In this essay, historian Tony Judt explores the role of political myth in the shaping of the postcommunist European identity. In many respects the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989 is similar to the situation following World War II: there is a strong need to identify the “guilty” people and exert retributive justice. There is also a rampant temptation to externalize blame and avoid a lucid coming to terms with the past. New myths about national resistance to communism have surfaced to avoid thorough-going analyses of widespread forms of complicity and collaboration with the Leninist regimes. This article highlights the disturbing resurgence of populism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism in the postcommunist societies and the rise of counter-Enlightenment movements. The long-accepted categories of “left” and “right” have lost their original meaning. Altogether, Europe has ushered in an era of ethnic anarchy and political discombobulation.
With this focus on disarray, frustrations, loss of morale, and widespread malaise, Judt belongs to those who are skeptical about the overall liberal implications of the 1989 revolutionary upheaval in East and Central Europe. His contribution offers a necessary counterpart to the more optimistic interpretations of the future of the region. Of particular note is Judt's insistence on the need to distinguish between different shades of anticommunism. Not all those who opposed the imposition of Stalinism were necessarily friends of democracy, and there is the risk that in the post-1989 euphoria such distinctions tend to be blurred. For Judt political, economic, and cultural uncertainties make East and Central Europe a propitious territory for self-congratulatory fantasies of heroic national traditions. These, hawever, are just the opposite of what liberal values tend to defend and could be conducive to fragmentation, divisiveness, and cynical demagoguery. Politically manipulated memories are thus presented as a daunting threat to the emergence of a democratic postcommunist Europe.
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