Historical Memory and Communism
Soviet Tank, House of Terror, 60 Andrassy Ut. Budapest. Photograph by Sam Whitfield
by Kristen Ghodsee
Historical Memory of Central and East European Communism,
Agnieszka Mrozik, Stanislav Holubec, eds.,
Routledge Studies in Cultural History Series. New York: Routledge, 294 pp.
Back in the fall of 2014, I visited the House of Terror museum in Budapest. On the way out, I flipped through the pages of the guest book, curious to read the reactions of other visitors after they had perused the exhibits. One comment in particular caught my eye because it took up an entire page. A Chilean man used the book to express his deep gratitude to Augusto Pinochet for saving Chile from the supposed horrors of socialism with his September 11, 1973, coup d’état against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende. The high crimes and human rights abuses of General Pinochet—the brutal, US-backed dictator—were apparently excused by his stalwart anti-communism.
Although he died in 2006, Pinochet has experienced a recent revival among the denizens of the American alt-right. Memes and T-shirts featuring “Pinochet’s Free Helicopter Tours” or “Free Helicopter Rides” refer to the extrajudicial killings of leftists in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s wherein dictators flew their political opponents over rivers or oceans and pushed them out. To the young men of the alt-right, posting images or GIFS of Pinochet and helicopters on Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan is their preferred way of threatening those they perceive as a danger to their “God given rights.” In the ongoing global battle for the historical memory of the Cold War, Pinochet lives on as a heroic defender of capitalism, and the continued demonization of twentieth-century East European communism aids in his beatification.
Agnieszka Mrozik and Stanislav Holubec’s excellent edited volume, Historical Memory of Central and East European Communism, is a wonderful addition to the growing scholarship about how this past is being constructed and reconstructed in the era after the global financial crisis and the Great Recession. The book is divided into three parts. The first, “Memory of the Left in Post-socialist Europe,” consists of three superb chapters by Csilla Kiss, Thorsten Holzhauser and Antony Kalashnikov, and Walter Baier, which examine the landscape of contemporary leftist parties and how they have dealt with the collapse of communism since 1989. Kiss’s chapter deals with the failure of the Hungarian Left to create a narrative that counters the power and increasing influence of the Far Right. Perhaps most ironically, Kiss shows how Viktor Orban and his followers have embraced the old communist party line that 1956 was a right-wing, bourgeois uprising, thus co-opting a key historical event that could have provided a base of legitimacy for a revived vision of Hungarian democratic socialism. Holzhauser and Kalashnikov investigate the identity politics of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in Germany and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in Russia. Finally, Baier’s chapter gives a much-needed overview of the status of the European Left (EL), with specific attention to the memory politics of communist parties in France, Italy, Spain, and Greece.
In the second section, “Memorial Landscapes in Central and Eastern Europe,” Alexandra Kuczynska-Zonik, Holubec, and Ekaterina Klimenko discuss the fate of monuments, memorials, plaques, street names, and other physical vestiges of the communist past. Kuczynska-Zonik’s chapter on the afterlives of Soviet monuments and statues of Vladimir Lenin is a particularly useful overview of how different former Soviet republics have dealt with the materiality of the past. I have vivid memories of the demolition of the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum in the center of Sofia in 1999 over the opposition of about two-thirds of the population, an act that was supposed to represent Bulgaria’s definitive break with its immediate past. The chapters in this middle section provide valuable theoretical background as to why different political decisions were taken to “decommunize” the landscape across Eastern Europe, and how the public has reacted to these erasures over time. In particular, the authors suggest that official anti-communism is a rhetorical tool for upholding the status quo. Local elites who benefited from restitution policies are particularly keen to discredit the memory of a system that challenges their right to their grandparents’ private property, and oligarchs support anti-communist projects to protect their hard-stolen fortunes. As Kuczynska-Zonik writes: “visiting communist monuments in dilapidated states today, collected as they are in museums of communism, placing them in ironic, demonized or even nostalgic context, leads the visitor to accept the current world order rather than question it” (p. 114).
The final section of the book, “Communist Politics of Memory before 1989,” brings the reader back in time and the various historical battles played out in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR. Jakub Szumski explores the travails of the Polish United Workers’ Party as they attempted to produce an official story about the imposition of martial law in 1980. Monica Ciobanu writes a fascinating chapter about the memory politics of Romania’s first communist regime between 1945 and 1965. In Czechoslovakia, Darina Volf does a close reading of national historiography after the communist takeover, with an astute discussion of the roles of pan-Slavicism and local fears of Western imperialism. Of particular interest are the two chapters dealing with the production of historical memory through the writing of memoirs. Mrozik provides careful readings of the post-1956 memoirs of Polish communist women in an attempt to create a gendered history of the Polish Left. Oksana Klymenko reveals the “memory project” of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union and the attempt to create an official narrative in the 1920s, the first such project of the new Bolshevik leaders.
Taken together, all of the chapters elucidate the complex and ever-shifting terrain of history and public memory and the various rhetorical strategies used and abused to make events in the past serve a legitimizing function for the political realities of the present. As is the case with most edited volumes, the book sometimes feels a bit disjointed, and would have benefited from a concluding chapter that pulled together all of the various threads of the arguments contained between the book’s covers. Overall, however, the quality of the scholarship is superb and individual chapters could easily be used in both undergraduate and graduate courses in history, anthropology, political science, or Russian and East European studies.
In his “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx explained that social revolution could not “take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past.” In putting together this edited volume, Mrozik and Holubec have taken some important steps in beginning to strip away the superstition about the past. I applaud their desire to challenge the totalitarian thesis about twentieth-century state socialism in Eastern Europe. This critical nuancing of the recent past, undertaken by young scholars in the region, is essential if we are to have more open and honest debates about the relationship of the communist past to the future of the contemporary Left. In collecting these thoughtful essays and publishing this book, Mrozik and Holubec have done the field a great service—despite the inevitable offers of “free helicopter rides” to come.
. Justin Caffier, “Get to Know the Memes of the Alt-Right and Never Miss a Dog-Whistle Again,” Vice.com, January 25, 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/ezagwm/get-to-know-the-memes-of-the-alt-right-and-never….
. The White House, “National Day for the Victims of Communism,” November 7, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/national-day-victims-communism/.
. “Communist Bastion Finally Crumbles,” BBC News, August 27, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/431854.stm.
. Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 1852, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm.
Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.