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.)
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