Memory, history and justice. Dealing with traumatic pasts in democratic societies – New Eastern Europe

An examination of memory, history and justice: facing traumatic pasts in democratic societies. Editors: Vladimir Tismaneanu and Bogdan C. Iacob. Publisher: Central European University Press, Budapest, 2016.

June 22, 2021 – Juho Nikko –
Books and ReviewsNumber 4 2021Magazine

How do societies in transition approach the crimes of the past and what is the role of memory in building a new democratic society? These are the kinds of questions that are answered Memory, history and justice: dealing with traumatic pasts in democratic societies. The volume presents an overview of the controversies concerning transitional justice and collective memory in Central and Eastern Europe, Germany and several non-European countries. The book provides a number of insightful and in-depth analyzes of the region by some of the most influential authors in the field, but at the same time, its broad reach results in a certain lack of focus.

The need for memory

One of the fundamental theses of Memory, 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 traumatized society should forget and move on. Nonetheless, 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 reshuffle from the past. In his article, Jan-Werner Müller analyzes the controversies concerning this point of view. According to critics, Germany’s memory of the Holocaust should be one of pain and guilt, but perversely, it turned into a sense of pride in the face of his own remorse. While acknowledging the need to combat this normalization of memory, Müller rightly argues that such problems can only arise through Germany’s overall success through its Nazi past. Compare that to today’s Russia, where Vladimir Putin is rehabilitating Joseph Stalin and accuses Poland of starting World War II.

However, the painful job of overcoming a difficult past does not happen automatically. The authors point out several factors that can hinder this process. According to Daniel Chirot, the reason why Germany confronted its Nazi past relatively quickly was not a self-reflexivity inherent in German society, but the fact that it was forced into it by the allied occupiers. Japan, on the other hand, was not pressured in the same way, which resulted in a society rather oblivious to its regime’s crimes during World War II. Polish historian Andrzej Paczkwoski notes that in Poland the first semi-democratically elected government was unwilling to prosecute the Communist authorities because the “ministries of force” were still controlled by the Communists and had the power to deploy the government. 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 confidence to speak out about their suffering.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the primacy of memory is a fairly new phenomenon. Until World War II, 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 forgetting, amnesty or forgiveness for all that has been committed since the start of these Troubles. ”Perhaps it is the unprecedented scale of destruction wrought by the war and the Holocaust that, in the long run, has made it impossible to forget.

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 mentioned 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 out the general pattern of his crimes, which dragged the trial on for years. . The court therefore gave priority to the revelation of the truth and the possibility of giving a voice to the victims rather than delivering justice quickly. In the end, Milošević died before he could be convicted, denying the closure of the victims and leaving the trials with a mixed legacy.

In many countries, the old elites have found creative ways to escape justice. In Poland, the remarkably slow pace of the trials meant that by the time the verdicts were delivered, many defendants had either died or were excluded due to poor health. In Bulgaria, writes Nikolai Vukov, murders that took place in labor camps could not be prosecuted due to a 20-year statute of limitations. Jeffrey Herf brings up the case of West Germany, where democracy by nature has had the side effect of slowing down the truth: thanks to democratic elections, political forces opposed to global denazification were able to enter parliament. What these examples show is that liberal democracy does not automatically lead to justice and the closure of victims, even if it provides the crucial conditions.

The Romanian case

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

One would expect the report to have been greeted with applause and relief, but instead it was swallowed up by critics. The report stated that the Romanian communist regime had been “(national) Stalinist” from its inception to its bloody end, which ran counter to popular discourse that Ceaușescu’s regime had marked a patriotic break with the yoke. “Muscovite” introduced at the end of World War II. Parts of society that have been compromised by the report have criticized it with fury, including the Romanian Orthodox Church which, at the end of communism, was deeply linked to the party.

The emerging “New Left” described the report as Băsescu’s attempt to impose a new cultural hegemony of “anti-communism” that unfairly discredited the utopian goals of communism and was no better than anti-capitalism backed by the Communist Party. Status of the previous regime. . Finally, many criticized the report for stealing their lived history from ordinary Romanians, which did not necessarily fit the report’s description of a deeply criminal regime. In other words, the Romanian elites did not see the report as an opportunity to start the hard work of reckoning with the past, and instead discredited it as a compromised document.

Thematic scope or lack of focus?

With 516 pages, Memory, history and justice contains a number of truly insightful articles on the many issues faced by companies struggling with difficult histories. The main virtues of the book lie in the quality of its individual articles, many of which are written by eminent scholars in the field. However, the wide reach of the book goes hand in hand with its main problem: a lack of focus.

Reading the book, one can think of several directions that the authors could have followed, but the result is rather a bit of everything. On the one hand, the book focuses on Romania, which could have justified a full publication. On the other hand, the book is also not a systematic study of the entire post-communist region, countries like Czechoslovakia or Hungary being largely ignored. Another interesting approach could have been to go further by comparing Europe and the rest of the world, which is done in some articles, but not to the maximum.

The editors of the volume address this issue somewhat in the introduction by saying that the book “is innovative from the point of view of its thematic, methodological and geographic breadth”, which is true. Still, I think a more focused and condensed approach would have produced better results. However, Memory, history and justice offers fascinating read for anyone interested in the tangled web of memories, politics and history that societies in transition continue to grapple with.

Juho nikko was an intern with New Eastern Europe
in 2020. He spent two months with us in our editorial staff
office and we had the opportunity and the pleasure to visit
know him and his interests. Unfortunately, Juho passed
last April due to COVID-19. He was just
29 years. We were shocked at the news and
would like to extend our condolences and sympathy to his family.
No better word can describe Juho than those written by
Niall Gray, New Eastern Europe collaborator: “Juho’s
the love for Poland and the region at large was unmatched.
I was lucky to have known him long before the two of us
started as an intern at New Eastern Europe. However, his
the time spent at the magazine really allowed him to shine and make
the use of all his talents, especially his incredible language
skills. His internship showed how capable he was
by doing great things. May he rest in peace.


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Central and Eastern Europe, history, memory, Transitional justice


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Estelle D. Eden

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