Overcoming Totalitarianism: An attempt to Identify the Terrain

Sergei AVERINTSEV (1937-2004)

The challenge of how to “overcome” a totalitarian past should face every nation with experience of one but, as we see, extremely few rise to it.

One of the lessons we learn from analysing the insanity of totalitarianism, is that any system of thought becomes insane when it ceases to be self-critical. A level look at one’s own self should be a question of honour for anyone attempting any form of criticism.


swastika on red ground

The obligation to “overcome” one’s own past is a totally new phenomenon, without precedent in human history. Never before have entire nations and their belief systems been subjected to thoroughgoing criticism and not just the behaviour of one or two of their national representatives. When in 1946 the Austrian philosopher Karl Jaspers launched his remarkable work “The Question of German Guilt”, he really did conceptualise something that had never before been the subject of discussion. He gave a logical structure to the hierarchy of collective guilt – and not just in Germany’s case, of course.

The notion that someone under military orders who is not directly involved in killing, may still have to answer to humanity and himself if international public opinion and his conscience deem the war to have been unjust is quite alien to previous centuries. Traditional monarchists might have condemned Napoleon as a “usurper” and liberals excoriated him an “enslaver of the peoples”, but no one could seriously project his guilt onto the soldiers of the “Grande Armee”. It is telling that moments before he died the Russian commander Bagration managed to shout “Bravo, bravo!” to the French grenadiers, as they fearlessly advanced at Borodino.

The First World War gave great impetus to the sort of discourse that regarded the enemy elite and the whole civilisation behind it as fair game for concerted attack, sometimes by the best brains of either side, like the German novelist Thomas Mann and the French socialist writer Charles Peguy. As people, Thomas Mann and the British writer G.K.Chesterton could not have been more different, but they used remarkably similar means to argue that Germany, or conversely Britain, represented noble, organic culture and the other side the dead hand of technology. It was like a fight between twins, each mirroring the other’s gestures (although neither knew anything about the other…).

Totalitarian regimes took this trend and accentuated it sharply for their own ends. In Nazi discourse all opponents were by their very nature not quite human – Untermenshchen – whilst for the Soviets every foreigner was culpable in principle, unless they made particular efforts to become a “friend of the Soviet Union” and exculpate their guilt. All its “own” people, the totalitarian regimes strove to implicate in every way in all they did. This was the “totality” of totalitarianism and what distinguished it for the worse from older forms of despotism, that had settled for their subjects’ silent submission without requiring quasi-spontaneous participation in fake elections and mass meetings to call for revenge etc. All this created the context for what followed. We should not talk about a timeless obligation to overcome our past, but about something that came into being within living memory.


We do not harm or compromise the moral principle behind “overcoming” the past, if we reject the mythology of how it first became a political reality, at the end of the Second World War.  The extent of this myth-making at least gives bitter validity to the famous question put by Russian dissenters when Soviet ideology was fading: why is there no Nuremberg trial to hear the crimes of Communist totalitarianism?

We can ask that question seriously only if we have forgotten about the trial as an empirical reality, and regard it as a moral and legal abstraction. Of course, the groundwork for Nuremberg was laid by a period of worldwide introspection that included “the other Germany” (das andere Deutschland) – the Germany in emigration and the Germany of the resistance. Without this phase of reflection the hearings would have been impossible, but other factors were essential to make them a reality: pragmatism allied with morality remained pragmatism. It was only the victory of the allies that made the Nuremberg Trial possible and with it the de-Nazification programme of the occupying authorities. But let’s not forget that the allies included the Soviet Union, then at the apogee of Stalinist totalitarianism.

This was the reality and it inevitably embraced a whole range of appalling extremes, such as British carpet-bombing of German cities; Soviet revenge on German civilians, which the writer Lev Kopelev condemned and for which he was despatched to the GULag; de-Nazification of idiotic pettiness (such as the brief dismissal of the great conductor William Furtwangler); and of course the totalitarian game plan of the Soviet occupying authority to establish a German Democratic Republic. Was not the ambiguity of the early Adenauer period partly a natural psychological reaction to the despicable behaviour of the occupying authorities – and not only among ex-Nazis and Nazi-sympathisers? By then, people were levelling increasingly harsh criticism not just at the past, but at the attempts to deal with it, driven in their turn by a mixture of morality and high politics.

hammer and sickle on red star

As one of the victorious allies, things were entirely different for the Soviet Union. The events that led to the collapse of the Wall – what the Germans call die Wende – arose from a complex interplay of domestic factors. It pains me to say that western public opinion was then perhaps too ready to greet each compromise made by President Gorbachov’s USSR as an act of good will, dictated by a so-called “new awareness”. Too fast it then did a 180-degree turn and began to see everything as defeat verging on a military rout. Put crudely, yesterday the Russians were the kindly minds behind the end of the “Cold War” and today we are its defeated.

If we are serious, we can never reduce reality to one dimension, be it rose-tinted or black. An analysis of the moral and immoral motives behind what took place is subject matter for a separate study and cannot be given here. Be that as it may, we should not overlook the role of moral protest against totalitarianism. It had reached such a pitch that only a new spiral of unbridled terror could have dealt with it, something Gorbachov did not want. But he was not strong enough to suppress it otherwise and the resulting compromise between the Soviet elite and oppositionists in society was not so far removed from the programme once put forward by Solzhenitsyn in his 1974 “Letter to the Leaders of the Soviet Union”: we free ourselves without blood or struggle from a totalitarian ideology and in exchange the former leadership basically stays in place.

We accepted that compromise and to this day I see no alternative to it short of a series of bloody catastrophes. But for us it leaves regime change in a special context. We have to come to terms with the fact that the old regime was not defeated by an outside army or by a domestic revolt: it was dismantled by representatives of the Party elite. The old maxim says pacta sunt servanda – treaties must be observed.

I would like to note that if their own conscience and international public opinion demand that Germany and Russia constantly revisit their crimes, there are some countries of whom this has never been required – not by the world, nor the voice of their own conscience. One of many examples is Turkey, to this day staunchly denying the genocide of 1914-1915 and later years that carried off most of the Armenian population. France’s recent recognition of the genocide provoked a furious reaction in Ankara, but the rest of the world says nothing: Turkey is too valuable as an ally and its membership of the European Union is already on the agenda. Inside Turkey there is also silence….

Evidently not every culture accepts the idea that the nation must reflect upon its responsibility for the sins and crimes of its past and confess them before the entire world. The idea is either there, or it is not. If it is there then like any other moral precept it may be pushed aside or briefly suppressed, but it will continue its existence underground. This notion evidently relates more or less directly to the solemn importance attached by the Christian tradition to conversion and confession. To use the terminology of the US cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, it is a ‘culture of conscience’.

Eastern culture, on the other hand, is traditionally defined as a “culture of shame”. There a person must “save face”, which is a good incentive not to reveal disagreeable secrets. Modern liberals sometimes favour a culture of shame as a precaution against overwhelmingly negative emotions, but the extent to which the future of Europe’s tradition of freedom connects to a culture of conscience is obvious. It is a very specific phenomenon. Of course nowadays we see a number of human rights defenders in the east who are willing to undergo persecution, but I cannot imagine a Chinese Solzhenitsyn, say, in the role of inspired prosecutor, reciting the crimes of his beloved homeland before the entire world with the force or candour of his Russian peer! To this day, even among the oppositionists, I have never heard one Turkish novelist or essayist pause to reflect upon the extermination of the Armenians. The fact that Solzhenitsyn is known to be nationalist to a passion, only underlines the contrast. Even his nationalism did not stop him speaking out, or condemning injustices Stalin had perpetrated against non-Russian peoples…

Of course, too often we are more ready to think of saving our face than salving our conscience, both as individuals and as groups. But we cannot do so in all good faith as though it really does not matter, and this inner constraint is what unites us, Russians and people from the West. I personally am certain this reflects our common Christian heritage, refracted in secularised ways though it may be.

A programme for coming to terms with the past quite naturally, quite necessarily, is a project for educating the public. It must be, or it will become one of the abstract, futile games of the chattering classes. But this immediately brings it dangerously close to the totalitarianism it seeks to overcome. Totalitarianism was an attempt at total re-education, at “remaking” human identity, or as they used to say in the Soviet Union an attempt at creating a “new human being”. With all the genuine respect for Karl Jaspers that I have felt and expressed since Soviet times, I must admit to understanding the German classicist Ernst Robert Curtius’ famous response to this project, although I do not share it. He was against the pedagogical conceit of having “a national mentor” – a “praeceptor Germaniae” – who would educate people once and for all and set things in their place. The experience of totalitarianism makes one quite allergic to the techniques public educators like to use and to their formulae, designed for rote learning and regurgitation.

Some time ago the famous Hungarian scholar and thinker Karl Kerenyi said that the spirit of abstractionism opened the door to National Socialism, because it replaced Jews as individuals with a faceless category of “Jewry”. “Kill the Jews” sounds horrific, but “eradicating Jewry” sounds like the formula for a logical operation. I fear the political re-education of new generations may be infected with the same strain of over-simplification that was so fateful in the past we are trying to overcome.

Let me share two of my impressions from living in Vienna. As we know, most of Vienna’s historic synagogues were destroyed after the Anschluss in 1938. As part of their strategy for commemorating this disaster, prominent Jewish organisations and the mass media have chosen to mount a massive replica of one of the synagogue façades on the front of an apartment block built in its place in the meantime. At the same time the real but far less imposing premises of a former synagogue in the grounds of the Austrian General Hospital are being let go and allowed to collapse. They were used to house an electricity transformer and are now being turned into a warehouse – usage that inevitably reminds a Russian of the way the Soviets treated places for “the performance of religious cults”. For me this one example is symptomatic of the near inevitability that our media-conscious age will prefer a theatre prop (ie an evident ‘fake’) and a media happening reminiscent of the “monumental propaganda” of Soviet totalitarian times, to a genuine recollection of real victims of the past. This is how it seems to me. But the problem is by no means exclusive to Vienna, and that is the only reason I raised the example in this context.

My second impression is of a demonstration that was “leftwing”, not pro-Nazi, and concerned recent events in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Boys and girls were marching to the beat of one endlessly repeated phrase: “One two three – Palestinians must be free!” I fully understand that the same person can simultaneously feel unconditional sympathy for the sufferings of the Jews in the Holocaust, sense the historical link between them and the birth of the Israeli State, and try to empathise with the difficult situation in which Arabs now find themselves. From my own experience I know this is possible, if only thanks to Israeli friends. But it is this experience that leads me to believe that awareness of the misfortunes and needs of each side is so challenging that it cannot be expressed in the chirpy, childish slogan: “One two three! …” I am alarmed every time I come across young people, raised in conditions far from totalitarianism and seemingly well-informed about the injustices inflicted on the Jews, who are still willing to take up “truths” fed them by the media and chant them uncritically, without the faintest sense of responsibility for what they are saying. This is the same willingness that totalitarian regimes exploited so rigorously in their day, when they set up the Hitler Youth Movement and the Young Communist League.

Not surprisingly the phrase “a chorus of voices” comes to have grimly symbolic meaning on the lips of the hero of Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire “The Heart of a Dog”, which he wrote back in 1925.  If you agree with Bulgakov’s critique of early Soviet totalitarianism, its calamities arose from just this over-willingness to sing in “a chorus of voices”. Is it any less dangerous now that the phase of classical totalitarianism is over? Can we be confident that, bar a few scandalous neo-fascists, today’s chanting rings with liberal political correctness and sounds nothing like totalitarian slogans?

I should say that the experience of Soviet times has made me extremely sceptical of political correctness. During the worst of the anti-Semitism at the end of his regime, when Stalin was methodically destroying the Jewish elite and his officials were secretly briefing audiences at so-called political-information meetings that Jews drank babies’ blood – “the blood slander” – and making preparations for a slaughter comparable in scale to the Holocaust – the political correctness of the Soviet press was irreproachable. It did not refer to “Jews”, let alone “yids”, but talked only of “rootless cosmopolitans”. In our day intellectual fashions change increasingly fast. Each new generation clashes with the previous one, which means that the words of the chorus of voices are bound to change over time.

Without wishing to be a prophet of doom, I am certain of one thing. If, God forbid, a regime comes to power that is morally absolutely deplorable, it will have no difficulty finding verbal camouflage that is unlike any of the totalitarian forms previously known. Mental habit leads us to expect the return of what we already know, although even in ancient Greece the philosopher Heraclitus said you never enter the same river twice. It was their fear that Tsarism would be restored after the revolution in February 1917 that blinded Russian parliamentary liberals like Kerensky to the advances of Lenin’s despotism, which was a far more terrifying phenomenon.

It is therefore hardly likely we will ward off dangers in future with a barrage of instant formulae, whipped up from politically correct clichés and regurgitated in a chorus. Liberalism today is too illiberal and too insensitive to anything that cannot be transmitted in slogans by the mass media. The only way to inoculate ourselves against the emergence of a new totalitarianism is by taking personal responsibility for each word we use and each thing we do. It is this that makes us distrust crowd impulses, the hypnotic effect of groups, and the spirit of abstractionism that Kerenyi described.


As I see it, the process of overcoming the past is in danger from two very different attitudes that too often go hand in hand: sentimentality and cynicism. As my example I shall take not a Russian case but a German one, namely the new account of how Jews in the Polish village of Jedwabne, 60 miles north east of Warsaw, were killed on 10 July 1941. Until now this was thought to have been the work of the German occupiers, but Professor Jan Tomasz Gross in New York asserts that it was done by local Poles. Being neither a Pole nor a specialist in Polish history, I cannot comment on Gross’ theory, which seems to have little evidence behind it. What troubles me is that – either with patriotic indignation at one extreme or with malicious glee at the other – people have assumed his conclusion refutes Poland’s image as a country that suffered.

After all the “de-Nazification” that has taken place, how can we possibly continue dividing nations into “good” and “bad,” and find only the good ones worthy of our sympathy? If that is not racism, then what is? How can we possibly condemn the whole of “Polish society” for what happened, rather than the people who carried out the killings? Isn’t that Nazi reasoning?


What stands in the way of a moral victory over the totalitarian past and national isolationism today? Two countervailing tendencies, as I see it. One, is a militant anti-liberalism that still has a grip on nationalists and isolationists, and the other is the tendency of liberals today to behave like any other ideologists when it comes to re-educating the public. They reduce their message to slogans and primitive gestures then present it as the only way. This does not so much defend freedom of personal choice, as remove the point of it. As for the gestures, they are too often ugly and silly, tactically speaking, because they give their opponents scope for all kinds of response. In 1996 members of Greenpeace came to Russia to urge it to dismantle its nuclear weapons – a serious subject however you look at it. Keen to attract young people to their cause, as they innocently announced, they found no better way of doing so than by staging raunchy rock concerts that verged on the pornographic and gave every Russian Neo-Nazi or Neo-Communist the chance to say: “Look at the filth they are peddling to our young people!”

Episodes like this, of course, are legion and not only in Russia. They go beyond permissiveness and sexual tolerance. They represent the ideologically-motivated foisting of a particular way of life onto the rest of the world without distinction – as though it was a quasi-sacred symbol of democratic values. One cannot endorse the Hindus who immolated themselves in protest against a beauty contest, which for some reason could only be held in India, but one can and must understand them. Without incidents like these, Neo-Communists, Neo-Fascists, Neo-Nazis and Islamist fanatics would stand no chance. Democrats should be the last people to allow themselves a frisson of contempt or indignation when ‘Joe public’ listens to the vilest exponents of anti-liberalism and votes for them at the ballot box etc. Each time this happens we should ask ourselves “What did we do to make them vote like that? Why did they exercise their democratic right just to tell us how much they dislike us?”


It is wise to remember that the totalitarian regimes did not represent only a rebellion of the subconscious against its ‘archetypes’. History gave them their chance because they offered totally bogus answers to completely genuine questions that arose from an earlier crisis of national identity. The end of the totalitarian regimes and their subsequent debunking gives us the opportunity to feel how utterly real those questions were. We can prevent the recurrence of totalitarian tendencies in future only if we are open to all the issues that confront us and respond to them with integrity and a level head. Rote learning of ‘politically correct’ phrases will be no substitute for an education in intellectual integrity.

Averintsev (pravmir)
Sergei S. AVERINTSEV (1937-2004)

Translation published in Index on Censorship

index on censorship