East-West Divide?

Never trust a history textbook when it comes to understanding the recent past that has an influence on the present Central and Eastern Europe. To get a grip of the drive and the emotion of its people and to understand why there is still an East-West divide in Europe, you need to dig beneath the surface and uncover recent events with the help of those who experienced it. Surfacing the past helps to get Europeans closer to each other. In his post Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics explains why we need to understand each others’ past to reach our common future.

Guest post by Tibor Navracsics, Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary, lawyer and political scientist

In a particular Justice and Home Affairs Council session, Ministers were debating a Hungarian proposal, supported by Poland and Lithuania, to mark a ‘European Day of Remembrance’ for the victims of all totalitarian regimes. While all countries were positive about the initiative, there was a sharper than ever division of Europe into communities of old and new member states. Representatives of Western European countries believed there was no need for a dedicated day of remembrance as there is already a dedicated day to remember the foul deeds of Nazism, and the barbarities of the communist regime are taught as part of the regular history education at schools.

Representatives of Eastern and Central European countries feared the case was lost, until the representative of Great Britain rose to speak. He described his vivid memories of his father crying in 1956 hearing the radio news of Hungary being overrun by Soviet troops once more. He recalled how, as a university student, he worried about his unknown peers in Prague in 1968, and said he could not forget the empathy he felt with the needy Polish families in the eighties. The atmosphere changed after his speech, and representatives from the „Eastern Block” plucked up the courage to tell their personal stories. They explained to their Western peers that the victims of the totalitarian regimes are not ancestors staring stony-eyed and impersonally from faded photos and history books, but real people living amongst us. Similarly, the perpetrators of the totalitarian systems are also real living people.

The end of democratic traditions: canons at a Warsaw cemetery (Source: dreamstime.com)

In 1951, the political theorist, Hannah Arendt, published a book, where she warned that the defeat of National Socialism did not put an end to the existence of totalitarian regimes. Although Soviet communism was different on the surface, Arendt maintained it was basically an identical system which destroyed millions of human lives, who were considered to be mere resources.  Today many people still seem to believe that communism, as a theory, was better than the hatred-based ideology of the Nazis, and only the practical implementation suffered some flaws.  In their imagination happy young people wearing T-shirts with a red star and sickle-and-hammer print make the homicide of millions, the demolition of nations and the vanishing of generations a regrettable – and slightly amusing – blunder. But, at least here in Central and Eastern Europe, the red star, similarly to the swastika, is the symbol of state-organized terror, the humiliation of mankind and the use of people as mere pawns. We had to fight for our freedom against both totalitarian systems, and many had to fight for their independence.

International, as well as National Socialism used the same kind of terror, humiliation, tyranny and violence against entire populations, peoples and classes. Does it matter for the particular individual that one gets smashed because of being Jewish or ‘Kulak’ (peasant with larger areas of land)? It is irrelevant if someone was victimized by national or by international socialism. Our concept of liberty rests on the assumption that it is in firm opposition to all kinds of totalitarianism. If we do not hold on to that, our democracy also becomes weaker.

Europe today defines itself as being democratic, and claims it promotes freedom and is against dictatorial political systems. And notwithstanding its shortcomings, of course this is true. But in our understanding, if Europe does not disapprove of all sorts of totalitarian ideologies, even in symbolic terms, this would challenge its democratic stance.

August 23 is the ‘European Day of Remembrance’ for the victims of all totalitarian regimes. Its commemoration will be hosted by Budapest this year. It is important to remember and get to an agreement on our recent past not to let history repeat itself again.

 (Summary of an open editorial for Heti Válasz and Tibor Navracsics’ speech of 23 August 2012 at the “Confronting the Past” international conference in Budapest.)

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in a comment.


  1. Mariana Belu says:

    As Adlai E. Stevenson said long time ago -”We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present”. Very good and inspirational story, also published by the most important business news portal in Romania http://www.wall-street.ro/editorial/562/Separare-intre-Est-si-Vest-De-ce-este-importanta-ziua-de-23-august

  2. Cristian Colteanu says:

    I liked the material and I read it with great interest. I also share the opinion that, even if we live in a modern society now, we still have invisible connections with our past. An important step in our development as citizens and countries is to accept and understand the past. Only then, will we reposition towards the future and will identify solutions to ensure further growth. Commemorating the victims of all totalitarian regimes, we all show that we remember and care and won’t be doomed as nations to repeat the mistakes.

  3. Kevin Moore says:

    The topic of this article shows clearly how much more we, living in those countries victimized by communism (intentionally no capital letter there), need to do to make the world understand how that system worked and works even today in countries like Cuba.
    A major part of the sad ignorance about communism in Western countries is the lack of voice and ability from our part to inform the world. This is something we definitely need to learn from the Jews (no insinuation here) as they are a great deal more successful in ‘marketing’ Nazism.

  4. Turkmenbasi says:

    I congratulate Mr Navracsics and his Fidesz party to this heroic struggle to brand Communism as a totalitarian regime in Europe. I just wonder why does Fidesz still resist the opening of secret service archives of the Communist era in Hungary, twenty years after the change of regime? All of Hungary’s neighbours – with the exception of the Ukraine – have long made the archives transparent. Could it be that the findings would become too embarrassing for too many people in Fidesz?

  5. Peter Bodo says:

    Nice piece. It’ s a pity that the author’s (Navracsics’s) party is in many respect building a regime today in Hungary, which resembles highly the all too well known former totalitarian regimes.

  6. GE for CEE says:

    Thank you all for your comments. We are happy that you like this post. The last decades showed that it is not divides that move this region forward. Diversity (of cultures, political opinions etc) on the other hand does, and this is what we should all aim for.

  7. Jeff Barnes says:

    Very interesting article with a great deal of relevance. Having had the good fortune to work in four different countries during my career, I have truly learned the value of understanding the history in order to evaluate the present. To ignore or undervalue the history is to ignore and undervalue the people – never a good idea. When I moved to Hungary in the late 90′s I had the good fortune of the local communicator (Eszter Szabo) who helped me understand the present day and past day realities which allowed me to appreciate where people were coming from in their discussions.

  8. Igor Janke says:

    Dear Tibor,
    I know that’s thank to you and Krzysztof Kwiatkowski we have European Day of Remembrance. This is very important message for Europe. Old, western Europe still does not fully understand the specific of Central Europe. It’s partly because luck of knowledge about our history. So this was a great initiative. Congratulations!
    Best regards
    Igor Janke, Poland

  9. Navracsics Tibor says:

    Thank you very much for your feedback on my latest piece on the nature of totalitarian regimes and the need for a European day of remembrance; both your positive and critical remarks are welcome and I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of your comments and thoughts.

    “Turkmenbasi” asked why my government “resists” to open the archives of communist-era secret services. The answer to that question is twofold: firstly, we are not “resisting”, in fact, only the last political decisions are yet to be made before we announce the foundation of a “Committee for National Remembrance” which we hope will be a key player in facing down the legacy of communism. Secondly: this work has to keep in mind sensibilities both in terms of data protection and personal grievances. After all, we are dealing with the morally corrosive effects of four decades of totalitarian dictatorship where oftentimes families, friends and neighbours were turned against one another by the communist secret police. Therefore when opening up the archives, the government must remain firm in protecting the interests of the victims of communism.

    And to answer the explicit part of the question openly: no, Fidesz is not afraid that the findings from opening the archives would be embarrassing – we are not the party which should be afraid of this.

    “Peter Bodo” in turn made an open and explicit remark that Fidesz was “building a regime today in Hungary, which resembles highly the all too well known former totalitarian regimes”. I have to refute this suggestion: democracy is flourishing in Hungary, as is freedom of speech. It is seemingly easy to accuse this government of hampering political liberties yet when it comes to proving such accusations, the details disappear. Both my government and I myself have argued extensively in defence of our public policies and legislation and I would not like to reopen the debate here but given the topic, I think it’s an understatement to call it unfortunate to compare a democratically elected government’s initiatives a totalitarian regime.

    Once again: thank you very much for your comments, they all are important to us so feel free to continue to add your thoughts to this debate.

    With kind regards,

    Dr. Tibor Navracsics, deputy prime minister

  10. Pingback: NarodowySzczecin.pl – Wicepremier Węgier w S24

  11. GEforCEE says:

    The Polish version of the article has been published and can be read at: http://czytelnia.salon24.pl/454249,wicepremier-wegier-w-s24-o-roli-pamieci


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