Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Past Imperfect

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Past Imperfect

Article excerpt

When the collective memory has been warped by Stalinism and national-communism, re-establishing a critical outlook is an uphill job

IN the countries of eastern Europe, control of the collective memory has been an essential feature of dictatorship. From the time of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, history was the arena in which the very legitimacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat was decided. As George Orwell wrote in his famous novel, 1984, "Who controls the past controls the future."

To begin with, this take-over of history had a dual purpose. First, it was designed to impose an official interpretation of the past as a forecast of the present and a supposedly glorious future. Second, it was a deliberate attempt to blot out all consciousness of national history and all positive memories of the past. The Romanians, who had shown a reprehensible loyalty to their nation by claiming their historic provinces and their national identity, had to be taught that this loyalty and this identity were "bourgeois prejudices" generated by a false view of history. Impoverished by Stalinist dogma and subjected to an obsessive search for the "class struggle"--the historian's only legitimate criterion--this new version of history, which denied the past any specificity, was designed only to justify the present.

Hundreds of teachers, hastily trained during the 1950s, continued to use the rudimentary stereotypes of this Stalinism which they had parrotted in their youth. Later, however, another branch was grafted onto this stock, namely the national communism of Nicolae Ceausescu and his entourage.

National history was muzzled for ten years. Then, playing the card of restoring the past, giving the impression that the "people" had managed to preserve the sense of national identity that had been distorted by professional historians, and exploiting the frustration of people traumatized by the crushing of their memories, this second manipulation finally destroyed the critical approach to history. First national history was annihilated by the universalist claims of Stalinist doctrine. Then universal history was annihilated by being reduced to a mere backcloth for an inflated vision of national glory. Increasingly pompous language, together with a growing refusal to think about method or exercise critical judgment, eventually brought in a falsely pious rhetoric of commemoration whose deleterious consequences are far from forgotten today.

Admittedly this exercise was never entirely successful. In the interstices of the system some people continued with dignity and humility to practise the profession of historian with dignity and humility, and a brilliant array of teachers, trained between the wars in Europe's great history departments, went on teaching until the 1970s. These historians handed down to their pupils an ethic, a model and a historian's conscience that helped them survive both intellectually and morally. During the short and deceptive interlude of 1965-1971--when the regime made a pretence of openness to the outside world in order to consolidate its position--this generation of pupils managed to make contacts and set up a network of intellectual communication that mitigated their isolation and allowed them to maintain a certain professional dignity.

Exploring continents, rethinking concepts

These remnants of historical awareness became essential after 1989, when a revival of the human sciences began to get under way. The enormity of the task still to be accomplished by historians is obvious. It involves rethinking concepts and bringing to light the forgotten continents of history, with drastically reduced human and material potential. A brief list of the objectives of this work shows that it will be an uphill job. In my opinion, such a list consists of two main parts: one of gaps to be filled, and one of ideas to be challenged. And of course the two parts overlap.

The most important gaps are due to the prohibitions of the period just ended. …

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