“I am totalitarianism”

I write
this essay as a historian. An interview I did with Veronika Pehe has
been repeatedly twisted in the Czech press and on social media. Some
people have commented that as a French woman who did not personally
experience communism, I was not entitled to write about the history of
communist Czechoslovakia. Well, if historians could only write about
what they personally experienced, there would be no antiquity, no
medieval history, no modern history, not even a history of the First
World War and soon of the Second World War. It also means that young
Czechs would not be entitled to write about their country’s past. This
is of course absurd. No one owns the past. We French learned it the hard
way when American historian Robert Paxton revolutionised the history of
the Vichy regime.

I never experienced the communist rule not
because I was dazzled by the French communists but because I couldn’t
stand them: their dogmaticism so repelled me that I refused to
legitimise “Eastern bloc” regimes by visiting them before 1989. This
does not mean that I was not interested in those countries. Václav
Havel, Jan Patočka and others wrote about issues that concern the whole
of Western civilisation: the loss of values after 1968, consumption
society as the sole mode of existence, indifference to the other as the
main mode of communication. I learned from Czech thinkers long before I
arrived here or even learned Czech.

People asked me why I
refused Martin Veselovský’s invitation to participate to a show on DVTV.
Just before he issued it, rumours started to circulate that I was an
“adorator“ (sic) of communism, that I was a Marxist or neo-Marxist (a
“typical Western intellectual”), falsified history, denied the extent of
communist crimes, supported the Communists, was against the opening of
the archives or against paying tribute to the victims. Public shaming is
not conducive to a reflective atmosphere and retweeting any of this
nonsense, as Veselovský did, hardly bode well of the impending debate.
The fact that so many people took at face value the lies that were
propagated about me without bothering to read the actual interview (in
which I praised the opening of the archives and stressed the need to pay
tribute to the victims) is disturbing enough. Journalists should aim to
raise the level of the public debate, not exacerbate its worst traits.

“Totalitarianism” or however one names the period between 1948 and 1989
in Czechoslovakia (personally I call it the communist dictatorship) did
leave traces. A vibrant testimony to the profound destruction of Czech
critical thinking by the four decades of communist rule is the continued
societal urge to hear “the truth” from an established authority. To the
people who long for such a simplified world, let me repeat: the
opposite of a dogma is not another dogma but doubts, dissent, a lengthy
debate as opposed to a headline in Rudé právo. No one holds “the
historical truth”, nor should they. Democracy entails a pluralistic
society that calls for the confrontation of many opinions, including on

In this context, the totalitarian concept started to
lose currency in Germany already in 1993. It was replaced by an
interrogation on “normality”, “agency”, “practices of domination”,
“everyday experience of the dictatorship”, all concepts that denied the
notion of total control from above and replaced with a questioning of
the relationship between rulers and ruled, on the “borders of
dictatorship” (Thomas Lindenberger). Historians pointed out that “On
occasion, the ruling SED, in the interest of stability, was required to
reach out to the population, whether in the form of allowing rock
concerts for youth, more freedom to the cultural sphere for writers and
artists, or allowing renegade church leaders to continue initiatives
that were not in line with state policy.” (Gary Bruce, The Firm. The
Inside Story of the Stasi, Oxford University Press, 2010.) The Soviet
historiography had known a similar trend for even longer – for instance
Sheila Fitzpatrick requalified life under Stalinism as “ordinary lives”
already in 2000 (Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary
Times, Oxford University Press, 2000.)

Some people also asked
what I meant by “social contract” between the regime and the population
and decried my naïveté if I thought some sort of concrete round table
ever took place. The social contract that I mentioned is a sociological
notion. It does not literally mean that people and the regime sat down
together. It refers to Václav Havel’s Letter to Dr Gustáv Husák (1975)
and other essays. In Havel’s analysis, the regime exchanged the
political passivity of the population with consumer goods and a
relatively decent standard of living. It does not amount to denying that
some people, indeed too many people, did suffer actual, personalised
repression; it is only the starting point for a reflection on modern
European society, on its ability to resist and temptation to consent. A
reflection that concerns, again, all of us Europeans and not just
Czechs. Similar analyses took place in other Central European countries
that suffered under communism’s yoke, so much so that this period has
been coined, in academic parlance, “goulash socialism.”

So how
are we to study totalitarianism? Totalitarianism is a concept so
ideologically fraught that it tells more about the person who employs it
than about the reality it is supposed to describe. That is why I favour
the Havelian concept of “autotalita” (The Power of the Powerless, 1978)
that emphasises the notion of individual responsibility. One of my
professors, Pierre Hassner (who grew up in Romania), used to say: “I am
totalitarianism” (Guy Hermet, Pierre Hassner, Jacques Rupnik,
Totalitarismes, 1984.) By this he, like Havel, meant that
totalitarianism was a protean concept, embodying a specific historical
experience for each and everyone.

What about today, then?
Hassner quotes James Joyce: “History is a nightmare from which I am
trying to wake up.” But for some, he adds, it is the nightmare from
which they are trying not to wake up.

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