Retroactive justice: prehistory of post-communism

TitleRetroactive justice: prehistory of post-communism
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialRév, István


PublisherStanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press
ISSNISBN 0804736421 cloth
Review year


Full Text

Retroactive Justice is a unique catalogue of critical deconstruction, an unparalleled collection of ideological twists and archival oddities throughout Hungarian history, written by a distinguished scholar who does not fit commonly used categories. István Rév, director of Budapest’s Open Society Archives, covers such diverse fields and topics as history, philosophy, linguistics, religious studies, just to mention some. A regular contributor to significant journals such asRepresentation, Daedalus or BUKSZ/ Budapest Review of Books, Rév taught economic history in the 1980s and was a member of the environmentalist opposition group Duna Kör (Danube Circle) before he started teaching history at the Central European University. He can count outstanding scholars, for instance Saul Friedländer [see p.72], Hayden White or Carlo Ginzburg among his friends. With the latter he shares more than the ability to reconstruct past events from "mere" archival sources: they both have a preference for open endings.

Due to a peculiar style of thinking and writing – which sometimes resembles a stream of consciousness technique – the connections between the various elements composing a chapter are neither readily perceivable nor do they display immediate meaning, yet eventually the author manages to bring them together. Thus, Rév reveals unexpected relations and distant comparisons across time and space: the Polish, Czech or Bulgarian People’s Republics appear just like Greek mythology or ancient Jewish and Christian rituals. Only a thorough intellectual biography can reflect on the diverse sources that Rév combines in this extraordinary work; however, such an exploration would exceed the given limits here. Therefore, what follows is one of the possible understandings of Rév’s methodological approach as well as the book’s main theses.

As the author announces in his Introduction (accessible online: Introduction) the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the executed prime minister Imre Nagy reappear at the centre of all chapters.  The entire book proves that in Hungary “historical arguments have always been used in actual political wars. In fact, historical arguments have always been the ultima ratio in political battles” [p.7]. Still, Rév himself succeeds in maintaining academic distance to his topic and equally critically scrutinizes all actors and events – regardless of his personal, hardly ever explicit participation in the course of recent history. Thus, he manages to shift between the familiarity of an eyewitness, the clear sight of an observer as well as analytical excellence. Theoretical excursions invite the reader on detours into linguistics (e.g. the distinction and significance of proper names, references and taboos), religious dogma (as in the case of Easter) or literature (for example a novel as popular support for the official ideology) in order to reflect on the underlying mechanisms and hypocrisies of history rewritten and remade.

The seven chapters of Retroactive Justice (titled Parallel Autopsies, The Necronym, A Pantheon, Holy Days, A Rule of Law, Underground and Transition) focus on the communist era and its failed appropriation of history. Nevertheless, in this Prehistory of Post-Communism he also addresses the interpretative and narrative changes that have occurred since the transition began. He identifies the distorting presentation of the past during Communist times and its lasting impact. Meanwhile Rév elucidates common human practices like the cult of the dead or cultural memory which constitute the core of this work, convincingly relating Sigmund Freud, the Bible, Saul Kripke, mythology or the minutes of the Hungarian Workers’ Party Committee to popular literature or film. Furthermore, he seems particularly fond of every-day myths and court trials since these, too, shape our perception of ‘reality’ and apparently have accompanied all great turnovers of Hungarian 20th century history.

While far from being a postmodern relativist, the author’s approach implies the constraints of knowing the truth as much as knowing the past. Thus, the post-Communist ‘retroactive justice’ that is supposedly done to Communism’s victims and the way this is practiced today become likewise questionable. Moreover, in relation to Rév`s disregard of chronology, causality in most cases remains a retrospective construction which unjustly diminishes the inherent uncertainty of the future.

Regardless of the complexity and the different topics of each chapter, the main theses, the backbone of all his arguments, can be summarized as follows:
The Communist presentation of Fascism as mainly anti-Communist has prevented a (self-) reflexive and (self-)critical approach to the history of Communism; thus, today’s political right is able – without the necessary distinctions – to eclipse Communist rule, equate Nazism and Communism as foreign imposition and claim the heritage of Horthy’s “archconservative, nationalist, neo-baroque” inter-war regime [e.g. p.43].
Undoubtedly, 1989 did not constitute a revolution in Hungary. On the contrary, the Kádárist regime experienced silent mass collaboration throughout its decades starting in the 1960s. The depiction of 1956 as counterrevolution deprived its ‘proper’ commemoration of meaning and turned it into a “nonevent” [p.322], since secrets and taboos formed the basis of authoritarian rule. Only the changing context of the 1980s invested 1956 with new meaning. Nevertheless, this change eventually meant the unconscious self-destruction of the Communist regime, undermining its legitimacy by questioning its own historical construct. Paradoxically, this was perceived as necessary concession to the opposition in order to prevent turmoil similar to the one that occurred in 1956. However, the opposition – also recalling 1956 – never planned to instigate an uprising. Still, the demonization of Communism serves as excuse for all those who silently collaborated. 

Last but not least, the broad range of sources that Rév consults ought to be mentioned: they rank from archival clippings, photographs, novels and film footage to internet sites. Each of the highly complex and informative chapters is a self-constituent entity, partly because some derive from earlier publications. Yet, readers should be familiar with recent trends in historiography and have at least basic knowledge of Central Eastern European, at best Hungarian, history. One needs to be ready for a quite unique, unusual experience and receptive for unconventional approaches in order to appreciate this work. The stylistically as well as methodologically brilliant chapter “Underground” gives the best impression of the author`s unique profile and approach. Nevertheless, at times footnotes distract from the main theme, since they either elaborate in minute detail on previous references or even add barely (if at all) related issues. Certainly,Retroactive Justice is an incentive to critically re-consider our conceptualization of past and present.