Democracy, History, and Memory: An Insider’s Perspective on the Romanian Truth Commission

Vladimir Tismaneanu is Professor of Politics and Director of the Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies at the University of Maryland. He was the Chair and Coordinator of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. His publications include The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2012, paperback 2014), Stalinism for All Seasons: a Political History of Romanian Communism (University of California Press, 2003), Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton University Press, 1998, paperback 2009), Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel (Free Press, 1992. paperback 1993), among many others. In 2014, he co-authored, together with political scientist Marius Stan, a book in Romanian titled, The Stalin Dossier: The Genialissimo Generalissimo (Curtea Veche Publishing).


Vladimir Tismaneanu gave a lecture Democracy, History, and Memory: An Insider’s Perspective on the Romanian Truth Commission at the Havighurst Colloquium “Secrecy, Sovereignty, and Power” organized by Neringa Klumbytė, Associate Professor of Anthropology, on September 29, 2014. During Tismaneanu’s visit to Miami University, Dennis Kontorovich, a MU REES major, interviewed him about secrecy in totalitarian and democratic societies, post-communist transitions in Eastern Europe, and political myths we lived with.

Dennis Kontorovich: Do you think are the key factors that determine whether a former communist republic successfully transitions to a liberal democracy?

Vladimir Tismaneanu: First and foremost, I think the key factor is the strategic vision and the political will for such a transition. This means a transformation of the political elites, not simply by wearing new masks on the old faces, but instead a new generation of elites educated in the spirit of democracy and ready to accept the rules of democracy. That is one key element, the second element is of course the opening of markets from the planned economy to the market economy and the assurance of the legal framework for the free market to operate in a procedural, rather than a predatory way. In other words, creating market capitalism, not grabbing capitalism. Privatization should be privatization, it should not be for the oligarchs to capture everything they can. The third element, equally important, is the building of a vibrant, robust, and viable civil society. A great American sociologist, Daniel Bell, used to say that civil society is the counterpart to a market economy. You cannot separate the two. Now, if you go into the history of the Scottish enlightenment, especially into the works of Adam Smith, you will learn that for a market economy to function, as a genuine market economy, not as a mascarade of a market economy, you need moral sentiments. Moral sentiments are built within the civil society. This is the reason, I think, that authors like Adam Smith, and even before him Montesquieu, are very important to read in order to pursue this vision of a civil society in which people organize themselves in different forms of communities. This is done in order to first, allow for civic participation, and second, limit, what a great political scientist once called, the great voracious appetite for power of the state.

Dennis Kontorovich: So what I got from that was that the change can’t be only from the bottom or the top. It has to come from both the elites and the general population.

Vladimir Tismaneanu: Exactly, the two of them have to be linked somehow. If I were to find a very important element for the transitions to be successful it would be the building of a democratic ethos. People have to start believing in democracy. The liberal values have to be internalized and people have to understand, not what they can do in the liberal values environment, but rather what they would miss if this liberal environment were not to exist. It is largely our fear of what can happen if we don’t have liberal rights that drives us towards these very rights. For example, if the current Hungarian prime minister comes out and says that the current liberal democratic values are on the decline and the future belongs to the different authoritarian regimes then the people would have to respond to this announcement. We have to respond to this because of our fear of losing what we know as liberal democratic values.

Dennis Kontorovich: Okay, going off of that, what part do you think political freedom plays in the transition from communism to democracy? How does the government’s choice to empower or take power away from its citizens impact the outcome of the transition?

Vladimir Tismaneanu: I hinted at this a little bit before by referring to the work of the political philosopher, and a great figure in the field of studying human rights who teaches at Harvard, Michael Ignatieff, who had two articles recently published in the New York Review of Books about the new authoritarianism. So this is very important because if we look into the revolutions of 1989 until 1991 basically, because I see this as a series which doesn’t stop in 1991, but it comes to a relative end with the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The major value people fought for and defended was the value of individual freedom. No matter how people try to revise the history of 1989, the revolutions were not for more socialism or even democratic socialism (there are people who would say this). They were for liberty and the constitution of liberty was the foundation of the agenda of 1989. What liberty? Political liberty, religious liberty, and economic liberty, these three liberties are fundamental. This is why a civic movement, which used to be called the independent self-managed or self-determined trade union in Solidarity in Poland, was simultaneously a deeply religious movement, very much inspired by the ideals of John Paul II, but not only by John Paul II; at the same time it was a social movement. A new type of social movement that belonged to what we call new social movements in the social science literature. We didn’t have such movements in the other Eastern European countries. Obviously, civil society was the most developed in Poland, less developed in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and even less developed in Romania and Bulgaria. At the same time I always say that the lack of visibility of the civil society doesn’t mean its absence. It exists sometimes in different forms, including forms which people tend to dismiss. Since we will discuss here, in this colloquium, secrecy and the opposition to secrecy, it is relevant to remember the GDR so-called niche society. People would get into small niches and act more or less in a free way. I read recently the memoirs of Pastor Joachim Gauck, the current president of the Federal Republic of Germany. Joachim Gauck describes his own experiences as a Protestant pastor in the GDR. There were two main things he said in his philosophy during the existence of the GDR. First, that he refused to lie, which is a very important element. He refused to participate in perpetuation of the reproduction of lie. Second, he would defend his high school students who tried to find protection within the church. He came out of decades of the GDR regime without having cooperated with the Stasi. So it was possible for people not to cooperate with the regime. Then you have shades of what was called collaboration, but also shades of non-collaboration, how far would a person go in not collaborating with the regime.

Dennis Kontorovich: How does political myth differ in communist societies and democratic societies? Can you give some examples of the extremes of political myth?

Vladimir Tismaneanu: Political myth is a fact of political life. It has existed and will probably exist with us into the future. There are forms of organizing our understanding of the political world and they help in organizing our knowledge. Finding explanations for things which appear to be totally impenetrable and unfathomable. There is the myth of the state, there are also myths of origins and myths of resurrection. The difference between a political myth within a democratic order and communist order is obvious. In a democratic society the political myths are a compliment of a political culture which emphasizes nationality, dialogue, transparency and so on and so forth. These myths can be scrutinized, they are not the foundation of the political order. Communist societies are mythocratic societies, societies in which myth runs free. Communists would not be there unless they were set on building an unearthly paradise. They have a political myth that they then try to fulfill. This myth overlaps with their central ideology. So the political myth acts as the base for let’s call it their claim to epistemic infallibility. Their claim to the fact that they are epistemically inherent, in other words they cannot be wrong. Okay, so they see the future and this is very much a political myth. It is a myth of salvation because if you look into the story of communism as it was formulated in the times of Karl Marx, it is basically the leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of liberty. This is basically a political myth, the fundamentalist point here is that it claims to build what belongs to the city of God here and now. It claims the possibility to create a utopia.

Dennis Kontorovich: So basically in a communist society the political myth is really the concrete structure base, and in a democratic society it is more loosely based and held, it is not an absolute given truth.

Vladimir Tismaneanu: Exactly, now I am hesitant to say something, myth is not to be judged in terms of true or false. Some political myths are true and others are very obviously false. The power of political myth however, rests in its credibility, not its truthfulness. When, as political scientists, we look into political myth we want to understand why it is credible and why people are ready to buy it. Putin for instance has clearly the myth of defending Russia against fascists, this is a myth, and in this case it is also a lie. But ultimately people buy into it and this is perpetuated when there is only one type of message being broadcasted to the public.

Dennis Kontorovich: Would you consider secrecy, a government technology in both communist and democratic societies, as the building block for political myth, such as nationalism or liberalism, or political myth as the foundation for secrecy?

Vladimir Tismaneanu: I know that some of my liberal friends may not be happy with my response, but you know we are not here to make people happy necessarily, we are here to say what we think to have a closer perspective to truth. I don’t pretend as if truth is in my pocket as we talk, but at the same time I have been thinking a lot about this issue. I think that secrecy is part of totalitarianism’s DNA. The point of secrecy is fundamental for the persistence of totalitarian methods of control of the population. Secrecy is used in order to ensure the state’s control over the population, this is the way that dictatorships function. This is the main purpose of secrecy within a dictatorship, especially in a totalitarian dictatorship which was a brand new form of dictatorship which emerged with Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution in 1917-1918. I think, in liberal societies, secrecy is there to protect the democracy, not to subvert it, so I think that the goal of secrecy is fundamentally different in a democracy and in a totalitarian society. This being said, and having managed to dissatisfy some of my friends, I would add that I think that any form of excess, any form of overgrowth is dangerous. That is the reason that I emphasize that civil society is such an important component of a democratic order and I emphasis the importance of procedural institutions and accountability. Now communism is by definition opposed to accountability. There are no communist leaders that can be held accountable. So, transparency and accountability, which are the key features of the democratic order, are basically simulated to some extent, but they don’t really exist in totalitarian societies or dictatorships in general. Okay, so yes, secrecy is inevitable since we are surrounded by possible attacks against our democratic order by people who don’t make a secret of the fact that they dislike our democratic order. At the same time, I think that secret based agencies should be held accountable by professional, institutional bodies like Congress, special commissions, and oversight committees. On the top of that, the media. I don’t have a problem with the media disclosing things, up to a certain point, because at the same time there are limits with how much we want to disclose without threatening some very important operations.

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