Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Vanishing Truth? Politics and Memory in Post-Communist Europe

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Vanishing Truth? Politics and Memory in Post-Communist Europe

Article excerpt

In Eastern Europe, the post-communist transformation has been as much an effort to come to terms with the horrors of the communist past as to build a future stable democratic order and address present socioeconomic problems. As part of transitional justice, the political process which allowed countries to deal with their recent past, Eastern Europeans have adopted different methods at different paces and at different times. After some initial hesitation, post-communist governments have opted for a combination of lustration, a screening process allowing the ban of communist officials and secret political police agents from post-communist politics, court proceedings and trials prosecuting communist leaders and secret informers, public access to the secret files compiled by the political police, restitution of property abusively confiscated by the communist authorities, rehabilitation of former political prisoners, and formal public condemnation of the abuses perpetrated by the communist regime and its willing executants. (1) In one form or another, these policy tools were meant to sift the historical truth from the official lie about the communist past, to identify the mechanisms of repression employed to quash dissent and opposition, to establish the link between the communist party and the political police, to catalogue the manifold crimes of the outgoing regime, and to sort the villains (the communist torturers) from the angels (the victims of the communist regime). In short, they were meant to help rewrite recent history by renouncing the communist ideological canon in order to provide a truer picture of life in the people's democracies that would more adequately reflect the positions of both the rulers and the ruled.

Regardless of their chosen method of effecting transitional justice, and the pace at which the process was allowed to unfold, Eastern European countries have seemingly shared a number of myths regarding their politics of memory. Rather than being coherent systems of thought explaining reality, these myths are beliefs whose foundations transcended logic, and thus it is unlikely that any amount of evidence can shatter their pseudo-cognitive immunity. These myths revolve around several fundamental assumptions, presumptions and simplifying arguments which have informed public policy in the area of transitional justice, underpinned public debate regarding the utility, desirability, legitimacy and feasibility of the process, and framed the scholarly literature examining national efforts of dealing with the authoritarian past. Many an observer of post-communist transitional justice has fallen prey to these 'mythological constellations', as French anthropologist Gilbert Durand termed mythical constructs belonging to a common theme and structured around a central vision. (2) The myths presented here were identified in conversations with Eastern European researchers studying the topic, as well as with politicians developing relevant legislation and civil servants implementing it. (3) It remains to be seen whether recognition of these empirically un-tested myths will lead to a paradigm shift in how country cases are analyzed or policy proposals are formulated. There is increased dissatisfaction with some of these fundamental assumptions in response to growing theoretical and empirical evidence of their resilience.

While myths have been a fundamental datum in the political world, especially in such societies beset by discord, enmities and problematic democratic traditions as Eastern European societies have been, political scientists have generally paid little attention to them, preferring instead to emphasize the importance of rational mental constructs determining political behavior and public policy choices (including rational choice and game theories). (4) I prefer to call these untested assumptions myths because they have been diligently used to analyze the communist past without being themselves subject to any systematic analysis. …

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