Commemorating Communism – Forgetting History?


What remains of communism in the minds of the people of Eastern Europe? Difficult question. To my knowledge there has not been such an exhaustive survey—covering all the post-socialist countries in the region—that could provide knowledge about it. Yet I won’t escape the question because it tells a lot about how the problem of communism is commonly raised today in the European continent – and this story is no less interesting and topical.

There are two presuppositions behind the question above: the first is that the problem of communism is a memory issue, the second is that it concerns the post-socialist countries, that is, communism is Eastern. In the following, I will try to explain why it is so by having a look briefly at the continental history of the political discourse on communism.

The origins of the currently dominant form of European politics can be traced back to the 1970s, the decade that in many respects put an end to the post-war political order. The weakening of the nation-state order due to the complex processes of decolonization, globalization, and late modern capitalism, meant that political struggles overflowed from the framework of state institutions. Political claims, made increasingly in the mediatized environment of mass communication, progressively detached from social groups, a circumstance that increased the role of symbolic power struggles such as memory politics.

At the same time the Western world as a whole experienced a radical transformation of historical consciousness: in the “age of commemoration”, it not anymore found its moral orientation in a model of “good life”, to be attained in the future, but in the negative model of the “absolute evil” of the past. The 1970s saw two far-reaching historical developments intertwining: the rise of the human rights discourse and the construction of deterritorialized Holocaust memory as a universal symbol of Evil, a point of reference for moral judgement in the present, detached from its historical and geographical context.

All this meant that any reference to a necessary social transformation was getting to be considered as illegitimate, as nothing else but the senseless cause of human suffering. Although one could observe neither the “memory boom” nor the cultivation of Holocaust memory in Eastern Europe in the 1970s, the meaning and practice of politics considerably changed among the dissidents, who after 1968 lost their hope in socialism with a human face.

The question of communism was only raised two decades later in the context of the European geopolitical restructuration triggered by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Western European countries and supra-national institutions, most importantly the European Union, reacted to the dissolution of international moral and political order by the Europeanisation of Holocaust memory. The founding myth of Europe rewritten, the core values of “Europeanness” were promoted through commemorating the Jewish genocide as European historical experience with a universal relevance.

The moral order articulated by the commemoration of the Holocaust has become the standard of civilization imposed by Europe’s international policy: both in the enlargement process and in the vocation of maintaining human kind’s universal rights in the world. From the European perspective, the EU enlargement appeared as a process of integration through which the continental civilization reunites according to its supposedly universal values expressed in a common memory narrative of the past. It followed that the norms of European historical consciousness were prescribed as criteria of membership on associated countries, as proof of democratic commitment.

In the political imagery of the 1990s, the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc was conceived as a “transition from dictatorship to democracy”, a teleological process leading to the full-scale establishment of the Western-type political and economic system. Since any alternative to political liberalism and free market capitalism was unimaginable on both sides of the enlargement process, the role of symbolical politics increased in the political arena.

Post-communist countries positioned themselves as “returning to Europe”, as already European nations that, by an accident of history, had been stuck outside Western civilization in the past. There was no “memory of communism” in the former Eastern Bloc countries until the late 1990s: what was cultivated was the nation’s heroic struggle against the foreign oppressor.

Yet in the framework of the enlargement process, post-communist countries faced the expectation to “come to terms with the past”, particularly with their involvement in the Holocaust. For them, the core element of political legitimacy, on both sides of the political spectrum in Eastern European countries, was anti-communism, which in the newly developing European normative order was transformed into a memory issue to be integrated into a common narrative capable of providing solidarity in the political community.

At the side of the associative countries in the enlargement process, the main statement was that “we experienced both Nazism and Communism” which formulated in the European vocabulary became “we as victims suffered human right violations under both totalitarian regimes”. Referring to the European norms and values of politics, according to which the human dignity of victims must be restored by proper commemoration, Eastern European leaders stressed that “the West” applied double standards when refusing the same recognition from the victims of communism that the one assured to the victims of Nazism. This argument was criticized of reducing the historical reality of existing socialisms to homogenous dictatorships characterized solely by terror, crime, and oppression. Yet it was based on legitimate European norms, which prevented criticism. Eventually the EU canonized such a picture of communism as a constitutive European historical legacy, together with other traumas of the 20th century.

The memory of communism as it is officially cultivated today is the result of the post-cold war struggles for the definition of Europe. They have produced a particular anti-communist sense of communism that appears as a memory, belonging to the past, and as site specific, belonging to the uncivilized East of Europe. As a symbolic resource in political struggles, the “historical experience of communism” in Eastern Europe served as a legitimate difference in relation to the universality of European Holocaust-memory. Since the two sides in the enlargement process took the positions of the East and the West, the Cold War civilizational divide has been reproduced in a new form. Far from being the consequence of given different historical legacies, the East-West divide of European political landscape is the result of the uneven struggle for the legitimate principles of recognition and difference.

Article edited by Aurélie Louchart


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