Our failure in the West to understand the magnitude of what happened in the Soviet Union and central Europe does not, of course, have the same profound implications for our way of life as it does for theirs. Our tolerance for the odd "Gulag denier" in our universities will not destroy the moral fabric of our society. The Cold War is over, after all, and there is no real intellectual or political force left in the communist parties of the West.SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 575-577
Nevertheless, if we do not start trying harder to remember, there will be consequences for us too. For one, our understanding of what is happening now in the former Soviet Union will go on being distorted by our misunderstanding of history. Again, if we really knew what Stalin did to the Chechens, and if we felt that it was a terrible crime against the Chechen nation, it is not only Vladimir Putin who would be unable to do the same things to them now, but we also would be unable to sit back and watch with any equanimity. Nor did the Soviet Union's collapse inspire the same mobilization of Western forces as the end of the Second World War. When Nazi Germany finally fell, the rest of the West created both NATO and the European Community--in part to prevent Germany from ever breaking away from civilized "normality" again. By contrast, it was not until September 11, 2001, that the nations of the West seriously began rethinking their post-Cold War security policies, and then there were other motivations stronger than the need to bring Russia back into the civilization of the West.
But in the end, the foreign-policy consequences are not the most important. For if we forget the Gulag, sooner or later we will find it hard to understand our own history too. Why did we fight the Cold War, after all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole thing and forced two generations of Americans and West Europeans to go along with it? Or was there something more important happening? Confusion is already rife. In 2002, an article in the conservative British Spectator magazine opined that the Cold War was "one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time." The American writer Gore Vidal has also described the battles of the Cold War as "forty years of mindless wars which created a debt of $5 trillion."
Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what inspired us, what held the civilization of "the West" together for so long: we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against. If we do not try harder to remember the history of the other half of the European continent, the history of the other twentieth-century totalitarian regime, in the end it is we in the West who will not understand our past, we who will not know how our world came to be the way it is.
And not only our own particular past. For if we go on forgetting half of Europe's history, some of what we know about mankind itself will be distorted. Every one of the twentieth-century's mass tragedies was unique: the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, the Nanking massacre, the Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian revolution, the Bosnian wars, among many others. Every one of these events had different historical, philosophical, and cultural origins, everyone arose in particular local circumstances which will never be repeated. Only our ability to debase and destroy and dehumanize our fellow men has been--and will be--repeated again and again: our transformation of our neighbors into "enemies," our reduction of our opponents to lice or vermin or poisonous weeds, our reinvention of our victims as lower, lesser, or evil beings, worthy only of incarceration or expulsion or death.
The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbors and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances which led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. This book was not written "so that it will not happen again," as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the "objective enemy," as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why--and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, apart of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we are.
23 May 2005
Gulag Epilogue: Memory and Human Understanding
Posted by Joel at 5/23/2005 11:04:00 AM