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March 27, 2023


Erich Priebke died at 100 in the Italian capital. His late and controversial trial had ended 15 years ago with a life sentence for his role in the March 1944 reprisals, when 355 Italians, some rounded up without any reason, others only because they were Jews, were massacred in a former mine on the outskirts of Rome. Priebke had lived peacefully for half a century in Argentina and had been extradited following an interview in which he had proudly assumed the past. The last months reopened, in Romania too, the old wound of living ‘torturers.’ In this case, the torturers were the wardens of communist prisons and labour camps. The polemic was heated and, especially, confuse. The first reason is political. One cannot sentence those who obey orders (even if they are guilty of too much zeal) without also considering the holders of the power in those years. And without evaluating the regime as a whole, given its totalitarian character, over the repressive convergence of all its institutions. The problem is not so much about establishing the hierarchy of guilt, but the moral topography of the system. What would be the guilt of a chief of camp? Where there were not gas chambers. Only starvation, exhaustion by work, beatings and daily humiliations. Where you were no longer a human being, but a slave, a number or the debris of the society. For two decades, any lustration was impossible in Romania. How could this be possible if an important communist dignitary was for a decade (in two stages) chief of the democratic state? If many lower-rank communist leaders filled the parliament, while former collaborators of the political police became chiefs of banks, chiefs of parties, chiefs of newspapers. How could they have supported trying the chiefs of camps? They would have pulled the carpet from under their own feet. The polemic skidded, to the benefit of some, towards the collaboration with the former Securitate. Towards snitching. Movies tend to reflect the complicate intricacies of old snitches rather than the communist prisons. Because no culture of the memory has coagulated that would allow more than replacing the ridiculous ‘Jerries’ from war movies with communists, represented of an equally cartoony manner.
The problem is mainly cultural, rather than political in a restricted way. Who occupied the stage of anticommunism during these two decades since the fall of the regime? We notice two groups. The former comprises right-wing ‘intellectuals’ who promoted, to their merit, those concurrent political cultures which had been vilified by communism: liberal, conservative, even with Christian accents. They laid behind the initiative of formally condemning the communism, a project assumed by President Basescu in his political wars (with emphasis, somehow like Berlusconi in Italy, on vilifying the opponents from a crypto-communist left). They justice-prone arguments however remained confuse. In the name of what should communism be condemned, even posthumously? Can communism be condemned only because it was inhuman? But it was beneficial to so many, bringing them advantages which some still envy even now. Did a worker with a good wage, with trips to Leningrad and Prague, with free medical care (despite the corruption), with apartments depending on the number of children, think that the ‘price’ of his comfort was the thousands of prisoners dead in camps and prisons, for less than overtly opposing the regime? The torturers did a ‘dirty job,’ but as useful to their fellow citizens as border guards, journalists or teachers. Many regimes in history relied on blatant injustice. Ceausescu, too, thought that the People’s House will remain through centuries and nobody will remember the victims. The problem is moral. Are the advantages of a regime (not only preferential, but also popular) worth accepting the blatant injustice? Communism (same as nazism) promoted precisely this pseudo-moral alibi: for the triumph of the cause, it is worth suspending the natural moral criteria. Let’s not forget that Russia became bolshevik (and with it much of the planet) because several young nihilists first exerted the ‘sacrificial’ terrorism. Dostoevsky saw it best, in ‘The legend of the grand inquisitor’: some ‘commit sacrifice’ by doing the dirty work so others can enjoy the peace of happiness. Starting from here, one must go the other way around: I revolt against a regime, even an ‘ideal’ one, which relies on crime and injustice.
The second group is less confuse, in its own eyes. It considers that it was a ‘spiritual’ war, although the opponents are not clearly shaped. These are of a rather nationalist orientation, with a strong ‘Orthodoxism’ stance, some even skeptical about the West, democracy or capitalism. They try to use that symbolic capital represented by the suffering of communist jails. But do they have legitimacy? And, above all, how can those of today regard the victims of yesterday? As heroic or sometimes disputable? Since the beginning of the ‘90s a current was born that speculated the remorse of younger generations, which allegedly were too passive in the last years of communism compared to the ‘sacrifice’ of those of the ’50-60s. Sometimes this is only about hurt pride, following an era that was still humiliating for many. Other times there is the search for moral landmarks, capable of embodying another model than that of a bland day-to-day life. But why so many ignore the words of philosopher Mircea Vulcanescu, who died in the Aiud prison: ‘do not avenge us!’ If we understand his appeal well, it is probably more ‘do not sanctify us!’ Do not use our suffering in order to hate, but build a differently conceived world. Reject communism, but be careful what you replace it with. Understood like this, his appeal can be the prologue of a real moral effort.

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