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Memory Wars in post-communist Romania.

The Public Discourse about Holocaust and Gulag
Alina PAV!"#$
During the communist regime, the Romanian society was persuaded to
believe in its “monolithic unity”. The years after 199 revealed instead a social and
political community fractured and traumati!ed. "n e#plosion of individual memories
at the public level has followed the collapse of the Romanian communist regime in
199. The different memories resuscitated in the post$communist period proved to be
not only still painful but also still able to produce emotional waves and social
conflicts. %hat was before considered a dead past re&uired new strategies to be dealt
with in the new political conte#t. The political response has been delayed until '(()
*when a +residential ,ommission for the -tudy of the Romanian .olocaust was
created/, respectively until '((0 *the creation of a similar +residential ,ommission
mandated to deal with the recent communist e#perience/. The study of those two
commissions1 activity and public echoes could prove the shortest way for researchers
to understand the twisted self representation of the Romanian post$communist society.
The complicated and sometimes surprising mi#ture of memory and forgetting, of
denial and soif de justice, of victimi!ation and nostalgic feelings shows the picture of
a community still prisoner of its own past, still waiting for a political way of
This presentation intends to discuss the travail de mémoire of the
Romanian post$communist period by comparing the public discourses about
.olocaust and 2ulag after their condemnation in the presidential reports of '(() and
During the communist period, there was no Romanian public debate
around the .olocaust and its local perpetrators. The &uestion of 3ewish victims was
lost in the political narratives about the Romanian antifascist struggle during %orld
%ar 44. The 3ews were almost never named as victims of a particular form of racial
persecution. This practice of silencing the very substance of the .olocaust represented
in fact, a form of denial.
,orrespondently, the 2ulag memory was banished from the
public debate throughout communism. 4ts preservation was confined to individual and
family recollections of the victims.
The mere allusive criti&ue allowed in the 10(s and
15(s Romanian literature with regard to the -talinist years was far from being able to
produce a public memory.
"fter 199, the new political power didn1t seem interested in designing an
immediate pro6ect of national reconciliation through means of new memory politics.
7eanwhile, at the social level, there has been, in the 19(s, a variety of attempts to
establish memory pro6ects. They were carried out by different circles of civil society8
survivors of the political prisons versus their guardians9 victims of the 2ulag versus
their persecutors9 former e#ponents of ,eausescu1s nationalism metamorphosed in
missionaries of 4on "ntonescu1s cult versus e#$dissidents and anticommunist :2;s
etc. Those initial memory wars simply scrambled each other in the public
consciousness. They also decisively influenced the path of later attempts to national
reconciliation. "t the political level the Romanian public witnessed a rather troubling
competition for anticommunist memory as a resource of political legitimacy . "s a
counterpart, the meager voice of .olocaust victims struggled against the nationalistic
circles1 open denial in the absence of a strong reaction from the part of both Romanian
civil society and democratic political parties.
This picture seemed to change with the Romanian pre$accession
procedures to <uropean =nion. "s <n!o Traverso once remar>ed, for all the countries
engaged in the pre$accession process, this >ind of memory pro6ects, aiming to deal
with a traumatic recent past, proved to function as “rites of passage”. They were
supposed to certify the democratic will of those aspiring to integrate into the <= .
?rom this perspective, Romania was not an e#ception. The &uestions that need be
raised are rather how effective the changes started by the creation of the two
+residential ,ommissions have been and how deeply has their activity influenced the
Romanian collective memory.
-ee "drian ,iofl@ncA, A Grammar of Exculpation in Communist Historiography: Distorsion of the
History of the Holocaust under Ceausescu, in BRomanina 3ournal of +olitical -cience”, vol. C, no. ',
'((C, p. '9$C0.
?or the distinction between, individual, social, collective and public memory, 41m following the
approach of <dward ,. ,asey, Pulic !emory in Place and "ime, in Dendal R +hillips, eds., B?raming
+ublic 7emory”, The =niversity of "labama +ress, Tuscaloosa, '((C, pp. '($)'.
<n!o Traverso, #$histoire comme champ de ataille% &nterpréter les violences du 'xe si(cle, paris, la
DEcouverte, 'o11.
The t%o #ommissions& 'ounding and sociopolitical conte(t
The creations of the +residential ,ommission for the -tudy of the
.olocaust in '((), and that of the +residential ,ommission for the -tudy of the
,ommunist +ast in '((0, present a number of common features, especially regarding
their political scope, but also remar>able differences regarding their echoes in the
Romanian public opinion. The most significant difference lies in the sociopolitical
conte#t. The %iesel commission was created in '(() after some controversial
statements made by president 4on 4liescu for 4sraeli media. "fter accusations of a
presidential denial of the Romanian .olocaust, the establishment of the ,ommission
was rather meant to prove the “good will” of the Romanian government concerning a
delicate sub6ect in its relationship with the <uropean authorities. There was no
particular interest manifested within the Romanian society for such an issue. ;n the
contrary, the establishment of the TismAneanu ,ommission, in '((0, was the result of
a strong pressure from the part of the local civil society, a pressure that both +resident
FAsescu and +rime$7inister TAriceanu were interested to transform into political
-uch premises are the first sign announcing a competition on the ground of
public memory8 the two ,ommissions had separate activities, different memberships
and produced two different reports. There was $ and there isn1t G any pro6ect for a
common memorial institution concerning the two forms of Romanian totalitarianism.
"t the time of the creation of %iesel ,ommission, the -ocial$Democrat +arty wasn1t
interested in a complementary critical view concerning the communist period. Three
years later, the .olocaust was considered a closed sub6ect, uninteresting as a potential
source of political capital. This separation of the two memoriali!ing pro6ects still has a
rather negative impact on the efforts toward a ”pedagogy of remembrance” in
#ompetiti)e memories8
-ome of the polemics surrounding the two reports started were concerned
with the usage of the term “genocide”. 4n the “Tismaneanu Report” the term was used
for defining the communist abuses against the Romanian people. The debate
concerned not only its proper usage, but also the moral right to employ the term
“genocide” for defining other crimes than those perpetrated against the 3ewish people
during the %orld %ar 44.
The subse&uent debate focused on a main &uestion posed especially by e#$
members of the %iesel ,ommission *7ichael -hafir/ and by human rights activists
*such as the e#$dissident 2abriel "ndreescu/8 are the abuses of the communist regime
against the civil rights of their citi!ens comparable to the 3ewish .olocaustH The
discussion involving scholars and the mass media produced a lot of noise but the
&uestion didn1t find an answer acceptable for all the parts involved yet. ?or some
historians of the Romanian .olocaust, its comparison with the communist crimes
means “triviali!ation” *7. -hafir/, which is only another, more sophisticated form of
denial. ?or some other historians, those of the communist regime in the first place,
this is, on the contrary, the best way to deal with and to understand the traumati!ing
e#periences of the II
century totalitarianisms.
Di)ergent memories8
:arratingJremembering the Romanian 2ulag often means, for the public
actors, the inclusion of Romanian e#treme right e#$sympathi!ers in the global picture
of communism1s victims. ;ne of the recent cases, largely discussed in foreign media,
is that of ,onstantin +opescu1s movie, Portrait of the )arrior in his youth. The movie
portrays, in a heroic >ey, the last days of a group of anticommunist combatants in the
1K(s. -ome members of the group, including its leader, had been before their
involvement in anticommunist resistance, members of the 4ron 2uard. The movie
raised a number of protests from the 3ewish organi!ations and <uropean media but it
did face no critical reaction from the part of the Romanian public or media, not even
from the part of civic organi!ations. This episode emphasi!es the dilemmas of the
public memory management in post$communist Romania8
$ %ho should be entitled to be considered a victim, especially
in the particular case of the communist regimeH Do the
perpetrators of abuses during an e#treme right regime or
public supporters of political and ethnic intolerance $ have the
right to be considered themselves among the victims of the
communist regimeH "nd, as a conse&uence, how to deal with
the multiple memories of .olocaust and 2ulag, while
>eeping in mind the ethical side of the issue, trying not to
harm the sensitivity of the victimsH
$ .ow to recover the gap between the <uropean practices of
memoriali!ation G especially concerning the .olocaust
memorial pro6ects G and the Romanian public insensitivity to
this issueH "s <n!o Traverso states, the .olocaust memory
plays within the <uropean =nion the role of a “civil religion”.
4t is meant to serve as a common ground for solidarity and
collective identity . Fut, for the <ast <uropean communities,
participation in this type of commemorations means first of
all a sort of “free access pass” and in a much lesser degree the
result of a real travail de mémoire. The <ast <uropean
memory undergoes, in the post$communist years, rather a
process of “re$nationali!ation”. This evolution ma>es the
respective societies very aware to the communist abuses but
rather unwilling to assume collective responsibilities for the
.olocaust or the persecutions against national minorities.
There e#ists also a persistent form of “denial by omission” induced in
these societies by the communist propaganda. 4n T!vetan Todorov1s words
, there is
the refusal to accept that “the evil beast is not outside our selves”. " complementary
mechanism of victimi!ation is observed in the public resistance to the idea that the
communist abuses weren1t the e#clusive responsibility of “foreigners” *Russians,
3ews, .ungarians from Transylvania, etc./, but also of native Romanians. This
“victimi!ing” approach was fortunately not incorporated in the TismAneanu Report of
'((0 but it was very well represented in the public discourse of the 19(s and it has
T!vetan Todorov, #$experience totalitaire% #a signature humaine *, paris, <ditions du -euil, '((9
even nowadays a rather large echo in the Romanian opinion. 4t is the same
representation that wor>ed through the communist propaganda concerning the
.olocaust in Romania8 the crimes against the Romanian 3ews had never been
assumed as a Romanian responsibility, but condemned as 2ermans or .ungarians
actions. ;r, as a complementary approach, the indistinct memoriali!ation of the
3ewish victims within the larger category of :a!ism victims e#pressed the refusal of
any particular recognition of the .olocaust.
The counter$pedagogy of the ,eauLescu regime had its effects8 for
e#ample, spea>ing publicly in post$communist Romania about the pogroms
perpetrated by Romanian soldiers against local 3ewish communities e&uates, for an
important part of the Romanian public opinion, to an insult to the Romanian "rmy.
*<.g.8 a TM broadcasting about the 4aLi +ogrom raised protests from the part of the
viewers for not mentioning enough the Romanian soldiers1 “heroism and humanism”
during the events, and, respectively the 7oldavian 3ews1 anti$Romanian feelings/.
This is the dominant state of the Romanian post$communist mind that any
pro6ect of public memory should ta>e into account when designing its ob6ectives and
ways of action.
%ith these observations comes the main &uestion about an eventual
Romanian memorial *and reconciliation/ pro6ect in post$communism8 how to motivate
it in order not to deepen the e#isting divisions but to unify the traumati!ed memories
of different social or ethnic groupsH ?or most Romanians is &uite obvious why *even
if not how/ one should remember the communist abuses. Fut it is not so obvious for
them why one should remember the .olocaust. Two types of oblivion overlap
regarding the troubled decades of Romania1s II
century history8
$ the fact that the ma6ority of Romanian 3ewish community left
Romania during the communist years, ta>ing with them an
important part of the Romanian traditional way of life.
$ the more recent *and more vivid/ memory of the communist
3ust li>e in the other <ast <uropean countries, in Romania too, the memory
of the .olocaust is hidden after the much more present memory of the 2ulag.
This is why properly conceiving and motivating the policies of public
remembrance could prove capital for the success of any Romanian memory pro6ect.
?or reasons of necessary reconciliation among different social groups, the public
discourse about the collective traumas of the II
century should include the
responsibilities for the .olocaust as part of the general discussion about a “Romanian
evil” during the years of authoritarian state$e#perimentation.
-till, the different actors of the public discourse *historians, media,
schools, public officials/ seldom convey coherent messages in this regard. Their
positions *especially those of historians and political actors/ are often overloaded with
personal concern for their professional or political legitimacy and much less with the
concern about the social and cultural impact of the two “sensible” issues. The larger
picture of the public sectors involved in memory pro6ects shows, in fact, the same
lines of social fracture but also the same necessity to incorporate the two main
traumas of the II
century in a common effort to understand, e#plain, repair and
finally reconcile.
?or the Romanian recent efforts to set up public memory pro6ects, one of
<n!o Traverso1s conclusive phrases is perhaps the most relevant8 “redefining the
collective memory as a cathartic process of national victimi!ation” is still the main
obstacle for “a critical loo> to the past”. "lso, the communist heritage in dealing with
a traumatic past is still effective in Romania due to the lac>, up to now at least, of a
successful public state pro6ect dealing with the collective trauma memoriali!ation.
4n dealing with memory politics, the political will to conceive inclusive
strategies of remembrance is the most important factor. The historian himself could
only be one of the professionals who carry out these politics. 4n some particular cases,
he is indeed, together with other “professionals of the past”, in the best position to
initiate memorial strategies. Fut the lac> of a real political will for designing politics
of reconciliation through memorial strategies is, 4 thin>, the main possible e#planation
for the current, ongoing and never$ending memory wars in Romanian society.