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East European Perspectives: December 11, 2003

11 December 2003, Volume 5, Number 25

The next issue of "RFE/RL East European Perspectives" will be published on 7 January 2004.


By Michael Shafir

7. Reconstructing Motivation: Holocaust Denial As A Function Of 'Shame Culture'

Memory is always a function of "group," the French social scientist Maurice Halbwachs argued. Whether this is singularly so is more than questionable. It is not my intention to engage in this debate -- one that would take us far beyond the limited scope of this study. However, Halbwachs's distinction between individual, historic, and collective memory, and his insistence that all three are functions of group (see Halbwachs, 1992 and 1997) may serve the purpose of providing not a DIFFERENT but an ADDITIONAL analytical perspective than the one thus far used. In stating that utilitarian anti-Semitism is at work in Romania, or that President Ion Iliescu's pronouncements reflect both deflecting and trivializing facets of Holocaust denial, we have achieved little more than a hopefully heuristic taxonomy. We might know (or believe to know) what Iliescu and the Social Democratic Party (PSD) are after (the electorate), but we have explained neither what would make them choose this particular strategy nor why would they believe the strategy stands a good chance of striking a responsive chord in the electorate. To put it differently -- we might know the "ends," we might have discovered the "hows," but we do not know the "whys." Halbwachs's distinctions may help for this latter purpose.

Let us first note that all three dimensions are part of a socialization process. According to Halbwachs, the first cornerstones of memory are laid in childhood. What individuals "remember" is how to read the past and the present through the spectacles of parents, grandparents, and the circle of their immediate friends. In other words, the Halbwachsian category of individual memory does not involve choice, as people cannot choose the family into which they are born or that family's immediate circle of friends. The experiences of this restricted circle would become "their" personal experience. How they relate to events occurring in their childhood is also "remembered" through the experience they undergo by being part of this restricted circle.

If this is indeed so, then President Iliescu's reference to his father, who was "similarly victimized," being sent to a camp as a communist and dying one year after liberation acquires a different perspective than that of trivialization of the Holocaust. Is the drama of a 15-year-old boy losing his father after the latter's imprisonment comparable to the traumatic experience of survivors of a people being slated for extermination as a whole? It certainly is not, FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE SURVIVORS. It is far less certain that this is so from the perspective of the "boy" speaking through the mouth of the 73-year-old president.

Similarly, the outraged reaction of Iliescu's current political adversaries, who had seen their grandparents, parents, and siblings imprisoned, tortured, and exterminated by the regime that Iliescu's father and the president himself helped bring about and entrench, reflects THEIR childhood socialization. Is the comparative trivialization with the Holocaust in which they indulge more legitimate? It certainly is when things are judged from a quantitative perspective. After all, the Gulag created far more victims than the Holocaust did (see Courtois, 1999, p. 4). Survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants, however, would argue that Gulag victims were not exterminated "for the sin of being born" (which is arguable, since people were decimated in the Gulag because they happened to be born in a "social class," like the kulaks) or that (and this is less arguable) whereas theoretically one could escape decimation in the Gulag by faking or undergoing a real process of transformation into a communist "New Man," Jews had no such chance, as no Jew could become a Nazi "New Man." I see no need to repeat my own position, beyond specifying that the "Holocaust-Gulag competition" is artificial, serves neither side, and contributes to sidestepping crucial moral questions (see Shafir, 2002, pp. 124-132). But this is not the point I wish to make now. Rather, I wish to emphasize (with Halbwachs) that memory is always subjective UNLESS... (I am perfectly aware that I have not finalized the sentence. I will do so shortly.)

Collective memory, according to Halbwachs, is the sum total of experiences an individual undergoes as a member of a group larger than the family and his/her immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. Belonging to this category is not necessarily a matter of choice, but it may become one. People do not choose to be born as part of a particular nation any more than they choose to be born a part of a particular family. But they might opt for belonging to peer-groups and associations. They might not have chosen to be born in a social class, but some move from one social class to another. All these factors would impact their memory. Seen from this perspective, it is no wonder that from their respective exiles in Paris and New York, two Romanian-language writers would use radically different magnifying glasses to read the past. Paul Goma (born 1935) would remember Antonescu as "the liberating Marshal," the "hero" who freed Bessarabia from the killers of his uncle and from those who deported his father -- a teacher in a school village -- and who, after his 1946 execution, became a "martyr" (Goma, 2002, p. 43). For Norman Manea, deported to Transnistria with his family only to return without his maternal grandparents, who perished in the Holocaust, Antonescu would be the author of his first exile at the age of five -- the author of the second (at the age of 50) being Ceausescu (Manea, 1999, p. 91 and 2002, p. 63).

If my reading of the French sociologist is correct, it is wrong to speak of collective memory. Rather, one should use the term of collective MEMORIES, which compete not only among themselves but often enough within the same individual. When President Iliescu warns against the "skinning" (according to the tapes reproduced in "Evenimentul zilei" twice repeating the word and stressing each syllable -- "ju-pu-im" -- to emphasize the meanness of restitution demands), he is expressing the leftist values into which he had been socialized as part of the collective memory of the group to which he belonged and belongs. He might, or might not, be aware of the fact that he is indulging into anti-Semitic political incitement; but quite obviously that consideration seems to him to be of secondary importance.

Yet the opposition National Liberal Party (PNL), in its official reaction to Iliescu's interview with "Ha'aretz," did little else when insisting only on the president's opposition to restitution, but ignoring all other (far more important) parts of the interview (see the statement by PNL spokesman Eugen Nicolaescu, Mediafax, 27 July 2003). Each was representing the values of the social class with which he identifies. On 23 June, PNL Senator Norica Nicolai, reacting to Israeli criticism of the government's 12 June statement, had dismissed any other motivation for that criticism but the drive to "incriminate Romania" in order to make possible large restitution demands by "influential circles with powerful capital." There was little difference between Iliescu's 25 August warning against "occult interests" at work and Nicolai's "conspiracy theory" built on the assumption of "people outside Romania who are interested in undermining our relations with Israel" to gain access to large properties in Romania ("Evenimentul zilei-Editia de Transilvania," 24 June 2003). As it turned out, what Iliescu was worried about was restitution as such, while what worried the PNL was both non-restitution TO ROMANIAN claimants and Jewish competition for restitution. They otherwise saw eye to eye.

This brings us to the third component of memory: historic memory. Paul Ricoeur rightly points out that, while also an important part of the socialization process, historic memory is the only component of the Halbwachs triangle that is induced from outside the individual's personal experiences (Ricoeur, 2001, pp. 479-480). It is a "bridge" between individual and collective memory, on the one hand, and the respective society's memory on the other hand. Or it might be an obstacle to the bridging operation, when individual and collective memory experiences contradict historic memory. "[T]he major reference of historic memory remains the nation," according to Ricoeur, who reproduces in support Halbwachs's affirmation that "generally, history starts where tradition ends" (Ricoeur, 2001, p. 482). Learning history begins in school. When individual and collective memories that socialized individuals bring to school -- and to learning institutions in general -- come into conflict with institutionalized historic memory, cognitive dissonance is inevitable. The Romanian communist regime had grasped this aspect by the mid-1960s, to which the roots of its national communism may be traced. But within a relatively short period -- less than a decade -- the Ceausescu regime had moved from constructing bridges with society and its past into manipulating that past to the benefit of the "extended" presidential family.

It seems to me, however, that both Halbwachs and Ricoeur miss an important aspect of this socialization process. That contradicting individual and collective memories might come into conflict with historic memory is true. However, it is no less true that historic memory might become totally subservient to individual and collective memory. This is particularly acute in societies undergoing an identity crisis, as is the case of the postcommunist polities. These societies find themselves in situations in which "single" official histories have been displaced. Not necessarily so, its institutionalized representatives. We dwelt above on the consequences. What we have not discussed, however, is the fact that in these crises situations, personal memories tend to replace historic research. While Leopold von Ranke's famous call on historians to reproduce the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" ["how it really was"] might be unattainable, memory is subjective by definition. As Adrian Cioroianu has put it, history is uncertain, memory is always certain (Cioroianu, 2002, p. 29).

This goes a long way to explain (but NOT to excuse) not only President Iliescu's description of his father's ordeal, but also statements by respected Romanian intellectuals situated on the center-right of the political spectrum. PNL Senator Alexandru Paleologu, for example, is a liberal spirit and a former opponent of the Antonescu regime. Yet Paleologu had much earlier than the June-July scandals denounced Marshal Antonescu's perception as a fascist. Antonescu's rule, he wrote, "at most" can be qualified as "a national regime with authoritarian features" (cited in Totok, 2000, p. 117). This is a perfect illustration of "subjective memory;" since, for the bulk of ethnic Romanians, the Antonescu regime had been indeed little else.

But it is also an illustration of the absence in Romania of "guilt culture" and the dominance of "shame culture," as cultural historian Sorin Antohi has pointed out, using the distinction first made by Ruth Benedict. This absence, Antohi writes

"[m]akes difficult tackling such subjects, since doing so would disturb triumphal anthems or introduce the theme of individual responsibility in a discourse regularly attributing Romania's tribulations to external causes. It seems to me that we are dealing here with a significant silence, with a gigantic national LAPSUS that makes us consider the rare tirades of some pathetic authors in search for local or individual responsibility for any public misfortune or fault as being just as many betrayals or perversions" (Antohi, 1994, p.233. Author's emphasis).

In several publications dating back to 1991 (see Shafir, 1991), I have used the concept of "externalization of guilt" to describe the same propensity; but I have come to realize that, on two grounds, the Benedict-Antohi distinction is more encompassing. First, unlike my own "externalization of guilt," the "shame-culture" v. "guilt-culture" dichotomy introduces motivation, not only outcome. Indeed, "shame culture" relates to the pressure faced by individuals to abide by the rules of social conformism, thus avoiding "shame" of "losing face" and becoming the subject of social opprobrium, particularly the opprobrium of one's peers (Antohi, 1994, p. 232). This might provide a partial explanation for the neglect by Romanian historians of the numerous works on the Holocaust published in their country after 1990 (see above). Second, Antohi's reading of "shame culture" introduces -- although it does not dwell on -- the further distinction between INDIVIDUAL and COLLECTIVE responsibility, a distinction that is crucial for the purposes of the present discussion. I hasten to add that Antohi's points are not made in connection with the treatment of the Holocaust, being rather part of a far more generalized debate.

At this stage, it should have become obvious that my "deconstruction" has run into apparent difficulties. After all, I concluded above that manipulating information and employing it at cross-purposes is neither ignorant nor self-defensive, being simply an act of cheating. This now must be amended to read as follows: "manipulating information and employing it at cross-purposes rules out ignorance. It may, however, be an act of CHEATING SELF-DEFENSE." When Iliescu said in his interview with "Ha'aretz" that "Antonescu also has his positive side" ("Ha'aretz," 25 July 2003), he was not so much engaging in a defense of the wartime dictator as he was "externalizing guilt" by comparison -- the referential term being Horthy's Hungary. Yet he was also giving in to the pressure of "shame culture." After all, against the backdrop of the approaching elections, his political adversaries were bound to remind him one way or another that he and his PSD had stepped into "guilt culture" by admitting responsibility for Romania's wartime crimes and enacting ordinance 31/2002. It mattered little that the admission was issued in "double-talk" (for details, see Shafir 2002, pp. 97-103), for that political discourse could not be publicly decoded due to the apprehensions of Western ears. And the political foe included not only the Greater Romania Party (PRM) but also the PNL, many of whose senators had supported PRM Senator Gheorghe Buzatu's definition of the Holocaust in committee debate (for details see Shafir, 2003). The "utilitarian anti-Semitism" explanation provided above remains valid and in force but must be integrated into the more general "shame-culture" v. "guilt-culture" dichotomy.

That dichotomy also explains Iliescu's insistence in the interview on the fact that "it is impossible to accuse the Romanian people and the Romanian society" of the crimes committed by Antonescu's regime. A favorite of postcommunist anti-Semites all over East-Central Europe, this adds up to an unwarranted mixture of guilt (which, as established at the Nuremberg 1945 trials can only be individual) and collective responsibility, which belongs to the process (NOT THE TRIAL) of "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung" (coping with, and overcoming the legacy of the past). But within a "shame culture" there can be no room for acceptance of collective responsibility. This returns our "deconstruction" attempt straight to the above-mentioned "unless" and to Halbwachs's concept of historic memory. It is the task of intellectuals in general and of historians in particular to facilitate society's moving from a "shame culture" into a "guilt culture." This is far from an easy mission. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust, unless this task is undertaken WILLINGLY AND CONSCIOUSLY, Julien Benda's "trahison des clercs" (treason of intellectuals) becomes a TRAHISON DES HISTORIENS (treason of historians). Theodor Adorno once wrote that poetry became impossible after Auschwitz. That Paul Celan proved him wrong is far less important than that Czeslaw Milosz showed he was mistaken.

As peers elsewhere in postcommunist East-Central Europe, following the collapse of communism, Romanian historians are searching for a "usable past." It may not be entirely accidental that this concept was forged by a political scientist rather than by a historian (Rupnik, 1992/1993). One needs some distance from the object of one's study. To my knowledge, Jacques Rupnik, who first coined the term, has never defined it. Nor have those who employed it marching in his footsteps (see, for example, Iordachi and Trencsenyi, 2003). Under "usable history," I understand the search for positive past referents for the purpose of forging self-confident national identities. For as Antohi shows, postcommunism entails, among other things, a crisis of national identity (Antohi, 1997, pp. 292-316). And, as Romanian historian Lucian Boia put it, "The past means legitimation and justification. Without having a past, we can be certain of nothing." Which past, however? I have elsewhere pointed out that the search of a "usable past" in postcommunist East-Central Europe involves the contradictory endeavor of having to overcome the immediate past without leaning on what preceded it, namely the authoritarian past antedating communism (Shafir, forthcoming). Thus far, only a few Romanian historians have dared attempt doing that, and the outcome of their efforts is far from clear.

Some, while professing to engage in the endeavor by admitting Antonescu's and his government's responsibility for wartime atrocities, obliquely seek to deflect responsibility and to find justification for motivations. Historian Florin Constantiniu's "A Sincere History of the Romanian People" is a good illustration of "insincerity in sincerity," as is the previously published "Romania In the Second World War" by historian Dinu Giurescu. In the eyes of the latter author, Antonescu's rule had been of the "paternalist traditionalist" type, with "strong nationalistic accents, safeguarding private property, as well as the mechanisms of a market economy, as much as those mechanisms could function in those years." The "repressive apparat functioned at a very moderate level, if one takes into consideration wartime conditions." Giurescu admits, however, that there was "a single major exception: the anti-Semitic policy and the treatment imposed on the Jews from Bessarabia and northern Bukovina, out of whom over 108,000 died or were killed in Transnistria." Nevertheless, he writes, Antonescu "has the merit of having saved from the final solution the life of over 300,000 Romanian Jews" (Giurescu, 1999, pp. 70-91). The best response came from Boia: "The Antonescu regime exterminated just over 100,000 Romanian Jews and 'saved' some 300,000. Strictly arithmetical, the merit would be three times higher than the guilt. Were it not for the fact that it is no merit not to kill and it is criminal to do so" (Boia, 2001, p. 194). Like Giurescu, Constantiniu insisted that Antonescu had been "no fascist," since he did not head a single fascist party:

"It was a dictatorial rule, which was entrenched in an ideology inspired by the traditional themes of autochthonous nationalism.... The anti-Semitic component was not lacking either; it was vigorously expressed between 1940-1942, but would fade away and even disappear as the situation deteriorated on the eastern front and the marshal would understand that protecting Jews could be turned into a significant political capital in negotiations with the Anglo-Americans (the numbers on dead Jews are subject of controversy; at this stage, available information seems to indicate that approximately 200,000 Jews, most of them from Bessarabia, Bukovina and Transnistria, perished as a result of Romanian or Romanian-German troops' actions)" (Constantiniu, 1997, p. 394).

Constantiniu went on to note that "an analogy" could be established between Antonescu and French Marshal Philippe Petain: Both had fought against Germany in the previous world war; both had taken over power "at a moment of national tragedy"; both were persuaded that collaboration with Germany might partially improve their countries' situation; both had used a "nationalist paternalistic discourse using as motifs: fatherland, work, family; neither had a political party of his own. Only their end was different: Marshal Petain [was] sentenced to death, was pardoned and died in detention," whereas Antonescu was executed (Constantiniu, 1997, pp. 394-395). This is more than "subjective memory" at work, as is the case of Paleologu and possibly Giurescu. It is contributing to Antonescu's mythification by transforming him into a martyr. As a staunch anticommunist, Antonescu presents a tempting referential alternative. And, as historian Andrei Pippidi -- perhaps the most consistent opponent of Antonescu's rehabilitation drive among Romanian historians (see Shafir, forthcoming) -- wrote, choosing between different "memories" is also a choice between different options for the future (Pippidi, 2000, p. 78).

It is this choice, hand in hand with the need for a "usable history," that is at the center of Antohi's attention. He speaks of the need to rid Romanian historiography of the sentiment of "stigmatic identity" by placing it in a comparative perspective that would enable it to do away with both inferiority complexes toward the West (or, as he terms it, "cultural Bovarism") and with the complex of Romanian mystified superiority and alleged uniqueness (Antohi, 1997, pp. 292-316). The endeavor is laudable. Its outcome, however, might well depend on "models." This study has shown, I believe, that the "institutionalized" models of Romanian historians and cultural historians are unable to perform this task. And while non-institutionalized historians might be aging or must fight battles they lose more often than they win, Antohi's own example (he teaches at Central European University in Budapest, not at Bucharest University, where he once taught) shows that the struggle is far from nearing victory.

This does not only sound pessimistic, it IS pessimistic. Yet the jury is still out. A number of young historians, such as Cioflanca and Cioroianu, demonstrated by their reactions to the June-July scandals that they are ready to "face the dragon" and speak up. Some political scientists (Dan Pavel, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Stelian Tanase, George Voicu) can also be counted in this category. Two examples would suffice.

Cioflanca was noting after the government's June "omission" that its "clarification" in the wake of the scandal "reiterated the myth of the 'salvation of Jews'...and worriedly signaled the danger of a collective indictment of Romanians." At which point, he added:

"As a matter of fact, the Jews and the democratic regimes do not speak of guilt in its penal sense, but about responsibility or, in Karl Jasper's terminology, about a metaphysical guilt (which is different from both criminal and political guilt) -- in other words, about that form of solidarity of human beings as species, which induces the joint responsibility of each [of us] for any injustice in the world. The memory of the Holocaust poses a great moral problem: what would I have done in that situation and what would I do in similar situations? Criminally and politically, the guilt is that of the authorities and of the political actors in the Holocaust period, as well as of the descendant Romanian state--and must therefore be officially assumed. The metaphysical guilt, responsibility, however, is ours, particularly when we refuse to sincerely respond to the moral dilemma raised by the memory of the Holocaust" (Cioflanca, 2003).

Pavel was pointing to the problem of failure in the search for "usable history," noting that the problems faced by contemporary Romania were not merely a reflection of its incomplete institutional political reforms. Rather, these problems were induced by "a political culture lacking the moral dimension [needed for] comprehending the gravity of mass crimes committed by generations of politicians, whose malefic inheritance remains unaltered, be that [the inheritance] of Antonescu or the Legionnaires or [the inheritance] of the communists." Denying or diminishing the past crimes of either the Holocaust or of the Gulag, he concluded, have forged in the present "an enormous space of ambiguity, turning any distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral, into a relative matter. An ethical and political hodge-podge" (Pavel, 2003).

Looking Back
Our deconstructionist endeavor has come full circle. It started on a lighter note and ended on a more serious one. The author would feel far better if it were the other way around. The cucumber season is over. Alas, not so the cucumber salad's ingredients. Let us recapitulate them. We started by pointing to "utilitarian anti-Semitism" as the object of the exercise. That assumption was never proven wrong. We went on to point out that once at work, utilitarian anti-Semitism may be accompanied by selective negationism and by a comparative trivialization of the Holocaust. We observed that a second, accompanying aspect is dissimulation or "doubletalk." While this assumption also remains valid, we had to amend our initial reading of its context, inasmuch as engaging in dissimulation might be a manifestation of "cheating self-defense." With the third dimension of our deconstruction operation, we stepped into a far more serious aspect -- and at the same time, one that is self-defeating for the actor: the comparative trivialization of the Holocaust. We have observed how, in indulging in that attempt, President Iliescu has unwittingly triggered a renewed debate over the "Holocaust v. Gulag" debate -- one that can hardly benefit him. We then went on to demolish the president's maladroit attempt to deny the accuracy of the interview attributed to him, and observed how, in so doing, Iliescu succumbed to the temptations of a political discourse involving "conspiracy theory" and deflecting the blame for anti-Semitism onto the Jews. Having scrutinized the objects and the instruments used in the two Holocaust scandals, we had not, however, yet clarified the motivations driving their actors. Those motivations, it turned out, are to be mainly attributed to socialization processes that individuals undergo from childhood to maturity, when they act in an environment in which "shame culture" is predominant. When they do so, they are both subjects and objects, both inputting and outputting. This vicious circle might be the most serious impediment on the path of Romania's "Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung."

POSTSCRIPT: On 22 October, President Iliescu appointed an international commission of scholars from Romania and abroad to "examine the history of the Holocaust in Romania for the purpose of establishing the facts of this event and disseminating its findings in Romania and abroad." The author of this article is a member of that commission.

(The author is grateful for having been granted the permission to publish this abridged version of his article ahead of the appearance of its full version in the Romanian journal "Xenopoliana. Buletinul Fundatiei Academice A. D. Xenopol", Vol. XII, 2003.)


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