European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism – Controversy and Indifference after August 23, 2017

Sven Mörsdorf

Deputy Project Manager, Estonian Institute of Historical Memory


On occasion of this year’s remembrance day for the victims of totalitarianisms, the Estonian government in cooperation with the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory hosted a high-level conference and working meeting in Tallinn. The daylong event was attended by politicians and experts from across the European Union as well as the Eastern Partnership countries, and notably all EU justice ministers – with one exception. This year’s conference became partially overshadowed by controversy when one invitee, justice minister Stavros Kontonis of Greece, publicly condemned it as biased against communism and refused to take part. At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, the conference together with the remembrance day itself were largely ignored by the European press, leaving the still relatively little-known date hardly more visible.

The remembrance day is by its full name known as the European Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, also known in some countries as Memorial Day for the Victims of Totalitarian Regimes and similar variations, or simply Black Ribbon Day. This remembrance day has been observed by the European Union since 2009, when a proclamation by the European Parliament, supported by OSCE’s Vilnius Declaration, brought it into being to honour the millions of victims of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and to promote democratic values. The date chosen refers to the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop (or Hitler-Stalin) Pact on that day in 1939, when the two totalitarian regimes divided Europe into spheres of interest and started their brutal occupations of all territories caught in between. Due to the Baltic Way, the famous large-scale and peaceful demonstration held on August 23, 1989, the date also holds special significance for the process that lead to the eventual overthrow of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe in 1989-91.

This dual legacy helps explain – to cut a very complex matter very short – why the Tallinn event assumed a decidedly Eastern European/Baltic perspective on August 23 and put the day’s focus on the investigation of communist crimes and remembering the victims of the communist regimes. The Estonian government is not alone in this effort, but part of a growing demand of most Central-Eastern European countries to put their experiences, stemming from decades of communist rule, on an equal footing with the remembrance of Nazi and fascist crimes.

The controversy surrounding this year’s remembrance day was sparked by a clash with the Greek government, which due to its pro-communist stance follows a completely different historical interpretation. Justice minister Kontonis, in his letter sent just a few days before August 23, said that the conference would send “a wrong and dangerous political message” and “revive the Cold War climate that brought so much suffering to Europe, runs contrary to the values of the EU, and certainly does not reflect the view of the Greek government and the Greek people”. Kontonis was quickly joined by other commentators, such as the EU parliamentary group GUE/NGL (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) with a strongly-worded statement that called the Tallinn conference an ideologically-motivated “whitewash event” because “equating Nazism with communism is historically false, dangerous and unacceptable”. On the other side of the line, Estonian justice minister Urmas Reinsalu replied in a letter to his colleague, making a case that different historical experiences may lead to different appraisals of communism, but that it is the duty of democratic governments – and justice ministers in particular – to condemn all forms of authoritarian regimes that did not respect human rights and committed crimes against humanity. Reinsalu’s stance received support by commentators such as Meelis Niinepuu of the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory, who applauded the minister’s “consistent action to pursue the international condemnation of communist crimes”.

Minister Kontonis’ refusal to take part in the conference once again made visible that there is a latent and potentially damaging rift among different European regions’ and countries’ historical experiences and interpretations, especially when they are played out as part of international politics. Yet in hindsight, despite the high-profile exchanges, not much more than a “storm in a teacup” has taken place. Inside Greece, Kontonis’ decision caused a highly controversial debate and also led to intense discussion in Estonia (especially on daily paper Postimees’ opinion pages). However, if we look at the actual number of articles that were published EU-internationally in the wake of the 2017 remembrance day, there seems to have been little interest in the subject matter at all.

A quick check of around 50 of the largest quality newspapers’ online content (and some online news portals) from around the EU shows that very little reporting on the 2017 remembrance day and the conference in Tallinn has taken place. If we assume that all or most published content can be found via targeted Google searches, then the results are disappointing – almost nobody will have heard of the event even if they had actively tried to look for information. Some reportage picked up minister Kontonis’ criticism and the ensuing inner-Greek debate (Austrian daily Der Standard with a short article and German online portal Telepolis with a lengthy commentary). German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung focused on Federal President Steinmeier’s comments on remembrance and politics during his August visit to the Baltics. It seems that among major European news outlets (Greece excluded), only Poland’s Rzeczposzpolita and Spain’s El Mundo used the conference and debate to reflect on how communist crimes are dealt with in their respective countries’ memory politics. This lack of interest is somewhat surprising since historical remembrance is occasionally present in the analysed newspapers, for example in articles published before and after August 23 in Belgian De Standaard (here and here), French Le Monde, and again German Süddeutsche, to cite just a few examples.

On a basis of this limited search, no far-reaching conclusions can be drawn. Nevertheless, the results (or lack thereof) indicate that the event, despite its general newsworthiness due to the important topic and this year’s open political controversy, was not picked up by the European press in a way that could sufficiently inform the public and take the debate outside political and expert circles. Future hosts of remembrance events should make sure that the discussions are more attractive for the media to report and comment on – to make August 23 a day not only of remembrance, but also of dialogue across Europe.