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October 4, 2022

A lesson yet to be understood

A quarter of a century after the fall of Communism in Europe, The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile tries to disseminate its objective turning to a failure-proof publicity weapon of the contemporary world – the film. The Institute proposed to the most successful film festival in the country – Transilvania International Film Festival – a special section reserved for the subject. The result was a compromise, as the organisers preferred to name it ’25 Years Later’, selecting films discussing the current situation in countries that have had the Communist experience. Unfortunately, the section was one of the most disappointing this edition of the festival, both because of the modest quality of productions selected and because of the magnitude of themes addressed. But this failure suggests a more general crisis of historical memory of Communism. We should begin with a brief recall of this last quarter of a century from the point of view of its relations with the Communist past. In the first decade of the period, the polarisation had become strict: reminding of ‘the crimes of Communism’ was inevitably also an attempt to partly delegitimise the first post-Communist power headed by a former leader of the old regime., Ion Iliescu, and numerous former second tier communists converted to ‘social-Democrats’. Any testimonials on labour camps, torture in abominable prisons or strategies for the extermination of the opponents was becoming in that context a gesture with powerful political resonance in the present. But the aces to power of the ‘anti-Communists’ in 1996 and the repeated corruption affairs that were to demolish their moral credit afterwards eventually pushed their ideals of conscience purification regarding the past into a cone of shadow.

Eventually, also thanks to the example of other countries with similar problems, especially Germany, after ten years of procrastinations, The National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives was founded. Initially, its fate was tormented, faithfully reflecting the main political clashes. The new Social-Democratic Premier Adrian Nastase did not exclude the possibility of closing it down. Apart from all that, many Romanians had a chance to find out who had reported on them and how they were being shrivelled. Many studies on the repressive mechanisms of the regime were also published. The failures, in general, are somewhere else. First of all, at a legal level, because there are so very few cases where people were convicted for atrocities committed during Communism. As a matter of fact, many of the torturers have died, especially since we are talking about things that happened in the 1950s – 1960s and the passage of time is inexorable. It is, however, clear that the mechanisms of Justice have not worked in this respect because of a strong opposition of the majority of the political establishment. The general public has not been very much in favour of such an approach either, probably also fearing that too many complications, in a wide sense, might come to the surface.

The formal condemnation of Communism by President Basescu actually enhanced the ambiguity, being perceived still as a gesture of delegitimisation of political opponents than one of moral condemnation. That coincided with a ‘cultural’ delegitimisation strategy of the local Left, so that all reference to its ideals could be reprimanded as return to Communism. The perverse equality between the Left and Communism ended up undermining the legitimacy of anti-Communism, many young people fighting against this cultural pseudo-hegemony today.

Not even art, with its specific detachment, has succeeded in proposing any deserving approaches to the Communist past. A public debate in the framework of the Cluj film festival discussed the films of today about that period. The reality is unquestionable: there are very few films of that kind and most of them have failed aesthetically and from a ‘documentary’ point of view. We’ll probably need to wait for a few more decades – as it happened with Nazism and the Holocaust – to have any masterpieces or memorable approaches. Even at the level of aesthetics and political philosophy there are very few books inciting to fertile moral meditation and, by that, to substantial changes of mentality, as the core matter is still the same: what should we learn from the complex and contradictory, not just traumatic, experience of our Communist past?




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