How I Lost My Past
Branko Milanovic with a note on nostalgia.
In almost all recent literature that analyzes Br-exit and Trump-entry, there is a constant theme of a fall from the heady days at the end of the Cold War, of pining for a time when unstoppable victory of democracy and neoliberal economics was a certainty and liberal capitalism stood at the pinnacle of human achievement.
Such narratives always filled me with discomfort. It is in part because I never believed in them and because my personal experience was quite different. Rather than believing in the end of history, I saw the end of the Cold War as an ambivalent event: good for many people because it brought them national liberation and the promise of better living standards, but traumatic for others because it brought them the rise of vicious nationalism, wars, unemployment and disastrous declines in income.
I know that I was influenced in that by a very clear realization that, once the Berlin Wall fell, the civil war in Yugoslavia was inevitable (I still remember a rather somber dinner that I shared with my mother on that day in November) and by the first hand experience of sudden misery that befell Russia in the early 1990s when I travelled there working for the World Bank. So, I was aware that my discomfort with triumphalism could be explained by these two, rarely found together, circumstances. It was perhaps an idiosyncratic discomfort.
But reading other books, and especially the highly acclaimed Tony Judt, I realized that the discomfort went further. In a deluge of literature that was written or published after the end of the Cold War, I just could not find almost anything that mirrored my own experiences from the Yugoslavia of the 1960s and 1970s. However hard I tried I just could not see anything in my memories that had to deal with collectivization, killings, political trials, endless bread lines, imprisoned free thinkers and other stories that are currently published in literary magazines. It is even stranger because I was very politically precocious; without exaggeration I think I was more politically-minded than 99% of my peers in the then Yugoslavia.
But my memories of the 1960s and the 1970s are different. I remember long dinners discussing politics, women and nations, long Summer vacations, foreign travel, languid sunsets, whole-night concerts, epic soccer games, girls in mini-skirts, the smell of the new apartment in which my family moved, excitement of new books and of buying my favorite weekly on the evening before the day when it would hit the stands…. I cannot find any of that in Judt, Svetlana Alexeevich or any other writer. I know that some of the memories may be influenced by nostalgia, but as hard as I try I still find them as my dominant memories. I remember many details of each of them to believe that my nostalgia somehow “fabricated” them. I just cannot say they did not happen.
Thus I came to realize that all these other memories from Eastern Europe and Communism that pop-up on today’s screens and “populate” the literature, have almost nothing in common with me. And yet I lived under such a regime for thirty years! I know that my story may not be representative, not the least because the 1970s were the years of prosperity in Yugoslavia and because that peripheral part of Europe then played, thanks to Tito’s non-alignment, a world political role that it never had in 2,000 years—but still, after I adjust for all of that, I believe that some other, non-preordained, stories of “underdevelopment” and Communism have the right to be told too. Or should we willfully destroy our memories?
Yet it is very difficult to tell these other stories. History is written, we are told, by the victors and stories that do not fit the pattern narrative are rejected. This is especially the case, I have come to believe, in the United States that has created during the Cold War a formidable machinery of open and concealed propaganda. That machinery cannot be easily turned off. It cannot produce narratives that do not agree with the dominant one because no one would believe them or buy such books. There is an almost daily and active rewriting of history to which many people from Eastern Europe participate: some because they do have such memories, some because they force themselves (often successfully) to believe that they do have such memories. Others can remain with their individual memories which, at their passing, will be lost. The victory shall be complete.
When I was in 2006 in Leipzig to watch a World Cup game, I was struck to see, displayed in a modest store window, a picture of the East German soccer team that in 1974, in the then World Cup played in West Germany, unexpectedly beat the West German team by 1-0. None of the players in that East German squad went to become rich and famous. They were just home boys. It was I thought a small, poignant, even in some ways pathetic, attempt to save the memories and say: “We also did something in these forty years; we existed; it was not all meaningless, “nasty and brutish”.
Thinking of those years in political terms, one moment now, perhaps strangely, stands out for me. It was the Summer of 1975. The Helsinki conference on peace and stability in Europe was just taking place. It was closing a chapter on the World War II. It came just months after the liberation of Saigon. And I recall being on a beach, reading about the Helsinki conference and thinking, linking the two events: there will be no wars in Europe in my lifetime, and imperialism has been defeated. How wrong was I on both accounts.
This post first appeared on Branko's blog and was reprinted with permisssion.