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Overcoming the Totalitarian Past

Sergey Averintsev

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"Vergangenheitsbewältigung", "overcoming" the totalitarian past, is the task that all nations that had to go through a totalitarian experience, theoretically speaking, have to face. But actually not all of them realize the necessity of this process.

One of the morals that can be drawn from the analysis of totalitarian madness is that into utter madness does turn any reasoning system that is uncritical of itself. Cold-eyed self-perception is the most important thing, especially when it comes to criticism.

1. It should first be noted that the very idea of overcoming the past, that is, the idea of systematic criticism of a nation as a whole, in contrast to criticism of nation's high-rankers, is quite new and has had no parallel in the history of humankind.

Karl Jaspers in his work Die Shuldfrage (1946) defined the problem that had never been discussed before - naturally, I do not mean the case of Germany but the problem of the various grades of collective guilt.

In the previous centuries they did not accept the idea that one who executes a command, even if the command does not directly involve killing, is guilty before the humankind and oneself if world public opinion and one's own conscience do not consider this war just. The "usurper" Napoleon could be guilty from the point of view of traditional monarchism, as well as from a more liberal point of view, as an enslaver. But this blame could not really be laid on the soldiers of La Grande Armée. And it was not for nothing that the Russian general Bagration a minute before he was mortally wounded at Borodino shouted "Bravo, bravo!" to the enemies - the French grenadiers who were fearlessly attacking the Russian army. The First World War greatly promoted the development of a system that evoked a systematic assault not only of enemy nation's ruling elite but also of the whole civilization related to it. Among those who attacked the accused were the great minds of the countries involved in the war - Thomas Mann on the German part, Charles Péguy on the French part. T. Mann and Chesterton, who were so different in life, resembled each other greatly, proving that it was Germany (or, just the contrary, England) that was playing in the conflict the honourable part of keeping the cultural tradition while the opposite party was supporting the dead technological civilization.

Totalitarianism utilized this tendency and encouraged it extremely. Nazis regarded all their adversaries as Untermenschen; the Soviets actually considered morally guilty every foreigner who did not try hard to become a "friend of the Soviet Union" and thus wash his guilt away. As for those who were around, totalitarianism tried, by right or wrong, to saddle on each of them responsibility for each of their actions. This was what distinguished it from archaic kinds of despotism, which satisfied itself with blind obedience and did not demand participation in faked elections and demonstrations.

2. We will in no way discredit the moral principle that underlies the idea of overcoming the past if we forebear mythicizing the circumstances under which this idea became a political reality for the first time (i.e. the moment the Second World War ended). That this mythicizing is possible, proves the famous question that some Russian dissidents were asking in the times of the collapse of the Soviet ideology - why not to commit those who are guilty of crimes of communist totalitarianism for a Nuremberg trial? One can put such a question seriously only if one forgets the circumstances under which the famous trial took place. The ground for the Nuremberg trial was prepared by worldwide moral reflection, in which "the other Germany" (das andere Deutschland), the Germany of emigration and resistance, also took part. The process of reflection was an indispensable precondition. But it couldn't become a reality if it were not for other factors. It was the victory of the Allied Powers (including the Stalinist Soviet Union, in which totalitarianism reached its apogee) that made the Nuremberg trial and the further program of denazification possible.

The case with the Soviet Union was different. The situation that in German is called die Wende was caused by a complex set of internal reasons. But anyway, the role of moral protests against totalitarianism cannot be denied. The protests were so strong that they couldn't be ignored without a new wave of rampant terrorism, which Gorbachev was against. But they also were not strong enough to achieve an absolute victory. The result was a compromise between the Soviet elite and the oppositional part of the society, the terms of which were quite close to what Solzhenitsyn suggested in his "Letter to the Soviet Leaders" - we get rid of totalitarian ideology and leave the former leaders at their posts, as a pay for this peaceful and bloodless liberation. We agreed to this compromise, and I still see no alternative to it but a series of bloody catastrophes. But we have to admit that it was neither an external force nor an uprising from below that defeated the former system but the party elite itself. An old moral and juridical axiom says, pacta sunt servanda (treaties must be kept).

It is interesting to note that, while remorse of conscience and world public opinion are demanding from Germany and Russia a still further discussion of their own crimes, there are countries from which no one demands anything. Among these numerous countries is Turkey, which has been persisting in denying the fact of the genocide of 1914-1915 and the next years - the massacre that swept off most part of Armenian population. The recent recognition of this fact by France triggered a violent reaction on the part of Ankara. But generally the world remains silent - everyone needs Turkey as an ally; its admittance to the European Union is being considered. Inside Turkey everyone remains silent as well...

Apparently, not every cultural tradition accepts the notion that a nation should speculate on its collective responsibility for sins and crimes of the past and confess these sins and crimes to the whole world. This idea is either supported by a nation or not. If it is supported, it can be temporally subdued or suppressed but still it continues living its secret life. It is evidently closely related to high appreciation of penitence, which is associated with Christian tradition. In the famous classification that dates back to Ruth Benedict all this is called culture of conscience. Eastern civilizations pursue culture of shame - for one thing, one must not lose one's honour and therefore should keep unpleasant secrets to oneself. Modern liberalism now and then prefers culture of shame as protecting against too negative emotions, but evidently enough, the future of Europe's freedom tradition will be conditioned by culture of conscience.

Naturally, we also often prove ready to forget about conscience and only care about not losing our honour. But we are not able to act like this bona fide, as if nothing has happened, and this is what unites us, Russians, with Westerners. I personally have no doubts that this is a manifestation of our common Christian heritage.

3. The program of Überwältigung is, inevitably and naturally, thought of as a program of re-education of the masses. But this draws it close to the totalitarianism, which it aims to overcome and which itself presented a project of out-and-out re-education. Holding Karl Jaspers in respect, I still must say that I understand (although do not approve) Ernst Robert Curtius's famous reaction against his pedagogical claim to act as a "praeceptor Germaniae" (preceptor of Germany), willing to educate everyone and set everything in their places. Totalitarian experience is an antidote for any tactics incident to educators of the masses.

The distinguished scientist and thinker Karl Kerenyi once said that the spirit of abstraction opened doors to national-socialism when Jews as personalities were substituted by the impersonal category of "Jewry" - "to kill Jews" sounds dreadfully; "to liquidate Jewry" resembles a description of some logical operation. I am afraid that some of this schematism, which played a fatal role in the past we are trying to overcome, may penetrate into the practice of political education of new generations.

I don't want to predict any gloomy prospects but I am sure that (heaven forbid) if das radikal Böse, the power, shocking to morality, comes again, it would not be hard for it to find a verbal mask that would formally differ from any kind of totalitarianism we already know. Our thinking habit prompts us to await something that has already happened, although it was a long while ago that Heraclitus said, "You cannot step twice into the same river." (The fear of restoration of Tsarist absolutism once prevented Russian liberals like Kerensky from seeing the much more fearful autocracy of Lenin, which was approaching them.) One can hardly build a barrier to possible future threats out of ready-made phrases repeated in chorus, out of the casuistic political correctness and the like building material. Today's liberalism is insufficiently liberal; it is deaf to anything that stays apart from media slogans. But there is only one antidote for a new totalitarianism, and that is a sense of individual responsibility for every word and action, and consequently, distrust of inculcation, of mass suggestion, and of the spirit of abstraction, which Kerenyi spoke of.

4. There are two kinds of dispositions that I consider dangerous for the cause of overcoming the past, and these are sentimentality and cynicism. The following example will for a change refer neither to Russia nor to Germany. Consider the debates on the extermination of Jews in the Polish town of Jedwabne on July 10 1941. This massacre has been thought to be the doing of Nazis but Professor Jan Tomasz Gross from New York now says the Jews were killed by the locals. I am neither a Pole nor a specialist in Polish history, and I do not have a judgement about Gross's thesis, which does not seem reasoned enough. It just grieves me that this conclusion is being used as a disproof of the image of Poland as a martyr country. How can one continue dividing nations into the "good" and the "bad" and moreover claim that only the former deserve compassion after all the attempts to overcome Nazism? If this is not racism, what is racism? How can one shift the blame of those who are to blame to the whole "Polish society"? Were those not Hitlerites who used to reason in this way?

5. What obstacles are there today to the process of overcoming the totalitarian past and dissociation of nations? In my opinion, there are two contrary kinds of them. On the one hand, these are relict but enduring and militant anti-liberal tendencies of nationalist and isolationist kind. On the other hand, this is the disposition of modern liberalism, which has taken over the task of re-educating nations, to reduce itself to a slogan, to a primitive gesture, and present these slogans and gestures as our only chance. Gestures are often not only graceless but also silly, giving a chance to those who are against any dialogue. In 1996 representatives of Greenpeace came to Russia to agitate for Russia's nuclear disarmament - a serious problem in every respect. In order to attract young people, they started some indecent dancing which verged on pornography. Any Russian neo-Nazi or neo-Communist could say at that moment, "Look what dirt they are trying to buy our youth for!"

There have been plenty of such occurrences, and not only in Russia. This has nothing to do with permissiveness or tolerance; this is just intrusion of a particular way of life upon the whole world. This way of life is presented as a symbol of the democratic civilization. One cannot approve behavior of the Indian who burned himself in protest against the beauty contest that somehow had to be organized in India at any cost. But one can and should understand him. If it were not for these occasions, neo-Communists, neo-Nazis, Islamic fanatics, and the others would not have any chance. A democrat cannot afford to merely demonstrate his contempt and indignation against a person from the masses when he or she listens to most odious heralds of anti-liberalism, votes for them, etc. We must each time ask ourselves, "How could we permit the situation in which they vote for Tom, Dick and Harry only to demonstrate to us the extent of their dissatisfaction?"

6. It would be useful to keep in mind that each time totalitarianism came to power it was not just a response to a subconscious wish. Totalitarianism was possible insofar as it was an absolutely false answer to quite real questions. And the only way to prevent totalitarianism from coming back today is to be open to questions, to be completely honest and sober, as far as questions are concerned. Exercising in reacting most "properly" to words cannot substitute engrafting intellectual honesty in the minds.

Abridged translation by Olga Yurchenko

Read this article on the Orthodox Europe website. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 3/24/04

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