Memory Wars

February 28, 2010

By Leonidas Donskis
We are witnessing how a sinister tendency is increasingly getting stronger in the U.S. and in Europe. Politicians find themselves preoccupied with two domains that serve as a new source of inspiration, namely: privacy and history. Birth, death and sex constitute the new frontiers on the political battlefields.

Since politics is dying out nowadays as a translation of our moral and existential concerns into rational and legitimate action for the benefit of society and humanity, and instead is becoming a set of managerial practices and skillful manipulation with public opinion, it is not unwise to assume that a swift politicization of privacy and history promises the way out of the present political and ideological vacuum.

Suffice it to remember the hottest debates over abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage over the past twenty or so years to conclude that the poor human individual, no matter whether (s)he is on the way into the world, or is dying, or consummating her or his marriage, continues to be regarded either as a property of the state and its institutions or, at best, as a mere instrument and hostage of a political doctrine.

Nothing new under the sky, though. If we are to believe such incisive dystopian writers as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell, or such groundbreaking social theorists as Michel Foucault and Zygmunt Bauman, modernity always was, and continues to be, obsessed with how to get as much control over the human body and soul as possible without physically exterminating people. The same is true with regard to society’s memory and collective sentiment.

As we learn from George Orwell’s “1984,” history depends on who controls those archives and records. Since human individuals have no other form of existence than that which is granted by the Party, individual memory has no power to create or restore history. But if memory is controlled or manufactured and updated every day, history degenerates into a justificatory and legitimizing design of power and control. Logically enough, this leads the Inner Party to assert that who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.

If you think that it does not make sense to refer to the Orwellesque world any longer, please think about memory wars in present-day Europe. That Russia has already become a revisionist power is obvious. Moreover, it attempts to rewrite the history of the 20th century, rehabilitating Stalin and depicting him to have been merely a wise, albeit sometimes cruel, modernizer of Russia. As we can see, Stalin appears here to have been just another version of the Great Modernizer of the State, just like Peter the Great.

Needless to say, an attempt to outlaw what is regarded in Russia as historical revisionism, that is, criminalization of any effort to put into question whether the Soviet Union with its labor camps, overtly fascist practices and anti-Semitism (for those who have doubts about this, please do recall the Holodomor in Ukraine or the methodical extermination of Russian Jews and Jewish culture under Stalin) was any better than Nazi Germany, has its logic.

By no means is it about the past. As early as under Mikhail Gorbachev, a plethora of decent and courageous Russian historians exposed the Soviet Union to have been a criminal state. Stalin was explicitly regarded as a criminal and paranoiac dictator who committed the most horrible crimes against humanity. The fact that Vladimir Putin’s Russia changed the interpretation of the past, nearly overnight, shows that everything is about the present, rather than the past.

Although the denial of the Holocaust is too complex a phenomenon to be confined to legal practices and administrative measures, Germany outlawed the denial of the Holocaust out of its firm commitment never to repeat its past. Russia cynically denies its occupation and annexation of the Baltic States, as well as its numerous crimes against European nations, because it sends a message to us that it would gladly repeat recent history restoring the past and rehabilitating political doctrine which Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s Russia regarded as overtly criminal and hostile to Russia itself.

Hence, an attempt is made by the Baltic States and of Eastern-Central European nations to work out a viable antidote against Russia’s revisionism. However understandable and logical this attempt, the idea of the political and moral equivalency of Communism and National Socialism is not the most convincing way to do it – for Western Europe and the U.S. will always take a deep exception to the claim that the Holocaust and Soviet crimes were of the same nature.

Therefore, something has to be done to untie this Gordian knot of history. I propose that our politicians and public figures stop romanticizing the political forces of 1941 that tried to save the independence of the Baltic States collaborating with the Nazis. The tragedy was that our countries were “liberated” from the Nazis by the Soviets, instead of Great Britain or the U.S. 
All in all, only our political courage and moral integrity, rather than a selective interpretation of history, can end our memory wars with Russia or with the far left of Western Europe. We cannot allow Russia to distort history, spreading ugly lies about the Baltic States as crypto-fascist countries, yet we have to be fair and sympathetic to the Holocaust survivors, who fear, and rightly so, that a simplistic and relativistic approach to the Shoah as, supposedly, one of many Holocausts in Europe becomes a sort of obfuscation and trivialization of the tragedy.

History can never be left solely to politicians, no matter whether democratic or authoritarian. It is not a property of a political doctrine or of a regime it serves. History, if properly understood, is the symbolic design of our existence and moral choices we make every day. Like human privacy, our right to study and critically question history is a cornerstone of freedom.

Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.

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