Facing Uncomfortable Heritage, Interpreting the Totalitarian Past
PhD candidate, Department of Architecture, Roma Tre University
Conserving heritage, commemorating past events and presenting it to the public is the matter of pride for many countries. Heritage for many societies is associated with a valuable, positive inheritance that they willingly pass to the future generations. The countries that have been influenced by the totalitarian regime struggle to acknowledge their recent history and by sealing the unpleasant past, they try to move on. It seems like a less painful solution. But the question is, can they clear their conscience and start from a new page without overcoming the leftovers of the subversive regime?
Most of the European countries, who have invested both intellectually, and financially to interpret and learn to live with the past, seem to present their testimony of conciseness about the culpability and the responsibility for what had happened and this way, they make sure that the new generation would never repeat the same mistake.
Germany can be exemplary in this case. There is no other language that has named the process of coming in terms with the past in one word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, the path every country with the dark heritage has to take to create a healthy-minded society.
In the 21st century, despite numerous human rights movements, the world has been facing violence, destruction of unmovable heritage sites and most regrettably, casualties of human lives. If crimes of humanity are forgotten once, our societies will face the repetition of the same corruptions again and again. Therefore, it is crucial as ever to interpreting our recent past, the dark heritage we have deeply covered up and left to forget.
What we have learnt and what we have to know
The past century stands out with purposeful crimes against humanity. After the WWII the defeated sides were put on trial and executed for their actions. The victors of the war were not held accountable for what they committed. Moreover, they were accepted as heroes and worshipped for decades. In the 21st century, some post-Soviet countries still inherit the policy of their predecessors. In Georgia, in the hometown of Stalin, the main avenue still carries his name and a monumental, classicistic building dating back to 1950s, with a bell tower, overlooks the town as the renowned Stalin Museum. Little has changed in the interpretation of the story of the Soviet dictator. A visitor is still proudly introduced to the history of a Georgian commoner, who later would impress the world with his might. An excessive story of Stalin’s success is told hall after hall. The climax of the exhibition is the dictator’s funerary room, where his death mask is placed in the centre and lit with a spotlight. The visitor has to go around a colonnade, surrounding the mask, to pay the last respect and proceed to the exit. For years the museum management has done nothing to change the storytelling, neither have they invested in research or audience development. The museum that could have played a major role in evaluating the past failed to do so.
After the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the government broke the silence about the soviet crimes and initiated the discussion about the soviet occupation. In the framework of the new policy, a Museum of the Soviet Occupation was founded in 2006. This was the first attempt to interpret the past. The discussion about converting the Stalin Museum into the Stalinism Museum started, but the change of government in 2012 silenced the initiative. In 2018 Georgia celebrated 100 years of independence, yet there was no mention of the seven decades spent under the soviet rule during those 100 years. Only individual researchers and independent institutions, such as Sovlab research the Soviet totalitarian past, examining its legacy and trying to create an environment to reflect and debate on the subject.
All this happens on the foreground of Putin’s renown statement that “the biggest disaster of the 20th century is the collapse of the Soviet Union”, the war of 2008 that caused Georgia the loss of territory and the lives of people, and an ongoing war in Ukraine. It is indeed an urgent matter to rethink and present the Soviet regime objectively to societies, similar mistakes to be avoided in the future.
Today, on the other hand, Europe, as well as the Americas stands on the edge of Neo-fascism revival. The phenomenon that once seemed European based seems to be becoming planetary. The West that has a good practice of acknowledging the past mistakes is actively trying to raise awareness about the memories of the regimes they left behind. Some institutions in Germany support other countries financially and intellectually to overcome the past and face the future healthy-mindedly. The Council of Europe under the framework of the Cultural Routes Programme has launched a route- ATRIUM (Architecture of Totalitarian Regimes of the 20th century In Europe’s Urban Memory), to enable critical historical engagement of the dark heritage of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism regimes. Italy is one of the five countries that are included in the route. In the country, where unlike Germany, no collective charges were brought upon the political criminals, discussion about remodelling the birth town of Mussolini is ongoing. The town of Predappio, once a pilgrimage place for the ideology supporters, now faces the possibility of converting into a place of reflection on the Fascist regime. In 2015 the local municipality initiated the Project of Predappio. Not yet completed, the project causes a lot of discussions. Using past experiences of other countries and their projects, while focusing on the uniqueness of the issues raised in Italy can be helpful to find an optimal solution.
It is a perfect time to thoroughly assess how dark heritage is interpreted in post-totalitarian countries, identifying the gaps in the process of reflection on the history and discussing, how institutions, such as museums, memorial sites or documentation centres can contribute to the interpretation of the unpleasant past of the 20th century. By focus on case studies from countries where successful interpretation campaigns were implemented and the countries that are elaborating projects today, it will be possible to create an optimal model for the countries still struggling to identify and address the problem of facing their uncomfortable heritage.
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Cover: Totalitarian Propaganda (photos used for collage: Planimetria generale dell’EUR, archivio EUR, One of the plans for the reconstruction of central Kiev, late 1940s, Plans for Germania involved tearing down huge sections of Berlin to build a complex new systems of buildings and roads. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Image).
Fig.1_ Daro Sulakauri for The New York Times, Tourists at the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori, the Georgian town where the Soviet leader was born, 2019.
Fig.2_ Tinatin Meparishvili, Sachsenhausen Memorial, 2016.
Fig.3_Wikipedia, Predappio, 2009.