The Ghosts of Totalitarianism

Samuel Moyn
Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Tzvetan Todorov,
trans. David Bellos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003),
376 pp., $29.95 cloth.

zvetan Todorov’s book, originally
published in 2000 in French and now
available in a superb translation,
paused at the end of a violent century to
attempt to assess—as the title and subtitle
suggest—how to remember it and what lessons to learn. A contemporary figure in the
long tradition of French-speaking moralists,
Todorov writes beautifully and with ethical
passion about some of the darkest crimes in
humanity’s recent history. For Todorov, these
crimes are not just past: reflecting on them
can provide guidance for contemporary
international affairs, such as NATO’s intervention in Kosovo or the current war on terrorism. Todorov’s basic theses are two: first,
totalitarianism counts as the primary novelty of the twentieth century and has to be
the basis for moral reflection about it; second, there is a proper manner of response to
totalitarianism, which consists of the defense
of a democratic and pluralistic alternative
politics, one that reacts to the disasters of the
past with moral vigilance in the present.
Much of the book’s contents is, as this summary suggests, unexceptionable. More interesting, perhaps, is the portrait gallery of
moral heroes, most little known in the English-speaking world, who epitomize for
Todorov clarity about totalitarianism and
the proper uses of memory in politics: Vasily
Grossman, Margarete Buber-Neumann,
David Rousset, Primo Levi, Romain Gary,
and Germaine Tillion. The book, structured


as a series of essays, is interspersed with vivid
presentations of these figures, who, Todorov
says, admirably illustrated in practice the
manner of acting that he wants to defend in
Appealing as it may seem from this
description of its contents, Todorov’s book,
to be understood more fully, has to be placed
in the context—the French context—from
which it originates. Since the mid-1970s,
thanks to the shock of the publication of
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago,
the intellectuals of France, especially a group
of media-savvy authorities known as the
“new philosophers,” have focused—perhaps
obsessively—on the phenomenon of “totalitarianism” far more intensely than the thinking class of any other land. In particular, even
as consciousness of the Holocaust grew after
1970, it is the reality of Soviet crimes that has
attracted the most spectacular notice among
Parisian thinkers and writers. In recent years,
for example, The Black Book of Communism,
though it had comparatively little impact
when it appeared in English translation,
caused a major stir and dispute essentially by
listing communism’s wrongdoings and
attempting to quantify the fatalities it
caused.1 Ex-communists like the late

Stéphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1999).


Todorov devotes some energy to defining totalitarianism. Figuring as part of a cohort of French intellectuals in this regard. 3 Tzvetan Todorov.François Furet puzzled through the problem of why so many (chiefly among intellectuals) had foolishly been attracted to communism and. 2003). many in France since the mid-1970s have adopted the concept of “totalitarianism”—much criticized elsewhere—to refer to the new alternatives to democratic rule—fascist and communist— thrown up by the twentieth century. for example. it is hard to gainsay Todorov’s argument that it is necessary for the experience of politically evil regimes to be at the heart of moral reflection today. and at the same time that it has no connection with the present. Todorov offers reflections that flow—as he observes throughout this book—from personal experience. The return of the moralist in contemporary intellectual life also brings with it the risk of the moralizer. 1999). He argues. Hope and Memory: Lessons from the Twentieth Century. 35–38. 40. What implications? For of course.’ It would be paradoxical. pp. to say the least. thus originally a resident of the world he now analyzes before fleeing to Paris in his early twenties. and leads to the wrong morality. 162. raised the question whether communism. Todorov’s book illustrates some of the difficulties toward which such a commitment can lead. Deborah Furet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.4 He has in mind a “cult of memory” that (in his view) ritualistically commemorates the Holocaust 2 François Furet. that renowned liberal philosopher and commentator Raymond Aron erred in distinguishing Nazi and communist ideals.. arguing that it is characterized by a communal monism (rather than individualized diversity) rooted in secularized millenarianism (rather than anti-utopian realism). trans. rivaled or even outstripped fascism as the regime at the nether pole of evil. Todorov says. Todorov nevertheless enthusiastically defends it. but no one can accuse Todorov of trendy sanctimony. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century. if we asserted that the past should be a lesson for the present.2 In this context. Samuel Moyn . In an early section of his book. Todorov dedicates much of this book to the argument. Even so. not always frontally offered but usually directly implied. by the homogenizing concept of totalitarianism). “automatically prevent[s] us from learning any lessons from the event and would close off all ‘application.3 It is hard to say how much Todorov himself drew from the overall sea change in political analysis in French culture in framing his own way of thinking: born in Bulgaria some five years before it became communist. since their murderous practices were akin to one another. In the first place. 4 Ibid. along with others. as he himself later observes. it leads to a theory of public memory committed to marginalizing the significance of the Jewish Holocaust among twentieth-century crimes (a maneuver abetted. p. of course. trans. there is nevertheless the 94 important fact that Todorov is intervening in a characteristically French debate in which the distinction of the regimes from one another has become part of a much larger ideological dispute and therefore freighted with heavy implications. Things that are sanctified in this way are not much use to us in our real lives. Even though. Beyond the details of Todorov’s case that communism and fascism were “peas in a pod” (so runs the title of the relevant chapter). in its terror. The “sanctifying” approach taken to the Holocaust. that Jewish Holocaust memory looms too large. the concept may obscure as much as it illuminates. in the contemporary world. David Bellos (Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rousset refused to acknowledge that the extermination camps for Jews were different in nature and purpose from the concentration camps that had interned common-law prisoners and political enemies like himself. in part falsely. Living through the era of totalitarian wrongs. but what he more fundamentally opposes is the restriction of a crime like the Holocaust to such a singular status that people who supposedly hate evil will stand by as roughly comparable wrongs are repeated. Todorov sometimes writes as if the endeavors of gaining historical clarity about the differences among past crimes and taking moral action against present and future crimes are somehow mutually exclusive. upon closer inspection his thought is more complex and ambiguous. 150–51. Ibid. as a slander purveyed by capitalists or the price to be paid for utopia. like his fellow leftists. Of course. denying to other victims the right to complain. An ex-inmate of Buchenwald and the ghosts of totalitarianism other Nazi camps. Consider. as if. Todorov’s heroes sometimes failed to interpret the past accurately as they mobilized their memories in the present. simply because they do not see them as similar. As more and better information about the Holocaust became available.but does not mobilize in the present against roughly comparable disasters. And Todorov’s alternative. it is possible that Holocaust consciousness is in large part responsible for what little moral outrage there has been in response to more contemporary crimes. Todorov says. he wanted to remember Jews in wartime. David Rousset. Indeed. because this fact interfered with his mobilization of the memory of the past for the sake of the present—that is. calling former inmates of Nazi camps to his aid. Todorov is quick to warn against measuring every gardenvariety wrong against past crimes. is. p. And yet. is subject to its own characteristic defects. then. to whom Todorov devotes one of his most compelling vignettes.. while other Parisian intellectuals turned a blind eye. in this regard. is more dignified because it involves recognition of the proper uses of the past. Rousset did not fetishize the particularity of his own experience. including contemporary examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Todorov says. pp. One can easily agree with Todorov that these aspects of Rousset’s career are quite inspirational. For the same reason. The spirit of comparability can lead to just as serious problems as the “cult of uniqueness” that Todorov decries. he denounced Stalinist camps and mobilized against them. Rousset insisted on the commonalities between Nazism and communism without recklessly assimilating them together. which Jews would (Todorov suggests) later jealously interpret as the forum of their exclusive and climactic suffering. But if the world failed to mobilize against contemporary genocide and ethnic cleansing. a culture that stresses the comparability of past and present events.5 As the quotation suggests. Rousset did not stand by silently when news of Soviet camps became known in the West. 174. or excuse communist crimes. 95 . they had fully participated in the anti-fascist resistance that defined his own prewar and postwar activity. Instead. though perhaps subjected to their own special fate.” This manner of response.6 Earlier than most. to “mov[e] on from your own misfortunes and those of your close relatives to the misfortunes of others. it is probably not because it cared about the Holocaust too exclusively. Todorov’s hagiographic treatment of Rousset points to the danger that the “proper use” of memory that 5 6 Ibid.. against the Soviet camps. The key.

the right hope is perhaps for a culture in which accuracy about the past is not too easily perverted in the quest for contemporary relevance—by either the spirit of comparison or the “cult of uniqueness. in the nation’s best interest). further illustrate the problem. But the effects of this style of engaging the world are severely problematic. Todorov responds that in the Kosovo case there were no real crimes to be prevented and that the invocation of the totalitarian precedent functioned as an ideology to conceal the genuine reasons for the intervention. The opposition to totalitarianism presents moral reasoning as if it were a simple question of fact: whether a given event is “close enough” to totalitarianism to demand prevention. that they had now learned to be vigilant against human evil. they claimed to mobilize in the name of universalistic morality (rather than simply. The moral rhetoric for each side of the question is the same. Notice what kind of reasoning this way of thinking promotes. The claim that it is provides a convenient rhetoric for presenting a maximal response justified by a variety of concerns as in fact simply serving the minimalist prevention of evil. But there is the point. Todorov writes.” notably its notorious defense of the right of preemptive attack.” to use his label) is open to question on moral grounds. it shares with the syndrome of “sanctification” that Todorov rejects the erection of those crimes into the standard against which everything afterward is judged. to which Todorov thinks Western politicians fell prey. Todorov attacks George W. imperialist program that shares much with the latently totalitarian “plan to impose 7 Ibid. for example.. [and] feeling proud of being the embodiment of rightness. It is possible that the Kosovo case presents such a difficulty to Todorov because the Western 96 leaders who advocated intervention there. Todorov assails the contemporary “war on terror” as a crusading. in the totalitarian syndrome of excusing violence in the name of utopia. More provocatively. those who defended the Kosovo action argued in the same way as Todorov himself does in much of the book.” Second. of “seeing ourselves as triumphing over absolute evil. Todorov’s entire book is a defense of this way of thinking. p. and not simply the “wrongful abuse” that he condemns. This way of thinking converts moral and political analysis into the single question of how close a given event is to the totalitarianism that everyone rejects. Todorov’s final chapter. and more fundamentally. the devil. Indeed. Todorov begins by acknowledging that the September 11 terrorist attacks were the kind of political evil that moralists should unflinchingly condemn: the attacks shared. 265. and monsters in human disguise. argued that in Kosovo it threatened. far from fastidiously defending the incomparability of past totalitarian violence.”7 But ironically. Samuel Moyn . Bush’s famous “National Security Strategy. Todorov’s reflections on September 11. Todorov’s attempt to articulate an antitotalitarian moralism (a “critical humanism. to recur. specially prepared for this translation. can also lead to the distortion and instrumentalization of the past.Todorov advocates in this book. by classifying intervention as legitimate if a particular case approaches the absolute evil of totalitarianism. an interesting analysis critical of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Briefly. in some relevant comparative way. While generously allowing the perception of similarities between current events and humanity’s darkest crimes. So. highlights the danger. after Bosnia. beyond Todorov. Suggesting.

Terror and Liberalism (New York: W. Moreover. Ibid. on left and right. 11 Paul Berman. when it comes to the Kosovo bombings. xix. has offered in defense of the war on terrorism. except in the rare and uncontroversial case like Hitler’s or Stalin’s crimes.. But arguably. The intent of these remarks is not to defend the war on terrorism but to show that Todorov’s mode of rejecting it may serve just as well to support it. in the twentieth century.good” on a messy and recalcitrant world. Todorov says. p. as charges multiply from all sides that everyone else’s program is continuous with the totalitarian syndrome and in collusion with totalitarian evil. reformist schemes. that the permanent agenda of politics is the eternal campaign of denunciation and action against the tyranny and atrocity of totalitarianism? Indeed. is that the terms of this way of thinking are not rich enough to allow nuanced distinction among most extant political enterprises. then.. Horrific as they are when they occur. insisting. Norton. to clarify little. the war on terrorism. or any genuinely controthe ghosts of totalitarianism versial case. 10 Ibid. that there were terrible political regimes.11 How to decide whether the contemporary war on terrorism involves the totalitarian quest for good (as Todorov says) or the anti-totalitarian extirpation of evil (as Berman does)? The formulation of the question shows how little help the antipathy to “totalitarian evil” is in helping to take sides in contemporary affairs. correspondingly. p. the kind of reckless plan that made the twentieth century so bloody.8 Bush. Orienting thinking to exceptional events. fictitiously collapsing a rightly contested continuum into the false clarity of the alternative between good and evil. xx. None of this skepticism is to vitiate Todorov’s point. The chief problem. is that judging political alternatives against the standard of totalitarianism rules out too little with self-evident assurance and provides no way of selecting among the options that remain. p.” do not always or even often risk atrocious results when political actors attempt to institutionalize them. or “plans to impose good. 2003). It is to suggest that rejecting totali- 8 Ibid. which is after all generally accepted. xxii.”10 But isn’t “not neglecting the interest of others” what the neoconservatives claim to be doing by disinterestedly spreading democracy? More generally. it distracts from the search for better means with which to face alternatives. So the rhetoric of “moral clarity” ironically shared by Bush and Todorov alike turns out. it will not help in the slightest to think about whether the moral refusal of totalitarianism absolutely requires action to stave off political evil or absolutely forbids it as bound up with political evil.”9 The neoconservatives out to end evil regimes neglect the truth that “the best way of defending our own interests lies in not neglecting the interests of others. has failed to learn the post-totalitarian lesson that men could “achieve a perfect world only by turning into another species. The overall point. 9 97 . It helps no one to pretend that a choice among shades of gray has the simplicity of black and white. as he does. aren’t Bush and the interventionists surrounding him behaving exactly as Todorov’s post-totalitarian prescriptions for moral action would dictate. then. who also recommends vigilance against totalitarianism (especially now that it has taken Muslim form). this way of approaching the world obviates the more workaday reasoning required by normal politics. atrocities are not so omnipresent in the contemporary world to be a sure and constant basis for political thinking. these are the reasons that Paul Berman.. W.

But it is possible that the memory of the past should. at times. if totali- 98 tarianism is made the core of the twentieth century. much more often. on its own. This result may seem disappointing. is.tarianism by itself solves few problems in the contemporary world. the present is haunted only by its own novelty. And the pretense that it does is in some ways just as troubling. Todorov is wise to underline the need for vigilance against the fearful return of totalitarian ghosts. The post-totalitarian morality that Todorov champions. faced with new and difficult choices it has never faced before. Ironically. for it encourages the deceptive presentation of what are in fact maximal and controversial stands on current affairs as if they simply and necessarily followed from a minimalist and consensual rejection of totalitarian evil. or useless because it falsely pretends the world is so simple as to be divided into the good and evil that the twentieth century may have. presented. Sometimes. but it is perhaps safer than the pretense that the past exempts the present from the difficulties of political reasoning and the necessity of ideological conflict. then the period may bear either too few lessons or misleading ones. for all of its moving interest. lead to the conclusion that humanity must see itself. Samuel Moyn . in the present. in sum. either obvious because it rules out what everyone already rejects. then.