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Eastern Europe's new rulers are buried in the past.
Irene Miller explains why

The dustbin of history

Go to the Museum of the Labour Movement in Budapest and it will be closed. You will be informed that the display, an assortment of photographs and memorabilia of horny handed workers, was deemed inappropriate. In its place you will be offered the 'Through the Iron Curtain' exhibition, organised by the Ministry of the Interior and the Museum of Contemporary History. There the history of Hungary begins in 1989, with the collapse of the Stalinist regime.

In Eastern Europe, history has become the political issue of the moment. In order to establish a new national identity in countries emerging from 40 years of Soviet domination, the new political elites are reviving the pre-Stalinist, interwar past when the nation states of Eastern Europe were nominally independent.

'Insane experiment'

The reconstitution of a national identity demands that the Stalinist era be written out of history. According to many East European thinkers today, the postwar era was a temporary deviation from a glorious national past, a brief interlude of madness that can now be consigned to the dustbin of history. Poland's former prime minister, Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, summed up the dominant view when he characterised communism as 'a shortlived, insane experiment': 'Poland's communist past is but a 40-year aberration in a history that stretches over 1000 years.' In other words, history has been frozen for 40 years; now we can begin where we left off.

In Romania, some intellectuals have called for a process of national purification so that the Romanian people can face the future untainted by the past. Octavian Paler argued that everybody had been implicated in the crimes of the Ceausescu regime: 'I wonder if we can ever forget that the dictatorship has dug out the worst from the cesspool of our defects, trying with diabolical perseverance to dehumanise us, to turn us into accomplices.' ('The need for purification', Romanian Review, No1, 1990)

Other cathartic measures are being advocated. In Hungary, yet another new law was passed in November 1991 to punish communists for their crimes. The old communist parties may not have been banned, but they have changed their names for fear of the lynchmob. Showtrials of top Stalinist officials and secret police are organised to satisfy the widespread desire for revenge.

All traces of the past are being destroyed: statues are toppled, street names changed (more than 250 in Budapest alone) and central committee buildings transformed into stock exchanges. The education system no longer organises Russian or dialectics classes, but caters for Bible studies and household finances.

The old official history textbooks are being rewritten and literature banned during the past 40 years (including the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion) is making a comeback. Old institutions of renown are being reinstated: in Hungary the State Philharmonic was renamed the National Philharmonic.

Settling scores with the past is a central part of the process of change in Eastern Europe. From the forties onwards the past was appropriated by the Stalinist regimes in a vain attempt to legitimise their power. Now it is the turn of the new elites to appropriate the past in a bid to consolidate their rule. The reconstitution of national identity in Eastern Europe today means the rehabilitation of the symbols and politics of the interwar years.

Exhumations in Hungary

All the old flags and emblems of the past are back in fashion. New monuments to long forgotten national heroes are taking the place of Marx and Lenin. Istvan, the first king of Hungary and a saint to boot, has his crown and his right hand on public show (the crown was never his and the hand we are told has been saved by God). Since the disinterment and reburial of Imre Nagy, exhumations - from Horthy to Petöfi - have become a national pastime in Hungary.

The icons of Stalinism are being replaced by new symbols of nationhood. Everywhere, pre-Stalinist nationalists, dictators, priests, monarchs and fascists are being rehabilitated as national role models. From Joszef Pilsudski in Poland, who suspended democracy and installed a dictatorship, to Ion Antonescu in Romania, ally of the virulently anti-Semitic Iron Guard, and Josef Tiso in Slovakia, who presided over the mass extermination of Jews and Gypsies, past villains are today's heroes.

The problem facing all the political elites in Eastern Europe is a lack of legitimacy. How do you possibly create a unified political culture in a place like Poland or Romania? It is clearly not possible to cohere the nation around a vision of economic prosperity when the market is creating only misery for most people. In fact, there is nothing to hold these societies together. Most people have abandoned any hope of improvement in their lives and no longer believe in anything. A culture of despair has descended on Eastern Europe three years after the triumphalism of its return to the capitalist fold.

The crisis of legitimacy facing all the new governments in Eastern Europe is nothing new. The historic weakness of capitalism in the region always prevented the elites from establishing a viable sense of nationhood. It is difficult to engender a sense of national pride in countries which cannot offer people enough to eat. That is why the tinpot regimes of the East always had to resort to repression on the one hand, and mystical propaganda about the nation's heroic past on the other, in a desperate bid to keep a grip on society.

Contrary to the established wisdom, national identity has always been weak in Eastern Europe for precisely these reasons. It is not the strength of nationalism that is the problem, but the weakness of capitalism. The inability of capitalism to establish a dynamic market and a truly international division of labour has turned whole regions of the world into economic wastelands, and engendered a frantic particularism among elites competing over scarce resources.

Back to the future

In the absence of anything in the present that can inspire people, the new elites are once again hoping to create a national consensus based on the past. That means the return of all the old rubbish of history from the monarchy to mysticism. The re-emergence of anti-Semitism in societies where there are scarcely any Jews left is an ominous sign of what happens when you try to restore a sense of nationhood by appealing to the past. Far from 1989 being the inauguration of a new era of enlightened democracy, the future promises a return to the dark ages of reaction which blighted capitalist Eastern Europe in the interwar years.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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