The Crime of the Century

Today, fascism, Nazism, and communism inspire only some relatively minor political groups. Although they caused untold destruction, and left behind ugly buildings and tasteless monuments, a young European can grow up in ignorance of his country’s fascist or Communist past. Hungarian high school students nonchalantly confuse the 1944–1945 National Socialist dictatorship of Ferenc Szálasi with the 1947–1953 Stalinist dictatorship of Mátyás Rákosi, and the Nazi struggle against Bolshevism with the American struggle against the same enemy. But no Hungarian and, in general, not many Europeans can ignore the ethnic cleansing that has been taking place in Europe for the last one hundred–odd years. Because of ethnic cleansing, millions of people can no longer live where their ancestors did.

Aside from those who were killed outright, masses of Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Turks, Finns, Tatars, Chechens, Armenians, and other ethnic minorities were deported or expelled from their homelands during the past century. In most cases, the people expelled had neither the right nor the chance, and often not even the desire, to return home. Jews will never go back en masse to Ukraine; nor will the Germans resettle in Latvia, or the Greeks in Turkish Anatolia. Indeed, what has definitively changed Europe during the last century was not so much the rise and fall of totalitarian ideologies and political movements as ethnic cleansing in which fascists, Nazis, democrats, Communists, and religious fanatics all participated. At the price of stupendous suffering, the ethnic and religious map of Europe has been considerably simplified.

As far as I can judge, the recent NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia, which led to the large-scale repatriation of the expelled Kosovo Albanians, is unprecedented in European history; it may prefigure a fundamental shift in international policy and the practices of great powers. Before that event, as Norman Naimark suggests in his superb Fires of Hatred, the response of such great powers as the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the US, and France was to encourage, or at least to condone, and to legitimize ethnic cleansing. In signing the peace treaties of 1919–1920 and 1947 in Paris, the great powers put a stamp of approval on territorial seizures and ethnic cleansing previously carried out by local forces. Remember that ethnic cleansing was by no means the specialty of dictators; it was practiced with equal zeal by the democratic state of Czechoslovakia after World War II when the Sudeten Germans were deported to Germany. In fact, in Czechoslovakia it was the Communists who put an end to the persecution of the few remaining ethnic minorities after they seized power in February 1948.

Ethnic cleansing in one form or another, then, is a crucial and a much-ignored strategy, and it is only recently that carefully researched literature has been appearing on the subject. In Fires of Hatred Norman Naimark, who teaches history at Stanford University, concentrates on the cleansing of the Armenians and the Greeks in Anatolia following World War …

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