The following is not a fully-developed study, but the outline of an oral presentation. It is certainly the case that the memory of communism has, in Western Europe, a very different status from that of Nazism. To give only one illustration (drawn from Alain Besançon’s book Le malheur du siècle, Fayard, 1998, p157): in the newspaper Le Monde between 1990 and 1997, Nazism was referred to 480 times, Stalinism 7 times. Auschwitz was mentioned 105 times, Kolyma twice. Qualitatively, the difference is equally large: the memory of communism is conflictual, that of Nazism far more consensual. How can we explain this assymetry? Not by one reason, but by a constellation of factors.
Most obviously: the countries of Western Europe were occupied by Nazi Germany, not by the Soviet Union. The communists were never (or barely) in power there. Moreover, the average (French, Italian) western communist resembles neither the 1930s exterminator of kulaks nor the cynical and careerist bureaucrat of the Brezhnev era: rather, he is an individual devoted to the common good, ready to help his fellow citizens—a nice guy! Which allows us to understand why communists, in these countries, can still take part in left-wing coalitions, run towns, remain respectable. But this geographical difference does not explain everything: the characteristics of the regimes also count, and their consequences make themselves felt in Eastern Europe too.
1. The image of communism remains much more confused than that of Nazism, and provokes more contradictory interpretations, because the relationship between the representation fabricated by the regime and the lived experience of the population is not the same in each case. To simplify: Nazism said what it did (with exceptions: extermination was dissimulated), communism said the opposite of what it did. In the latter case, the distance between the discourse and its referent is maximal. Hence the population’s sentiment of living in a false, imaginary world, founded on a generalized lie (one exception: the theatre, acknowleding itself to be make-believe, really was the theatre). After the collapse of communism, that a series of concepts appear have been contaminated: they provoke wariness, no-one knows how to make use of them any more. What do ‘the left’, ‘the Enlightenment’, ‘humanism’ truly mean? Adding to the confusion is the idea that the lived experience was no more than a ‘perversion of the communist idea’.
2. The group of victims possesses a much stronger identity in Nazism than in communism. In the first case, they are ethnic groups that recognizes themselves as such: Jews (with exceptions), Roma, Slavs. They have genuine distinctive traits: language, religion, customs, a common memory, a group consciousness. Nothing of the sort exists in the case of most of the groups persecuted by communism: setting aside certain national minorities, the others were established according to political or professional criteria, such as White [Russians], bourgeois, the ‘kulaks’. It was their designation as ‘enemies of the people’ that made them into a group. The ‘kulaks’ as such have no chroniclers, no tradition, no strong identity. As a consequence, it is harder to remember this group as a distinct entity.
3. On the side of the dominant group, the difference is equally marked. This is perhaps the consequence of the unequal longevity of the two regimes: 12 years for Nazism, half of them in wartime, as against 74 (for the Russians) or 44 (for the Eastern Europeans). The border between dominant and dominated is much clearer in Nazism, and indistinct in communism: not because former zealous communists became the victims of trials in their turn, but because in the course of a lifetime it was much harder not to find oneself caught up in the workings of the system. In this respect, the psychology of the inhabitant of the communist countries is probably of greater universal interest than that of the Nazi citizen. Communism constituted an immense open-air laboratory, where it was possible to observe the modifications in human behaviour under the pressure of constraints. A recent Bulgarian work is a promising step in this psychological exploration: Slejedinat chovek ([The] Man Surveyed), by V. Branev (Sofia, Fama, 2007), an autobiographical memoir. Branev’s strength is in showing how intelligent, pleasant, normal human beings are transformed into informers for the political police, into denunciators of their friends and relatives; in showing how fragile the defences behind which the individual thinks he is sheltered really are.
4. Another significant difference which explains the unequal treatment received by these two regimes in the collective memory is linked to the way in which they collapsed. Nazism was militarily defeated, after which political trials like those at Nuremberg were initiated. The rupture was clear. The communist regimes fell without violence (this can never be the cause of too much congratulation), but the former dominators and former dominated therefore found themselves cast together with no clear criteria of distinction between them, for the reasons already outlined—a situation all the less amenable to the settling of accounts because the former communist leaders had become, in the meantime, the richest men in the country, large property-owners and employers!
5. Last, one might note that communist ideology has exerted an influence on the analysis of society as it is practiced in academia or the media—a far more profound influence than that of Nazi thought, which remained relatively isolated. The concepts of capitalism or bourgeoisie, used everywhere, included both fascism and liberal democracies. ‘Antifascism’, in its turn, brings together democracies and communist regimes. This confusion was reinforced by the results of the Second World War, where the Soviet Union triumphed alongside the democratic states. In today’s Europe, the extremist, anti-democratic discourse is carried more by the far right; the communists still have a confused image of it.
The memories of communism and of Nazism thus remain separate; even memories of communism seem irreducibly different, depending on whether one has lived in Eastern or Western Europe. Should one strive to unify them? It is not certain: they correspond to real differences in experience. It is, however, possible to think them together, perhaps taking our inspiration from the distinction Jean-Jacques Rousseau made between the (identical) ‘will of all’ and the ‘general will’ which implies not identity but the taking into consideration of differences: it is a ‘sum of little differences’. In the same spirit, the ‘general’ memory will be not a unity but a taking into consideration of local differences and an explanation of their very plurality.