Memory and History in Postcommunism
Historiography’s political functions under totalitarian regimes have been, and continue to be, fascinating for scholars and laymen alike. Yet it is unlikely that any future scholar would be capable of better summing it up than George Orwell did in his famous Nineteen eighty-four: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”.
What happens, however, once that past is left behind? What, in other words, happens when there is no one around to “control the present”; or rather, when “controlling the present” is subject to competition and ephemeral by the nature of a theoretically competitive political system? I would like to advance the proposition that at this point historiography, once strictly controlled, begins to face a fierce competitor, namely “memory”.
The literature on “memory” is by now so vast that one would need a huge, well, memory and a correspondingly enormous footnote to just mention the most prominent names associated with it in the last decades. Suffice it to mention that Paul Ricœur traces preoccupation with what “memory” is all about to the ancient Greek philosophers, Augustin, John Locke, Sigmund Freud, Maurice Halbwachs, Yosef Haim Yerushalmi and Pierre Nora (to mention but a few) before he produces his own theory (Ricœur, 2001). It would have been strange if post-communist East Central Europe made an exception to what Jean-Charles Szurek (2000) terms as “the tyranny of memory.” One of the purposes of this study is to prove that it by no means does so. Just a few years after the fall of the regimes, Tina Rosenberg, describing Czechoslovakia, Poland and the former German Democratic Republic now reunited with the Federal Republic, was dubbing the area as a “haunted land” that was “facing Europe’s ghosts after communism” (Rosenberg, 1996). In turn, Eva Hoffman had titled a volume published three years earlier (1993) Exit into History, thus echoing the title of an article by Shlomo Avineri (1991). As I have pointed out elsewhere, it is rather misleading to speak (as Avineri did) of a “return to history,” for this implies that history (and historiography) has been absent from a communist-ruled East-Central Europe (Shafir, 1994, p. 333 and Shafir, 2004b, p.181). If that were the case, how would one explain the prominent part played by “national communism”, whose roots can be traced back as far as Stalin’s “socialism in one country”? I believe one would be more accurate speaking of an “eruption of (rather than to) memory.” It is memory, rather than history, that is capable of “haunting”.
Like historiography, memory can be, and has been, silenced by totalitarian regimes when and if it contradicted those regimes’ socialization purposes. But unlike historiography, memory cannot be erased. It cannot be placed on shelves with limited access in public libraries; neither can it be stopped from transmission from generation to generation by a “competitor socializer” such as the family. While deviously “whispered” under totalitarianism, memory “breaks out” unrestrained once that regime is gone--including reminiscences of personal experiences under the previous governance. What is more, while historiography is the privileged field of professionals, memory engulfs entire communities or entire groups within communities. Memory requires no footnotes against which arguments might be checked. Memory just is, whereas (when free) historiography places the has been under question mark. As Romanian historian Adrian Cioroianu (2000, p. 29) has put it, history is uncertain, memory is always certain. It makes little sense to argue against memory, since memory is primarily sentiment. And sentiments know no professional boundaries. They are above all shared, which means that not only historians, not only politicians or writers, not just university or high-school graduates, but also shopkeepers, blue-collar workers and peasants constitute the make-up of memory. And, as pointed out by George Schöpflin, an important role in the maintenance of memory (ranging from making parts of memory silent, understanding memory and controlling its resonance) is played by myth (Schöpflin, 1997, p. 26).
At this point I owe the reader a clarification. My employment of the notion of “myth” is neither based on Georges Dumézil (1939, 1968, 1971), nor on Mircea Eliade (1995, 1999, 2003) and his rejection of “historicism” (Turcanu, 2005, pp. 475-476; Misane and Priedite, pp. 160-161). It rather rests on Georges Sorel’s perceptions of the myth and particularly its capabilities of moving masses regardless of the myth’s accuracy (see Sorel, 2003, pp. 22-25, 84-85, and Sternhell et al., 1989, pp. 78-98). He or she who wants to read in this choice an ideological option is free to do so, but is warned that Sorel is considered by many to be a protofascist intellectual (Sternhell et al., 1989, pp. 53-126; Gregor, 2005, pp. 64-66), and is thus very much in the same category with Dumézil and Eliade (Dubuisson, 2003). Vladimir Tismaneanu, whose book Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe often relies in analysis on Sorel, emphasizes that “imsyths are not banal descriptions of the desired society”. He cites the French syndicalist as writing: “A myth cannot be refuted, since it is, at bottom, identical with the conviction of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and in consequence unanalyzable into parts, which could be placed on the plane of historical description” (Tismaneanu, 1998, p. 13). And to an equal extent, this explains why memory is also the subject of a lot more attention under any regime (including democracies) than history is. This also means that myth should not be employed as a synonym of “legend”, as often is the case. Legends play no social role --unless they are turned into myths. Legends may easily be “deconstructed”. It is useless to deconstruct myths, for the purpose of myth is to either mobilize or demobilize, and to coagulate society or parts thereof around one or more ideas shared by its members or by groups within the society. Myth-deconstruction would always trigger a process of “myth-replacement”, for myth is part of collective memory, which legend is not--but may become (Schöpflin, 1997).
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing in any way in favor of “historicization” (not to be confused with “historicism”) in a Martin Broszat style. I do not consider memory to be in any way inferior to, or less important than, the careful research of the historian. Moreover, I embrace Saul Friedlander’s position in his dispute with the late German historian (Broszat, Friedlander, 1990) over the danger implicit in Broszat’s advocacy of a “historicization” of Nazi Germany’s epoch. This historicization was understood by Broszat as the need to study the Nazi era as if it were just like any other historic period; as a requirement to clean (cleanse?) its interpretation of any ideological-moral dimension; and as freeing the object of study “of the ‘imposed syndrome’ created by moral judgement on the Nazi era in its totality” (Friedlander, 1993, pp. 68-69). For Broszat (as Friedlander would retrospectively put it), “memory eliminates nuances, opts for the most global and schematic rendition of the past, often giving it a mythical and, in any case, a monumental dimension,” whereas “the aim of historiography--certainly the aim of historicization as defined by Broszat--is the search for nuances, for complexity, for differentiation, the fight against any kind of mythification or monumentalization of the past” (Friedlander, 1993, pp. 95-96). Unlike Broszat, I am not the advocate of de-mythification, for I consider that to be a futile endeavor. Myths may be replaceable, but they are not effaceable. Myths are part and parcel of collective memory, and that memory cannot be liquidated but by genocide.
Neither of these statements is aimed at claiming the primacy of memory over historiography. As Friedlander (1993, p. VIII) put it:
[T]he process involved in the molding of memory and historiography is, theoretically at least, antithetical to that involved in the writing of history. Nonetheless, the representation of a recent and relevant past has to be imagined as a continuum: the constructs of public-collective memory find their place at one pole, and the “dispassionate” historical inquiries at the opposite pole. The closer one moves to the middle ground, that is, to an attempt at general interpretations of the group’s past, the more the two areas--distinct in their extreme forms--become intertwined and interrelated. This middle ground may be defined as a specific category, that of “historical consciousness.” Public-collective memory manifests itself essentially in set commemorative rituals and dominant symbolic systems referring to the past of the group (street names, monuments, museums, etc.), and “dispassionate” historiography is restricted to periods distant in time or to those eras that have lost immediate “existential” and ideological relevance to the present. “Historical consciousness” is the necessary conjunction of both extremes in any significant attempt at understanding, explicating, and representing the yesterday that affects the shaping of today. Incremental knowledge acquired by historical research is usually integrated within the general framework of the prevailing historical consciousness of a group and molded according to one of its extant frameworks of interpretation.
On the other hand, because memory is so much entangled with sentiment, it is often short. Personal experience comes to play a much larger role in memory than it ever did in historiography. There are things we would rather forget when it comes to our own behavior and that of our peers or of our communities. We know from Ricœur (2001) that memory and forgetting are inextricable, and I dare add that this is to a large extent due to the powerful existence of a “present dimension.”
Indeed, memory is not only about remembering. To remember is to recall the past. But memory is not only about the past. It is also about the present and about the future. Memory is instinctive. A child who does not remember that fire burns, would put its hand in the flame again and again. We instinctively remember the past in order to be able to function at present and in order to be able to cope with the future. But just as memory is instinctive, so is forgetting. If we cannot function without learning from experience, it is no less true that we cannot function if experience becomes obsessive. If we were to spend our lives in bemoaning personal and above all collective traumas, we would become just as dysfunctional as human beings as we would be as walking tabulae rasae. It is hard to establish with certainty where the line between remembering and forgetting must be drawn. We know that we mourn in order to remember, but also in order to be able to forget. Mourning, including collective mourning, thus has a double healing function. It is, on one hand, directed at understanding what happened to us or our kin, but at the same time it is directed towards enabling ourselves to survive. The trouble is that memory in general, and collective memory in particular, is also selective. We “forget” what we do not like to remember, we eliminate from our psyche, including the collective psyche, what we wish it did not happen. Even when we are forced by evidence to recognize our guilt, we tend to deflect responsibility unto others.
Despite their multiple differences, historians, sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists converge on one point: memory is about the present. If the “tyranny of memory” cannot be escaped, this is because no one has yet devised the time machine for escaping from the present. The main reason for the “presence of the present” in memory is that memory is in one way or another linked to legitimacy and the legitimization process. Memorials and commemorations are indeed inextricably linked to that process, be it the personal legitimization of politicians and the politics they are supposed to represent, or the collective legitimization of a society’s perceptions of itself. When Romanian historian Andrei Pippidi speaks of the need to develop a “theory of symbolic history” (Pippidi, 2000, pp. 5-10) for the purpose of comprehending the handling (or mishandling) of memory as a social phenomenon, he actually has in mind the necessity of a “theory of symbolic memory.” George Schöpflin (1977, p. 20) emphasizes the linkage between myth and ritual and between myth and symbol: “In simple terms, myth is the narrative, the set of ideas, whereas ritual is the acting out, the articulation of myth; symbols are the building blocks of myths and the acceptance or veneration of symbols is a significant aspect of ritual. A ritual generally observes the procedures with which a symbol is invested, which a symbol compels.”
Thus memory in general, and ceremonies of memorialization in particular, is linked to both ritual and to symbol. One can, as Schöpflin does when he analyses “commemoration”, see in it a process a “ritualized” recalling of what societies stand for. “A society without memory is blind to its own present and future, because it lacks a moral framework into which to place its experiences” (Schöpflin, 2000, p. 74). The symbolic aspect of memorials and commemorations is even more pronounced in societies whose national identity is fragile and whose future is uncertain. The distortion (but not obliteration!) of national symbols in East Central Europe under the communist regimes and the search for either new or renewed “symbols” in the wake of regime change made Jacques Rupnik observe in the early 1990s that “demolition of communist statues, restoration of former denomination to streets, are but the exterior aspects of the search for a ‘usable past,’ whose force is proportional to the fragility of national identity and uncertainty in face of the future” (Rupnik, 1992/1993, p. 4). To my knowledge, Rupnik never defined what “usable past” means. Nor have those who employed the concept in his footsteps (for example, Iordachi and Trencsényi, 2003). Under “usable history” I understand the search for positive past referents for the purpose of forging self-confident national identities. For as Sorin Antohi (1997, pp. 292-316.) shows, post-communism entails, among other things, a crisis of national identity.
The search for a “usable past” is thus particularly strong in societies uncertain of what should replace their left-behind identity and who should be chosen to symbolize the new identity. This is precisely the case of East-Central Europe in transition. Which past is deemed as worthy to be “used” or “re-used”? Back in 1994, German political scientist Claus Offe spoke of a “triple transition” facing the former communist states of the area. He termed this as a “dilemma of simultaneity” generated by having to cope at one and the same time with unconsolidated borders, democratization and property redistribution”; moreover, according to Offe, these tasks are faced while the transiting political entities are confronted with occasional outburst of “national and ethnic politics and ethnic strife” (Offe, 1994, pp. 135, 64-66, respectively). Elsewhere I pointed out (Shafir, 2004a, p. 57) that such outbursts are reflecting a “dilemma of simultaneity,” though this is “merely” a double dilemma, not a triple one: is it possible to overcome the communist past without leaning on what preceded it, and is it possible to overcome the authoritarian past that antedated communism without idealizing that past beyond recognition? In other words, the double Vergangenheitsbewältigung necessity is calling for a positive “referential,” in the absence of which no nation-building process is conceivable at all. No polity can function without — to use Benedict Anderson’s terminology (1991) — a positive “imagined community” to which reference can be made. For, as Romanian historian Lucian Boia put it, “The past means legitimization and justification. Without having a past, we can be certain of nothing “ (1998, p.7).
What Pippidi calls the “macabre comedy of posthumous rehabilitations all over Eastern Europe after 1989” demonstrated that the past was undergoing a process of being reshaped “by partisan passions, with each political family introducing in the national pantheon those historic figures in whom it can recognize itself or whom it abusively claims ias its owns.” One must ask, we are told by Pippidi, “Who Is On the Way Out? Who Is on the Way In?,” all while bearing in mind that “At a time when all Central East European countries reject the Soviet model, searching for an own (old or new) national identity, historians and politicians compete for the reinterpretation of the past” (Pippidi, 2000, pp. 8 and 22, respectively). And here is precisely where competitive memories step in.
To understand that mechanism one is well advised to return to Maurice Halbwach’s analysis of collective memory (1997) and the distinctions he makes between its three categories. In so doing, one need not necessarily accept the French sociologist’s claim that memory is singularly social. But there can be little doubt that one of memory’s functions is both socially induced and socializing. According to Halbwachs, the first corner stones of memory are being laid in childhood. He calls that “individual” memory. What individuals “remember” is how to read the past and the present through the spectacles of parents, grandparents and the circle of their immediate friends. In other words, the Halbwachsian category of individual memory does not involve choice, as people cannot choose the family into which they are born or that family’s immediate circle of friends. The experiences of this restricted circle would become “their” personal experience. How they relate to events occurring in their childhood is also “remembered” through the experience they undergo by being part of this restricted circle.
A second Halbwachsian category is formed by “collective” memory. This is the sum total of experiences an individual undergoes as a member of a group larger than the family and his/her immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. Belonging to this category is not necessarily, but may become, a matter of choice. People do not choose to be born as part of one particular nation more than they choose to be born as part of a particular family. But to a large extent, they might opt for belonging to peer-groups and associations. They might not have chosen to be born in a social class, but some move from one social class into another. All these factors would impact their memory in the sense that they would “read” their own and their peers’ past from a group-perspective. But if my reading of the French sociologist is correct, it is wrong to speak of collective memory. Rather, one should use the term of collective memories, which compete not only among themselves, but often enough within the same individual.
This brings us to the third component of Halbwachsian memory--historic memory. Paul Ricœur (2000, pp. 479-480) is rightly pointing out that, while also an important part of the socialization process, historic memory is the only component of the Halbwachs triangle that is induced from outside the individual’s personal experiences. It is, so to speak, a “bridge” between individual and collective memory on one hand, and the respective society’s memory on the other hand. Or it might be an obstacle to the bridging operation, whenever individual and collective memory experiences contradict historic memory. “iTshe major reference of historic memory remains the nation,” according to Ricœur, who reproduces in support Halbwachs’ affirmation “generally, history starts where tradition ends” (Ricœur 2000, p. 482).
This is an important point, for what that means is that Halbwach’s first two categories of memory (individual and collective) are mythical memory, whereas the third category may or may not belong to memory at all. Both Halbwachs and Ricœur miss an important aspect of this socialization process. That contradicting individual and collective memories might come into conflict with historic memory is true. But this is so only when institutionalized historic memory, that is, official historiography contradicts the early socialization processes. However, it is no less true that historic memory might become totally subservient to individual and collective memory. This is particularly acute in societies undergoing an identity crisis, as is the case of the post-communist polities. These societies find themselves in a situation in which the “single” official history has been displaced. (Not necessarily so its institutionalized representatives). In these crisis situations, personal memories tend to replace historic research. While Leopold von Ranke’s famous call on historians to reproduce the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” might be unattainable, memory, as we have seen, is subjective by definition.
This leads me to enounce the following hypotheses:
1) In transitional societies there is more room for overt “competitive memories” than in either totalitarian polities or in established democracies. In the former systems, competitive memories were transmitted “underground” and seldom found articulation outlets. In established democracies, what is at stake is not the identity of society, but that of its rulers. These latter stakes are considerably lower than under transition systems. Hence, while competition for memory does exist, consensual memory is far wider and chances are greater that the gap between the Halbwachsian individual-and-collective memories and historic memory would be narrower.
2) The search for a “usable history” in transitional societies and the need for myth-replacement might well lead into mis-replacements. As Schöpflin (1997, p. 25) pointed out, it “is the political and intellectual élites in the community, those who are able to gain the ear of society, those who control the language of public communication” who “control myth and which myths they appropriate.” But what Schöpflin fails to observe is the fact that these elites, in turn, were and are molded by memory. They do not simply manipulate it at their will, but are “manipulated” by the values they inherited from family and their own peers. Political elites might misread the power of both counter-myths and the chances of success for their own proposed myth-replacements. How memory acts on us, in other words, depends on who we are. Dominick LaCapra is pointing out that “whether the historian or analyst is a survivor, a relative of survivors iof the Holocausts, a former Nazi, a former collaborator, a relative of former Nazis or collaborators, a younger Jew or German distanced from more immediate contact with survival, participation, or collaboration, or a relative ‘outsider’ to these problems will make a difference even in the meaning of statements that may be formally identical” (LaCapra, 1992, p. 110). There is no reason to believe this is singular to the memory of the Holocaust and its representation. It would be very strange indeed if it did not apply to the memory of the Gulag, for example. Thus, “who remembers” matters, and opens the gate wide to a “clash of memories.”
3) While myths are culture-specific, they nonetheless are transferable. Transitional societies in general, and societies with a weak identity in particular, are prone to emulate not only organizational models, but also myths. This, of course, is by no means singular to post-communist societies. In the long run, however, “imported myths,” stand an even smaller chance of being successfully adopted, and the collapse of communism is proof of the fallacy’s endeavor. Yet when an imported myth finds a correspondent in local culture or in a sub-culture thereof, and serves the need of segments of local society, it may be turned into a powerful tool, even if its roots are in legend.
4) Myth acts powerfully on reading the recent past, even if the “reader” has experienced that past in a manner that is different from what the myth is claiming.
5) Personal security and collective security (particularly the lack thereof) make one read the recent past with the heart of the present and with a worried eye on the future. The future dimension of memory is indeed far larger than that of historiography. The present tends to obliterate the past, particularly when prospects for the future appear to be grim. This explains how people come to idealize a past from which they had opted out.
* This paper has been presented to the conference The New Frontiers of Europe. International, Inter-ethnic and Inter-confessional Relations, organized by the Faculty of European Studies, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj, between April 6th-8th, 2006.
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- profesor de studii europene si relatii internationale la Universitatea Babes-Bolyai , Cluj-Napoca. El este autorul a doua carti si a peste 300 de articole despre comunist si post-comunism, publicate in volume colective si in publicatii stiintifice din SUA, Marea Britanie, Germania, Franta, Austria, Olanda, Israel, Uungaria, Slovacia si Romania.