is not only an unequivocal and strong condemnation of the Holocaust denial and the lack of any public or official Lithuanian protest, but for the first time, there is an open denunciation of Lithuanian efforts to create a false equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes. The letter condemns the recent decision of a court in Klaipeda to allow the use of swastikas "as a traditional Lithuanian symbol", and goes on to denounce "Spurious attempts … to equate the uniquely evil genocide of the Jews with Soviet crimes against Lithuania, which, though great in magnitude, cannot be regarded as equivalent either in their intention or their result."

These well-spoken words raise the obvious question of the US stance on this issue. Why didn't the American ambassador sign the letter as well? Does not the United States, a world leader in Holocaust commemoration, research and education, also object to Holocaust denial and distortion?

The question is of course rhetorical, but for some reason, American diplomats have treaded very carefully when it comes to Holocaust issues in this Baltic republic. During a late April 2010 visit to Vilnius, Hannah Rosenthal, the US special ambassador to combat antisemitism, did not publicly mention the Lithuanians' promotion of the Communism equals Nazism canard, just as the US has maintained silence on the Prague Declaration, the manifesto of the false symmetry movement, since its publication in June 2008.

Ironically, this week, the US embassy in Vilnius is conducting a special Holocaust education seminar for Lithuanian teachers, financed by a grant announced by Rosenthal during her visit to Lithuania this past spring. Based on the published programme, the Prague Declaration does not appear to be a subject of concern. Why not? For Washington to ignore a blatant distortion of the historical events of the second world war only emboldens those invested in outright denial of the Holocaust.