This workshop had a dual aim: to consider the legacy and memory of Communism in Europe since 1989-91 as a subject in its own right and to see if the years since that turning-point constituted a ‘post-war period’. The topic was important in enabling EURHISTXX to decide whether the Post-War Periods (PWP) project, which it has identified as a means of studying war and conflict in contemporary European history, is valid for two periods only – those following 1918 and 1945 – or whether the 1990s should also be included. The working assumption of the conference was that the Cold War indeed constituted a war, both in the kinds of conflict that it entailed and also in the internal effects of these in the two opposing camps. Only if there was a real mobilization during the Cold War from 1945 to 1989-91 (military, political, economic and cultural) would it make sense to talk in terms of the corresponding forms of demobilization since the early 1990s.
Firstly, the legacy of Communism. Although much of the focus was on eastern Europe, it was recognized that Communism was a pan-European and international phenomenon. The conference addressed the multi-dimensional nature of Communism as, respectively, a world power in the form of the USSR, Soviet client regimes in eastern Europe, political movements and cultures in western Europe and an intellectual project embedded in a larger Marxist tradition. All four dimensions of the phenomenon collapsed after 1989, leaving a mass of disparate material swirling around the vortex.
Henry Rousso (Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, Paris) remarked in his introduction that the ‘memory’ of Communism was far from being an established subject of historical enquiry. The Council of Europe had failed to achieve a European commemoration of the victims of Communism because there was no consensus on who these were. And while ‘memory’ had become a preoccupation in general, as had the human rights and juridical aspects of past crimes, refusing to remember was also a choice – and one adopted in many cases after the fall of Communism, as it had been in Spain on the transition to democracy after the death of Franco. Moreover, Communist regimes survive in some parts of the world, and even where Communism has vanished, many are unwilling to reduce it to the history of its crimes. Unlike Fascism, Communism is not a quasi-universal reference-point of evil, and thus the two legacies do not constitute a strict parallel.
Pawel Machcewicz (Institute of Political Studies, Warsaw) noted that Poland had come late to the memory of Communism compared to Germany, the Czech Republic or Lithuania owing to the less repressive nature of the final, post-Solidarnosc years under military rule, to the absence of a decisive moment when Communism was overthrown, and to an initial lack of demand for access to secret police files. Only when post-Solidarnosc parties formed the government in 1997 was the Institute of National Remembrance set up in order to conserve the archives of the Communist period, undertake research and education and prosecute crimes committed under Communism. It had contributed to the revision of the popular view of the Communist era by establishing that repression in the Stalin years had been greater, and opposition thereafter more widespread, than had once been believed, but also by revealing that civil society had been more fragile and open to informants than realized at the time. All this had contributed to a ‘return of history’ which centred on questions of individual responsibility.
Peter Apor (Central European University, Budapest) examined the view of the recent past constructed by an emerging conservative nationalism in Hungary, epitomized by the Fidesz Party, which was in power from 1998 to 2002. Fidesz saw Hungary as the victim of a clash between opposed ideologies, Communism and Fascism, both imposed from outside. This view is exemplified by the House of Terror Museum opened in Budapest in 2002. Retrospectively, each regime was deemed to have morally cancelled out the other, leaving an eternal and uncompromized Hungarian nation that was symbolized by the transfer of the crown of St. Stephen from the national museum to parliament.
Thomas Lindenberger (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam) chose to look at the ways in which the DDR had been portrayed in two recent German films, Goodbye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) and Das Leben der Anderen (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). Both films deal with Communism as a German phenomenon (whereas the pre-1956 regime was considered a Stalinist imposition) and both speak to local memory while also addressing a wider German and international audience. While the ‘Ostalgie’ of Goodbye Lenin dealt with the fact that retrospective condemnation meant repudiating entire lives lived in the Communist period, Das Leben der Anderen attempted to retrieve a redemptive message from the mass surveillance and repression of the DDR through the untypical tale of a Stasi officer with a dissident, moral conscience. In their different ways, both films testify to the simultaneous necessity and difficulty of judging the past in order to align it with the present.
Philippe Buton (Université de Reims) addressed some of the ambiguities of the collapse of Communism in France since 1989. Despite the dramatic decline of the PCF as a political party, deeper Communist and Marxist reflexes survive – attested to by the electoral strength of Trotskyism. Many refute the evidence of the scale of crimes and atrocities in Stalinist Russia that has emerged from Russian archives since 1991 - as evidenced by the controversy over the Black Book of Communism (1997). Some on the far left have urged a return to basic Leninist principles while others are ready to bracket the entire Soviet experience as an aberration from true socialism. Much that had been associated with Communism has found a coded place in French politics as hostility to ‘Europe’, anti-Americanism and a belief in ‘direct’ democracy. Paradoxically, Philippe Buton concluded, Communism in France was politically dead but culturally alive owing to a lack of sustained reflexion on its history.
Tzvetan Todorov (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris) pointed up some of the contrasts in how the two ‘totalitarianisms’, Fascist and Communist, have been seen since 1989. For a number of reasons, the memory of Communism had proved weaker, more contradictory and less well structured. The programme of Communism had been less closely linked to its historical outcome than was the case with Fascism. Whereas the biological racism of Nazism was all too apparent in its acts, it was still possible to consider Communism as a case of Enlightenment ideals that went disastrously wrong. Internal collapse rather than military defeat represented a more ambiguous historical judgment on the ultimate fate of Communist regimes. The status of victims was not the same, since mass destruction and genocide were not intrinisically part of the programme of Communism in the way they were with Fascism. Moreover, the relatively long duration of Communist regimes meant that almost everyone was compromized to some degree. These factors, together with the very different situations of Communism in Soviet Russia, eastern Europe and the west during the Cold War, meant that there was no common memory of Communism and no consensus on what it represented as a political and moral yardstick.
Finally, Maria Ferretti (Università della Tuscia, Viterbo) looked at the emergence in Russia from the mid-1990s of a popular nostalgia for the Brezhnev era. Whereas liberals under Yeltsin had seen the entire Soviet period from 1917 to 1991 as an historical parenthesis that was now closed, as Russia returned to the west, the distortions and difficulties created by the introduction of a market economy discredited this viewpoint politically. The Brezhnev period, by contrast, seemed in retrospect to have been one of stability and relative well-being and one, moreover, in which the USSR could still claim to be a great power.
Each of these papers stimulated considerable discussion, which it is not possible to synthesize here. Suffice it to say that much of it turned on the different roles of politics, history, irony, humour, aesthetics, amnesia (involuntary or deliberate) and generational change in constructing the memories of Communism since 1989 in their different settings – Russia, former eastern Europe and the ‘west’. The debate also ranged over the memories of Fascism as well as Communism and raised comparisons with the period after 1945, thus broaching the second dimension of the workshop – the 1990s as a ‘post-war period’.
The differences with the post-war period after 1945 seem clear. As pointed out by Tzvetan Todorov, Fascism was overthrown by military defeat, Communism by internal collapse. And as various speakers observed, Fascism was almost universally reviled whereas the retrospective judgement on Communism has been more mixed. Yet the contrast should not be pushed too far. For in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the Cold War got under way, the reverse was the case. Then the crimes of Nazi Germany (and of Fascists and their collaborators across Europe) were quickly relativized on both sides of the iron curtain in order to cast the current enemy – capitalist and Communist – as totally evil. Ironically, political and cultural remobilization for the new conflict provided a framework for demobilizing the moral and ideological antagonisms of the previous one. The fact that the Holocaust only emerged in the 1990s as a moral yard-stick for both Europe and the ‘west’ is itself partly a result of cultural demobilization after the Cold War. Only when the Communist enemy had been removed could Nazi genocide become an absolute ethical measure of evil.
In other regards, too, there are not just parallels between the late 1940s-1950s and the 1990s but direct connections. Albeit in the tendentious manner of the Hungarian Fidesz suggested by Peter Apor, the need to address the Communist past often raised the Fascist one that had preceded it which, owing to the onset of the Cold War, had not been dealt with at the time. This was especially the case in eastern Europe, since in western democracies, engagement in the Cold War muted but did not prevent a reckoning with Fascism, as demonstrated by the remaking of the political culture of West Germany or the post-1968 revisions of French understandings of Vichy. In Hungary, Poland, Rumania and elsewhere, by contrast, a painful revelation on dismantling the Communist past has been the resurgence of unresolved conflicts from the prior post-war period. The controversy provoked by Jan Gross in Poland with his books on Polish complicity in Nazi genocide (Neighbors, 2001) and Polish violence to Jewish survivors after World War Two (Fear: Anti-semitism in Poland after Auschwitz, 2006) are dramatic examples of a more general phenomenon.
This combination of connections and contrasts in how the memories of the ‘two totalitarianisms’ played out after 1945 and 1989 should come as no surprize. For all three post-war periods formed part of Europe’s ideological civil war in the 20th century. Cultural and political demobilization after World War One failed in part because the violence of wartime mobilization was reinvested in the political creeds of Communism and Fascism and the new regimes that they formed from 1917 to 1933. Only the embattled democracies sought fully to demobilize wartime mentalities, hampering their remobilization in 1939. Cultural and political remobilization for World War Two produced an asymmetrical alignment, with Communists and democrats forging an anti-Fascism that shaped the later memory of World War Two in western Europe, despite the onset of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War exposed the equivocal nature of the Grand Alliance in World War Two more fully than before. Hence the very preoccupation with the equivalence or difference of the two totalitarianisms is a logical characteristic of the 1990s, since this was not just another post-war period but the concluding episode of the series, and the end of a cumulative process of conflict-resolution. The fact that the debates continue means that at this level we are still living in the third post-war period.
Comparison between the second and third post-war periods also highlights some of the processes at work in shaping the legacy and memory of Communism, which might repay more systematic investigation. Generally, post-war periods are marked by intense legal creativity in an effort to define new juridical norms that reflect the values of the winning side and stigmatize the new levels of violence and criminality that characterized the conflict. The end of the Cold War marked the most significant advance in international humanitarian law since the period immediately following World War Two, with a resumption of international tribunals (culminating in the International Criminal Court) and elaboration of the key definitions made in the earlier period, such as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’. Through the wars in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1999), the collapse of Communism played a central, if indirect, role in this development. Whether criminal proceedings for crimes committed under Communism have been as important for individual eastern European countries as for western European states after 1945, and whether the international jurisprudence of the 1990s has influenced these, was not clear from the workshop, although Pawel Machcewicz briefly referred to the work of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance in this regard.
No less important was the symbolic renunciation of the Communist past (as shown by Peter Apor with the case of Fidesz) and the stigmatization of ‘perpetrators’ (the Stasi agent placed at the heart of Das Leben von der Anderen). In fact, these form part of the larger issue of retrospective ‘myth histories’ of the Communist period. The importance of such black-and-white stereotypes and the work they do in settling scores, seeking reconciliation and avoiding troubling memories has been well demonstrated for the post-World War Two period in western Europe (notably by Henri Rousso and Pieter Lagrou). Lacking from the workshop was a discussion of the ‘heroization’ (if such there has been) of the figures and episodes that symbolized the ‘Resistance’ either to Communism or to Soviet military hegemony, such as 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and the strikes that culminated in Solidarnosc in Poland (1970, 1976, 1980-1).
In western Europe after 1945, the tension between these myth-histories and the compromizes of survival during the preceding war and occupations ultimately proved unsustainable, giving way to more complex views of the past and more sophisticated self-understandings by the societies concerned. Whether this happened from the start in former eastern European countries or is a development that lies in the future would have been interesting to hear about. Yet Tzvetan Todorov’s point is crucial, namely that World War Two or even Nazi Germany were episodes, albeit extended ones, whereas Communist eastern Europe was half a lifetime. Denouncing a long past without condemning the ordinary lives of those who lived through it is a task of a different magnitude, and the means by which individuals and institutions relate their private and group memory to official history are likely to be particularly complex. Are oral historians or anthropologists investigating this process?
Also important in this regard are core differences between Communism and Fascism. Despite the violence of the early Communist years in eastern Europe as Stalin imposed an export model of the Soviet regime, the years after 1956 were more peaceful, Czechoslovakia and Poland notwithstanding. The War remained Cold in part because of the mutual assurance of nuclear destruction. But war was also not part of the ideological programme of the democratic or Communist states as it was for Fascism. Rather it was something that might arise from a specific clash of interests or misunderstandings of the other side’s intentions, both of which Cold War diplomacy sought to avoid in Europe. The domestic aim (and part of the international battle) was the provision of material well-being according to the prevailing economic model – Communist or welfare-state capitalist – so that Europeans after 1989 could look back in two variants on lives that had been more stable and comfortable since the 1950s than in the first half of the century. While Russians and eastern Europeans doubtless edited out the frustration over Communist rigidities and envy at western living standards that they had felt at the time, the ‘nostalgia’ discussed by Thomas Lindenberger and Maria Ferretti is rooted in the project and achievements of the Communist regimes.
It is nonetheless clear that Russia constitutes a distinct case. For the Communist experiment is unavoidably Russia’s own national past, and cannot be dismissed as a foreign imposition, as in eastern Europe. The liberal view that seventy-five years of Soviet history was an aberration is difficult to square not just with the ‘nostalgia’ already referred to but with the sacrifice of 27 million dead in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and a Cold War that ended in defeat and humiliation as much as in liberation, including the loss of large portions of Soviet territory and the dismantling of the Soviet armed forces. Here the comparison is closer with the defeat of Germany in World War One, with the search for territorial restitution and the recovery of great power status a driving force that prevented reconciliation with the former enemy in the first post-war period. Of course, the parallels are not exact. But the consolidation of Putin’s personal authority and an aggressive diplomacy suggest that, politically-speaking, the third post-war period is at an end in Russia.
One final aspect of the Communist legacy was not addressed by the workshop – the disappearance of anti-Communism in western European culture and politics. Communism (like Fascism) was an intellectual and ideological presence in many European states, and assumed a large-scale political presence in France and Italy, even if it remained in a minority position. Part of the political and cultural mobilization for the Cold War in western Europe was a powerful anti-Communism directed at the ‘enemy within’ as well as at the external menace of Soviet Russia. The extent to which the disappearance of this ideological polarization reshaped western European political cultures (and in the Italian case, the entire political system) is a crucial question if the idea of a third post-war period is to be extended to the whole continent.
Overall, the workshop provided not only the basis for some sustained thinking about the legacy and memory of Communism but also good suggestions as to why the period since 1989-1991 in Europe does constitute a post-war period. The key is to think of connections as well as comparisons with the earlier post-war periods, and this in turn suggests that the larger PWP project might indeed provide one way of writing a history of 20th century Europe at a European level.
Yet the legacy of Communism is only one aspect of the third post-war period, albeit a central one. There are other, equally important features of the 1990s that take on much deeper resonance and meaning if we think of them in relation to the earlier periods. This is not the place to go into them in detail, since they lay outside the discussions at the Paris workshop. But even at a cursory glance, it might be suggested that the violent distintegration of the former Yugoslavia was driven both by the collapse of Communism (which had preserved a fragile balance between competing South Slav nationalisms) and also by the fact that Yugoslavia had avoided the population transfers and redrawn frontiers that created relatively homogeneous nation-states in the mid-20th century (culminating in the second post-war period).
Furthermore, at the level of the continental balance of power, the end of the Cold War reduced Russia to its 17th century European frontiers. What could have been a violent and troubled succession in many eastern European countries besides former Yugoslavia was facilitated by their inclusion in a double framework that had emerged from the previous post-war period - NATO and the European Union. Indeed, in the case of the latter the idea of a pan-European organization as the framework for preventing future war was the central idea of the cultural and political demobilization advocated by the democratic powers in the first post-war period, in the 1920s. Recast in economic form, it provided the basis for reconciling former enemies in western Europe after World War Two, before performing the same function in the third post-war period. At this broader level, too, the connections as well as the comparisons seem inescapable.