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James Mark: The Unfinished Revolution. Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe, New Haven / London: Yale University Press 2011, XXVIII + 312 S., ISBN 978-0-300-16716-0, USD 65,00
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Rezension von:
Ferenc Laczó
Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Christoph Schutte
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Ferenc Laczó: Rezension von: James Mark: The Unfinished Revolution. Making Sense of the Communist Past in Central-Eastern Europe, New Haven / London: Yale University Press 2011, in: sehepunkte 11 (2011), Nr. 11 [15.11.2011], URL:

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James Mark: The Unfinished Revolution

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James Mark analyzes major debates over the meaning and current relevance of the communist experience in Central-Eastern Europe at multiple political and cultural levels. He covers a range of memory practices related to the recent past of the countries lying between Germany and Russia and draws on a significant amount of personal testimony. The book thus combines the study of prominent institutions such as history commissions, institutes of national memory and of the current uses of former terror sites (chapters 1 to 4), with the approach of oral history through which, among other aspects, the various renegotiations of anti-fascist narratives and the revived (and heavily politicized) memories of Red Army rape are explored (chapters 5 to 7). Mark thereby manages to provide a rich empirical panorama of the divisive moral and political contests raging in post-communist societies over how their communist pasts should be interpreted and overcome. On the other hand, the book at times feels like a collection of articles, rather than a coherent, fully rounded monograph.

The starting point of the study is that the collapse of communist regimes practically coincided with the transnational "memory boom". Second, there were both internal political drives and external expectations and pressures in post-communist countries to confront their recent pasts. Mark rightly emphasizes that the extent of both are unprecedented in the region although without discussing relevant theories in memory studies or the possibilities and problems of retroactive justice in any greater depth.

He explains that in spite of triumphalist Western narratives about the victory of liberal democracy that focused on those who resisted the communist regimes, the way communism ended could neither be narrated as a heroic story nor employed as a source of national cohesion. In the absence of profound judicial reckoning, attempts to complete the revolution were usually made in the political and cultural realms. The book as a whole could indeed be read as a study in cultures of "historical reinvention" (215). As Mark notes, "the task for producers of new public memories was the construction of a believable popular narrative of a revolutionary rupture between dictatorship and liberal democracy, despite the absence of an actual revolution to mythologize" (32).

It is among the main aims of Mark's study to show how the idea expressed in its title acquired ever greater resonance, how it was not only recurrently stressed that the communist epoch should be revisited in order to be fully overcome, but that the need to reject communism was ever more frequently, not to mention aggressively, invoked. This story line seems especially fitting in the cases of Hungary, Poland and Romania that are the primary, though not exclusive subjects of the case studies presented.

The materials analyzed in the first half are organized in nationally divided subchapters. Chapter 1 deals with Hungarian and Polish leftist and rightist narratives on the resistance to and the collapse of communism. Chapter 2 focuses mainly on the Polish Institute of National Remembrance and Romania's Presidential Commission for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship. Chapter 3 discusses, above all, Hungarian and Romanian uses of former terror sites, while also analyzing forms of representing the communist epoch in museums. It is not national differences that structure Mark's interpretation though. What he offers is essentially a regional narrative, stressing common patterns and marked parallels. (Tellingly, the conclusion does not address any national differences.) While striking parallels indubitably exist, Mark misses opportunities to explore local-national specificities in greater depth - it is indeed conspicuous how few sources written in languages of the region he makes use of. Even though it is rarely made explicit, his regionally framed account cannot hide significant local variety.

The second half of the book studies new autobiographical narratives, highlighting Mark's interest in the evolution of the dialogue between past and present: how individuals adjusted their autobiographies in a new socio-political context. It ought to be noted that most of his interview partners were born between 1918 and 1940 and are from Hungary.

In his chapter on non-communists, Mark discusses the tendency observable mainly in conservative and Catholic milieus to validate stories of suffering. Such stories simultaneously stress individual and collective victimization, politically and ethnically grounded refusal and the preservation of national traditions in the domestic sphere. He points out that this conception of the past not only seems obsessed with distinguishing private life from public engagement, but often denies the actual level of integration and success of their tellers during communist times (171-173). He also shows that others managed to develop self-reflexive forms of autobiography through which they questioned the validity of victim identity. Such people tend to belong to groups of dissidents who have become critical of the new anti-communist simplifications and distortions and typically claim that the communist regime never managed to humiliate them.

Besides noting some admittedly rather strange aspects of post-communist political cultures, the book presents a critical overall perspective on recent developments. Mark not only shows how political elites instrumentalized the project of reckoning with the past, but also how they have seemed to have no interest in incorporating multiple, clashing perspectives into their versions of communism. The democratic pluralization of memory was alien to the projects of "democratically remolding" collective memories. The polemics of the book reach their height when Mark labels new pressures to fit life stories into simple categories of victim or collaborator as totalitarian, seeing the painting of such monochromatic pictures as the dominant way of depicting the recent past in Central-Eastern Europe.

Ferenc Laczó