Bitter Legacy

8 February 2013, 17:09

In these difficult times of economic crisis, we are witnessing the return of political slogans that sometimes smack of the half-forgotten totalitarian past. We should remember that in the mid-20th century, Europe was the cradle of three totalitarian systems – Nazism, Soviet communism and fascism. European states such as Italy and the countries of the former Soviet Union are currently struggling with problems that are rooted in their totalitarian past. In the case of Ukraine, this post-totalitarian legacy is deeply engrained in both socio-political realities and the mentality of most citizens. In the two decades of its independence, Ukraine has failed to overcome its Soviet totalitarian legacy. Noted French philosopher Philippe de Lara spoke with The Ukrainian Week about totalitarianism, its ideological legacy in Europe and the post-totalitarian syndrome.

U.W.: The temptation of totalitarianism has remained potent even after the fall of Nazism and Soviet communism—the two most powerful totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Do you think we can now say that totalitarianism as such has disappeared?

We cannot speak now about either a modification or disappearance of totalitarianism as such. In my opinion, we are dealing with a totalitarian legacy. It is quite obvious that there was a period in the past that we can call a totalitarian era. It started from the Bolshevik revolution and ended with the Second World War. A certain kind of mobilization and a combination of cruelty and ideology were characteristic of this era. Even the Russian Communist Party was largely transformed 10 years after the war – there was no more mass terror or personality cult of the leader. These are the key features of totalitarianism—a vision of the “bright future” personified by Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Even Brezhnev was already a “soft” or “small” version of Stalin. Perhaps something changed or even ended. The publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was a symbolic finale to the totalitarian era.

The moment when the leaders of Eastern European communist countries began to send their children to the US to get MBAs marked the spiritual death of totalitarianism. The same processes took place in China but with a different chronology. There is a paradox, however: full-blooded totalitarianism triggered by the First World War came to an end between the collapse of Nazism and the early 1970s, but some of its elements persist even today. It would be wrong to think that fascism has disappeared. The time of intensive totalitarian cruelty and dogma is in the past. However, the colossal consequences, imprints and signs of this past persist in contemporary Europe, above all in former communist countries. 

U.W.: The mindset and discourse today are quite different from fifty years ago; what do totalitarian practices look like now?

French sociologist and anthropologist Louis Dumont studied totalitarianism as a crisis of modernization that spread throughout the world and advanced step by step in sync with globalization. When we speak about modernization here, we mean not a complete transformation but an adjustment of universal values, institutions, practices and the free market in a given country and its participation in a certain local culture. It is always a painful process. In all cases, there is simultaneously a sense of acquiring something but also losing something very valuable. In some countries, this painful process has followed an apocalyptic path and triggered severe reactions from society in the form of aggression against modernization. At the same time, totalitarian revolutions are typically pro-modern, focusing on new people and a bright future that must be completely different from the present reality. Paradoxically, these revolutions are also directed against modern advances, because certain things were considered better in the past. Totalitarian revolutions are conservative revolutions.

In a number of countries, the modernization story became malicious, leading to catastrophes and unpredictable consequences. But this is, to an extent, the history of modernization in many parts of the world, part of the process in which traditional societies accept modernization trends. Why totalitarianism emerged in Germany, Italy and Russia rather than in other countries remains an open question, especially for anthropology. For example, fascism existed in many countries, including France. Fascist movements were active in all European countries from Finland to Portugal. However, there were no totalitarian revolutions in either Czechoslovakia or Poland. In the case of Germany, Italy and Russia, it had to do, above all, with the incomplete process of nation building and difficulties handling the legacy of imperialism. Why did these nations find themselves captive to the imperial model? Russia had always been an empire, and it was only in the early 20th century that it began to turn into a modern nation. It vacillated between its imperial tradition and the possibility of building a modern nation, which left a significant imprint on this country.

Totalitarian regimes are dead, but they continue to exert a strong influence on many countries and their cultures.

U.W.: Take Soviet communism and Nazism—how would you compare these two totalitarian systems of the modern era?

Some may say that these two regimes cannot be compared because Nazism is absolute evil, while communism, which in fact perpetrated countless crimes, was in some respects a benign undertaking. It is important now to better understand the interaction and communication between Nazism and Soviet communism. Bloodlands is a typical tragic example of the worst things that took place in Central and Eastern European countries not because of the Nazis or Russian communists individually but because of both regimes simultaneously. These could be concurrent campaigns or actions that followed, imitated or reacted to one another. The best example here is the occupation of Poland and Ukraine. It is important today to reveal what the combination of various European totalitarian regimes produces.

U.W.: How comparable are the two biggest mass crimes of Soviet communism and Nazism – the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine and the Holocaust during the Second World War?

Clearly, there are commonalities between them, and not only because both were mass killings. The famine in Ukraine and the Holocaust were the first cases of mass retributions of this kind in the history of mankind. Humanity had never before experienced anything like the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine before it occurred. Famine had been a means towards political ends in the past—for example, when an army would besiege an enemy city—but there had never been mass actions against an entire nation. This global character was a key aspect of the extermination of Ukrainians and Jews by totalitarian regimes. Jewish pogroms had occurred even before the Nazis came to power, but the Holocaust was the first time when all the Jews in Europe – and, according to future plans, in the entire world – were targeted for destruction.

There is another similarity between these two tragedies: the fact that their existence was denied on a large scale by historians, former communists and Nazis. The Holocaust was recognized worldwide earlier than the Holodomor. Scholars began to study and collect eyewitness testimonies; however the Ukrainian tragedy was successfully denied and hushed up until recently. Noone heard about the Ukrainian Holodomor in France 20 years ago. It is a great achievement that most people no longer deny this horrible fact and now see Soviet totalitarianism for what it was. However, as with the Holocaust, part of the incriminating discourse will consist of denials or attempts to downplay the scale of the tragedy.

Speaking about the differences between the Holodomor and the Holocaust, the former came suddenly to an end, while the Holocaust was supposed to continue until the last Jew on earth was killed. It came to an end only because Nazism was defeated in the Second World War. When people begin to destroy others like themselves on a massive scale – think about the Rwanda genocide – they cannot stop. One crime leads to another, and it becomes a habit. Think about this situation: Germany lies in ruins; the war is lost, but the last remaining SS units continue to transport Jews to concentration camps to be killed.

U.W.: What are your views on so-called Homo Soveticus that is mentally still present in most post-Soviet countries?

I believe that Homo Soveticus does not exist as such. I know that it may sound quite provocative coming from me. I love Aleksandr Zinovyev’s novels, which best illustrate the character of Homo Soveticus (he published a novel under this title in 1982 – Ed.).His works are an important source of information about Soviet society and culture. The author offers a detailed sociological portrayal of the mechanisms that led to the emergence of this phenomenon. However, Zinoviev’s discourse leaves much to be explained because one gets the impression that the Sovietization of the masses was a permanent and irreversible phenomenon. To say that the Soviet regime has fundamentally transformed people and that everyone in the post-Soviet territory is now Homo Soveticus is a dangerous and oversimplified view of the problem.

Homo Soveticus is a kind of behaviour borrowed from the totalitarian past and continued to this day, when the totalitarian environment is no longer there. People no longer believe that they have to, for example, kill all “traitors” of the regime, etc., but they still conduct themselves as Soviet people. I am afraid that the use of this expression, which was a daring discovery by Zinoviev, in the form of a systematized conception may lead to the division of the public into two types of people: liberals and Homo Soveticus.


Philippe de Lara graduated from ENS de Fontenay/St Cloud. He is now Professor at the Pantheon-Assas University (Paris II) lecturing in philosophy and political studies. Prof. de Lara is the co-author of Charles Taylor Et L'interpretation De L'identite Moderne (Charles Taylor and Interpretation of Modern Identity) written with Guy Laforest and published in 1998; L’expérience du language: Wittgenstein philosophe de la subjectivité (The Experience of Language: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Subjectivity); and La rite et la raison: Wittgenstein enthropologue (The Ritual and Mind: Wittgenstein’s Anthropology) published in 2005. Prof. de Lara researches anthropology of totalitarianism and modernization and writes criticism for, a popular online publication in France.  

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