Transitional Politics of Memory: Political Strategies of Managing the Past in Post-Communist Romania

Mihai Stelian Rusu. Europe-Asia Studies. Volume 69, Issue 8, October 2017.

The article develops a typology of political strategies of coming to terms with the past as a theoretical frame of reference against which it assesses the transitional politics of memory pursued in Romanian post-communist society. It argues that after an initial ‘elusive’ strategy based on a politics of amnesia gave way to a confrontationist stance promoting a politics of anamnesis, the communist past was both politically criminalised and symbolically demonised. The article concludes by arguing that the failure of the ‘mastering the past’ paradigm epitomised by the 2006 Tismăneanu Report needs to give way to a ‘normalising’ paradigm of remembering Romanian communism.

The burgeoning literature of transitional justice that has appeared in recent decades has made it clear that one of the thorniest issues with which post-dictatorial regimes have to grapple is the political management of the heritage of the former regime. Memory occupies a central place in the spectrum of measures making up the politics of transitional justice, that is, the set of measures, judicial as well as non-judicial, taken by a post-dictatorial political regime in order to redress the wrongdoings of the past political order (Teitel; Elster). It includes measures such as setting up ‘truth commissions’, initiating criminal prosecutions, providing reparations for the victims (such as restitutions of property, financial compensations, and rehabilitation measures), and developing mechanisms for institutional reform (such as lustration and open access to secret files) (Stan). Within the panoply of transitional measures, the ‘politics of memory’ (the political strategies for coming to terms with the past) play a crucial role, as they set the interpretive framework within which the politics of transitional justice is to be carried out. Lavinia Stan has produced a comprehensive ‘scorecard’ taking stock of the successes, and especially the failures, of the Romanian politics of the communist past. Stan’s analysis covers measures pertaining to both non-juridical politics of memory and judicial transitional justice. The focus of the present article is solely on the former, mnemonic dimension.

The study sets out to achieve two complementary objectives. Firstly, drawing on the German paradigmatic experience of coming to terms with the legacy of the Third Reich (Vergangenheitspolitik), it aims at establishing a theoretical frame of reference detailing different ways of ‘settling accounts’ with the past. Secondly, using this typological matrix, the article aims to map the tortuous path undertaken by the Romanian transitional politics of memory. Therefore, the article will not be interested in the internal makeup of the ‘transitional memory’—of its narrative essentials—but in the political strategies used in managing the problematic past.

Not surprisingly, the question of how to manage the communist past has been one of the most hotly disputed topics in the emerging public sphere of post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), in both political and civic arenas. Scholars working in social and political sciences have grappled with the challenges of coming to terms with the past in CEE countries, shedding light on the politics of memory in East Germany (Torpey), Poland (Koczanowicz), the Czech Republic (Rupnik), Hungary (Kim & Swain), and Russia (Sherlock), to name only a few former socialist bloc country case-studies. The politics of memory has had a similarly central role in Romanian post-communist society, setting the agenda of political debates and civic initiatives. Moreover, the politics of coming to terms with the past has been a major topic in academic discourse (Grosescu & Ursachi; Hogea; Gussi). Although they have done much to illuminate the politics of memory and forgetting pursued in the transitional society of post-communist Romania, the majority of these scholarly works share a more or less acknowledged vested civic interest in seeing memorial and judicial justice done to the past. In their dual capacity as civic actors and academic scholars, these ‘civic scholars’ have tacitly endorsed, and sometimes explicitly promoted (Tismăneanu), a confrontationist strategy of reckoning with the communist past. Against the grain of this scholarly politics of memory, this article advances a heterodox position critical of the established consensus, which calls for transcending the current dominant paradigm focused on ‘mastering’ the past.

The argument developed throughout this article is based on the analytical scheme provided in the table below, detailing the different modes of coming to terms with the past available to political agents in the aftermath of a regime change. From a methodological standpoint, the study relies on a critical analysis of memory discourses and memorial projects produced and disseminated in various arenas of the Romanian public sphere. It focuses predominantly upon the state-led, political strategies of handling the past, without losing sight of civic projects and the pressure exerted on the political actors to adopt one or another politics of the past. The study offers a broad account of the politics of memory throughout the transitional period, starting with the early 1990s and ending with the highly publicised sentencing of former communist official Alexandru Vişinescu on 10 February 2016. Within this wide temporal frame of reference, the article delves selectively into what it considers to be the critical turning points defining the ebb and flow of Romanian transitional politics of memory. These significant episodes and watershed moments are found, first, in the prolonged official silence that fell on the recent past during the first period of transition (1990-1996) that occurred under the political control of the heirs of the Romanian Communist Party (Partidul Comunist Român—PCR), regrouped mainly under the banner of the Party of Social Democracy in Romania (Partidul Democrației Sociale din România―PDSR). This state-endorsed silence was continually contested by a vocal civil society calling for an urgent programme of transitional justice, including a reckoning with the totalitarian past. The second critical moment, which proved to be a turning point in the transitional politics of memory, is represented by the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania led by the Romanian-American scholar Vladimir Tismăneanu, who delivered the ‘Final Report’ on which President Traian Băsescu grounded his historical condemnation of communism on 18 December 2006 (Tismăneanu et al.). These two episodes set the course of the entire path of Romanian transitional politics of memory, the twists and turns of which are explored in the table below.

Political Patterns of Coming to Terms with the Past

‘Coming to terms with the past’ is an essentially contested notion, whose already ambiguous meaning is further obfuscated by ongoing public and academic controversy. The German term, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, can take various, quite different, meanings. ‘Coming to terms with the past’ also denotes an ‘open finality’, since it remains un- or underspecified how exactly the goal of coming to terms with the past should be achieved. Stated in the most general manner, ‘coming to terms with the past’ poses the dual challenge of redressing the sufferings of the victims at the same time as addressing the guilt that may be experienced by the rest of the population who may, tacitly or explicitly, as passive accessories or active participants, have helped the perpetrators in victimising their subjects.

Political agents of a post-dictatorial regime can come to terms with the troubled past that they inherited by pursuing two basic political strategies of ‘managing the past’. They can either adopt what I call an ‘elusive strategy’, trying to bury the difficult past in collective oblivion through ‘politics of amnesia’, or a ‘confrontationist strategy’ that directly confronts the past. In addition to these basic two stances, a third possibility will be explored in the form of a ‘re-approaching’ strategy, which should be considered as an alternative to be pursued when the past has cooled down in terms of its emotional and political incandescence. Historically, elusive strategies have been the preferred way of reconciling fractured societies divided by a conflictual past. ‘Silencing the past’, to use the title of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s book to describe this specific pattern of managing the past, was thought to bring peace and social reconciliation simply through the healing effect of oblivion:

Ever since Greek antiquity, forgetting has been by far the most dominant response of communities to acts of atrocity and violence. From the re-establishment of democracy in Athens in 403 BC to the perpetua oblivio included in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and from the re-establishment of the monarchy in England to the return of the Bourbons to the throne of France in 1816, amnesty and oblivion have been essential to overcome atrocities and violence. (Wydra, p. 157)

In some instances, silencing the past took literal as well as judicial meanings, such as in sixteenth-century Europe, when the French king Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598 to put an end to the religious wars tearing apart his kingdom. Henry’s edict is paradigmatic of the genre of ‘amnestic documents’, that is, juridical documents stipulating mandatory forgetfulness. As proclaimed by its first article, amnesty is grounded upon amnesia:

That the memory of all things passed on the one part and the other, since the beginning of the month of March, 1585, until our coming to the crown, and also during all the other precedent troubles, and the occasion of the same, shall remain extinguished and suppressed, as thing that had never been. (Golden, p. 88).

After the first article accomplishes the ontological abolition of the memory of the war (‘as things that had never been’), the second article introduces the juridical prohibition of remembering the past: ‘We prohibit to all our subjects of what State and Condition soever they be, to renew the memory … for what is passed’ (Golden, p. 88).

Only in the mid-twentieth century did the pendulum swing decisively in favour of more confrontationist approaches to coming to terms with a problematic past. The first impetus for this swift change of heart came from the momentous event of the Nuremberg trials (1945-1946), which set the judicial framework for future transitional justice procedures. The next impetus came from the ‘third wave of democratization’ (Huntington) which toppled military juntas across the world during the 1970s and 1980s and set in motion a new episode in the difficult process of dealing with a dictatorial immediate past, culminating with the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But even after Nuremberg established the precedent and set the paradigm for judging the crimes of a political regime, what Lavinia Stan (p. 1) designates as the ‘forgive-and-forget’ policy, as opposed to the ‘prosecute-and-punish’ approach to the past, was widely employed across the world by societies seeking to be reconciled with their traumatic historical legacies. Such a solution was chosen in Argentina, for instance, where, following the Trials of the Juntas in 1983, two amnesty laws—Ley del Punto Final in 1986 and Ley de Obediencia Debida one year later—were passed which stopped further prosecution of military personnel for crimes committed during the military dictatorship. These amnesty laws were eventually overturned in 2005, when the Supreme Court of Justice declared them unconstitutional, turning the tide once again in favour of an anamnestic approach. Similar amnesty laws were passed in other Latin American countries, from Brazil to Uruguay, as well as in other parts of the world, most famously the amnesty granted to perpetrators who confessed their wrongdoings to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa (1995-2002). In Europe, post-Francoist Spain chose the path of oblivion when the 1977 Amnesty Law was passed as a result of the Spanish political elite’s ‘pact of forgetting’. In post-Soviet Russia, a confrontation with the past was simply avoided, without the need for any amnesty law. After a start as promising as it was surprising, launched from within the communist system by Gorbachev’s glasnost’ policy promoting truth-telling narratives as well as a general reassessment of the Soviet past, the thrust of reckoning with the past was brought to a halt in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Not only has the Soviet past been exempted from a revisionist reckoning, but, since the accession of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 1999, the Russian Federation has sought to restore its lost superpower status and in doing so, has reclaimed the glory of the USSR’s past, staging gigantic military parades, such as that of 9 May 2015 celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory in World War II. With the exception of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), which have confronted their past through a variety of truth and investigative commissions (Beattie), in the former Soviet Republics detached from the USSR in the wake of its disintegration, there was either ‘limited transitional justice’ (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia) or ‘no transitional justice’ whatsoever (Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Central Asian countries) (Stan, pp. 237, 240).

Irrespective of the strategy used, the end purpose of coming to terms with the past is always the same, that is, to reconcile the present political order with its past. This reconciliatory purpose can be attained either by breaking free from the past in order to mark a new, clean beginning, or by accommodating it within a forgetful present. Regardless of the specific patterns and means used to manage the past, all strive towards emancipating the present from the pressure exerted by a troubled past. However, these strategies differ radically in terms of how they attempt to achieve this dual purpose of redemptive emancipation and societal reconciliation. The politics of amnesia can silence the past simply by not mentioning it, in the hope that the passing of time will naturally bring about an oblivion that will ease and eventually lift the burden of the past on the present. Historical ignorance is deemed, in this amnesiac scenario, to induce emancipation. Historical ignorance is not necessarily bliss, as the verse of Thomas Gray (p. 17) goes, but it avoids the consciousness of those living in the present being troubled by the disquieting past. However, the danger of repeating the past by forgetting it and thus not learning the lessons of history—to quote George Santayana (p. 284)—always looms in the shadows of the forgotten past.

Alternatively, political actors can opt for a more aggressive approach in coming to terms with the past. Eager to silence the past by shutting it down and lacking the patience to wait for time to heal the wounds, they might be tempted to ‘programme forgetfulness’ through state-planned actions of actively promoting collective oblivion. The methodology of forgetting ranges from brutal means such as ‘repressive erasure’, whose radical form was pioneered by the Romans in their condemnation of memory (damnatio memoriae), through to milder means such as ‘prescriptive forgetting’ instituted through amnesty laws or deliberate omission (Connerton). Along similar lines, Tzvetan Todorov (pp. 113-19) has specified four techniques of instituting oblivion, classified on a continuum from brutal destruction enacted through ‘wiping out the evidence’ to softer techniques working through ‘the use of euphemism’ or ‘lies and propaganda’. In between these extremes, practices of falsifying the past and tabooing the remembrance of specific events can be found, what Todorov called the techniques of ‘intimidation’ and ‘interdiction’. Natural oblivion attains its emancipatory purpose of breaking free from the grip of the past simply through historical ignorance, since an unknown past cannot take its toll on the present. It has become a ‘foreign country’ with which the present no longer engages in any temporal diplomacy (Lowenthal). Programmed forgetfulness, by contrast, keeps the past at bay by systematically repressing it—an ultimately inefficient method, since emancipation from the past cannot be achieved through political repression. As with Freud’s, p. 390) warning of the ‘return of the repressed’, sooner or later, the past will eventually come back to haunt the present with a vengeance.

In stark contrast to the politics of amnesia, reckoning with the past implies a ‘politics of anamnesis’ which takes the form of either ‘assuming the past’ or ‘mastering the past’ (Petrescu & Petrescu). Each of these different ‘specific patterns of managing the past’ has its own means of achieving its goal. Assuming the past—the first confrontationist pattern of managing the past—can be done in at least two degrees. After a political regime has attempted to bury the past in collective oblivion, either by actively programming forgetfulness or by simply letting it fade away, one way to counter institutionalised oblivion is by recovering the past, by unearthing it from the graveyards of memory where it was buried by political agents employing the politics of amnesia. Through various memory practices—writing memoirs and histories, enacting commemorations, erecting memorial sites—the traumatic past can be brought back to life and publicly remembered. These truth-telling practices can have great therapeutic value for the victims of the former regime whose dramatic stories gain public acknowledgement. Emancipation from the grip of the past is achieved simply by telling the truth about the horrors of the former regime. Truth—although partial and inevitably selective, but truth nonetheless—has enormous cathartic powers. In this scenario, reconciliation between the present and the past is reached through what I call an ‘alethic therapy’ focused on truth-telling about the past. This is invariably a bid for remembrance pursued by the victims, who are at pains to shift the balance of memory from a state of ignorance and denial to a state of knowledge and acknowledgement.

The shift from knowledge to acknowledgment requires, however, a second, more demanding way of assuming the past, which goes beyond the narrow group of the direct victims to embrace an entire society. As opposed to the predominantly alethic character of recovering the memory of the wrongdoings and making them public, ‘working through’ the past involves a demanding process of morally engaging with the personal and collective past in the process of an emotional all-consuming ‘labour of memory’—a ‘travail de mémoire‘, as Paul Ricoeur has properly called it. If it is the work of the victims of the former regime which recovers the past, it is the task of the society at large to work through and upon the unburied past. Coined by Sigmund Freud in 1914, the term ‘working through’ (Durcharbeiten) retained its psychoanalytic overtones as it came to denote the difficult process of critical reflection in which the members of a collectivity engage with their personal past in order to assess their own moral and political guilt in contributing to the existence of the former regime, even if only passively. It involves the difficult work of remembering, moral clarification, and learning from the past as a way of overcoming the trauma of the past. This memory-work is even more arduous where guilt and moral responsibility for the past are widely diffused in the social body, such as in totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union where the population accommodated or directly participated in the regime.

Romanian communism is no exception, especially but not exclusively during the second phase of the regime, from the mid-1960s, when the political terror of the 1950s ended and the totalitarian state mellowed into a ‘post-totalitarian’ regime, using more subtle tactics of domination. The population not only tacitly accepted the social pact offered by the socialist state, but also joined the Communist Party in significant numbers. Towards the end of the regime, the membership of the PCR numbered almost four million, while the Department of State Security, the infamous Securitate, was operating a network of 486,000 collaborators (out of which 137,000 were active informants) watching and reporting on a population of 23 million (Anisescu, pp. 35-6). By way of comparison, the Stasi network in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) comprised a total of only 174,000 informal collaborators for a population of 17 million. A simple calculation reveals a staggering discrepancy in the surveillance index in favour of the Securitate: in Romania, there was an informator for every 47 individuals, while in the GDR, one Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter corresponded to 97 persons (Petrescu & Petrescu, p. 542, fn. 82). These numbers strongly support Mary Fulbrook’s provocative term—’participatory dictatorship’—in describing the intricate relationship between the communist state and its subjects (Fulbrook). In this type of society, the dividing lines between the persecutors and victims is difficult, if not impossible, to draw neatly, as Daniel Barbu, who applied Fulbrook’s term to the Romanian case, has emphatically pointed out. In the case of the Socialist Republic of Romania, the notion of participatory dictatorship is particularly apt; in fact, if revised to even better fit Romanian socio-political reality, the term should be ‘participatory totalitarianism’. With the exception of the direct victims of the regime (such as political prisoners and other categories of people who became the target of repression, such as priests resisting the regime’s atheistic policies or peasants opposing collectivisation), only degrees of responsibility, without any clearly dividing lines between them, can be established. Even the direct victims of the Romanian Gulag were not always free of criminal responsibilities themselves, as was the case with members of the Legionary movement, the Romanian variety of fascism (Weber).

The nature of this diffused systemic responsibility, as opposed to personalised and individualised guilt, has been highlighted in analytical masterpieces such as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report of the Banality of Evil (Arendt) and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (Bauman). However, this diffuse responsibility cannot be invoked as an alibi for bypassing memory work with its uneasy task of moral self-examination. On the contrary, the blurred lines between the perpetrators, passive supporters, and direct victims make such memory work all the more imperative. Emancipation is unlikely to result from a final showdown with the past, accomplished through a public spectacle of judicial condemnation or through a just as spectacular ritual of symbolic exorcism, as is the case with ‘mastering the past’. Instead, the promise of a redemptive emancipation lies in an arduous working through of the past in the quest to accomplish a labour of memory consisting of a process of critical self-reflection (individual as well as collective).

The present can neutralise the past either by silencing it, or by gaining dominion over it through the imposition of a hegemonic master narrative. It is in this second sense that I am referring to the pattern of ‘mastering the past’ through memory control. By ‘mastering the past’ I mean the attempt to bring a troubled past under the control of the present so that it can be held accountable. As Theodor Adorno (p. 115) has pointed out, mastering the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) ‘does not imply a serious working through of the past [Aufarbeitung], the breaking of its spell through an act of clear consciousness’. Its tools are rather ‘demonisation’, by which the past is exorcised of its evils through symbolic acts of purification enacted as rituals of redress, and ‘criminalisation’, by which the past is prosecuted in the courthouse of the present and sentenced. The past can be criminalised in two ways: formal judicial prosecution at the individual level, which falls into the category of judicial transitional justice measures, as they are carried out within the legal framework in the courts of law; or through symbolically sentencing the former regime as criminal, followed by its non-judicial and symbolic condemnation in moral, historical, economic, political, and humanitarian terms. Both demonisation and criminalisation are meant to be redemptive actions with cathartic effects, a ‘political trauma-therapy of the past’ to purge its toxic content from the present.

There is a third way, beyond evasion and confrontation, that breaks the dichotomy of forgiving-and-forgetting or prosecuting-and-punishing: a ‘re-approaching strategy’ based on a ‘politics of understanding’ promoting neither political amnesia nor moral anamnesis, but a cognitive programme of historical hermeneutics. This pattern of coming to terms with the past does not engage in an emotionally intensive process of working through a traumatic memory, but seeks to intellectualise the past by putting it in a comparative framework and trying to understand it—sine ira et studio—in its proper historical context. It calls for ‘normalising the past’, not in the sense of considering the crimes and evils of the former regimes as ‘normal’ and thus morally justified, but in the sense of striving to understand the past as a historical phenomenon while resisting the moral temptation to judge it in the court of the present. Emancipation comes from understanding (not from avenging, as in the mastering paradigm) the past in a historically contextualised and comparative framework of analysis. As with the other concepts used throughout this article, the term ‘normalisation’ has a strong German cultural pedigree. It emerged during the German Historikerstreit of the late 1980s which was fought primarily over the question of the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust (Maier). Despite the many differences between the two transitional justice programmes—postwar Germany’s struggle to reckon with its Nazi past and the effort of post-communist states to come to terms with their own tainted history—the conceptual scaffolding of this article dealing with the challenges of decommunisation is borrowed from the German terminology of Geschichtspolitik (politics of memory). This conceptual borrowing is justified by the fact that the notions which emerged during the German debates on how to handle the legacy of the Third Reich have achieved canonical status in the discussions of transitional justice and thus set the terms for any further debate on the question of coming to terms with the past. In transplanting the term ‘normalisation of the past’ (Normalisierung) from its natural German cultural milieu where it emerged in the debate over the legacy of the Holocaust to the post-communist Romanian climate, we have to be aware of the quite dramatic semantic changes it undergoes. In German culture, the normalising project was associated with the conservative political agenda whose representatives wished to move beyond the culture of contrition in order for German citizens to be able to feel proud of their country again. Before being advanced by the conservative intellectuals in the Historikerstreit, the normalising project was already given voice by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who in 1981 has asserted that ‘German sovereignty should no longer be held hostage to Auschwitz’ (Olick, p. 550). Leftist intellectuals, led by Jürgen Habermas, vigorously opposed any attempt to normalise Germany’s tainted past, which they denounced as a conservative strategy in the service of a nationalist political agenda. In post-communist Romania, the situation is the very opposite: normalising the communist past is the expression of an ‘anti-anti-communist’ reaction to the conservative rightwing intellectuals who have succeeded in imposing a master narrative of communism-as-total-social-trauma.

The Pathway of Romanian Transitional Politics of Memory

I will now map the shifting path taken by the Romanian transitional politics of memory in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1989 against this typological matrix of coming to terms with the past. For more than a decade and a half after the breakdown of the communist regime, Romanian political elites did their best to avoid a reckoning with the past. The politics of memory promoted by the first post-communist governments—headed by Petre Roman I (1989-1990) and II (1990-1991), Theodor Stolojan (1991-1992), and Nicolae Văcăroiu (1992-1996) respectively—epitomised the ‘forget-and-forgive’ policy, preferring to silence the communist past. During their governments, the communist legacy was managed by way of a shallow, cosmetic reformism. Public reminders of the former regime—symbols, iconography, statues, street names—were hastily removed or changed. As Duncan Light (p. 160) has pointed out in his study of the shifting toponymical landscape of post-socialist Romania, in Bucharest alone, 288 street names were changed between 1990 and 1997, with 122 of them (42.4%) renamed in 1990. Although these 288 streets represent barely 6.6% of Bucharest’s network of 4,369 streets, they comprised the main boulevards and public squares in the city centre. Moreover, despite its limited scope, the restructuring of Bucharest’s toponymical order was more extensive than the changes that occurred in other post-socialist capitals, such as Berlin and Moscow, where only 80 and 153 streets respectively were renamed during the same period. The material landscape of Bucharest was also swiftly restructured. The statues of Lenin and Dr Petru Groza, the first communist prime minister, erected in Bucharest in 1960 and 1971 respectively, were pulled down and dumped in March 1990 (Light & Young). School history textbooks, subject to the same cosmetic reformism, were purged of any reference to the Party or Ceaușescu. In fact, until a new generation of textbooks was developed towards the end of the 1990s, the official history of Romania ended abruptly right after World War II.

Beyond these surface replacements, the political elite showed no will to engage with the past, either by acknowledging the trauma inflicted by the former regime and addressing the memory of these sufferings, or by encouraging the process of working through the communist past. Despite the high hopes of civil society, fuelled by political rhetoric promising swift change, the first non-socialist government, that of the Romanian Democratic Convention (Convenţia Democrată Română—RDC) under President Emil Constantinescu in 1996, failed to shift the paradigm of remembering from a politics of amnesia to a politics of anamnesis. During the RDC interlude, which broke the governing continuity of the heirs of the former Communist Party in the form of the PSD, the legacy of the former regime remained an ‘unmastered past’. When the PSD returned to power in 2000, the reigning duo—President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Năstase—constantly downplayed the need to confront the past and even explicitly questioned the need to stir up the past. The politics of amnesia actively pursued during Ion Iliescu’s presidential terms were the expression of a ‘bunker state’ resisting a reckoning with the past and keeping at bay any project of transitional justice (Gussi, p. 214). Both Iliescu and Năstase were happy to use for their own amnesiac purposes arguments borrowed, ironically, from former prominent anti-communist dissidents in other CEE countries. The Polish prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a former leader of Solidarność, had formulated the principle of drawing a ‘thick line’ under the past, which came to symbolise the very essence of the politics of amnesia. More critically, the former dissident and writer Adam Michnik was emphatically opposed to post-communist anti-communism turning into a ‘paratotalitarian formation’ and to using the past as a tool in the struggle for political power (Michnik, p. 518). The heirs of Romania’s Communist Party used these powerful arguments to buttress their agenda of leaving the past alone, taking them out of context and using them to justify rejecting lustration, delaying access to secret files, impeding trials and court proceedings against former secret police officers and communist political figures accused of violation of human rights, and in general opposing any specific measure of reckoning with the past.

The National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (Consiliul Național pentru Studierea Arhivelor Securității—CNSAS), the institution set up to manage the vast quantity of files the state had compiled on its citizens and to grant the latter access to their personal files, provides an eloquent case in point. Created by Law 187 on Access to the Personal File and the Disclosure of the Securitate as a Political Police, passed by Parliament in December 1999, the mission of the CNSAS was paradoxically hindered by the pro-democratic, anti-communist President Constantinescu. Before ending his presidential term in 2000, at the end of which he notoriously declared himself to have been ‘defeated by the Securitate‘, Constantinescu had discouraged the activity of the CNSAS by stating that the files of the most important post-communist politicians contained ‘state secrets’ and thus should be withheld from public disclosure. After the PSD regained power and Ion Iliescu started his second presidential term, the activity of the CNSAS was kept to a functional minimum. Until 2005, when Liberal Democrat President Traian Băsescu stepped in and facilitated the transfer of 12 linear kilometres of files consisting of 1,306,000 dossiers from the Romanian Intelligence Service (Serviciul Român de Informații—SRI)—the successor to the Securitate—to the CNSAS, barely 10,000 files had been passed on (Stan, p. 73). Iliescu and his party were highly reluctant to support any legal measure of transitional justice, such as court trials, lustration policies, or restitution of property, as advocated by civil society and promoted by historical parties forming the anti-communist political opposition. The Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party (Partidul Național Țărănesc Creștin Democrat—PNȚ-CD) and the National Liberal Party (Partidul Național Liberal—PNL), which returned to the post-communist political arena having previously been dissolved in 1947, joined forces in 1991 to form the conservative Romanian Democratic Convention. The alliance, which brought together a myriad of other parties and civic associations, formed an oppositional political platform with a strong anti-communist bent. However, its requests for measures of transitional justice were delayed and obfuscated as long as possible during Iliescu’s political reign. They were also sceptical of symbolic measures pertaining to the politics of memory, such as memorialisation and truth-revealing practices. For instance, in 2003 the ICAR Foundation lodged a complaint requesting the government led by Adrian Năstase to commence ‘the Trial of Communism’ (Procesul comunismului) by acknowledging the ‘Communist Holocaust’ endured by the Romanian people and expressing formal apologies. As the PSD was publicly dismissing any possibility of such an initiative, the court eventually rejected the request (Stan, pp. 55, 222).

This elusive strategy of coming to terms with the communist past embraced by the Romanian post-communist political ruling class is easily explicable by the fact that, with the exception of the Democratic Convention interlude (1996-2000), political power was in the hands of the PSD, the heirs of the former Communist Party. This political elite was able to contain the pressures for a historical reckoning emanating from a reborn civil society, allied with the resurgent parties of the interwar period who were calling for a clean break with the past.

While the official state politics of memory was that of ‘silencing the past’, an underground, ‘counter-memory’ was elaborated by memorialistic literature written by survivors of the Romanian communist Gulag. Some survivors formed an organisation, the Association of Former Political Prisoners and Anticommunist Fighters, in alliance with liberal public intellectuals, who themselves came together in organisations such as the Group for Social Dialogue and Civic Alliance. Some initiatives broke through the officially prescribed oblivion. Such was the case of the Sighet Memorial project, developed by the Civic Academy Foundation, which in 1993 took over the former infamous prison and transformed it into a genuine lieu de memoire—the Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance. Together with cultural endeavours such as Lucia Hossu Longin’s television series ‘Memorial of Suffering’ (Memorialul durerii, 1991-2004), these memory projects started the process. Ultimately, although these civic initiatives had enjoyed some success in revealing to the ignorant public the terrors of the ‘obsessive decade’, they nonetheless failed to convince the larger population to engage in a thorough working-through of the past. Former victims and public intellectuals alike were frustrated by the general unresponsiveness of society to their attempts to make it remember. However, it is not difficult to understand why ordinary post-communist Romanians were so reluctant to embrace the narrative of total societal trauma advocated by the anti-communist elites. A major factor was a generational gap between the survivors of the political and social terror of the 1950s and those who lived during the following three decades of communism. This generational gap hides, first of all, an informational differential: those who were raised during the 1970s and 1980s, because of efficient state censorship, were not aware of the tragic fate that befell the inter-war social and political elite. Secondly, there is an experiential differential: the Gulag generation and the post-1966 ‘Decreței‘ generation had widely different experiences of the regime. While the former experienced brutal political repression by a regime of terror and were subjected to atrocities in the detention and work camps infrastructure (the Gulag), the latter’s experience was of economic misery and hardships during a bankrupt planned economy. Broadening this breach was the social status differential, as the anti-communist camp urging for a working-through of the past was comprised of former prisoners and public intellectuals belonging mostly to the social elite, while the unresponsive population was largely the former proletarian class forged in the factories of communism. Widening the cleavage further, as the transition to market society claimed ever higher costs from an increasingly disillusioned population, were waves of nostalgia for the communist past. As revealed by New Europe Barometers (NEB) (Rose) trend data from 1991 to 2004, the percentage of ‘nostalgics’ steadily grew through the 1990s until it overtook the ‘presentists’ at the turn of the millennium. From 1991 to 2004, the percentage of Romanians who negatively evaluated the communist regime in comparison to the current political system dropped from 66.9% to 42.3%. At the same time, the ranks of those who appreciated positively the former regime rose from 26.3% to 44.7%. Public opinion barometers conducted in the following years revealed similar tendencies. In 2006, for example, more than half of the respondents in a national survey (N=1,975) answered that communism was a good idea, either ‘well applied’ (12.2%) or ‘wrongly applied’ (41.5%), while only 34.1% considered it wrong altogether. At the time of the presidential endorsement of the Tismăneanu Report in 2006, Romanian society was divided in two roughly equal camps in terms of sentiments towards the communist past, with the ‘nostalgics’ having a statistical edge. This even distribution of opinions, reached in the early 2000s, has remained locked in a tight balance, as shown by poll data gathered by The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile (Institutul de Investigare a Crimelor Comunismului și Memoria Exilului Românesc—IICCMER).

There are two strands of anti-communist crusading in Romanian post-communist politics of memory. On the one hand there is the political anti-communism of centre-right parties (PNȚ-CD, PNL, PD) seeking to capitalise electorally on the rhetoric of confronting the past. On the other hand, there is the anti-communism of emerging civil society, driven by a moral urge for justice in their calls for a reckoning with the communist past. Before 1996, the two strands blended to form a unified anti-communist front under the political banner of the Democratic Convention. Civil-society elements fighting state-sponsored amnesia held hopes that the historical political parties would come to power and succeed in translating calls for a ‘trial of communism’ into a juridical policy of memory. The disillusionment that followed the failure of the Democratic Convention’s bid to bring about memorial justice broke the coalition between civic anti-communists and their political counterparts, which ultimately led to its demise as a political force. These two anti-communist agents of counter-memory did not realign until the run-up to the 2004 election, when the question of condemning the past was once again high on the public agenda (Gussi).

The major breakthrough that finally shifted the politics of memory from an elusive strategy towards a confrontationist stance came only after the double alternance of power in 2004, when Iliescu’s Social Democratic Party was overthrown by a coalition made up of liberal democratic forces united under the Justice and Truth Alliance (Alianța Dreptate și Adevăr—DA PNL-PD). What propelled this shift was not so much a moral urge to finally come to terms with the past as a bid for popularity in which the card of anti-communist credentials was played. In their intra-coalition struggle to secure the support of the liberal democratic electorate, with whom the anti-communist rhetoric struck a sensitive chord, the National Liberal Party (Partidul Național Liberal—PNL) and the Democratic Party (Partidul Democrat—PD) engaged in a spiral of escalating measures that ultimately led to the formation in April 2006 of the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. It was this background of political interests and internal power struggles within a shaky coalition that prepared the ground for this shift in attitudes towards the communist past. The first move was by the liberal wing of the Justice and Truth Alliance, the PNL led by the prime minister, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, which founded the Institute for Investigating the Crimes of Communism in Romania (IICCR) in 2005 in a bid to prove its superior anti-communist credentials. The Liberal Democratic President Traian Băsescu topped this bid by commissioning an official presidential report condemning communism (Ciobanu). It was under the mandate of President Băsescu, using the past in the service of a very pragmatic politics of the present, that the ‘trial of communism’ demanded by the liberal democratic voices within civil society was finally taken up by the state. When, in December 2006, the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania headed by Vladimir Tismăneanu delivered its Final Report, which was read in the Romanian Parliament on 18 December 2006, Băsescu officially sanctioned the document and condemned the communist regime as ‘illegitimate and criminal’. This was the point at which the Romanian state finally started to get to grips with its communist past. In its introduction, the Report expresses not only the moral imperative of condemning the past, but also explicitly states that: ‘Romania’s future rests on mastering its past, henceforth on condemning the communist regime as an enemy to human society’ (Tismăneanu et al., p. 36).

This mastering of the past was accomplished in two ways. Firstly, the Report explicitly criminalised the communist past and prepared the way for the presidential condemnation. Closely linked to this was the juridical prosecution of former officials of the regime. One of the founding tasks of IICCR was to assist the Public Ministry in prosecuting the crimes committed by the former regime’s officials. After lodging penal notifications against hundreds of former officials and years of legal battles, the IICCR’s main achievement came on 10 February 2016, when the High Court of Cassation and Justice sentenced Alexandru Vişinescu, the former commander of the Râmnicu Sărat Penitentiary, to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity. The High Court’s final ruling was hailed by the IICCR as ‘a historic moment for Romania’ (IICCMER Press Release). Secondly, a close reading of the Report reveals an additional means of judging the past: throughout the Report, the communist regime, along with its institutions (such as the Party, the Securitate) and its people (Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, the nomenklatura), are literally demonised. In fact, the Report reads like a political demonology of Romanian communism. The rapporteurs repeatedly describe the Securitate as a ‘diabolic organisation’ operating a ‘diabolic mechanism’ comprising a network of hundreds of thousands of professionals and ‘volunteers’ (Tismăneanu et al, p. 469). In the winter of 1948, the newly created Securitate had set up a ‘diabolic system’ of diversion, threats, and blackmail, and unleashed a ‘Romanian St Bartholomew’s Day’ of political terror and mass arrests (p. 461). The leadership of the Orthodox Church is described as making a ‘pact with the Devil’, a metaphor to which the authors attribute literal meanings, adding ‘since it is obvious that this is what it was’ (p. 468). In describing the Romanian Gulag, the term ‘diabolic’ is employed as a standard and recursive adjective, painting a Dantesque imagery of an infernal carceral-scape where devilish torturers inflict gruesome pain on the bodies of politically condemned angels.

This strategy of demonising the past as a premise for its symbolic exorcism was not a mere rhetorical device, metaphorical inflationism or literary licence. In his 2012 book, The Devil in History, Vladimir Tismăneanu makes the political demonology of communism underpinning the Report abundantly clear. He takes literally Leszek Kołakowski’s conviction that ‘the Devil incarnated himself in History’ assuming the political form of Bolshevism and fascism (Tismăneanu, p. 19). In the same bombastic style, Tismăneanu’s latest book examines the biographies of 27 high-ranking communist regime officials, whom he regards as the personification of evil, to shed light upon the dark ‘effigies’ of the ‘historical nightmare’ that still haunts Romania (Tismăneanu). This approach of naming and blaming individuals as epitomes of totalitarian evil is evident in the Report, which includes a ‘short list’ comprising 61 of ‘the most notorious torturers’, including Ion Fecioru and Alexandru Vişinescu (Tismăneanu et al., pp. 486-92). The document ends with another infamous list of 65 nomina odiosa charged with responsibility for the horrors of communism in Romania (‘The Biographies of Nomenklatura’, Tismăneanu et al, pp. 785-807). It falls within the realm of the ironies of history that after he had rightly designated the ‘mythologies of vengeance’—de-communisation and the myth of political justice—as one constitutive dimension of post-communism’s ‘metamyths’ (Tismăneanu, pp. 16, 62), in 2006, by delivering the condemnatory Report he had commissioned, Tismăneanu had himself fallen prey to the ‘fantasies of salvation’ he had masterfully deconstructed less than a decade before.

It is one of the contentions defended in this article that if the civil society struggles to persuade the larger population to engage in a proper ‘working through’ of the past have largely failed, the state-sponsored programme of ‘mastering the past’ epitomised in the Tismăneanu Report has utterly failed to reconcile Romanian society with its troubled past. Post-condemnation surveys commissioned by IICCMER reveal the full scale of this failure. For instance, out of the representative sample of 1,133 persons asked if ‘the communist regime in Romania was a criminal regime’, the majority (41%) disagreed, while only 37% endorsed the Report’s conclusion (22% correspond to ‘don’t know’ or ‘no response’) (IICCMER). It failed in its reconciliatory purpose precisely because it employed the means of criminalisation and demonisation. Aware of the belated nature of the ‘trial of communism’, postponed for more than a decade and a half after the demise of the former regime, the rapporteurs have tried to compensate for this lateness through a disproportional aggressiveness in reckoning with the past. Driven by an urgent vengefulness, the Report failed to address the communist phenomenon with a modicum of historical reflexivity. This marked a turning point in the pathway of Romanian transitional politics of memory that undermined the possibility of a ‘working through’ of the past. The state-endorsed official condemnation of the past—the ‘mastering’ paradigm—represented by the Report had a paradoxical result: instead of bringing about a travail de mémoire by ordinary citizens at an individual level, clarifying their own contribution to the former regime, the Report deprived them of this moral burden by shifting the responsibility to the state.

Memory scholars have revealed the paradox of monuments as material sites of remembering. In his famous 1927 essay, ‘Monuments’, Robert Musil has pointed out that ‘there is nothing in the world so invisible as a monument’ (Carrier, p. 15). Building on Musil’s thesis of monumental invisibility, James Young (p. 5), in his book on Holocaust memorials, has made the counter-intuitive point that monuments specifically designed and explicitly erected for the purpose of keeping memory alive are in fact promoting oblivion, since once in place they somehow relieve individuals from the burden of doing the never-ending work of remembering. The same can be said of a ‘textual monument’ of memory such as the condemnatory Report: once made official by the state, it relieves individuals from the duty of doing the memory work themselves. What the Report accomplished instead was to antagonise Romanian society further by widening the cleavage between the ‘winners’ of transition, who tended to embrace the ‘communism-as-collective-trauma narrative’ developed by liberal democratic elites, and the ‘losers’, who turned to collective nostalgia towards the communist regime.

The failure of Romanian society to be reconciled with its troubled past, either through a top-down politics of the state ‘mastering’ the past or through a bottom-up politics of ‘working-through’ at an individual level, is partially explained by the rift over memory characterising the Romanian political elite. In stark contrast to both the post-Francoist model of consensual oblivion in Spain and post-Nazi Germany’s (externally imposed) unyielding condemnation of the Third Reich, Romanian post-communist politics have been deeply divided over the proper path of handling the past (Gussi, p. 727). This struggle over the past between different political parties and civil society actors was further sustained by Western Europe’s reluctance to condemn communism on a par with Nazism, thus depriving anti-communist forces of a powerful source of legitimation. This reluctance was expressed in the hesitation of the EU to condemn communist ideology tout court, restraining its condemnatory scope to the crimes of communism as a totalitarian regime (Parliamentary Assembly). Despite these setbacks, memory activists have nonetheless successfully ‘drawn “Europe” behind [their] project to promote national-level confrontations’ with the past, especially on the verge of Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007 (Gledhill, p. 481).

While the difficult yet unfinished process of ‘working through’ the communist past was compromised by the allegedly redemptive effects brought about by its official condemnation in the Report, the second argument of this article is that the Romanian paradigm of remembering communism has to open itself to a ‘normalisation’ of the past. It should be made clear that ‘normalising’ means neither trivialising nor justifying the crimes of the former regime. Mary Fulbrook has emphatically pointed out the moral risk incumbent in any handling of the controversial notion of ‘normalisation’, especially when employed by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. In her words, ‘in many quarters’, including academic circles, the word normalisation triggers ‘an almost immediate reaction of outrage’ (Fulbrook, p. 2). On the other hand, at the opposite end of the moral-trivial continuum, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld ([50]) has brought into focus the excesses of normalisation qua trivialisation that have gained momentum in popular culture. What stirs moral outrage in some academic quarters passes in others as a subject of scurrilous jocularity to be explored in various caricatures and parodic depictions. The trivialisation of the Third Reich, Nazism, and Hitler in particular found abundantly in many spectrums of popular culture is surely repugnant as an expression of what one might call ‘Nazi pop’. However, this ‘normalisation qua popular trivialisation’ should not cast moral doubt upon the scholarly endeavour of normalisation as historical contextualisation. The notion of ‘normalisation’ emerged in the context of the Historikerstreit of the late 1980s and then broke free of its original discursive milieu. Fulbrook has deployed the term outside of West Germany’s politics of the past, arguing for its heuristic value in making sense of how ordinary East Germans coped with the routinised postwar socialist reality. Used in this manner, ‘normalisation’ becomes a valuable conceptual tool for an Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) of East Germans under and within the GDR. This article further estranges the notion of ‘normalisation’ from the West German experience of dealing with the Nazi past, but brings it back from Alltagsgeschichte to Geschichtspolitik in the context of post-socialist debates over the communist past.

This article employs the term ‘normalisation’ not as a moral notion pursuing an apologetic agenda, but as an analytical concept in the politics of memory (Geschichtspolitik) more generally and the politics of communist memory in contemporary Romania in particular. What it calls for is for Romanian communism to be placed in a proper historical perspective and ‘de-exceptionalised’ (see Table 1). Normalising the past implies abandoning the currently reigning idea of the exceptionalism of the Romanian experience of communism, along with the exceptional trauma of the communist experience in Romanian history—both of which are deeply ingrained in the conclusions of the truth commission’s condemnatory Report. Both synchronically, in the horizontality of space, and diachronically, in the verticality of time, the anti-communist intellectuals render Romanian communism as a unique phenomenon, the exception in terms of brutality within other varieties of communist experiences in Central and Eastern Europe, just as it is considered incomparable to any other traumatic event or period in Romanian history. In the light of the master national story advanced by the proponents of Romanian exceptionalism—which has its German equivalent in the Sonderweg thesis—communism was a ‘black hole’ in the nation’s progressive path to democratic modernisation (Bădică). Instead of judging and condemning the communist past from the court of the present, the ‘normalising’ pattern of managing the past insists on the need to understand communism in a historicised, contextualised, and comparative framework. The ‘Romanian exceptionalism’ bias through which the communist experience is perceived in the ‘mastering paradigm’ of the past precludes such a historically contextualised understanding. If we add to this bias the demonological frame of analysing it as ‘the devil in history’, the possibility of understanding Romanian communism as a historical phenomenon is further reduced.

TABLE 1 Patterns of Coming to Terms with the Past

Political strategies of managing the past

Politics of memory Specific patterns of managing the past Means of managing the past Emancipation from the past is achieved through:
Elusive strategies Politics of amnesia Silencing the past Natural oblivion Historical ignorance
Programmed forgetting Political repression
Confrontationist strategies Politics of anamnesis Assuming the past Recovering the past Alethic catharsis
Working through Critical self-reflection
Mastering the past Demonisation Symbolic exorcism
Criminalisation Condemnation
Re-approaching strategy Politics of understanding ‘Normalising’ the past De-exceptionalisation Comparative understanding
Historicisation Contextualised understanding

Source: Author’s own elaboration.

There are two dangers in the Tismăneanu Report’s condemnation of communism. The first is that the working-through of the past will be abandoned all together by a ‘generation of post-memory’ (Hirsch), for whom remembering the communist past is irrelevant, all the more so since the official condemnation has relieved them of the burden of remembering. Beyond this, the simple passage of time will bring about a gradual alienation of younger generations from the communist past. Ironically, this alienation, brought about by a failure to convince the wider population to engage in a proper ‘working through’ of the past, will lead to historical ignorance through natural oblivion, as hoped for by the political actors who pursue the politics of amnesia. For this post-memory generation, there is the risk that the communist past will become a ‘foreign country’ shrouded in the veils of ignorance and forgetfulness (Lowenthal).

Repeated public opinion surveys have revealed a persistent and growing nostalgia among the population in general, relative to happiness with the democratic status quo. This was recently confirmed by a survey on 2 February 2016 of a representative population of 1,199 adults. Asked to assess the former PCR in comparison with the current democratic parties, 52% considered PCR to be ‘better’ than its contemporary counterparts, 8% found no difference between them, while only 18% thought PCR was ‘worse’ (the remaining 22% replied either ‘Don’t know’ or ‘No response’) (IRES). This positive appreciation of communism has been passed down to teenagers, who have no experience at all of the era for which they express a ‘pre-biographic’ nostalgia. Recent sociological studies have revealed one of the major conundrums of Romanian post-communism, that of teenagers’ nostalgia towards the communist regime. The study ‘Youth’s Civic and Political Engagement’ (Bădescu et al.), based on a representative sample of almost 6,000 Romanian high-school students, concluded that no less than one-third (35.8%) of Romanian teenagers favoured the communist regime to the current democratic one. In the face of economic hardship caused by transition, Romanian youth are rejecting the trauma narrative imposed by the Tismăneanu Report and embracing a ‘counter memory’, yearning for a pre-biographic past endorsed by the experience of their nostalgic parents.

What can be done to counter these possible scenarios—besides ‘working upon the present’ by redressing the economic situation and lack of social security—is the development of what I describe as a ‘comprehensive memory’ of Romanian communism. In defining this term, I will deliberately play on the polysemantic meaning of the word ‘comprehensive’. First, comprehensive memory refers to an all-inclusive memory, comprising the multiple facets of a highly complex historical reality, without reducing it to its criminal dimension. The current memory of communism is split along an elitist-popular line. The former remember predominantly, if not exclusively, the criminal dimensions of communism, interpreting the entire phenomenon in terms of a total societal trauma. This traumatic memory of communism has as its core what Cristina Petrescu and Dragoș Petrescu have called ‘the Pitești syndrome’, named so after the gruesome re-education experiment conducted on political prisoners in Pitești prison. Given the central place ‘the Pitești phenomenon’ occupies in the traumatic memory of the former regime, the entire communist experience is viewed through what could be named ‘the carceral paradigm of society’. Rooted in the flurry of memorialistic detention literature that followed the toppling of the former regime in 1989 (as mentioned earlier), this carceral paradigm, advanced by the surviving victims of the Romanian Gulag based on their own experiences, was soon invested with general social validity. Romanian society in its entirety was rendered metaphorically, but also taken literally, as a gigantic panoptical prison run by the ever-present but invisible guards of the Securitate.

Needless to say, this carceral extrapolation is a metaphorical over-stretch: despite the constraints and surveillance of the totalitarian state, ordinary people did not see the society in which they lived as a large-scale prison. Instead, they tend to remember communism in nostalgic terms, as a better time that they pit against the current hardships brought about by the post-communist transition to market society. Both of these readings are selective and unidimensional, as they do memorial justice to a limited view of the past. A comprehensive memory of Romanian communism of the sort advocated by this article will do justice to the polyphony of the past, acknowledging both its criminal, as well as its other, non-criminal, constitutive dimensions. Such a comprehensive memory should break free of the carceral paradigm of society in which it is currently imprisoned. It should also simultaneously encompass the multiple layers of the communist experience, by drawing on the political memory of the repression and terror unleashed in the 1950s as well as the popular memory of both the better times of the 1960s and 1970s, which some Romanians today regard with nostalgia, and the collective misery of the 1980s. Arguably, this multilayered, comprehensive memory, accommodating within itself the essential tension between the memory of the terror and the nostalgic memory of the not-so-bad sides of communism, amounts to an ‘uneasy memory’ of the recent past. Although theorised as essentially subjective, emotionally biased, and unidimensional, defined in opposition with the quasi-objectivity and universality of history (Halbwachs; Nora), memory need not be thoroughly selective, partisan, and simplifying. A normalising paradigm of remembering and coming to terms with the past, facilitated by the simple passage of time, seeks to construct a comprehensive memory of the communist experience that will do justice to the complexity of the past and promises to reconcile society through historical understanding.

An ancillary meaning of ‘comprehensive’ with a Weberian layer of meaning denotes a reflexive memory that strives towards ‘understanding’, not judging, the past. Building on the German concept of Verstehen, (empathic understanding) the notion of a ‘comprehensive memory’ demands a ‘hermeneutics of the past’ (see Table 1). At the core of the normalising shift is a struggle to understand the past without any revanchist thrust or vengefulness. While coming to terms with the criminal aspects of the past has to be done through juridical prosecution within a formal legal framework, the memory of the communist experience as a whole need not be brought into the historical court of the present, trialled, and peremptorily sentenced. After the failure to enact a proper ‘working through’ of the past to reconcile Romanians with their difficult past followed by a similarly failed programme of mastering the past by symbolically condemning and exorcising it, a comprehensive memory of Romanian communism promises to reconcile Romanian society through the powers of historical empathic understanding. Without ever hoping to encompass the complexity of history, collective memory can nonetheless be enriched by incorporating multiple layers of remembrances representing different experiences of the same past, respecting the inherent polyphony of the past.


This article set out, first, to develop a theoretical framework of possible patterns of coming to terms with the past as part of a wider programme of transitional justice including both a ‘politics of memory’ and judicial measures of redressing the historical wrongdoings in the present. In the wake of a regime change, political elites can choose either to ‘draw a thick line’ under the past through embracing an ‘elusive strategy’ based on a ‘politics of amnesia’ or to reckon with the past by pursuing a ‘confrontationist strategy’ founded upon a ‘politics of anamnesis’. Each strategy strives to emancipate the present from the burden of the past, either through ‘silencing the past’ (the legacy of the former regime is systematically erased or ignored), or through ‘assuming’ or ‘mastering the past’ (it is confronted face-on). Beyond these two antithetical strategies of managing the past, the article advanced a third path, corresponding to a ‘re-approaching strategy’ based on a ‘politics of understanding’. In contrast to the other available patterns of coming to terms with the legacy of a former regime, my proposed approach aims to ‘normalise the past’ through de-exceptionalisation and historicisation.

Second, using this theoretical frame of reference, the article mapped the path of Romanian politics of memory. It argued that in the first phase of the transition, dominated by the successor political formations of the former Communist Party, political elites promoted a politics of amnesia aimed at silencing the past. Throughout this period, the nascent civic society, backed up by historical anti-communist parties, was the main agent of memory, struggling against the state-endorsed amnesia to reckon with the communist past. It was only after 2004, when the centre-right Alliance for Justice and Truth came to power, that civic calls for such reckoning were given state support. The Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes was founded; a law of lustration, as belated as it was short-lived, was passed in 2006 and ruled as unconstitutional in 2007; secret files were transferred to the National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives; and, most importantly for the politics of memory, the Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania was set up whose Final Report formed the basis of the official condemnation of the communist regime pronounced by the president in 18 December 2006. It was through this official condemnation that a ‘mastering paradigm’ of managing the communist past has been established in the Romanian politics of memory. The article argued that, just as civic society had failed in persuading post-communist citizens to engage in a self-critical ‘working through’ of the past, the state-mandated condemnation similarly failed to reconcile Romanians, some of whom developed nostalgic feelings for their troubled past. It is against this background that the article advances the possibility of shifting Romanian politics of post-communist memory towards a ‘normalisation paradigm’ in which the traumatic memory of state repression embraced by the intellectual elites is reconciled with the ‘it wasn’t all bad’ popular memory of everyday life held by many ordinary post-communist citizens who outlived the regime.

At the same time as the Tismăneanu Commission was working towards an indictment of the communist era in Romania, the past of another former socialist country was under scrutiny, but from quite different interpretative angles and pragmatic purposes. The Sabrow Commission (SabrowKommission) of experts was established by the German Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Christina Weiss, to examine the institutions of memory involved in working through the Socialist Unity Party (SED) dictatorship in East Germany and to propose recommendations for their improvement. The commission’s apolitical mandate reflected a shift from state-produced official memory to a more diversified mode of remembering the GDR. After reviewing Germany’s institutional infrastructure of memory, including historical museums, memorials, and the Stasi Archives, one of the major recommendations advanced by the Sabrow Report was to better incorporate everyday life in the master story of East Germany’s communist history as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of ‘dictatorship’, ‘repression’, and ‘persecution’. This was intended to break Germans free of the ‘memory cage’ in which the GDR was remembered almost exclusively in the shadow of the Berlin Wall and the Stasi’s ubiquitous surveillance. This extra focus on the ‘everyday’ (Alltag) was needed to balance the scales between state oppression and East Germans’ everyday memories and experiences of the regime. The Sabrow Report also pointed out the fault line separating the state-endorsed, official memory (the Federal Memorial Concept, Gedenkstättenkonzeption) from the popular remembrances of ordinary East Germans (Beattie, pp. 30-3). It provides a model of ‘historicisation’ of memory (Clarke & Wölfel, p. 9) by a body of experts pursuing a scholarly agenda rather than an explicitly political one. Given its focus on doing scholarly justice to the past, as opposed to the Tismăneanu Commission’s vengeful subtext, the approach of the Sabrow-Kommission comes close to a ‘hermeneutics of history’ underpinning a ‘politics of understanding’. However, the approach was not universally approved: conservatives were critical of the Sabrow Report, fearing that it would only encourage East Germans’ ‘Ostalgia‘.

This strategy promoting a ‘politics of historical understanding’ is made possible by the fact that, as opposed to National Socialism, the memory of communism seems to have cooled down over time. Charles S. Maier has made the point that despite the literary struggles of Eastern European intellectuals to put the atrocities of communism on a par with the crimes of Nazism, there is the widely shared feeling that ‘the black book of Nazism remains, in the consciousness of so many of those preoccupied by the history of the twentieth century, blacker than the black book of Communism’ (Maier). Maier argues that the remembrance of the two twentieth-century totalitarianisms could not be more different: while the memory of the Holocaust and the Third Reich is still a ‘hot memory’, a ‘plutonium of history’ which retains its highest level of radioactivity, the memory of the Gulag and the Soviet Union had already reached its radioactive ‘half-life’, becoming a ‘cold memory’. Maier explains this differential as the result of several factors. One is the Marxist perspective ingrained in the worldview of Western intellectuals. Then there is the bellicosity of Nazism which started a world war in contrast to the relative peacefulness of the USSR in its foreign relations. Other factors include the Nazis’ ‘targeted terror’ which led to the formation of a highly organic community of memory, versus the Soviet ‘stochastic terror’ spread across ever-shifting categories of victims which created more diffused mnemonic communities. Most important, however, is the intractable problem of complicity. Large segments of the population accepted the social pact offered by socialist regimes in their mellowing, post-terror stage. In Maier’s words, ‘any such party-state that enters a phase of post-totalitarianism will leave a far muddier historical legacy than one that goes down in flames’, blurring the lines between the victims and oppressors and diffusing the responsibility throughout the social system (Maier). What interests me in this article is not so much the causes underlying this difference as the possibility for ‘re-approaching the past’ opened up by the ‘cooling down’ of the memory of the communist regime. A past that has reached its half-life threshold (that is, it is no longer a living or immediate memory for a critical mass of the population) is susceptible to being approached from a normalising angle, rather than with a loaded emotional agenda of seeking memorial justice. Now that Romania’s communist past has been officially condemned, a measure that has brought a sense of symbolic catharsis to the regime’s victims and their survivors, the communist historical experience is amenable to a more analytically balanced and emotionally detached scholarly approach. The victim’s active voice, along with the nostalgic silent resistance, should be joined by a sober scholarly voice expressed by the epistemic community made up of the academics working in the historical social sciences and humanities. This scholarly voice will not only enrich the cultural dialogue on the past but it also promises to contribute to the discussion by providing a dual corrective. On the one hand, it promises to add ‘shades of grey’ to the ‘black hole’ depiction of Romanian communism rendered by the anti-communist intellectuals and civic actors (Zbuchea & Ivan). On the other hand, it can engage in a genuine dialogue with the nostalgia for the former regime, whose human carriers, largely the elderly and the working class, have long been despised by anti-communist intellectuals who are unable to understand their grievances. What will emerge out of this trialogue will come close to a ‘historical memory’, that is to say, a collective memory of communism, as diverse as it is comprehensive, historicised through the contribution of a scholarly perspective on the past.