On the Heritage of Totalitarianism

With every intense wave of Decommunisation of public space, where one 'totalitarianism' is denounced, a parallel rehabilitation of another is taking place.

Note: the following article was originally commissioned for a Polish art magazine. After first receiving an edit that that removed the words ‘anti-semite’ and ‘dictator’ to refer to Roman Dmowski and Jozef Pilsudski, respectively (they were replaced with ‘controversial’) it was spiked altogether. This version has been edited slightly for reasons of clarity to an English audience

We know what ‘Totalitarianism’ is. It was invented as a concept, depending on who you ask, by Mussolini as a positive description of the sort of regime he wanted to build, or by the dissident Bolshevik Victor Serge as a critique of Stalinism and Fascism, then built into an overarching theory by Hannah Arendt (for whom the Soviet Union ceased to be totalitarian in 1953, and for whom Italian fascism never was). It is widely considered to accurately describe the isomorphic features of regimes of the far-right and the far-left, a more academic version of the ‘horseshoe theory’ popular in debate on social networks like twitter. A generation of academic historians of the USSR have, since the 1970s, done their best to tear the concept apart, but it retains its popularity. Ask many people who lived under, say, the late years of the People’s Republic of Poland, and they’ll immediately tell you yes, the system was totalitarian, before giving a description of their own lives where compromises, contradictions, free spaces, alternative institutions and underground cultures abound, making clear that if this was ‘totalitarianism’ it was at the level of aspiration rather than practice. But every year, it seems, another country passes a law on totalitarian regimes, mandating the removal from public space of anything that inculcates these values. What is happening here, and why is it happening now, rather than in the early 1990s?

The ‘Decommunisers’ have an answer to that, of course. The reason why, is that liberal democracy as we have experienced it since 1989 is actually a fraud, where an oppositional clique agreed to make a deal with the Communists to essentially share power and spoils with them, and in order to break that deal, we need to cleanse public space and ‘lustrate’ any officials that collaborated. We don’t have ‘real’ capitalism, we have some sort of ‘communist’ capitalism, and only this act of cleansing will change that. This points to some truths. In the former USSR, in particular – somewhat less so, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovakia – this is a fair description of how economic power was re-established, as an alliance of factory managers, Komsomol activists and gangsters shared with a small faction of the liberal intelligentsia the spoils of the Soviet military-industrial complex, and became obscenely rich in the process. But something else is happening alongside. With every intense wave of Decommunisation, where one ‘totalitarianism’ is denounced, a parallel rehabilitation of another is taking place.

Monument to Józef Piłsudski, Łódź

In Poland, a dictator like Josef Piłsudski at best, open anti-semites like Roman Dmowski or the frequently highly dubious ‘Cursed Soldiers’ very commonly, and outright fascists like the interwar ONR at worst, are heroes of the exact same people for whom not only statues of Lenin but also of Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, or even of the 1905 revolution, are beyond the pale. In Ukraine, there is a near-identical relation between those who are most committed to erasing Lenin statues and those who are most intent on raising those of Stepan Bandera. In Hungary, the apologists of Horthy, at best, the Arrow Cross at worst, are those most keen on cleansing the slightest trace of socialism from Hungarian life. Now this should be puzzling: were Polish Communist rulers like Władysław Gomułka or Edward Gierek really more ‘totalitarian’ than Dmowski, and were they really harsher on their opponents than Pilsudski? Was Bandera a democrat? Was the brief 1919 Soviet Republic in Hungary really bloodier and less ‘Hungarian’ than the long rule of Horthy, or the Arrow Cross? If liberal democracy is apparently built upon opposing both the far-right and the far-left, why has the East European left (even the centre-left) effectively disappeared at the same time that its extreme right is marching in tens of thousands and throwing up flares in the centre of Warsaw? And what has this to do with the De-Communisation of public space?

The Monument to Stepan Bandera, Lviv

Before even beginning to talk about the hundreds of monuments to imperialism – the birthplace of ‘totalitarianism’, according to Arendt - it is a fact that a De-Fascification of public space on this scale has never really happened in a European country, with the single exception of Germany. The wording of most de-communisation laws are interesting in this regard. Most of them prohibit the symbols of Communist and Nazi regimes, very specifically. This is often understood as the two sides of the totalitarian ‘horseshoe’, the specific figures of Stalin and Hitler. But look a little more closely at this, and you can see how odd a definition it is. Stalin and Hitler, yes, but not every Communist leader was Stalin, and not every era of the Soviet regime was Stalinist. Stalin’s 25 year rule was an absolute nadir for human freedom, and monuments to it should be treated with the utmost suspicion, even if many – such as the Moscow Metro, or the Palace of Culture in Science in Warsaw – have taken on other meanings as they’ve become embedded in the everyday lives of several generations. But could we really make the same judgement of the six years of Lenin, in which atrocities were committed, but in the midst of a Civil War to the death with Russian nationalists and pogromists? Or of the eight years of Khrushchev, in which Stalin statues were removed with a speed that Volodymyr Viatrovych or Jarosław Kaczynski might admire? Or of the six years of Gorbachev, in which uniquely in history, an authoritarian dictatorship, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, voluntarily and peacefully renounced its own power and dismantled its own Empire?

‘Nazism’ is the term used in the average law on Totalitarian Symbols, not ‘Fascism’. Again, that it is a crime to dispute the atrocities of Nazism is wholly correct and unsurprising. But there is no similar rule that proscribes, say, the Romanian dictatorship of Ion Antonescu, that massacred the Jews of Odessa. There is nothing – except, demagogically, in Poland – that mandates condemnation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, who went round Volhynia and Galicia beheading Polish villagers. There is nothing in Latvia on the Arajs Commando and the Auxiliary Police, nothing in Lithuania on the partisans who organised the Kaunas Pogrom, nothing in Hungary criticising Horthy, who came to power on a wave of ruthless Anti-Semitic terror, nothing in Poland on Pilsudski and Edward Rydz-Smigły, who put Communists, Ukrainian nationalists and social democrats alike in concentration camps, or on Dmowski, whose footsoldiers beat Jews throughout the 30s and beyond. In fact, many of the above are seeing new monuments, new commemorations. Some are even legally mandated as ‘Heroes’.

Naples Post Office

There is nothing even proscribing Mussolini or Franco, the famous Fascist leaders, the ones everyone knows, in Italy or Spain. On Naples’s beautiful streamlined Post Office, you can find an inscription reading ‘XIV ANNO FASCISTA’; this is only one of many prominent public buildings in Italy that date themselves from Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922 – you can find one in almost every big city. In Cagliari, you can even see a faded inscription on one of the main squares, which on a clear day reads ‘THE ITALIAN PEOPLE CREATED THE EMPIRE WITH THEIR BLOOD, THEY WILL FERTILISE IT WITH THEIR WORK, THEY WILL DEFEND IT WITH THEIR WEAPONS. MUSSOLINI’; attempts to paint over it have been resisted. A proposal made by one councillor in the municipality of Rome two years ago to remove an Obelisk dedicated to Il Duce on the Foro Italico was thrown out before even going to a vote. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the National Alliance (now the Brothers of Italy), part of Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘centre-right’ coalition, evolved out of Mussolini’s party. But this isn’t unique to Italy, some kind of quirk caused by either the polarised nature of post-war Italian politics or the undeniably impressive nature of the architecture produced under fascist rule.

Mussolini Inscription, Cagliari

You can in fact find similar in Spain, although General Francisco Franco’s architects were not so talented. Franco’s Mausoleum still stands at the centre of the Valley of the Fallen overlooking Madrid, and there are still hundreds of Fascist-era place names and statues all over the country – efforts had been made under the centre-left Zapatero government to remove some of these, but many were blocked by the currently ruling Partido Popular, which derives its heritage from…you’ve guessed it. This is not to say that Spain or Italy are ‘still Fascist’, any more than Lenin statues meant that Ukraine in 2013 was ‘still Communist’ – both are capitalist representative democracies, where those who were once Fascists or Communists had almost all shifted to the simpler ideology of making money. But what is happening is the normalisation of non-Nazi fascism, and a hysterical response to even non-Stalinist state socialism. The airport of the Spanish capital, that glorious Richard Rogers-designed hangar, is officially named Adolfo Suarez Barajas Airport, after the fascist leader who, after Franco’s death, negotiated the transition to democracy with the socialist and liberal opposition. It is almost exactly the same thing as renaming Warsaw-Chopin as Wojciech Jaruzelski Airport, after the military ruler who started the ‘Round Table’ with Solidarity. Think for a moment about how wildly implausible that would be, how thousands of Poles would protest and probably refuse even to use the airport in that case, and you’ll understand a few things about how the pan-European discourse that equates Communism and Fascism actually works.

Monument to the International Brigades, Memento Park, Budapest

Budapest, as is well known, has its two memorial spaces to its own Totalitarianism, which are roughly speaking representative of the right of the political spectrum – in the form of the didactic, aggressive House of Terror, in the building where both fascist and Communist secret police forces interrogated their victims – and the liberal-left, in the form of the Memento Park, where the statues built by the socialist regime are arranged in a gently satirical classical, axial arrangement. There, you can find the monument to the Hungarian divisions of the International Brigades, that is to the Hungarians – some Communists, some Social Democrats - who completely voluntarily risked their lives to fight against Fascism and Franco in Spain. In the Memento Park they’re just dumped along with all the vainglorious monuments to Lenin and Soviet-Hungarian friendship. At the same time this memorial was sent to this graveyard of authoritarianism, new monuments to the International Brigades were being built in Britain, usually as the result of long-term lobbying by labour and trade union groups. The consignment of Anti-Fascism to the dustbin of history has real results. In political form, you can see it in the total absence of any organised voice in Hungary fighting for equality, internationalism and anti-racism. In public space, you can see it in the rightly notorious eagle monument in the centre of Budapest, which depicts wartime Hungary not as an Axis power and a far-right dictatorship in its own right, but a mere victim of big bad Germany. This is an infantilising approach to history, based on the total evacuation of responsibility.

The regime is not the same – there are real, practical differences – but imagery has oddly been similar across the apparent dividing line that is 1989-91. Take a look at the monuments to Pilsudski all over Poland, or, much worse, the monuments to Bandera in Western Ukraine. In almost every case, it’s worth trying a little thought experiment. Imagine that instead of the statue of the Polish dictator having that great big Cavalryman’s walrus moustache, imagine him with a neat little goatee. Imagine the beardless, but appropriately bald Bandera growing the same. Then you’ll realise that what you’re looking at is usually a Lenin statue, with the same fatuous heroics, rote stylisation and authoritarian axiality that you’d find in one of the identikit, factory-made statues of Vladimir Ilyich that were churned out in their hundreds in the Brezhnev era. This all poses the question: is it possible to actually make an anti-authoritarian monument, given that all ‘Anti-Totalitarianism’ has given us is the same old kitsch in a new, nationalist guise?

Monument and Counter Monument, Budapest

A few examples in Hungary, Russia and Ukraine suggest this is at least possible. The ‘eagle monument’ in the centre of Budapest has been supplemented for some time now by an autonomously made counter-monument placed on the square just in front, which documents the Hungarian role in the Holocaust in several languages; there are usually people discussing it in front. In Kyiv, the minaret-like Obelisk commemorating the victims of the Great Famine of 1932-33 has an intelligent relation to the earlier Obelisk to the Unknown Soldier of the Great Patriotic War (although the museum beneath it is as crass and authoritarian as the sculpture is subtle). Each of these obelisks tries to speak of what the other cannot – the undeniable reality of the astonishing scale of Soviet sacrifice in the fight against the, yes, greater evil of Nazism, and the undeniable reality of the appalling famine Stalin inflicted upon the Ukrainian peasantry. One reality does not obliterate or stamp out the other. Another example is the temporary project that the Kyiv-via-Donetsk group Izolyatsia sponsored by the Mexican artist Cynthia Guttierez, one of many projected for the vacated plinth of Lenin; a frame was erected, onto which you could queue to ‘be’ the monument for a moment, a marvellously sly and clever response to the endlessly tortured and tedious memory politics of that city. More seriously, the Last Address project across the former USSR entails affixing to their former homes simple plaques with the names, professions, dates deported and killed and dates rehabilitated of the victims of Stalin’s Great Purge. In the architect Alexander Brodsky’s plaques for this project, there are no histrionics, there is no nationalism, no sentimentality, just a statement of fact. That avoidance of rhetoric is also an absence of authoritarianism, of the shouting voice that is so ubiquitous among the De-Communisers. It gives a space to actually think about history, without someone else doing the thinking for us.