The need to know defeats dogma

May 18, 2007

Building a national identity on history can be dangerous, warns Stefan Berger, who leads a European project studying the subject. Below, his colleagues Uffe /stergard and Attila Pok examine collective responsibility and collective memory

History is far from being the preserve of historians, and this is particularly true of post-communist countries. History's use and abuse in politics and education and the impact of a hard to define but irrefutable collective memory on the present are undeniable.

Indeed, my own observations about the way different national histories across Europe have tackled communism are made from an East Central European post-communist perspective.

From this perspective, the way in which national histories deal with the timing of communist rule is key, closely connected to the question of who was responsible for eliminating communism. Then there is the relationship of former Soviet bloc countries with the Soviet Union. Was the Soviet Union a liberator or a new invader after German control of Eastern and Central Europe? Are Soviet crimes comparable to the Holocaust? What are the similarities and differences between communism and fascism?

Most countries of the Soviet bloc have blamed communism for enforced "collective forgetting", for ignoring both the negative aspects of the Soviet Union's activities and conflicts within the brotherhood of the world proletariat. In retrospect, it seems that the public's desire to know basic facts of national histories and international relations led to some of the first cracks in the edifice of the monolithic Soviet system.

From the secret clauses of the 1939 Soviet-German treaty about the territorial claims of the Soviet Union to the 1953 uprising in East Berlin or the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the politically exploited collective memory defied ideologically motivated lies.

This is also evident in the reburial of historical personalities whom communist ideologues ousted from "progressive traditions" of national histories.

The commemoration of the 1389 death of Prince Lazar in Serbia in 1989, the return of the heart of Bulgaria's former Tsar Boris from his place of exile in Spain to post-communist Bulgaria, the reburial of Admiral Mikl"s Horthy, Hungary's governor between 1920 and 1944, and the festive funeral of Polish Second World War generals Bor-Komorowsky and Sikorski, all helped to question the legitimacy of communist rule in the respective countries.

A similar tendency is reflected in new national holidays that substitute commemorations of "liberation" by Soviets and "internationalism of the proletariat" with heydays of national history.

The problem is that there is a temptation to overcome the memory of communism by inverting it, as Tony Judt describes in his recent Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945.

Before 1989 every anti-communist had been dubbed a fascist, he writes: "If anti-fascism had been just another communist lie, it was very tempting now to look with retrospective sympathy and even favour upon all hitherto discredited anti-communists, fascists included."

Attila Pok, deputy director of the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, is on the steering committee of the European Science Foundation's NHIST programme.

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