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Remembrance, history, and justice. Coming to terms with traumatic pasts in democratic societies

A review of Remembrance, History, and Justice: Coming to terms with traumatic pasts in democratic societies. Editors: Vladimir Tismaneanu and Bogdan C. Iacob. Publisher: Central European University Press, Budapest, 2016.

May 8, 2020 - Juho Nikko - Books and Reviews

How do societies in transition address the crimes of the past, and what is the role of memory in building a new democratic society? These are the kind of questions answered by Remembrance, History, and Justice: Coming to terms with traumatic pasts in democratic societies. The volume presents a panorama of controversies regarding transitional justice and collective memory in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany and several non-European countries. The book provides a number of insightful, in-depth analyses of the region by some of the most influential authors in the field, but at same time, its broad scope results in a certain lack of focus.

The necessity of memory

One of the basic theses of Remembrance, History and Justice is that a healthy democracy cannot be built without addressing the evils of the past. The authors clearly reject the idea that in order to heal, a traumatised society should forget and move on. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that an honest reckoning with the past is often impossible in the early days of a transition.

West Germany is often presented as an example of a successful reworking of the past. In his article, Jan-Werner Müller analyses the controversies regarding this view. According to critics, the German memory of the Holocaust should be one of pain and guilt, but perversely it has transformed into a feeling of pride over one’s own remorse. While acknowledging the need to combat this normalisation of memory, Müller argues correctly that such issues can only arise thanks to the overall success of Germany’s working through its Nazi past. Compare this to today’s Russia, where Vladimir Putin is in the process of rehabilitating Joseph Stalin and assigns blame to Poland for starting the Second World War.

The painful labour of working through a difficult past does not happen automatically, however. The authors point to several factors that can hinder this process. According to Daniel Chirot, the reason why Germany faced its Nazi past relatively quickly was not some inherent self-reflexiveness of German society but the fact that it was forced to do so by the Allied occupiers. Japan, on the other hand, was not pressured in the same way, which resulted in a society that is rather oblivious to its regime’s crimes during Second World War. Polish historian Andrzej Paczkwoski notes that in Poland, the first semi-democratically elected government was unwilling to prosecute the communist authorities as the “ministries of force” were still controlled by communists and had the power to deploy the army and security troops if they felt threatened. Eusebio Mujal-León and Eric Langenbacher point out that even where guarantees for the stability of the new regime are in place, victims of oppression can take years to develop the trust to speak out about their suffering.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the primacy of remembrance is a rather new phenomenon. Until the Second World War, forgetting had been the primary remedy for overcoming the terrors of war, dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which called for “perpetual Oblivion, Amnesty, or Pardon of all that has been committed since the beginning of these Troubles”. It was perhaps the unprecedented magnitude of destruction brought by the war and the Holocaust that in the long run made forgetting impossible.

Truth, justice or democracy?

The authors present ample evidence that justice, democracy and truth do not always complement each other as naturally as one might think. A good example is the case of former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević discussed by Vladimir Petrović. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) made the decision to investigate as many of Milošević’s crimes as possible instead of sketching the general pattern of his crimes, which made the trial drag on for years. The court thus prioritised truth-telling and giving victims a voice over swiftly delivering justice. In the end, Milošević died before he could be convicted, denying the victims closure and leaving the trials with a mixed legacy.

In many countries, former elites found creative ways to escape justice. In Poland, the remarkable sluggishness of trials meant that by the time verdicts were given, many of the defendants were either dead or excluded due to poor health. In Bulgaria, Nikolai Vukov writes, killings that took place in labour camps could not be prosecuted because of a 20-year statute of limitations. Jeffrey Herf discusses the case of West Germany, where democracy by its very nature had the side effect of slowing down truth-telling: thanks to democratic elections, political forces that were against a comprehensive denazification were able enter parliament. What these examples show is that liberal democracy does not automatically lead to justice and closure to victims, even though it provides the crucial conditions for it.

The Romanian case

A considerable part of the book (five articles, 180 pages) is dedicated to discussing the Romanian transition and particularly the work of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania (PCACDR), the chairman of which was Vladimir Tismaneanu, the editor of the book. The commission provided a long-awaited chance for Romanians to reach an official consensus about the nature of the communist regime, a topic which had largely been avoided during consecutive governments led by communists-turned-social democrats. On December 18th 2016, Traian Băsescu, the president of Romania who had set up the commission, officially declared the communist regime as criminal.

One might expect that the report would have been met with applause and relief, but instead, it got engulfed in criticism. The report declared that Romania’s communist regime had been “(national) Stalinist” from its inception to its bloody end, which went against the popular narrative according to which Ceaușescu’s rule had signalled a patriotic break from the “Muscovite” yoke introduced at the end of the Second World War. Parts of society that were compromised by the report criticised it furiously, including the Romanian Orthodox church which by the end of communism was deeply entangled with the party.

The emerging “New Left” portrayed the report as an attempt by Băsescu to impose a new cultural hegemony of “anti-communism” which unfairly discredited the utopian goals of communism and was no better than the state-endorsed anti-capitalism of the previous regime. Finally, many criticised the report for having robbed regular Romanians of their lived history, which was not necessarily congruent with the report’s description of a thoroughly criminal regime. In other words, the Romanian elites failed to see the report as an opportunity to begin the arduous work of reckoning with the past, and instead discredited it as a compromised document.

Thematic breadth or lack of focus?

With 516 pages, Remembrance, History and Justice contains a number of truly insightful articles about the many troubles faced by societies battling with difficult histories. The main virtues of the book are in the quality of its individual articles, many of which are written by prominent scholars in the field. However, the wide scope of the book goes together with its main problem: a lack of focus.

When reading the book, one can think of several directions the authors could have pursued, but the result is rather a bit of everything. On the one hand, the book places a major focus on Romania, which could have warranted a publication of its own. On the other hand, the book is also not a systematic study of the entire post-communist region, with countries such as Czechoslovakia or Hungary going largely unmentioned. Another interesting approach could have been to go further with comparing Europe and the rest of the world, which is done in some of the articles, but not to the full potential.

The editors of the volume somewhat address this issue in the introduction by saying that the book “is innovative from the point of view of its thematic, methodological, and geographical breadth”, which is true. Yet, I feel that a more focused and condensed approach would have produced better results. Nevertheless, Remembrance, History and Justice provides a fascinating read to anyone interested in the entangled web of memories, politics and history that transitional societies continue to grapple with.

Juho Nikko is an MA student of Central and East European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe. His research interests are in the politics of history and memory of Poland and the surrounding region.


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