I’ve only just now started reading The Future of The European Past, published by The New Criterion in 1997, a used copy of which arrived in the mail today, but I’m very glad to see that one of its key essays, “A Dearth of Feeling” by the great Anne Applebaum, is also available on her Website. The whole thing is well-worth reading, but in light of Dick Durbin’s recent outburst, I think this passage is key:
But if the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 did not bring about a reassessment of the legacy of the communist past in former communist parts of Europe, the transformation in the West was no less incomplete. The lack of moral certainty where Soviet crimes are concerned was always academic, as well as popular, for example: until five or ten years ago, Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, was often considered a paranoid alarmist for claiming that Stalin had murdered millions of people, when most history books spoke of hundreds: certainly I was taught as much when studying Russian history at Yale in the mid-1980s. His views are, of course, now mainstream: they are supported by archival evidence, to the limited extent that such evidence is now available, and by Soviet historians.
And yet – the opposite view persists as well. Legitimate academics, with prestigious jobs at prestigious universities, can write books which amount to “gulag denial”, and nobody finds their writing either offensive or objectionable. The most famous, J. Arch Getty – famous for having written than “thousands” died in the gulag – goes on teaching and writing as always, but there are younger ones too. Robert Thurston, a tenured professor at a reputable university, recently wrote a book called Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, published by the equally reputable Yale University Press. In it he suggests, among other things, that the great purge took place without Stalin’s knowledge, that it was supported by many people, and that, by promoting upward mobility, it laid the foundations for perestroika. Aside from getting most of his facts wrong – see Conquest’s list of them in his review in the Times Literary Supplement – Thurston seems unable, throughout the book, to understand the absurdity of what he is saying. After all, the same could be true (once again) of Hitler’s Germany: Hitler was voted into power, after all; there is no proof he knew about the Holocaust; and many young, enthusiastic people came to power much earlier than they would have done under his regime. None of which amounts to a defence of regime which also murdered millions of people.
Most of the “interest’ in the book partly derives, of course, from the fact that it is different, that it purports to offer an opposite idea, a new perspective. This point of view – the idea that there is still “another side to the story”, that not to acknowledge it would be “one-sided” – persists in the less genteel world of journalism as well. Not long ago, I was told by the editor of the London Review of Books that a review I had written (of David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb) could not be printed because it was too anti-Soviet. When I pointed out that the book itself was not exactly pro-Soviet, she replied that if that were the case, the book would not be reviewed. It wasn’t.
In the West, a similar, and closely related, argument has also been mounted against those East Europeans who want to examine – and to condemn – the behaviour of communist regimes. This point was most eloquently put in a book which recently won the National Book Award in the United States as well as a Pulitzer Prize: Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land. Yet despite all of the awards she received, what is most extraordinary about her effort is how much time she spent working in Central Europe, and how little insight into the region she appears to have gained. Certainly she does a good job at carefully enumerating the many complexities and drawbacks of lustration and war crimes trials. However, she then comes to the conclusion while trials are fine for Latin American dictators, they are not acceptable for East Europeans. Her reasoning depends partly upon the distinction, common among Western intellectuals, between the evil aims of most dictatorships, and the good intentions of communism: “communism’s ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed are indeed beautiful,” in her own words. Here it is again: the ideas were fine, it is the people who failed. That the ideas were wrong, still escapes her; that Hitler had ideals too is also not mentioned.
But most of Rosenberg’s argument – like the arguments of others in the Western and Eastern media who feared an anti-communist “witch hunt” – emphasises the fragility of civil society in the newly democratic societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Condemnation of the past, she feared, could degenerate into violations of civil liberties, into persecution of innocent people, into moral self-righteousness and (figurative) burnings at the stake. What she appears to be afraid of is resurgent “nationalism” of a 1930s sort, perhaps in the form of an “anti-communist right-wing.” Even the title of her book, like the title of so many books written about the region recently, gives the idea away: Central Europe is “the haunted land” in her words, just as the lands of ex-Yugoslavia are filled with Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan ghosts”.
But the problem with modern Eastern Europe is not the legacy of the 1930s: the problem with Eastern Europe is the legacy of communism, whether in the form of corruption, poverty, pollution, ill-health, or distorted values. Equally, the real danger to democracy and capitalism in Poland or Russia is not some form of warmed-over fascism, but communist ideals, the communist economic legacy, and the corrupt habits of former communists themselves. Almost every time a regime has gone sour in the former communist bloc over the past five years – in Serbia most notably, but in Slovakia as well, for example – the root cause is not some group of new nationalists, but former communists wearing new clothes. And, as noted above, there have been very few unjust prosecutions of former communists in the region, because there have been hardly any prosecutions of any kind.
In fact, Rosenberg’s argument, like that of Thurston or Getty, appears to be rooted not in actual observation of life in Central Europe, but in a deep desire to protect the legacy of the Western Left, again in her words, “communism’s ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed.” Perhaps not coincidentally, she has also defended Thurston in print, in an odd little article in the New York Times book review. In the course of denouncing David Irving, the Nazi apologist, and arguing that his book should not be published by a reputable publisher, she applauds the decision of the Yale University Press to publish Thurston, the Stalin apologist, on the grounds that challenging and controversial ideas, even if they amount to gulag denial, deserve to see the light of day. Again, her argument only makes sense if we assume that one version of totalitarianism and mass murder this century deserves a moral condemnation, while others ought to be treated as neutral historical phenomenon. It only makes sense if we assume that there was, within communism, something “good” which can still be rescued and brought to light, whereas there was no such “good” to be found in Hitler’s Germany. In other words, it doesn’t make sense at all.
Elsewhere in her essay, Applebaum writes:
Germans themselves were not, during the twenty years after the end of the war, very eager to discuss the Nazi past either. Yet in post-war Germany, Nazi memorabilia was illegal, the Nazi party was banned – and it has never revived on any large scale. The German state paid enormous reparations to individual Jews (if not always to others) and to the state of Israel. While the Germans may not have talked much about the war in public, official histories of the war were published, monuments were constructed. Everyone knew about Nuremburg; the groundwork was laid for the younger generation to discover the past. By the 1960s – sparked, in fact, by the trial of Auschwitz guards – when the national debate finally began, at least it was possible for the children of Nazis to discover what their parents had done. By the 1980s, the past had almost become a national obsession: hardly an evening passed when there wasn’t a documentary or a talk show on German television dealing with the war.
That the Soviet Union has never undergone a similar treatment–either in post-Soviet Russia itself, or in American schools, is one of the reasons why hammer and sickle (and even Che) T-shirts can be “innocently” worn by teenagers and pop stars, and why a US Senator can compare Guantanamo Bay to not just the Soviet Gulag, but to those death camps run by other communist nations such as Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
On the other hand, maybe it wouldn’t make that much difference after all. Despite how the memories of Nazi Germany flood our pop-culture, they haven’t stopped the post 9/11 left from endless violations of Godwin’s Law. That our government doesn’t treat American protestors the way that the Nazis treated theirs should alone instantly end any comparison–but of course, it doesn’t.