When we shook off the shackles of dictatorship in our anti-communist revolutions in 1989 and 1990, we hoped that the historical justice that was done to the Nazis after World War II would be carried out against the Soviets, too. We were disappointed. The world lacked the courage and honor to close the era of socialism by exposing and condemning its crimes. It took more than 20 years after the regime change for our region to take the initiative to finally pay tribute to the victims of totalitarian dictatorships on a day of remembrance in the European Union starting in 2011.
August 23 reminds us of the handshakes of two dictators and the anti-human regimes they ran. For those who, before August 23, 1939, thought that communism was a promise of heaven on earth and that only the Nazis deserved to elicit any contempt or bad taste in the mouth, the Hitler-Stalin pact must have been a sobering slap in the face. While the two dictatorships agreed on how to divide the world between them, they also showed their true colors, as it became clear to all that the ideological differences between the Nazis and the communists were only superficial. "The one appears as a savior, and under his robe lies the devil; the other disguises himself as Satan, and is in fact Satan," wrote our Nobel Prize-winning writer Imre Kertész. Less than a week later, Hitler and Stalin's diabolical grip led to World War II.
We Hungarians - and, more broadly, the inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe - experienced the cold and raw grip of the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships firsthand. Our sovereignty was taken away, our independence was abolished, we were oppressed, exploited, and a system of terror based on hatred and exclusion was introduced to legitimize the regime. Totalitarian dictatorships have pitted people against each other and played them off against each other, creating a climate of fear, suspicion and mistrust, consolidated by a system of informants and denouncers. Both the communists and the Nazis used violence against their perceived or real enemies on a scale hitherto unknown, and they both committed crimes on a massive scale, the likes of which are unparalleled in history. "The exile from human existence, the torment, the starvation, the slave labor, the death by torture, are the same in Recsk as in Dachau, and Kolyma is no different from Mauthausen in this respect. (...) Both the Gulag and the Nazi camp network were created for the same purpose, and the millions of victims testify to the fact that they fulfilled their purpose,” Kertész wrote. The cynicism, immorality and anti-humanity of those who ran the dictatorship were summed up best by none other than Stalin: "Death solves all problems, no man, no problem.”
When we remember the victims of totalitarian dictatorships in Europe, we are not only thinking of those who were murdered because of their political views, their beliefs or their race. We must also count those who were displaced, dispossessed and ultimately robbed of their future because of their family traditions, their past, their upbringing. And we must also think of ourselves, because ultimately it was our past, our traditions and our values that they sought to strip from us. But on this day, we must also remember those who were not only victims of dictatorships, but also those who fought against them in deed, in word or by action. Their courage, their loyalty to their nation, to their faith, is an example to us all of the duty to resist evil. It was their overwhelming desire for freedom that fueled the anti-communist revolution that put us back in control of our destiny.
For us Hungarians and for those of us in Central Europe who carry with us the common historical heritage of the 20th century, it increases the chances of understanding and a sense of belonging among us. It is precisely because of this trauma that we are more understanding of the suffering of other peoples, because we see in it our own pain, anxiety and loss. However, all of this also comes with a huge responsibility today in a Europe whose Western half does not know the price and meaning of freedom, does not know the true face of dictatorships, does not value their national heritage and identity, and does not value the importance of family and religion.
We, who possess this priceless heritage, must take Arthur Koestler's advice and light the “candles of truth” to pass on our knowledge.
Rajmund Fekete, PhD, is a historian and Director of the Institute for the Research of Communism. This article appeared in Hungarian in the August 23, 2023 edition of Magyar Nemzet.