Hot Memory … Cold Memory. On the Political Half-Life of Fascist and Communist Memory.

Tr@nsit Online

Why does the black book of Nazism remain, in the consciousness of so many of those preoccupied by the history of the twentieth century, blacker than than the black book of Communism? And what does that difference in intensity say about the two sorts of historical memory?


In his reflections on twentieth-century history, Memoirs of a Ravaged Century, Robert Conquest admits that for all his scathing condemnation of Soviet atrocities, “I feel” the Holocaust was “worse” than Stalinist crimes. The comparative intensity of feelings makes a difficult subject for historical explanation, but these feelings are important – they happen to be my feelings too, and those of many in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere who reflect on history. In this essay I want to ask, not just why Robert Conquest “feels” the way he does, but why so many feel this way, no matter how willing they are to admit the vast scope of Communist crimes, including political famine and ethnic cleansing, thousands upon thousands of judicial murders, and the network of prison labor camps where death by exposure and malnutrition often ensued as a matter of course. Why does the black book of Nazism remain, in the consciousness of so many of those preoccupied by the history of the twentieth century, blacker than than the black book of Communism? And what does that difference in intensity say about the two sorts of historical memory?

The premise, of course, is contestable from the outset. Many historical commentators would deny that the memory of Nazi crimes has and will retain a more compelling horror, a more enduring traumatic quality than the memory of even Stalinist crimes. Many East Europeans who experienced Communism would argue that any such prioritizing of traumatic memory is in effect the peculiar perspective of Western intellectuals, some of whom were marxissant for decades, and some of whom (frequently the same) were Jews and thus brought a sense of personal vulnerability that made the Holocaust a more vivid menace. Nonetheless, I believe it correct to argue that the memory of Nazi crimes has not faded, but that of Communist crimes has. Before 1960, the great testimonies of anticommunism – Czeslaw Milosz’s, The Captive Mind, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the autobiographies included in The God that Failed – likewise the allegories, above all 1984 and Animal Farm, the memoirs and novels of the Gulag, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope against Hope, Evgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind and, most influential of all, the monumental works of Alexandr Solzhenitzyn — made the ideological repression, the purges, and the vast prison-camp system of Soviet Communism as frightening an outrage as the Final Solution. At the least, the two systems were implicitly placed on a par, above all in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Nonetheless, for all the literary talent, the authenticity of testimony, the revelations of fanatical ideas and secretive paranoia, and the unmatched body counts, horror abates and memory becomes dispassionate.

I have tried to suggest the quality of this difference by using the terms hot memory and cold memory. To borrow a metaphor from nuclear physics, between a traumatic collective memory with a long half life — a plutonium of history that fouls the landscape with its destructive radiation for centuries — and the much less perduring fall-out from, say, the isotope tritium, which dissipates relatively quickly. This paper is not an argument about which experience was more atrocious, but about which has remained engraved in memory – historical, personal – more indelibly.

Let me admit from the outset that this is a very partial discussion. The memory of totalitarianism in the West is only part of a world-wide history of atrocities. The challenges to working through collective memory in Argentina and Brazil, Chile, Guatemala and South Africa are also daunting; in China and Cambodia they have hardly started. Turkey’s officialdom have always rejected dealing with the Armenian genocide; Japan’s progress in thinking about its role in World War II is slow; and eventually different versions of history will have to be confronted in Israel and other societies where memory is contested. Elsewhere I have suggested that the “moral narratives” of the twentieth century include not only the story of Nazi and Stalinist regimes, but of imperialism and wars of decolonization as well. Primo Levi and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn must be read against Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, and Chinue Achebe, and against those authors suspended between worlds: V.S. Naipualu or Solomon Rushdie. Our memory of fascism and communism is thus a very partial recollection of griefs. Nonetheless, c’est notre mémoire, à nous; and it is the topic for today.


Of course, there are compelling reasons one could propose at the outset for the hot memory of Nazism versus the cold memory of Communism. The National Socialist regime had to be overthrown by a terrible war, which it pressed upon Europe. The Communist governments did not initiate a world war (even if they connived in local conflicts such as Korea). Hence they they survived to pass into the milder phase that Vaclav Havel termed post-totalitarianism. Janos Kadar, who was installed by the Soviets to liquidate the revolt of l956, could hang on to initiate the mellower era of “goulasch communism”. Such transitions raise moral problems for domestic and foreign opponents: to what degree should signs of mellowing be accepted and encouraged, to what degree should uncompromising opposition be maintained? When, moreover, does a transition from reliance on force to the manipulation of civil society indicate a confidence that control can be maintained, and when does it suggest that control and consensus is actually weakening? No matter how these questions are answered – and they must be answered individually for each regime, and each period – any such party-state that enters a phase of post-totalitarianism will leave a far muddier historical legacy than one that goes down in flames. For one thing those administering the old regime have often lost faith; they have an interest in making their own deals and passing over the historical divide without being swept away.

To be sure, careful histories continue to reveal the cruelty of Communist control. The singleminded pursuit of leftwing competitors by Moscow’s agents in Spain has received far more documentation than Orwell’s memoir could provide. Jan T. Gross’s history of the Soviet occupation of what was then eastern Poland from September 1939 until June l941, Revolution from Abroad (Princeton, 1988), is an unsparing story of repression and purges. Works of fiction, such as Corelli’s Mandolin or Nicholas Gage’s journalistic investigations (Eleni, 1983) seek to persuade their readers that Communists in Greece were far from just heroic Resistance fighters sent to the hills by Churchillian reaction and Greek corruption. In France denunciations of Communist crimes have erupted like giant solar flares every twenty years or so to horrify the non-Communist Left and not just conservative circles: first the debate over the camps (stimulated by the Prague Coup) in 1948, again in 1968 with the suppression of the Prague spring (and the film version of the Slansky trial, L’Aveu), and once again with the well-publicized emergence of the Nouveaux Philosophes in the early 1980s, and most recently with Stéphane Courteois’s Le Livre Noir du Comunisme (1997). Still, after a year or two of hothouse debate and outrage, the denunciations seem to lose their force. It is not that the public does not know the facts; it is that the moral outrage cools and the Stalinist past receeds despite the poignant memoirs of victims, the undoubted literary monuments, and the hectoring of neoconservatives and old liberals. Outside of Eastern Europe, I fear, we must really blow on the embers of the Gulag to revive the appropriate fear and loathing. In contrast, the Holocaust has only grown more and more significant a constitutent of Western collective memory. We debate Holocaust memorials and museums, but rarely monuments to the victims of Stalinism. Pilgrims and tourists visit Auschwitz and Dachau, but not Vorkuta or Katyn. Professors can still put up pictures of Marx and Engels and Lenin or Mao in their offices, but not Hitler or Himmler, not even as expressions of post-modern irony.

For a few years after the transformations of l989, indignation remained strong. The continuing revelations of Stasi complicity, the Czech lustration procedures, and early electoral contests seemed likely to preserve the memories of communism as a vivid moral force. But these sources of outrage have also weakened. After all, post-Communist parties such as the German PDS or the “Socialists” in Poland, Hungary, Romania remain tolerated competitors, whereas the Freiheitspartei or the National Front, no matter how many votes they might or might not receive, still arouse a shudder from their opponents and sometimes an interdict from the European Union. It is hard to believe that any significant current of European opinion would censure Germany if someday a coalition including the PDS came to power. The Communist past has been remarkably unburdensome; it lingers with an incredible lightness of being.


Let us look more closely at which memories are hot and which cold. The issue is not that of fascist memory in general, but of the memory of National Socialism, even though there is a large degree of overlap and it is sometimes justifiable to talk of German fascism. But other fascist experiences have not aroused the same degree of revulsion, even if any attempted replay would lead to public demonstrations and clashes. To a degree the reasons are the same as in the case of communist regimes. The fascist regimes entered periods of “normalization,” which the National Socialists underwent only from about 1936 to early 1938. Franco lived long enough after exiling, jailing, and executing his opponents to enjoy American aid in return for air bases and to restore the monarchy. By the end of the l920s, Italian Fascism seemed to have shed its earlier violence: had the Duce not cast his lot with Hitler, “Tea with Mussolini” might have remained an adequate depiction. Mussolini’s plaques to the restored Italian Empire of the year XIV can remain on display on the Via dei Fori Romani; Fellini could film “Amarcord” as an almost affectionate memoir of provincial fascism in Rimini; indeed undoubtedly liberal intellectuals such as Roberto Vivarelli can now admit their enthusiasm for the Italian Social Republic of l943-45. In 1960, the attempt by the Christian Democratic premier designate to include the MSI in his coalition led to massive street demonstrations on the part of the Left and had to be abandoned. The inclusion of the Alleanza Nazionale in a rightwing coalition after the next elections will presumably lead to no more than a few tepid and politically perfunctory parades. The historical memory of fascism no longer mobilizes. The memory of National Socialism is different.

Perhaps, though, it is not even the collective memory of Nazism that is at stake, but just the Holocaust, or the Holocaust and the camps. (The photographs and newsreels of the of the KZ “liberated” in the spring of 1945, with their emaciated prisoners and piles of corpses, provided images that had no Communist equivalent; and the artifacts of the museums or camps, has only augmented the impact.) Many American students believe that the United States fought World War II in Europe to end the Holocaust; the other crimes of the regime fade before the murder of the Jews. Increasingly, historians assert that the Final Solution was in some sense the core National Socialist enterprise, the objective that supposedly lay at the heart of the regime’s aspirations. This has to be a very subjective reading of the evidence: easy to affirm, hard to deny, and often just a rhetorical flourish trope, of the type, “Nazism was about nothing if was not about the destruction of the Jews,” or one of those historian’s sentences introduced by “Ultimately…” or “In the final analysis…” (In fact, historical and popular interpretations of what National Socialism was “really” or “ultimately” about have changed over time. Its war of conquest seemed preeminent in the period after l945 (and perhaps still dominates British views), its counterrevolutionary destruction of democracy and socialism seemed critical to interpretors of the l960s, its cruel “univers concentrationnaire,” has seemed central from David Rousset to the investigators of the Munich Institut für Zeitgeschichte under its earlier leadership to Wolfgang Sofsky; and most recently its genocidal projects have crowded out other aspects. The question then becomes whether the hot memory of Nazism is really just the consequence of the circumstance that the Holocaust has become so central as the memory of the century, indeed as the signature of recent history. Genocidal politics, visually recorded cruelty, the “univers concentrationnaire” has endowed National Socialism with its enduring political half-life. But the further question still remains, why the Gulag Archipelago does not have the same visceral impact.


Consider some possible explanations. Can the differential outcome not be attributed to successful identity politics? If we want to account for the difference between the memory of Nazism and the memory of Communism, two approaches are possible. One focuses on those who do the remembering, the other on what is being remembered. Modern historical memory is never universal. It may be useful to speak of “communities of memory” whose collective identity is constituted by their shared historical recall, shared often by virtue of their being targetted as victims. The communities of memory for those who suffered at the hands of Nazism are not the same as those who suffered at the hands of Communism. The Germans occupied Western and Eastern Europe, but the Soviets imposed their regime only on Russia and Eastern Europe. Jews and non-Jews shared different fates. It is not that communities of memory cannot possess empathy for the victims in other communities. Often, that empathy has been slow and belated, indeed often just an intellectual acknowledgment rather than authentic sharing. The phrase, “I feel your pain,” often means merely: I’ll concede that you feel pain. Jan Gross’s recent study of Jedwabne, Neighbors – more particularly the reactions to the story, as reactions from the Kielce pogrom of 1946 on – provides just the most recent reminder of how any community of memory finds it difficult to really to accept that others have suffered as grievously.

The communities of Nazi memory may have certain material advantages over the communities of Communist memory. After all, there may be incentives that keep the community of Nazi memory in being. The German government has provided reparations for many years now: to the state of Israel, to individual Jews, most recently to “slave laborers” from Eastern Europe. Sites of commemoration have been established – in Germany, in Israel, in Washington D.C. and elsewhere in the United States, now in Vienna, and in so many other cities. The Berlin memorial has been endlessly debated, visited in anticipation, as it were, over ans over. In short a whole network of commemorative, lieux de memoire, help to sustain the community of Nazi memory. If we adopt the views of those critical of this community – most recently and blatantly Norman Finkelstein, but other voices, too, that occasionally find an outlet in Switzerland, Austria, and elsewhere – it is, in fact, the incentives provided that nurture a very self-interested group of memorialists, the so-called Holocaust industry. Indeed a museum of tolerance is slated to be constructed out of the Idaho Headquarters of the American Nazi wannabees: the Aryan Nation.

To date, we have no equivalent incentives provided to the memorialists of Communism. Yes, there are some public monuments to the victims of repression in Poland, or the secondary concentration camp memorials for those interned by the Soviets at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald after 1945, which, given the major role of the camps from l933 until l945, must naturally arouse controversy; or the rather down-at-heels museums of Stasi oppression (such as the Runde Ecke in Leipzig) maintained by the remnants of the citizens’ movements of l989. Moreover, there has been no authority prepared to provide reparations; but how could they? I do not think that former prisoners or families of those imprisoned have been given claims against the successor regimes.

Still, I do not think it is the differing incentive structure that keeps the community of Nazi memory more cohesive and active than the community of communist memory. And it is not the sociology of these communities that makes the difference – at least it is not the social structure directly. They did not organize their own victimhood. It is the nature of the ideology and regime that creates the group. One powerful reason that Nazi memory has the longer half-life is that it targetted a far less diffuse, and conversely a far more “organic” community of victims. The Holocaust was not just ethnic cleansing, not just the mindless moving of Crimean Tatars to the interior, not even the starvation of much of Ukraine. Therein, I believe, lies much of the reason for hot versus cold memory. “Real stories about real peoples” – in this case, however, not buying life insurance as in the American advertisement (Real stories about real people), but being chased down, transported, degraded, and murdered.

Call Nazi violence and genocidal policies targetted terror in contrast with the stochastic terror of Stalinism. The latter was stochastic terror because it was predictable in the aggregate but not for individuals; no one might foresee who next would be discovered as a wrecker or a conspirator. Targetted terror in the case of the former because it struck its victims according to their discernable qualities: their political affiliations if active, and above all, their ethnicity, long branded, in the case of Jews, as alien and exploitative. There are societies where targetted terror focuses on religious and communal loyalties, as in Ulster or in India, on allegedly ethnic differences, as in Rwanda, and still other societies where it rages along political and class-determined lines, as in South and Central America. In some situations targetted and stochastic terror rage side by side. The Khmer Rouge murdered all the Vietnamese they could inside Cambodia and struck at a vast, but indeterminate number of Cambodians. Still, stochastic terror has the shorter half-life. But it is targetted terror, I would submit, that bequeathes hot memory.


There is finally a further reason I believe that operates to keep warm the memory of Nazism and genocide. It is that of complicity. Very few of us are perpetrators, and we cannot envisage ourselves as perpetrators. But most thoughtful Europeans, and Americans, too, can imagine themselves as bystanders. Bystanding, after all, has been one of the major historical roles of the 20th century – explored, however, in few systematic histories. The history of Nazism does not, as often stated, ask the historian to penetrate the psyche of the perpetrator, but to understand the institutions that render us bystanders. Of course, complicity is a theme in the history of Communist systems. Again Havel provides the pointed allegory of the shopkeeper who toes the line by putting a party slogan in his window. But by the period of so-called post-totalitarianism that sort of complicity no longer cost victims their lives. And in an earlier decade, the Soviet citizen could not know who was to be arrested next. Terror struck stochastically, without apparent cause. Nazism, however, made clear who would be removed, deported, and made to disappear. The Nazi past, and other genocidal pasts make everyone ask, how would I have behaved. The question that recurs in our Holocaust museums, our concentration camp visits, our contemplation of the little railroad spur at the Gruenewald Bahnhof, is not: Would I have been a Nazi, or in Rwanda a machete wielder, or in Bosnia a member of a killing squad? The question is rather, “Would I have had the courage to say to those who came to make an arrest or led a lynch mob: ‘desist, let them go, what you do is evil’?” Most of us, I think fear that our answer would have been no.. It is this almost universal question that the memory of Nazism prompts, and this question that makes our historical memory less so persistent than so infintely renewable. Every generation can use the Nazi experience to ask itself this question, Hot memory is memory that engages so many of us – not because we are evil, but because our courage or saintliness is limited.

The Communist past involved less painful soul-searching. Few former communists (usually called “ex-communists” in the United States) evidence much sense of shame. Rather they often seem to suggest that their earlier zealotry was a sort of “learning experience.” Often with a singular lack of personal regret: they blamed instead the intellectuals who did not join them in their bitter denunciations of the system they had served. Generally the former communists really felt no less certainty about their new position: their earlier embrace of atrocious politics did not lead them to think that a bit of silence and reserve might be appropriate. But the centrality of antisemitism – although this came slowly – did finally lead to a significant degree of what for lack of a more precise term I will call shame. Havel speaks perceptively about those living under Communism, who did not speak truth to power. They helped a system stay in being; but they did not have the impression of having helped it liquidate innocent people. Silence was different under Nazism: it came to mean for the children of the bystanders, at least, something shameful.

Shame has become a powerful concept in considering the aftermath of atrocity. A new legal literature seeks to use the concept as an alternative to assigning guilt in achieving restorative justice. What consequences should bystanding incur? Shame involves a very personal sense of having committed an offense, not just abstract but against a person, a neighbor, family member – of betrayal. But it will not often come to the first generation. In the immediate aftermath of a discredited regime, those who were passive have often resented the moral claims of those who resisted or went into exile. Such a backlash was the basis of the Italian “Uomo Qualunque” (“Everyman”) movement of 1946; many Germans took offense at Thomas Mann and then of Willy Brandt. Over time shame grows. Serbs and Hutu alike now resist confronting their targetted terrorism, but we can hope that gradually the admittedly painful reassessment will begin. No repentant leftwing intellectual has felt betrayal. and responsibility – confessed so easily by our leaders from Nixon to Clinton – are sometimes cheap. But shame is troubling. Nazi memory in Germany has, I believe, come to construct itself centrally around the consciousness of complicity. It has left children and grandchildren ashamed but not guilty.

It is not that shame is not present in Communist systems. Shame results from a sense of betrayal – whether betrayal of God or a neighbor or a cause. The widespread sense of complicity that collaboration with Stasi left could not but contribute to shame. But it has left its sense of complicity among those who actually collaborated. Those who did not collaborate, moreover, did not feel the need to confess to themselves that they probably would have done so under the regime’s conditions. After all, they lived under the regime, were tested, and remained uncorrupted.

It is paradoxical, but the system that still seems more evil to many of us, which few of us feel we would have rallied to, is actually the one the memory of which existentially tests us through history. For the “memory” of fascism asks us to think not whether we would have been fascists, but anti-fascists; and the answer is often a disturbing no. Communism has asked its bystanders less painful a question. They have had less shame to live with, provided that they did not enter into an unholy bargain with the agencies of internal security. At the end, I fear, I have offered less comparative history than a very speculative hypothesis that wanders from the discipline of history into psychology and moral enquiry. Still, Paul Ricoeur’s opening address to this conference suggested that historians must lead their readers from melancholy to mourning, from an indulgence in sweet sadness to a more energetic working through of loss. Perhaps my paper can be construed as a contribution to just such an exercise.

Copyright © 2002 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole or in part, without written permission from Transit. Tr@nsit online , Nr. 22/2002


Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York, 2000), p. xii.

For the sake of this inquiry, please excuse me from laboring the scholarly distinctions between history and memory. I refer here rather crudely to the image of events gone by — socially constructed in part, retrieved in part, sometimes shared, often contested – composed of individual recollection or family lore, of happenings personally experienced or of historical analyses and narratives, all of which orients one’s sense of group belonging and political alignment.

See Charles S. Maier, “Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era,” American Historical Review, vol. 165, nr. 3 (June 2000): 807-31.

The only projection of a postwar Nazism that I know comes from a mystery novel, David Harris’s Fatherland, set in l962 in a Nazi Europe ruled by an ageing Hitler whose Reich fights a continuing war against stubborn resisting forces in the Urals and has liquidated all the Jews.

David Rousset, L’univers concentrationnaire (Paris, 1946); Eugen Kogon, Der SS-Staat: Das System der deutschen Konzentrationslager (13th ed., Munich, 1950)), Hans Buchheim, et al., Anatomie des SS-Staates, 2 vols. (Munich 1967); Wolfgang Sofsky, Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das Konzentrationslager (Frankfurt/M, 1993).

Patrick Raszelenberg, “The Khmers Rouges and the Final Solution,” in History & Memory, vol. 11, nr. 2 “(Fall/Winter 1999): 62-93.

A major exception is Gordon Horvitz, In the Shadow of Death: Living outside the Gates of Mauthausen (New York, 1990). See also Raoul Hilberg, Perpetrators victims bystanders : the Jewish catastrophe, 1933 -1945 (New York, c1992).

Mark A. Drumbl, “Punishment, Postgenocide: From Gilt to Shame to Civis in Rwanda,” New York University Law Review, vol. 75, nr. 5 (November 2000): 1221-1326.