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Black Ribbon Day - Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici

Although we share a common cultural heritage with the sister States of the European Union, the collective memories of our experience in the recent historical past, in Malta as in most of the West, are quite different from those of the East of Europe.

We have to keep this in mind when trying to understand better some of the political positions taken by the ‘new’ democracies of Eastern Europe.

Today is the 79th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939.

It was supposedly a simple non-aggression pact, in which the parties promised neutrality, should there arise hostilities with other parties.

In reality it was Stalin’s Soviet Union giving the carte blanche to Hitler’s Nazi Germany to invade Poland. A secret protocol in the pact provided for the partitioning of Poland, after the invasion, along the lines of certain rivers. The pact also assigned spheres of influence, with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia and Bessarabia being recognised as of special interest for Soviet Russia.  

So on September 1, German air and ground forces attacked Poland from the west, and later in the same month, Russian troops overran their part of Poland from the east. In 1941, Hitler broke the pact and invaded Russia and the following three years saw all these buffer countries being occupied alternately by the two powers.

What the populations suffered under Nazi occupation and then Soviet re-occupation, with the pogroms, concentration camps and gulags, with the reprisals against collaborators, as well as against Jews, supposedly dangerous dissidents, Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors, left a seared collective memory in what are now called the ‘new’ democracies in the former Communist-dominated countries.

The holocaust should not be forgotten, minimised, or seen as an accidental aberration

Witnesses and survivors have left us works of eloquent human testimony and literary importance. Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (If this is a man) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich) are ample proof of the disregard for basic human dignity that followed after the breakdown of democratic and ‘rule of law’ guarantees in Fascist/Nazi and Communist dictatorships.

We in Malta, as in Britain, suffered extensive and repeated bombing from the air, hunger and deprivation, during World War II. Providentially, and through our courage and steadfastness, and with the blessed concurrence of the wide moat of the surrounding blue sea, we were spared invasion and counter-invasion.

What the experience has wrought on the collective memory of our sister republics in the East, needed and still needs great investment in psychological reconstruction of attitudes.

The memory of what happened in the two world wars should not be forgotten. Today’s generation and future generations should not be exposed to the lure of strongman politics, and the seeming simplicity of populist solutions, through this amnesia.

These considerations prompted the establishment of the European Day of Remembrance on August 23 for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism, known as the Black Ribbon Day.

It was originally proposed in the Prague Declaration of 2008 which bore the signature, among others, of Vaclav Havel.

It was decided upon by the Council of Ministers responsible for Justice and Home Affairs of the European Union on the June 10, 2011. I was one of the ministers who “reaffirmed the importance of raising awareness of the crimes committed by totalitarian regimes, and of promoting a shared memory of these crimes across the Union and underlining the significant role this can play in preventing the rehabilitation or rebirth of totalitarian ideologies”.

That is why Black Ribbon Days are important. That is why the holocaust should not be forgotten. Hitlers and Stalins can recur. In some parts of the world smaller despots or ambitious demagogues can still be a threat.

During the June 2011 Council meeting, I had broached the possibility of criminalising certain actions aimed at subverting democracy and the rule of law, and strengthening through the criminal codes the democratic consensus.

Subverting democracy is a great treason. Other ministers were of the opinion that the matter needed further debate and juridical elaboration. I still think that some demagogic loose language and occasional posturing, are threatening the democratic consensus.

From the Opposition benches, one is not exempt from urging memory, reflection, and strenuous, but vigilant, contrast to the enemies of democracy and the rule of law.

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is a Nationalist MP.

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