Fascism as Memory
Dmitri Plax, member of the Board of Swedish PEN.
Their faces are easy to fix in the mind. You simply learn what they look like, even though you don’t particularly want to. It’s how children learn to swear on the streets. Their tired tongues are clumsy, just like their government-issue cars, but at least they know all the important words.
“It’s not us who are fascists”, one of the bosses of the Minsk militia announces triumphantly in an interview. “You are”.
Full stop. He’s said it all. There’s a fleeting glimpse of something on his tired face. Something childish, something alive. Then it hits you; he feels hurt. Hurt in a quite ordinary childish way. And the way he says it: the old childish way that brooks no argument. After all, that’s what children say: “Yah boo sucks to you”, “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”. Put another way, “It’s not us. It’s you. It’s your own fault”.
You, the fascists.
It’s obvious who he’s talking to. To us. To the people. That’s all he can say to us after two months of street protests. After all, he has also been playing an active part in those protests, albeit on the other side; he knows full well what people call him and his subordinates, what word it is that they shout or spit at them quite openly – all those grannies and children, granddads and students, workers and IT-professionals, taxi drivers and musicians, sportsmen and fast food sellers…
It’s a word we shouted at them back in the nineties. Them, meaning the types in uniform. We’ve been shouting it at them for twenty-six years. I shouted it at them when I was still young; it was the first word that came into our mind. I used to sing about fascism in a punk rock group; whenever I yelled “brownshirts” in a hoarse voice into the microphone, I didn’t mean that there was a gang of shaven-headed right-wing yobbos lying in wait for me outside. What I in fact meant was ‘It’: both the power in the state that the people had elected, and the people themselves, wretched and blind. I despised them.
It was summer when you shouted the word at them; we were helplessly watching thugs in balaclavas grab cyclists on the square simply because they were cyclists. They were grabbing them and shoving them into metal prisons on wheels. You shouted the word at them when they were hunting unarmed people outside the hotel ‘Minsk’, and the hotel guests were following the hunt from their windows. They watched, feeling that they had somehow ended up inside a time machine. That’s the kind of vehicles we have driving around the streets of the capital: armoured cars, water cannons, mobile prisons, war rigs, army lorries, malignant minibuses – all used in the hunt for human flesh…Time machines. Except that in this case the time has been stolen.
It may seem as though they have already become inured to the word “fascist”, and have tacitly consented to its use: “OK, we’re fascists, so what?” But no, it’s not like that. Being a fascist is not that simple. Especially in Belarus.
In Belarus a “fascist” is more than just a fascist.
Sometimes being a “fascist” is simply a job. You’ve got to earn money for your bread somehow. Fascists also want to eat. Fascists’ children also cry. A fascist also needs a pension. In a social state no one is overlooked.
Anyone born and growing up in the Soviet Union would have first heard the word “fascist” early on in childhood. Since then the word has always been with us, like the marks of vaccinations on our upper arms. The word entered our consciousness like an injection. “This must never happen again”, “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten”, “We are the country that defeated fascism” – that’s how we were brought up. By vaccinating us with eternal hatred for the enemy, or, more accurately, for the word that was used to mean ‘the enemy’. The enemy was a long way away, and for some reason nobody was actually attacking us, but just in case, we were taught to hate the word.
Those truly remarkable words: “America”, “the FRG” (Federal Republic of Germany), “spies”, “traitors”, “militarists”, “capitalism”, “revanchism”, “Zionism”, “arms race”, “fascists”.
Who was he then, this terrible fascist, in our Soviet childhood? First off, he was a German. In that childhood of ours the meaningless phrase “liberation from the German fascist aggressors” came as no surprise to anyone. Nobody told us anything in school about Italian fascism. Secondly, a fascist was a torturer, a sadist. Thirdly, a fascist had to have a splendid uniform. Fourthly, a fascist was someone who could not live here, among us. Among Soviet children and adults. Someone who had no right whatsoever to live among people. And he could not live in our country, because ours was not the kind of country where fascists were left alive.
The only good fascist is a dead fascist.
Over time the meanings behind all these words dissolved and finally disappeared. All, except one: fascist, one who is above all a sadist, the incarnation of cruelty. Absolute evil. A word that became separated from its purely political meaning, and ended up in the murky pond of Soviet morality, where it has stayed ever since.
Once, when I was about 15, I was given the job of looking after a boy for a whole day. He was a lot younger than me, an uncontrollable, spoilt, loud-mouthed brat. The boy decided that I wasn’t an authority figure for him and started getting ready to leave the house. I wouldn’t allow it; after all, he was my responsibility. He yelled and kicked, and I held him by the arms. In response he began to howl. “You’re a fascist! Fascist! Killing’s too good for you!” But I never did let him go out of the door.
For the first time in my life, I had been called a fascist. At that particular moment I was afraid, because, apart from indignation and anger, I felt something else. Some kind of strange joy, excitement and … liberation. For a few minutes I was a real fascist, even if only in the eyes of that little twat. It meant that I was strong and powerful. I was now standing above myself. Above everyone. Above moral law, above people. My power was the only law. I despised that howling child, and I very much wanted to hit him. At the very same moment as he called me a fascist, I realised that I, an ordinary teenager, could do whatever I liked.
Whatever lay within the confines of my small world.
In actual fact I was surrounded by a large number of “fascists” in my childhood. The films I saw and the books I read were filled with them, they were in the newspapers and museums, they turned up in our games and even in our sadomasochistic dreams that were such a sweet mixture of eros, thanatos and history lessons. Even the word “fascist” looked and sounded imposing: it was short, vile, and beautiful.
It is interesting that the word’s right to a feminine side was never disputed. A strict woman teacher could be a fascist, as could a hysterical headmistress, a female relative I wasn’t fond of, even some nasty woman on the street. The main thing was that a fascist had to be invested with Power and a Uniform. A fascist was instantly recognisable. And he had to have a weapon, even if it was no more than age, a voice or a school pointing stick held so tightly that the fingers wrapped around it were turning blue.
Adults taught us the word “fascism”, forgetting what it meant in reality, by repeating like a mantra that it would never return.
No, no, no, it’s not going to come back. Sleep.
Yes, a fascist in my country is someone other than a “fascist”.
To be honest, I do not know how to translate the word into other languages. In translations the word should probably be written in the Cyrillic script. Cyrillic фашизм [fashyzm] is not your Latin-script fascism with its nostalgic memories of blackshirts and the Roman salute. Cyrillic фашизм is the twenty-first century, it’s the shining well-ordered pages of the state press, it’s the sharp cut of the attire worn by officialdom, it’s the horror that gets sprayed all over the internet, the daily conveyor belt of lies, and the rubber bullets bought in the European Union for use against malcontents. However, to the west and north of Belarus there aren’t many people who can read Cyrillic very well. People there consider that “fascism in the Latin script” is impossible in the Europe of today, and no belief should be placed in the Cyrillic script of the East. Everything there is turned upside down and distorted: just look at the letters they use, parodies of the elegant letters of the Latin alphabet.
The Cyrillic alphabet is always giving out some kind of threat. There’s always something there that isn’t quite right. Because they aren’t Europe.
And here we go again.
Of course, “fascist” is a word in the propagandist’s arsenal. It’s always to hand. It’s like a cobblestone just lying there on the street. All you have to do is pick it up and throw it. Sling it at some fascists and you’re bound to hit someone. In fact you already did hit somebody, the moment you thought up an enemy for yourself.
Anti-fascist propaganda is also propaganda. However, when unarmed people stand against men armed to the teeth, and pick up words with their hands, we are dealing with something much more: indictment. After all, words are our only weapons. The terror of the armed aimed at the unarmed: isn’t that what is meant by fascism? How many more victims are needed before the word ceases to be a mere lexeme. How much more horror and pain must there be before the word “fascism” acquires the weight and shape of what it actually means today?
You absolutely have to tell fascists about this when they are in power, but first you must tell yourself. At a certain moment all the colours of the spectrum turn pale, leaving only two. Failure to distinguish them is a fatally dangerous disease. Just two colours – horror and hope. The fascists’ black and our white. The black and white film of fascists of the past, the torturers and murderers, the black and white photographs made by the occupiers in the war years – all this has now, in 2020, again become our reality. The people of Belarus are shaken when they see photographs taken in 1942 placed side by side with photographs taken in 2020. There is no difference; no one is deceived by the colours of modern photographs.
How alike they are – those who did the torturing back then, and those who are doing it now. They’re almost twins. And how close we are to them, as though we suddenly met together on the same historical bridge: those who were tortured back then and those who are being tortured today. They must be our ancestors: those you once met on that historical bridge, and did not turn your eyes away.
Revolution is a challenge to fascism, revolution is a time of simplicity. I maintain that this is unfortunate, because Art cannot be simple. Art, however, has many temptations, and one of them is this: being accessible. Accessible art was always fond of the word “fascism”. Art plays with the word like a ball. Fascism offers such simple, easily understandable images that it lifts from the artist any obligation of complexity. Literature is fond of the word too. There is no need of further explanation when you write the word “fascism”. Together, violence and power make up the final, universal and most accessible image of all.
When they tell us that we’re fascists, it’s no more than a device taken from old Soviet propaganda, a device that for thousands of people has become an invented memory.
When we tell them that they are the fascists, it is a guilty verdict passed by millions of people.
If art says that ‘this is fascism’, it is sending a worrying signal. I become simple, because everything around me is too frightening and too complex.
When the authorities call someone a fascist, it means that the authorities themselves are fascist.
The right to decide where fascism lies should never belong to the authorities.
It’s that simple.
In the forty-five years of my life (only forty-five!), I have lived through a variety of regimes. I was born and grew up in a totalitarian state, and then I found myself in the perestroika period. I could see the confusion of the grown-ups, who had never experienced anything other than what had gone before. Then came independence, and the first occasional, timid glances made by the new-old authorities in the direction of a democratic system. It wasn’t freedom as yet. At the beginning of the nineties it would have ridiculous to expect freedom from a dying Soviet mentality, but at least there was an attempt, there was hope. Then the dictatorship began, and I went to Hamburg. The six years I spent there was the only time in my life when I lived in a democracy. Then I came back to Minsk, and now you and I are living under fascism.
On which I congratulate you.
And I you.
We’re going to die. People like us don’t survive under fascism. They suffocate.
But is what we’re dealing with here really fascism?
The art of poetry demands words. But never mind that, we need words all the time. The human curse of words lies upon us. We cannot calmly approach death without knowing what we should call our lives. There are questions that we keep asking ourselves: who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? How did it all turn out like this? We guess that there are no answers. But instead of answers there are words. There are names, and we seek them. This is something that even fascism cannot forbid us to do.
Discussions about the situation in which Belarus finds itself in 2020 were already underway by the time of the election of 9 August. What kind of system is there in the country, what should we call it, how should we classify it? The reply, of course, depends on many factors, one of them being: where is the one making the classification? Analysts abroad pride themselves on their impartiality. No, it isn’t fascism, they say. Many formal features of fascism are absent. Strange, but I rather think they would change their mind if they lived here for even just a week or two.
It’s a military-police junta, maintain some, in a purely Latin American form that has suddenly taken hold in Eastern Europe. No, it’s just plain and ordinary authoritarianism in its death throes, say others. Another view holds that is a hybrid regime. It occurred to me that the way we are living at present is 1937, but with the internet. Back then, in 1937, there were telegrams on which the state kept a close watch. For suspicious telegrams you could be shot or sent off to the labour camps. Nowadays nearly everyone has the ‘Telegram’ messaging service; you run the risk of criminal prosecution if you subscribe to the ‘wrong’ channels. As then, so now: terror and cruelty, black marias waiting outside the flats, people afraid to listen to the footsteps on the landing, afraid of leaving the house and simply not coming back… People disappearing in broad daylight, and then being found. They’re found in prison, and that’s something to be happy about. At least they’realive. Thank God.
Some time ago, in my past life, one of my German friends said, “What you have in Belarus is a postmodern dictatorship”. In order to understand how dangerous it is, you need first of all to know what postmodernism is. Secondly, you need to have a well developed sense of humour, and an inhuman level of irony. Thirdly, you shouldn’t be living according to the laws of traditional logic.
These days we delve into clever books in the hunt for a definition of what is happening in Belarus right now. We seek parallels: older people and history buffs recall the Tontons Macoutes, Pinochet, Salazar, Paraguay and much else besides. We share definitions of fascism that we’ve found on the internet. Fascism according to Ernst Nolte and Hannah Arendt, fascism according to Stanley Payne and Roger Griffin. Not all points coincide. We argue. Political scientists frown. They don’t like amateurs.
No, that’s not possible. What kind of fascism can there be in 2020?
But we go on reading, and we get to recognise the reality around us. That same reality that isn’t just on the other side of the window. No, it can be found right outside the confines of the skull.
Yes, that’s fascism. Especially reading about it when you are right inside fascism. Someone with a book inside a transparent bubble from which escape is impossible.
We knew about fascism mainly from books and films. Mass culture had been chewing over fascism and spitting it out for so long that we thought we knew all there was to know about it. The only thing that came as a surprise to us was: how could people live under fascism? How could they be human and have, terrible as it is to say, ordinary demands, dreams, wishes and emotions? How could they exist in time and space? How was it possible to lead an ordinary life under fascism? The hero of Nabokov’s story Cloud, Castle, Lake admits “that he had not the strength to belong to mankind any longer”. He lived under fascism, the German Nazism of the 1930s, but in the story Nabokov makes no mention of total political control, of the secret police, or of police roundups. Fascism finds its expression in the ordinariness of everyday life, in the ordinary people all around us, and this is what makes it so frightening.
We read this story as a warning, but then it turned out that we are actually living inside it. It suddenly became clear that under fascism you can still eat sushi, drink wine, have sex, bring up children, do a bit of work, read before going to sleep, go for a walk. You can do everything. Nothing is allowed. There is no law, there are only physical needs, hatred, rebellion and hope – and what Czesław Miłosz called the “blazing balloon of fear”. Recalling his years in occupied Warsaw, he wrote that he worked hard at the time, wrote poetry, fell in love, on occasion even went dancing, hid himself, helped others, enjoyed food, drank vodka… However, he adds that every moment of the day he could see and feel within himself this “blazing balloon”. Nothing could drive it away, nothing could put out the flames.
We now have the same feeling. The only difference is that some of the frontiers are still open. All we have to do is pack up the balloon and take it with us.
In her poem “The Stone of Fear” the Belarusian poet Julija Cimafiejeva writes of fear as a stone, handed down from one generation to the next. In it our Belarusian fear is a strange ornament worn around the neck, a family heirloom that has to be protected. Belarus did not discover fascism for itself: the country recalled it, never took it off. Why? It was probably afraid to. Afraid of no longer being itself.
Belarus is the first country in Europe where fascism has made a comeback. How lucky we are. At last we are part of European history. Why has it happened this way?
Because previously we did not exist. We did not want to. We thought it would all blow over.
“People, be watchful,” says the Czech journalist Julius Fučík in his book Notes from the Gallows, written shortly before his death. He was seized by the fascists in 1942 and killed by them in the following year. When I lived in Western Europe, I was surprised to learn that very few people knew who he was. Almost no one.
Sometimes I get the impression that it’s only Soviet children who remember him, when they played the game of “fascists” and “Russians”, just as the Belarusian children of today play “people” and “riot police”. Even then, it’s only the most assiduous Soviet children who remembered him. Fučík was one of those whose name was blasted out at full volume by Soviet propaganda. Since nobody believed the propaganda, nobody took this mysterious Fučík fellow seriously. OK, he said it. OK, the noose was already round his neck. How boring all these types like Fučík are. All this history that nobody needs… You just get a headache from it.
We aren’t the fascists here. You are. I can just hear the voice of the investigator saying this to Fučík. Calm, sure of himself, tired, and a little hurt.
Julius Fučík was hanged in a Berlin prison. Lawfully. Following a guilty verdict in court. All the procedures laid down in the law were observed. His guilt was proven. The state did not err. The state has to defend itself, does it not? He was an enemy of the state, and received the punishment he deserved.
He even had a defence lawyer, so people say.