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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg March 20, 2018

Of Red Dragons and Evil Spirits. Post-Communist Historiography between Democratization and New Politics of History

  • Christel Zunneberg

Reviewed Publication:

Luthar Oto, ed, Of Red Dragons and Evil Spirits. Post-Communist Historiography between Democratization and New Politics of History, Budapest: CEU Press 2017, 256 pp., ISBN 978-963-386-151-6, € 60.00

Of Red Dragons and Evil Spirits, edited by Oto Luthar, proves comparative research to be relevant and exciting. The volume constitutes a collection of case studies, with authors describing the evolution and the developments of history politics after the demise of communism in their respective country of expertise, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia. With the overarching aim to contribute to surmounting the ‘bloc division of Europe, which still persists in viewing the East as a monolith’ (viii), this edited volume sets about to a) point out divergences in the memory cultures in postsocialist countries, and b) assess the potential to form common European memory practices. It thus analyses the changing mnemonic landscapes on two levels: within Eastern Europe and in Europe as a whole.

In comparing memory cultures after 1989 in the ‘new Europe’, the reader is presented with a conundrum. The development of the postcommunist democratic regimes has not progressively led to the anticipated democratisation of the interpretation of the past. Rather, it has been regressively nationalised and the political monopolisation of history has been renewed (vii). Ljiljana Radonić, Todor Kuljić, Miroslav Michela, Šačir Filandra, and Oto Luthar thematise this ‘failed liberalization’ in their respective chapters on Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia. The authors succeed to make sense of what is a counterintuitive pattern, as after the demise of Marxism-Leninism, nationalist revisionism filled the ideational vacuum. After throwing off the communist straight-jacket, the reinvention of national(ist) paradigms was a deliberate effort to enhance the legitimisation of the postcommunist state. In the search for a new foundational master narrative, the new politics of the past have typically involved the instrumentalisation of history. After the collapse of the communist regimes that had subjected the Holocaust to oblivion everywhere, a competitive ‘martyrdom struggle’ erupted in order to be exonerated from responsibility or guilt led by both the political establishment and society as a whole. The so-called ‘double genocide theory’, which equates the Holocaust and Soviet crimes, spread all over ‘new Europe’, as Michael Shafir maintains in his chapter on Romania. The volume’s metaphorical label ‘Red Dragons and Evil Spirits’, has been used in the past decade by those scholars who have opposed such equation of communism, fascism, and nazism.

With nationalist historical revisionism as a common thread running through the bulk of the case studies, the message is in fact one of a shared postcommunist memory culture. The differences that would have contributed to overcoming the idea of the East as a ‘mnemonic monolith’ are rarely pointed out explicitly. These are namely differences in 1) the phases of transition; 2) the interplay between memory actors (politicians, historians, media) in shaping the historical consensus; and 3) the implications of a moralising historical discourse for the political lives of the postsocialist countries. If at all, comparative references are scattered throughout the book. Daniela Koleva, for example, in her chapter on Bulgaria, points out that in Bulgaria and Romania the tendency toward nationalisation began long before the fall of communism. Without a concluding chapter, the main differences—which for the purpose of clarity could have been summarily categorised along these three respects—remain finder’s fee.

The volume is valuable in assessing the potential to form common European memory practices, although here too readers need to put the pieces of the puzzle together themselves. Daniela Koleva, Michael Shafir, Miroslav Michela, Ferenc Laczó, and Oto Luthar discuss how, respectively Bulgarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Hungarian, and Slovenian historical narratives and cultures of remembrance have been cultivated in their (shared) European contexts.

The authors identify the road to EU membership as the catalyst of how the attempt to establish a European memory canon failed. The new democracies in Eastern Europe were pressured—internationally as well as by EU institutions—to align memory politics with Europe’s foundational narrative, and to commemorate the Holocaust as its central and unique historical event (Koleva, Laczó). Whilst the postcommunist states’ ‘right to memory’ was formally recognised, the pursued European historical narrative pattern was essentially undemocratic (i.e. west-centric) and unreciprocal, as it failed to incorporate communism into the dominant discourses (Koleva, Shafir). Koleva’s essay on the Bulgarian case demonstrates most insightfully why the Europeanisation of postcommunist memory has been contentious, and has in fact not led to a monolithic European memory: she shows how Bulgaria added a second, conflicting narrative of regret to the one of ‘national martyrdom’. On the whole, the postcommunist societies have not succeeded in establishing a stable and coherent memory narrative, but struggle over the legitimacy of coexistent ones. As Luthar explains from a Slovenian point of view, Europe’s memory culture has remained split along Cold War binaries because of the equation of nazism and communism even by revisionists.

In combination, the case studies provide the reader with a nuanced view on ‘all-Europeanness’ when it comes to memory. Even in the absence of a shared European historical narrative, common mnemonic practices have developed over time—as various authors attest to. A timeline can be built from the different chapters. First of all, the eastern transitional justice model for dealing with victims and perpetrators of the communist regimes has been replicated from the western postwar archetype (Koleva). Secondly, the culture of collective amnesia and self-victimisation in the postsocialist countries has mirrored the early stages of the process of coming to terms with the past in Germany, and has only accelerated the coming into being of Europe’s memorial landscape of victims in the 1980s and 1990s (Luthar). Thirdly, whilst the degree of genuine confrontation with societal complicity greatly varied, the broader conception of the category ‘perpetrators’, referring not only to the societal elites, has provoked a wave of self-confrontation throughout Europe around the year 2000 (Laczó). The authors draw the significant conclusion that ‘current (changes in) commemorative practices […] are an all-European phenomenon. […] Over the past decade the latter [the discussions on victims and perpetrators] have not only been the common denominator of political debates in Eastern, Central and Southeastern Europe, but have underlined the culture of remembering throughout the continent’ (7).

In sum, trying to overcome the ‘bloc division of Europe’ this edited volume contains highly relevant insights into the divergences in the memory cultures in postsocialist countries as well as into common European memory practices. The argument would have been even clearer if captured in a comprehensive summary at the volume’s end. Moreover, it seems that if we are to overcome this ‘bloc division’, it would be equally important to dismantle the west as a mnemonic bloc too, as well as to emphasise the cross-fertilisation of the eastern and western memory narratives and practices. Only Laczó, in his chapter on Hungary, points out how concepts such as ‘historical trauma’ and ‘collective guilt’ have travelled eastwards, and equally importantly, how such mnemonic cooperation has challenged the antifascist consensus and the progressivist’s interpretation of modern European history in the western countries.

The volume is perhaps most valuable in what is not its primary aim, namely in reflecting on the disciplinary practises of writing contemporary history, and—on a meta-level—on historians’ self-positioning in society. Certain strands of postsocialist scholarship, for example in Slovakia, have diverged more and more from global trends (Michela). The return after 1989 to old conceptual modes, prominently to a linear description of national history, and the conversion of historical sciences into a political instrument has undermined the authority and legitimacy of historians, who are supposed to be critical and ‘objective’ in their work (Filandra, Luthar). In times of a widening gap between academic and public discourses, other societal actors have surfaced who enhance the competition on how the past is to be interpreted. Especially the media have put historians under social pressure. The book’s authors’ critical analyses of postrevisionist revisionism constitute a substantial contribution to the broader disciplinary debate about professional values and (the desirability of) historians’ interference in the public sphere.

Published Online: 2018-03-20
Published in Print: 2018-03-26

© 2018 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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