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Who’s afraid of memory laws? Introducing ‘militant memocracy’ in International Relations

This article was written by Maria Mälksoo, University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies
This article was published on

Maria Mälksoo discusses her new article in BISA journal Review of International Studies (RIS), available on FirstView now. The article investigates status-seeking through memory laws on the example of Russia, Poland and Ukraine’s governance of historical memory.

For Eastern Europe, the Second World War (WWII) is still a past that will not pass. Recent years have seen the introduction of various memory laws and policies in the region, seeking to secure particular historical narratives by excluding or even criminalising alternative views. The 2020 constitutional amendments adopted in the Russian Federation include a clause on the protection of ‘the historical truth’. Russia opened a criminal investigation after the Czech authorities dismantled the statue of a Soviet military commander Ivan Konev in Prague last year. Further instances of the disciplining measures introduced in the region include the 2014 amendment to the Russian Penal Code, which criminalised public dissemination of “knowingly false information” about the activities of the USSR during WWII; Ukraine’s post-Maidan de-communisation laws, and Poland’s 2018 memory law, which originally sought to penalise public statements that “accuse the Polish nation/state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich”.

Taking the proliferation of memory laws in Eastern Europe as the empirical impetus, my RIS article seeks to make sense of the relationship between memory laws and states’ status concerns in international politics. My take on the nexus builds on, and seeks to conceptually expand, the rich debates which have attempted to untangle the East European ‘memory knots’ with various conceptual tools from a range of disciplinary corners, including area studies, history, international law, International Relations, and postcolonial memory studies.

The argument in a nutshell

I do that by extending the discussions on status-seeking in international politics to the realm of historical memory. I argue that the quest for mnemonical recognition is a status struggle in an international social hierarchy of remembering constitutive events of the past. Memory laws provide a common instance of securing and/or improving a state’s mnemonical standing in the relevant memory order. Empirically, the argument is situated against the backdrop of Russia’s, Poland’s and Ukraine’s respective status-seeking endeavours via their recent mnemonical legislations. Tweaking a typology of status quo and revisionist powers for this context, Russia emerges as a mnemonical positionalist actor, Poland as a mnemonical revisionist state and Ukraine as a country striving for mnemonical self-emancipation.

The main conceptual contribution of the article is the notion of ‘militant memocracy’ - the logical end point of states’ grievances about their standing in the relevant memory order. Distinct from its neutral counterpart ‘memocracy’ (memorare+ κράτος=ruling on the basis of memory), militant memocracy emerges as a cunning variation of militant democracy, originally conceived in response to the rise of fascist and Nazi parties in Europe. Whereas an effective self-defence against anti-democratic political parties, extremist movements and sentiments is at the heart of militant democracy, militant memocracy applies the corresponding militantly defensive stance for the sake of a specifically defined understanding of the national biography/state identity. Alike militant democracy, militant memocracy is ready to compromise certain democratic standards for the sake of thus defending the system’s feasibility. Noticeably, however, its prevailing political concern is emphatically not the protection of core democratic values. Rather, the gist of militant memocracy is defending a state-endorsed version of the past to sustain a national/state identity in the present. Projecting an imaginary ‘wholeness’ onto an idealised past, militant memory laws mobilise state power behind its sanctioned past narrative with an inclination to outlaw alternative accounts deemed as challenging of a state’s preferred self-identity. Militant memocracy is problematic insofar as it perpetuates the very issue it purports to resolve: its precautionary and punitive measures resound rather than fix the state’s mnemonical anxiety problem.

Let me now unpack this in further detail.

Mnemonical status anxiety, memory orders, memory laws

Mnemonical status anxiety opens up new ways of understanding the incentives for and dynamics of legalising states’ stories of the past. We can observe mnemonical status anxiety when a state is concerned over the international recognition and validation of its official national biographical narrative. To appear on the radar of International Relations as a variation of international status-seeking behaviour, mnemonical status anxiety needs to become empirically palpable as a positional rivalry over the capacity of various state actors to set the tone in the international memory orders of value. By ‘memory order’, I mean a systematic configuration of organising the collective remembrance of significant historical events at societal, state, regional and/or international level. When observing intensified mnemonical recognition-seeking in international bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, as well as other public performances of the state, we can presume mnemonical status to be of concern to an actor in question.

International recognition of respective national biographical narratives consequently becomes a coveted positional good in this competitive struggle with distinctly perceived structural injustice in the East European mnemopolitics. In Polish and Ukrainian cases, this structural injustice pertains to the perceived misrecognition or the lack of recognition by the ‘established’ of the post-WWII mnemonical hierarchies in the West. In case of Russia, the perceived structural wrong in need of correction relates to the angst over potentially losing Russia’s established position among the ‘trendsetters’ of the hegemonic past narratives in the present due to Poland, the Baltic states, and more recently, Ukraine’s successes in tweaking the normative hierarchies and institutionalised social practices in the European and global mnemonical order of WWII to their advantage – and to Russia’s self-perceived detriment. From the Russian perspective, the revisionism of Russia’s place in the international memory order of WWII is particularly aggravating for it is coming from its supposed inferiors in Eastern Europe.

The post-communist ‘memory wars’ in Eastern Europe have been fundamentally underpinned by competing status anxieties of the regional states’ mnemonical standing in various orders of remembrance. As for their broader repercussions, the well-set Western (European) memory order of the twentieth century with Nazi Germany as the central aggressor and the Holocaust as the foundational crime became notably disturbed with the eastern enlargement of the European Union due to the post-communist entrants’ distinct emphases on communist crimes and the historical suffering of their titular nations.

Types of mnemonical status-seeking

I offer a threefold typology for mnemonical status-seeking. In case of mnemonical positionalism, an actor is, in principle, satisfied with the international (memory) order but aims to shift the actors’ positions in the hierarchy of that order. In mnemonical revisionism, an actor is seeking to change elements of the current international memory order, including its internal stratification. Mnemonical self-emancipation, in its turn, demarcates a situation where an actor is seeking to enter the international memory order as a sovereign actor in the first instance in order to improve its international standing.

Russia appears as a mnemonical positionalist actor with its militant stance towards the historical remembrance of WWII in congruence with a victorious power’s alleged right to define the legitimate frames of remembrance for the rest of the world. Yet, Russia’s mnemopolitical positionalism under the banner of fighting historical revisionism of its former East European dependents entails a fair amount of substantive revisionism in its own right. While highly protective of the post-WWII international order with the privileged institutionalisation of Russia’s position in it, Russia has engaged in constant international policing and defence of the state’s spotless heroic victor-narrative in the context of WWII. Due to the intertwined nature of Russia’s national self-narrative as primus inter pares among the victors of WWII and its ‘earned’ international status as a great power as of consequence, Russia’s sense of self is tied to the ‘right’ recognition of Russia’s historical predecessor’s role in the war. Any reminders of the full historical record (e.g., the role of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in the outbreak of WWII) are accordingly fiercely countered as acts of disrespect and condemned as ‘sacrilegious to the truth and our historical memory’.

Polish polityka historyczna has been spearheaded towards revising the post-WWII mnemonic order by countering the Russian narrative of heroic self-sacrifice, and highlighting the Soviet crimes and responsibility in WWII instead. In the meantime, Polish state-endorsed politics of memory under the government of the Law and Justice Party has downplayed the crimes committed by Poles against their Jewish counterparts during the war (e.g., the Jedwabne pogrom). Generally geared towards seeking recognition to Poland as a gravely victimised state in the context of WWII, Polish anti-communist memory laws and policies have sought to discipline any relativisation of the Polish national martyrdom in WWII. The so-called Holocaust complicity denial law of 2018 turned into an explicitly free speech policing endeavour in defence of a flawless Polish autobiography, aimed at editing out the uncomfortable instances of the participation of Poles in crimes against Jews during the wartime Nazi occupation of the country. In a similar vein, Ukraine’s post-Maidan de-communisation laws function as explicit mnemonical status anxiety control mechanisms at a time of outright conflict with Russia, yet occasionally in a curious mirror image of Russia’s own memory law of 2014, defending an unblemished heroic image of the USSR in WWII.

Militant memocracy and its false promise of healing

Regardless of the distinct aims and trajectories between the Russian, Polish and Ukrainian recent memory laws, the three delineated types of mnemonical status-seeking display notable similarities in their thrust for legal institutionalisation and, at times, constitutionalisation of their respective official memory narratives. The memory laws of Russia, Poland, and Ukraine all seek to defend a sanitised and exclusionary national self-vision, presenting binary and simplistic narratives of the past where titular nations are either portrayed exclusively as victims or heroes for the purposes of securing contemporary state identities. In their distinct ways, these three central cases at the heart of East European memory-political contestations all display features of militant memocracy in action, with concerns over the status of the respective states’ official past narrative, national honour, good name and standing in contemporary international politics at the core. Militant memocracy is aimed at self-exculpation: it seeks to create and control a heroic or victimised fantasy of an entire nation via memory laws designed to discipline and punish anyone endangering such idealised self-image. That is also the reason why the legal regulation of the legitimate frames of remembrance, particularly in cases of concrete stipulations about the repression of free expression and political association, remains vulnerable to the common concerns about practices of militant democracy. The precautionary measures adopted to politically exclude the ‘enemies’ of the system are prone to abuses and hence potentially undermining the very object of defence in the longer term.

Just like its militant democracy counterpart, militant memocracy is in danger of self-inflicted harm to the object of defence in the very effort to defend it. Its precautionary and punitive measures reveal and reproduce rather than fix the state’s mnemonical anxiety problem. Instead of the desired ironing out of the wrinkles from one’s inevitably non-linear past, restrictive and punitive memory laws are counterproductive to ethical memory work.

Want to know more? You can read Maria's full article 'Militant memocracy in International Relations: Mnemonical status anxiety and memory laws in Eastern Europe' at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210521000140

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