Unquiet Bodies

Thomas Laqueur

  • Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism by István Rév
    Stanford, 340 pp, £19.95, January 2005, ISBN 0 8047 3644 8

I should say at the outset that I know István Rév; that I have walked with him through the cemeteries of Budapest and have seen in his company some of the graves he writes about. He is a remarkable man, the product of a culture and a time in which one either drowned or saved oneself through erudition, wit, irony and an unremitting conversation with history. I once told him that I envied the political exigency of his professional life; he replied that he envied me – this was pre 9/11 – for living in a society where one didn’t have to be on one’s guard every minute.

Rév’s learning is prodigious: his footnotes refer to books in at least seven languages and about everything from the calendrical practices of the ancient Near East to the architectural history of various subway systems and the theory of names as it developed from John Stuart Mill to Saul Kripke, with, by way of comparison, a solid account of necronym taboos among various tribes. Films, photographs and museum exhibits are everywhere used in evidence, as is an enormous range of recondite archival material.

As the founder and director of the Open Society Archive in Budapest, Rév is the guardian of great stores of the past century’s lies and half-truths, deceptions and self-deceptions, representations and re-representations of mass horror and private mendacity, at all levels from the highest councils of state to the lowliest policeman. With sober, biting but never ingenuous hopefulness, he wrings its truths from the dross of history. ‘Even in death,’ he writes, ‘the suspicion to which Communism gave birth – and this is becoming less and less obvious and more and more difficult to recognise – makes it difficult for anyone to analyse the history of the past century and to utter words that mean what they mean.’ It’s a difficulty that he overcomes as well as anyone can.

This is a beautifully written book. One can’t help feeling a certain envy that a native speaker of Hungarian, who has lived abroad only intermittently, should write in English with such narrative and poetic fluency: ‘The sight of the catafalque was a sure sign that 16 June 1989 was the dies illa, the last day of the past,’ he says of the reburial of Imre Nagy, the murdered head of the short-lived government that emerged from the 1956 uprising. The watching crowd ‘wanted to end a story, to dig the final graves in a country where the relatives of hundreds of thousands had no final graves … It turned out to be the adventus of a new regime … The martyrs were elevated, but it was the executioners who were revealed.’ The moment that signalled – or, more accurately, constituted – the end of Communism was lavishly staged by László Rajk Jr, the son of a leading victim of the 1949 Stalinist show trials, and himself a stage designer, who used props from the Budapest Opera’s production of Aida.

Rév will seduce even those readers who, inexplicably, are not interested in one of the strangest disappearing acts of all time: the disappearance of Communism in 1989-90. It came to so definitive an end – never again to be reborn or transformed into something living – that only the most ghostly signs of its having existed survive. Its demise brought oblivion: ‘There is neither the need nor the time to remember it, to face it, or to talk about it.’ It seems that there weren’t and never had been any perpetrators or cohabitors. No one now living in Eastern or Central Europe had anything to do with it. The Germans in 1945 – ‘those non-existent citizens of a non-existent country’ – would perhaps have liked to adopt this stance but, at least in the West, the victors allowed forgetfulness only up to a point: Auschwitz became too important to the remaking of a liberal consensus founded on the commitment that such a thing would never happen again. Perhaps more than fifty years of lost 20th-century history will somehow be found again; but, for now, the ‘non-existent subjects of a non-existent country’ – the Soviets whose Union has vanished – were responsible for what most people only dimly and perversely remember.

Finally, Rév is remarkable for his capacity somehow to reconcile his own history with the analytical detachment of a scholar of great brilliance. He has the sensibilities of someone deeply at home in the strange times he chronicles. He knew most of the protagonists of this book: his is a small country where murderers and victims lived side by side. His father was a senior official in post-1956 Hungary; as a boy he holidayed with the executioners of Nagy and other revolutionaries at Party resorts; his teachers were among those who wrote the official lies; his university office today is above the regime’s torture cells. He has a passionate engagement with the creation of liberal democracy in what he hopes is a new Hungary but fears is not.

This is, in other words, the work of an Eastern European Jewish intellectual struggling to find a future in a past strewn with lies, hypocrisy and evil. In its intricacy and luxuriousness of detail, its love of coincidence and connections and stories woven one into another, the book mirrors the claustrophobia of the lost Communist world. At the same time, it serves as a form of inoculation against thinking that Communism’s end was inevitable and that some truer and purer Hungarian – or Polish or any other – identity was waiting to be reborn. Teleological history is Rév’s real enemy.

By restoring history’s particularity and openness – the freedom and incoherence that we suffer and enjoy in our present – Rév wants to write himself, his countrymen and his readers both into a deeply compromised past and somehow out of it at the same time. This book is a chronicle of the way Rév and others have tried to fill a void between ‘the lost and the not yet comprehended’, to speak to a people who in 1989 ‘lost their future because they lost their past’, and are consequently in extreme political danger. This is history writing as existential struggle. It is about time travel: about going back to the future, ‘undoing by remaking’.

The title says as much, although Rév never quite comes clean on what he thinks of its ironical twist. (More on this later.) Retroactive justice, understood literally, is an oxymoron. A central tenet of liberal jurisprudence is that one can be punished only for what was a crime at the time it was committed. Retroactive justice is inherently injustice unless one can get outside time: either the act committed in the past was criminal, as judged by some timeless higher law (a proleptic sense of history will work equally well), or the wronged and the perpetrators need to become somehow our contemporaries. Retroactive justice then becomes simply justice: the past is undone, better late than never.

The book’s engagement with time is clear in Rév’s subtitle: ‘Prehistory of Post-Communism’. On the one hand, post-Communism is the prisoner of its socialist past and of that past’s interpretation, in turn, of its own recent and more distant past. (Hungarians, for example, live with the legacy that, under the Communists, Fascism was taught as being, in its essence, nothing more or less than a form of anti-Communism, continuous from the White Terror of 1919 to the murder of the Revolution’s opponents in 1956. Its virulent anti-semitism could be blamed mostly on foreigners.) Both the state and civil society are now engaged in finding new meanings in movements, dates, events, artefacts, buildings, monuments, bodies and conversations in order to create a new future.

On the other hand, this prehistory comes into focus from the perspective of the Fall. This is in part because we can now know from newly available archives things we could never have known before, but also because the story itself can be told only once it is over, and its protagonists dead beyond question. But the nature of the dead system is hard to fix on as its artefacts are examined and re-examined in the light of a rent in time: the revolutions of 1989. A history of Communism is told from the vantage-point of the end. As in the final scene of Don Giovanni, one has the sense of Central Europeans as characters left on stage – shaken, unsure – to remake their world after what had been its driving force has disappeared with supernatural suddenness.

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[*] When I visited Hungary on the eve of the 2002 elections I was offered unsolicited advice by the desk clerk who checked me into my hotel: I had better see the museum this trip, he said, because if the socialists won they would close it immediately. I tried but the line to get in stretched around the block. The socialists and their allies did win; the museum remains open.