Blog Round Up!: March-April 2019

Tom Shillam

Round Up March/April 2019

Britain, Protest, Colonialism

As the beleaguered British government lurches from one constitutional fracas to another, it seems apt again to begin with Brexit. Despite the appearance of torment – in a recurring theme for this month’s round up – the political actors involved are perhaps behaving more rationally, for better or worse, than imagined. Aaron Ackerley notes the disturbing proximity of leading ‘Brexiteers’ to ostensibly independent think tanks and brings to light a deeper history of hapless British politicians forming influential pressure groups behind the scenes.

The British government has overlooked a recent petition to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, which garnered over 6 million votes. But are petitions as contemporary and ineffective as we might think? As the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller contend that petitioning acts ‘as a tool for building a broader campaign and an enduring instrument for popular politics beyond and outside elections’. Ruth Mather explores the contributions of female reformers to early 19th-century protest, emphasising their ingenuity in negotiating with a ‘tyrannical government’ which was claiming to ‘offer paternal protection to its citizens’ while actually behaving violently towards them.

Shirin Hirsch sets this violence within a broader imperial context, reminding us of how black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn drew comparisons between atrocities abroad and the oppression of the working class at home. Similarly, on the anniversary of another colonial atrocity – the Amritsar Massacre of 13 April 1919 – Oliver Godsmark remarks on how political actors today continue to treat such violence as an aberration rather than a means through which to initiate difficult conversations about Britain’s past.

Anti-Colonialism, Decolonisation, Memory

A number of writers have considered how scholars of different backgrounds and disciplines can help begin these conversations. Eva Schalbroeck – perhaps offering a model for historians of other regions – explores how students of Belgium and the Congo can write revisionist and challenging histories which help establish ‘more culturally diverse post-colonial relationships’. Meg Foster highlighted the problems that can result from the uncritical portrayal of the histories of indigenous societies. In her review of an exhibition of Oceanic art held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year, Foster argues that such exhibitions often index indigenous artworks as objects of intrigue, distracting us from reckoning with their continued affective importance for the producers.

Speaking of the imperial mind and its affinity for ‘exotic objects’, Tom Harper of the University of Surrey studies how China has been variously depicted in the Western world as ‘a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty’ and more recently as a neo-colonial power comparable to ‘the Great Powers of the Past’. Today, China is using its growing geopolitical clout to try and reshape these depictions.

Mark Fathi Massoud and Hussein Omar both offer hope in the face of authoritarian retrenchment. Omar shows how uprisings which occurred across North Africa and the Middle East 100 years ago comprised not isolated protests but an early ‘Arab Spring’ in which local actors exchanged ‘slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel’ in resisting European imperial intrigue. His emphasis on how history might have turned out differently had alternative ideas entered the ascendancy is replicated by Massoud, who demonstrates that a democratic conception of Sharia – which comprises ‘a broad set of values and ethical principles’ rather than the rigid code of law implied by Islamophobes – predominated among many politicians and intellectuals in early postcolonial Sudan.

Reason and Resistance

For those more interested in modes of political control in authoritarian states, in December Elena Goukassian penned a fascinating piece in Lapham’s Quarterly about the associations between time and power. She argues that the standardisation of time zones from the mid-19th century onwards has provided a means for authoritarians across the world to assert control over populations and manoeuvre towards important geopolitical allies.

As she suggests, as political power consolidated within the state, actors on the periphery resisted. Quan Nguyen offers some context for the recent attacks of prominent politicians on schoolchildren protesting about climate change, reminding us that the ‘understanding that emotions must be tamed for the sake of rational discourse…stands in a long tradition of Western philosophy’. Victoria Brooks goes into much greater detail about this Cartesian tradition, emphasising its gendered character, and calling for new philosophies which do not ‘value ideas over bodily sensations’.

Of course, developing new philosophies of life in an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic global political climate demands intercontinental networking. On this note, it is worth rounding off this blog with the movements and arguments of two very different but equally determined internationalist activists in the mid-20th century. Samuel Zipp argues that Wendell Willkie – a little known Republican nominee for President in 1940 who later travelled across Africa and the Middle East observing the spread of nationalist movements – engineered an egalitarian and anti-imperialist vision of international order which is worth re-examining today. Carolien Stolte looks into an anti-imperialist actor with greater affective and symbolic reach among decolonising African and Asian peoples – African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. Despite the US State Department preventing him travelling over a period of 8 years through the 1950s, by 1958 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was calling for ‘a widespread celebration or Robeson’s sixtieth birthday’. This was thanks to the ingenuity of countless Global South activists and internationalists many of whom were inspired by Robeson’s music. Their refusal to be bowed by censorious states and a global atmosphere of growing political cynicism perhaps offers hope today.

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

Advertisements

Authoritarian Discourse in Civil Society: Notes from the Congress for Cultural Freedom

Tom Shillam

It seems easy, today, to distinguish between progressive and authoritarian political discourse. The battle lines have taken shape in front of us. Strongman leaders and xenophobic demagogues identify ‘immigrants’, ‘Muslims’ and ‘globalists’ as collective enemies. They shut down universities, block NGO boats from saving desperate migrants adrift in the Mediterranean and disappear journalists who don’t agree with them.   Organised in political parties, civil society groups, and protest movements, their opponents remain steadfastly supportive of civil liberties and human rights.

But is progressive political discourse constituted by the defence of rights alone? As progressive parties lose electoral support – with few exceptions  – across Europe and beyond, it is becoming increasingly clear that bolder strategies and messages of hope are needed to resist authoritarian advancement.[1] Rights we hold dear – which include, for researchers, academic freedoms – might be best maintained by constructing narratives of past, present and future which emphasise their historical importance and future promise.

Protest and civil society movements which attempt this are already having success. ‘Extinction Rebellion’, a new UK-based direct action group focussing on climate change, positions its activism within a longer history of civil rights, suffragette and anti-authoritarian agitation. Thousands gathered in front of Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, London on its launch. To have success, movements need narratives, and narratives draw on influences and voices of hope, repurposed for the future. Gandhi is a prime example.

In this venture, I suggest, it is vital to remain critical and reflective about such

gandhi statue
Gandhi Statue in Parliament Sq, London (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

influences. Take Gandhi; environmentalists draw on him, but elsewhere, Ghanaian students remove his statue from university campuses, raising attention to the racial slurs he used during his time in South Africa. Voices which civil society movements draw on can – even when raised in favour of an ostensibly progressive cause – subtly exclude, degrade, even oppress certain groups. Clement Attlee is currently enjoying a revival on the British Left – a Prime Minister whose government described early ‘Windrush’ Jamaican immigrants as an ‘incursion’ and did not promote acceptance of them.

My research strongly emphasises the importance of considering these questions. At a conference held in West Berlin in June 1950, a number of well-known liberal and left-wing intellectuals gathered to discuss the threat posed to freedom of cultural expression by Communism. They soon founded a permanent body, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established offices, produced magazines and arranged conferences across 35 countries and several continents in the 1950s and 1960s. The aim was to forge a new kind of liberal and ‘anti-totalitarian’ cultural criticism which counteracted the appeal of Communist ideology among progressive intellectuals reading CCF magazines and attending CCF conferences.

A number of prominent progressive thinkers on the British Left – such as Bertrand Russell and Stephen Spender – and on the Western Left more broadly, became involved with the project. These thinkers often believed that the freedoms they enjoyed, including freedom of expression and freedom of speech, were linked to the level of individual freedom achieved in Western societies. Human progress followed a democratic capitalist path; certainly, tensions existed, which Western CCF writers suggested might be eased by introducing welfare states, but a basic formula for attaining key freedoms had been worked out in the West.[2]

When turning to the pages of British CCF magazine Encounter, though, it is easy to uncover less than progressive sentiments festering beneath the veneer of liberalism and human advancement. These sentiments often reared their heads in essentialised treatments of the Third World. In the first edition of Encounter, Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont, seeking to ‘find’ India, oozed stereotypes; spiritualism was ubiquitous, and the country was stunted by its ‘primitive’ hierarchy which kept all passive. The ‘profound crisis of India’, inhibiting any advancement towards ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’, crystallised in its failure to ‘rupture with magic’.[3]

Similarly, in October 1955, South African writer Laurens van der Post turned an ostensibly critical eye on prospects for progress and development in Africa. A deeply racialised account ensued. The ‘African’, or the ‘black man’, had endured in a timeless state of ‘natural and innocent society’ until the arrival of the ‘white man’ or the ‘European man’. Now, Africans entered onto the stage of history. Their temperamental quiescence meant that, for some time, they ‘served the white man in a way that is almost too good to be true’ in a moment of ‘hush and suspended indigenous development in Africa’ which carried ‘immense potentiality’. Van der Post believed his account was progressive – he proceeded to critique ‘unenlightened white policy’ in Africa which had destroyed these potentialities of development – but it clearly turned on racist imagery.[4]

Such essentialised depictions had long featured prominently in Western writing. A well-known example regarding India is James Mill, a utilitarian so convinced that wisely formulated laws precipitated human progress that he dismissed the entirety of so-called ‘Hindu’ or Indian civilisation in an 1818 book without ever having visited the country. In the later part of the 19th century, this civilisational thinking became indistinguishable from racialised thinking; white connoted civilisation and progress, black connoted savagery and stasis.

De Rougemont and van der Post are extreme examples, but the same thinking subtly undergirded many Encounter considerations of similar topics. Where a progressive politics might have engaged with Indian and African intellectuals and invited their ideas on what human ‘freedom’ meant and how it might be achieved, a ‘progressivism’ characterised by race exceptionalism predominated.

Indeed, the Western CCF did attempt to bring Indian and African intellectuals, among others, into the fold, but not as independent contributors. They got in contact with intellectuals deemed receptive to a Western liberal and anti-Communist politics, inviting them to organise magazines and conferences on related themes in their home countries. When these intellectuals talked too much about politics – Indian CCF intellectuals frequently drew on their experience of colonialism to challenge the notion that ‘freedom’ was a Western import – they were seen to have gone off script; Western organisers complained and set up replacement magazines.[5]

Not only did the ‘liberalism’ of the CCF’s founders conceal beliefs which were authoritarian in their political implications – if Indian and African societies were uniformly illiberal, it would take a strong and robust state, as Western writers often observed, to change them – it also served unexpected geopolitical ends. The CIA, which sought from the late 1940s to promote the ‘non-Communist Left’ in the US and beyond, found something it approved of in the CCF, covertly funding early meetings and offering further support throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Several historians have suggested this had the effect of taming the more radical and innovative currents within CCF branches whilst strengthening the ‘liberal’ ones examined above; anyhow, a seemingly independent civil society movement was relying on CIA funds.[6]

These points emphasise that anti-authoritarian political and civil society forces are not, by default, progressive, an impression that is easy to gain when one looks at political landscapes today. ‘Liberal’ political languages can exclude and essentialise different groups of people, with authoritarian implications. This is not a problem restricted to colonial history; several professedly ‘liberal’ publications including The Economist have recently welcomed President Bolsonaro of Brazil, suggesting his premiership may do good even whilst openly acknowledging his despicable views. To be a progressive is to constantly consider and reconsider whether one’s own views and those of movements one finds appealing contain exclusionary elements. This helps a truly progressive politics take root against its openly authoritarian counterparts.

Tom Shillam is a PhD student based in the Department of History, University of York, whose research considers the cultural Cold War and decolonisation in 1950s & 1960s South Asia. He is currently looking into early Congress for Cultural Freedom journals published in Britain and India, which reveal intriguing divergences on what ‘freedom’ and ‘authoritarianism’ meant to intellectuals from different political and cultural backgrounds. His broader interests include blogging and public history, which has led to articles for fora such as The Conversation.

References

[1] The British Labour Party is a rare exception: https://www.opendemocracy.net/jon-cruddas-response-to-michael-sandel

[2] Frances Saunders, Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 1999); Giles Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Political Economy of American Hegemony 1945-1955 (London: Routledge, 2002).

[3] Denis de Rougemont, ‘Looking for India’, Encounter (October 1953), 36-42.

[4] Laurens van der Post, ‘The Dark Eye in Africa’, Encounter (October 1955), 5-12.

[5] Eric Pullin, ‘Quest: Twenty Years of Cultural Politics’, in Campaigning Culture and the Global Cold War: The Journals of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, ed. Giles Scott-Smith, and Charlotte Lerg (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 286.

[6] Scott-Smith, The Politics of Apolitical Culture: Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Economic apologies for Francoist repression, 1937 and 2017

During a research trip to Madrid in April this year, a Spanish friend poked fun at my MA research on Nationalist propagandists in Seville during the Civil War (1936-1939). ‘In Spain,’ he said, ‘the Second Republic [1931-1939] and everything that comes after is still practically journalism’.

His tongue-in-cheek comment referred to what Helen Graham has called Spain’s ‘memory wars’.[i] During the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975, Spanish politicians of all stripes preferred to engage in a ‘pact of forgetting’ or ‘pact of silence’ rather than to pursue a collective reckoning with the crimes of Francoism. Subsequent moves towards such a reckoning have been viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility by some on the Spanish right. The result is that the historical meaning of the Second Republic, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship is still intensely and very publicly contested.

This summer again saw ‘historical memory’ dominate the headlines, courtesy of the revelation in July that the Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco – an organisation whose ‘primary objective is to promote the memory and works’ of the dictator, to quote its Twitter profile – had been managing visits to the Pazo de Meirás, formerly Franco’s summer residence in his native region of Galicia. The house is owned by the dictator’s descendants but has been designated a ‘site of cultural interest’, obliging the owners to accommodate public visits on at least four days per month.

blog 1
The Pazo de Meirás. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

If the controversy caused by this revelation was not enough, on 31 July the Fundación stated that managing the visits would be ‘an excellent opportunity to show the general public the greatness of … Franco’. These comments in turn led to a fractious interview with the Fundación’s spokesman Jaime Alonso on Thursday 3 August’s edition of the current affairs talk show Al Rojo Vivo. (Excerpts from the interview can be viewed here and here, and includes violent footage).

While Alonso’s bizarre claim that ‘Franco didn’t shoot people’ – based on the specious reasoning that he merely acceded to death sentences passed by the courts—[ii] is refuted by a large and ever-growing body of historical research,[iii] another point which caught my attention was his challenge to the presenter, Cristina Pardo. Alonso demanded of the presenter, ‘Who instituted social security? Who created the public health service? Who … industrialised the country? and made state pensions and paid holidays possible?’

It is not uncommon for Franco’s apologists to make such arguments. A very limited welfare state did exist in Spain before the outbreak of the Civil War, but it is true that – as throughout Western Europe – this expanded somewhat during the decades following the Second World War. None of this is to say that a liberal-democratic regime in Spain would not have presided over economic prosperity and expanded welfare provision, a point which those making arguments similar to Alonso’s conveniently tend to overlook.

Although my MA dissertation did not address the post-war era to which Alonso was referring, this use of social policy and economic prosperity to obscure or minimise the use of terror and physical repression was only too familiar. Nationalist propagandists in Seville often used these themes in apparent attempts to appeal to the city’s generally left-leaning workers. These attempts were, however, so deeply inscribed with the logic of terror and authoritarianism that it is often difficult to separate them.

One of the major social-policy initiatives in Seville at the time was the construction of affordable homes, intended especially for the families of Nationalist soldiers killed or wounded at the front, or families with numerous children and only modest means to support them. These projects allowed Nationalist propagandists to claim to be helping working-class sevillanos, yet the provision of affordable housing specifically to these two groups also shows how social provisions cannot be neatly separated from the authorities’ ideological concerns.

The local Nationalist commander, General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, opined that ‘hygienic housing’ would allow workers to ‘fulfil their duties as citizens and as patriots’.[iv] These duties, as defined by Franco’s supporters, implied a stark loss of political agency. Paternalistic social policy pursued, by different means, similar aims to physical repression: the demobilisation of political opposition, and the definition of an apolitical class identity through which Spanish workers could be integrated into the nascent regime in a subordinate position.

blog 2
General Gonzalo Quiepo de Llano (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Another policy which the Nationalist authorities in Seville used to appeal to the interests of the city’s workers was imposition of price controls on staple foods. Regulating food markets in this way was, of course, a sensible wartime policy. Yet Nationalist propagandists – including Queipo, in his infamous radio broadcasts – repeatedly asserted that this was indicative of the alleged ‘normality’ of life in the Nationalist zone, which protected ordinary Spaniards’ access to food and general prosperity. The frequent publication in the local press of lists of business owners fined for violating these controls was not only a deterrent to others who may be tempted to do the same; they were also intended to demonstrate that the authorities were taking action to defend Seville’s workers.[v]

Of course, stable food prices were only one aspect of Nationalist ‘normality’ which affected working-class Spaniards’ lives. One of the key measures through which the military rebels hoped to impose their vision of economic ‘normality’ at the start of the conflict was an ‘absolute prohibition’ on strike action. Unlike price-hiking merchants, the leaders of striking unions would not be liable for a fine; they could expect to be condemned to death by a summary court martial.[vi] Although Nationalist propagandists during the Civil War claimed – disingenuously –[vii] that their management of the economy prevented working-class sevillanos from being negatively affected by the economic costs of war, this disparity in punishment is demonstrative of how measures such as price controls functioned within a wider discursive framework in which ‘normality’ meant brutal and often deadly repression for many of these workers.

3rd image cropped
‘Happiness of wheat, hope for tomorrow’. The Nationalist press often carried stories purporting to show that food was abundant under Franco. F.E., 18/7/1937 (special edition), n.p Held at the Hemeroteca Municipal de Madrid.

These are just two examples of wartime propaganda which pursued the same goal as Alonso’s comments on Al Rojo Vivo: to justify Francoism in terms of the economic wellbeing of Spain and its people. Yet economic and social policy in Civil-War Seville was comprehensively intertwined with the repressive discourse and practices which underpinned the birth of Franco’s dictatorship. This should not be forgotten, whether in reference to the Civil War or to later Francoism.

Joel Baker is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield’s Department of History. His research is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities, and examines social housing and infrastructure projects under Spain’s Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923-1930) as expressions of the regime’s ‘anti-political’ populism. You can find him on Twitter at @joelrbaker.

References:

[i] Helen Graham, ‘Coming to Terms with the Past: Spain’s Memory Wars’, History Today 54.5 (2004), pp. 29-31.

[ii] In the immediate post-war period, these were often summary courts martial which tried and found guilty multiple defendants on flimsy evidence in proceedings sometimes lasting mere minutes. Defence lawyers were usually junior military officers who were given little time to prepare by their superiors, who sat as judges. See Peter Anderson, The Francoist Military Trials: Terror and Complicity, 1939-1945 (London, 2010); ‘In the Interests of Justice? Grass-Roots Prosecution and Collaboration in Francoist Military Trials, 1939-1945’, Contemporary European History 18.1 (2009), pp.25-44; ‘Singling Out Victims: Denunciation and Collusion in Post-Civil War Francoist Repression in Spain, 1939-1945’, European History Quarterly 39 (2009), pp. 7-26.

[iii] For a relatively recent synthesis of this research, see Paul Preston, The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (London, 2012).

[iv] F.E., 16/3/1937, p. 11.

[v] See, e.g., F.E., 1/2/1938, p. 6.

[vi] See Queipo de Llano’s bando de guerra (declaration of martial law) of 18 July 1936. Auditoría de Guerra de la Segunda División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur, Bandos y órdenes dictados por el Excmo. Sr. D. Gonzalo Queipo de Llano y Sierra, General Jefe de la 2.a División Orgánica y del Ejército del Sur (Seville, 1937), pp. 5-6.

[vii] In fact, ordinary citizens throughout Spain saw their living standards decline drastically during the Civil War as a result of ‘economic repression’, and during the 1940s because the regime’s rationing and autarky policies forced many to accept inflated black-market prices for staple goods in order to survive. See Miguel Ángel del Arco Blanco, ‘Hunger and the Consolidation of the Francoist Regime (1939-1951), European History Quarterly 40.3 (2010), pp. 458-483; Hambre de Siglos: Mundo rural y apoyos sociales del franquismo en Andalucía oriental, 1936-1951 (Granada, 2007); Rúben Serém, A Laboratory of Terror. Conspiracy, Coup d’ état and Civil War in Seville, 1936-1939: History and Myth in Francoist Spain (Brighton / Portland / Toronto, 2017), pp. 147-189.

1989, Memory and Me

By Carmen Levick

RomanianFlag-withHole
Romanian flag with emblem of the socialist cut out (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Memories are funny things: they come and go, they seem true but you discover they are rather fabricated, they haunt you when you least expect it. A few years ago I embarked on a quest to piece together my own history and to outline a road to a truth, to my truth which, according to Jean Baudrillard, ‘has vanished into the virtual through an excess of information’.[1] What follows are my own, individual memories of the days before and immediately after the 1989 Romanian revolution.

16 December 1989

School holidays. It is unusually warm outside and my grandmother tells me that when the trees are in bloom in winter that means a new beginning. I have recently turned 14 and I am really looking forward to changing from a pioneer to a young communist because when you are a young communist you don’t have to wear your tricolour tie to school. I have been waiting for eight years for this moment and I cannot wait to go back to school! This must be the new beginning my granny is talking about! But we have to get through the winter holidays first…

17 December 1989

Exciting morning! I am getting ready to go out and get in the queue for my winter holiday presents from the Party. Every winter, just before what people in the West call Christmas, but we just call winter holidays, kids my age and younger have to queue in front of the universal shop (not the only shop in the village, but the only one where there is actually something on the shelves) for our yearly presents: five oranges, a piece of chocolate and a tin of Globus meat.

It is the only time in the year when we are supposed to see oranges and eat real chocolate but we live on the border with Hungary so it’s easier to get hold of this stuff during the year. I have been queuing for about four hours now and I am glad it’s not snowing. The queue is advancing slowly and this is usually a lively affair but today things are different. The parents who joined their children in the line are whispering. In the evening, Ceausescu is on TV telling us that hooligans in Timisoara are destroying the city but that he has everything under control. Well, that’s good.

18 December 1989

Mum and Dad start whispering too. I feel that something important is happening and I would like to know what it is but nobody is talking to me. I am not allowed to use the phone as especially today it has more ears than usual. We visit some friends in the evening and I finally find out that Ceausescu does not seem to be that much in control as he said on TV. Apparently people are dying in Timisoara and corpses are thrown into the river Bega and into sewage canals. But nobody has really seen anything as the city is in lockdown. People are making stories up!

21 December 1989

Ceausescu is back from Iran and a large assembly of people is brought together in Bucharest in front of the Party’s Central Committee building. We are watching on TV as he addresses the crowd from the balcony, condemning the hooligans in Timisoara and talking about our bright future. But something is wrong! We start hearing boos and Ceausescu is flustered. He stops talking and tries, clumsily and without success, to calm the people. Suddenly the TV programme is cut. White noise.

The following days we are glued to the TV. On 22 December, at 12.08 Ceausescu and his wife flee Bucharest. The army is firing into the people. Tanks are crushing people in the streets. But then, suddenly, there are flowers on the tanks and in the barrels of the guns and the army is with us. Hugs and kisses. Ceausescu is gone! At night people are still dying. Who is shooting? The army are fighting ghosts. But people are dying so somebody must be shooting. The night is lit by tracer bullets. It is Christmas indeed!

On Christmas day Ceausescu and his wife are caught. After a mock trial they are executed. It’s horrible they did this on Christmas day and live on TV. But we are still happy and go on with our Christmas dinner. Democracy is looming on the screen. We will have proper elections and it’s going to be so good. Like in the West. And hopefully now the Americans will finally arrive. In early January there is a small miracle: the shops are full of food and other wonderful objects. We don’t have the money to buy any of them but we are window-shopping and loving it. From here things can only get better!

PozeRevolutia1989clujByRazvanRotta02
Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca, of the kind of images remote from many but via TV screen. (Source: Răzvan Rotta/Wikimedia Commons)

This was my revolution: the way I experienced it as a 14-year-old. But did we actually have a revolution? Nothing happened where I lived. We watched all the gruesome stuff on TV. It was as if this was happening in another country, in another reality. It is almost impossible to try and piece together what happened that December in 1989. Subsequent representations of the Romanian Revolution have all struggled with the construction of their narrative and many of them needed to turn to surreal imagery in order to fill in the empty spaces between death and politics.

In his chapter The Timisoara Massacre, Baudrillard notes that many Romanian eyewitness accounts speak of being dispossessed of the revolution by only seeing voluntary traces of it on screen. They are ‘deprived of the living experience they have of it by being submerged in the media network, by being placed under house arrest in front of their television screens. Spectators then become exoterics of the screen, living their revolution as an exoticism of images’.[2]

While there was at least one factual event —at 12.08 Ceausescu left the building of the national parliament— almost everything else should have been questioned and challenged by us, the armchair revolutionaries. And, although at first we got stuck in the mirage of the image of freedom —which, if deep-frozen before, was now over-spilling its banks— the years following the revolution prompted an abundance of questions about truth and authenticity.

We preferred ‘the exile of the virtual, of which television is the universal mirror, to the catastrophe of the real’.[3] But what was real? After the revolution, stories started to pop up everywhere: about what happened, who got killed, who escaped and if they were heroes or collaborators, who shot all those people, who were the terrorists? The more intellectual faces of the previous regime were now ready to take over and give us freedom and democracy.

One of the first plays to question the official events of the revolution and attempt a reconstruction based on the reactions of ordinary people to the events of 1989 was, interestingly enough, not a Romanian play but a ‘play from Romania’: Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forest. It was written in the first months of 1990 when Churchill went to Romania with a group of theatre students from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama to work with acting students in Bucharest and to try and find out more about the events of December 1989.

Structured in three acts, Mad Forest presents a before and after event, two weddings (Lucia and Florina’s) enclosing a rendition of what happened in December 1989, through seemingly unmediated (although English) voices of ordinary people, many accidentally involved in the events. What is fascinating about this work, is that even this very early play uses as a basis for its second act the narrative and imagery of the media revolution.

The characters telling the story: doctor, translator, housepainter, flowerseller, student, painter, soldier, Securitate man[4] and bulldozer driver, are all impersonal types, set against the main characters of the play, who give a sometimes painful but extremely visual account of the events. They piece together what everybody knows as being the official version of the revolution, with more personal, unseen events: ‘STUDENT: Then I saw students singing with flags with holes in them and I thought, surely this is the end’.[5]

Churchill gives voice to a Securitate man without turning him into a villain or a victim. Much like the other witnesses, he relies on the TV for his truth, which is now ruled by disorder as he himself notes: ‘Until noon on 22 we were law and order. We were brought up in this idea. I will never agree with unorder.’[6] His view of order and disorder challenges but also reaffirms Baudrillard’s conclusions about instating ordered democracy in Eastern Europe: ‘In Eastern Europe, where there was something (communism, but this was precisely disorder from a global point of view), today there is nothing, but there is order. Things are in democratic order, even if they are in the worst confusion.’[7]

Bio: Dr Carmen Levick is a lecturer in Theatre at the University of Sheffield’s School of English, having previously taught at University College Dublin following the completion of her PhD in their Theatre Studies programme. Carmen’s research focuses primarily on representations of revolution in theatre, Shakespeare in performance and physical theatre. She is currently working on a monograph mapping the performative representations of revolution in Eastern Europe, and recently presented a talk at the University of Sheffield’s Festival of Arts and Humanities entitled ‘Performing Stones: Memory, Forgetting and Communist Monuments’. You can follow her on Twitter at @Carmen_Levick.

Full photo attributions:

CC BY-SA 2.5 pl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1237708

Photo of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 in Cluj-Napoca taken by Răzvan Rotta, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Photos_of_the_Romanian_Revolution_of_1989_in_Cluj-Napoca_taken_by_R%C4%83zvan_Rotta

References

[1] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 54.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 56.

[3] Ibid., p. 57.

[4] ‘Securitate’ refers to the secret police agency of the Socialist Republic of Romania.

[5] Caryl Churchill, Mad Forest, London: Nick Hern Books, 1990, p. 36.

[6] Ibid., p. 42.

[7] Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994, p. 29.