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Transitional Justice without Transition? International Conference at FRIAS

Guest author Puck Engman reflects on the discussions and insights at the Conference.

From February 21 to 23, 2019, FRIAS hosted the international conference “Transitional Justice without Transition? Redressing Past Injustices under State Socialism”. It marked the end of the ERC project “The Maoist Legacy: Party Dictatorship, Transitional Justice and the Politics of Truth” directed by Daniel Leese, which explored how the Chinese state and society confronted legacies of repression and violence after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Throughout this project, the notion of transitional justice has spurred an investigation into a neglected case of redressing past injustice. Rather than a framework for normative evaluation and direct comparison, the term has been a constant irritant pushing researchers to engage with an expansive project of rehabilitation, historical reappraisal, and political trials that has nevertheless been overshadowed by the economic liberalization by which it was followed. The final conference broadened the discussion of historical justice under communist party rule by bringing together researchers working on the Soviet Union, Romania, and North Korea with those engaged in the history of the People's Republic of China.

In the keynote lecture "The Future of the Soviet Past: Russia and the Challenge of the Age of Transitional Justice", Nanci Adler addressed important continuities in the Russian government's handling of the Stalinist past from Khrushchev, via Gorbachev, to Putin. Over the years, the official attitude to past regime abuses has been ambivalent but, Adler explained, there has been a persistent tendency to limit compensation, restrict independent historical inquiry and discussion, and reject any suggestion of criminal liability. At the same time, rulers have moved to co-opt the memory of the Gulag while supporting popular nostalgia for the Soviet empire.

The conference was structured so as to encourage multiple perspectives on the problem of illegitimate pasts, whether by aligning research on different regions of the socialist world or by highlighting the contrasting experiences of different agents. By this token, the opening panel considered the contentious matter of restitution from the vantage points both of the party bureaucracy and the families whose claims against the state are being carried on by new generations. If one recurring theme was how political leaders exploit rehabilitation to legitimize their rule, another was the meaning of exoneration both for survivors and for the families of the killed. Another panel surveyed the rare spaces where independent testimonies can be voiced and heard—while highlighting how precarious they are in the face of censorship—and analyzed perpetrator narratives. Other participants chose to highlight the materiality of justice: how archival files provided the stuff for accusations or how much effort was spent on pulping millions of books so as to erase any trace of disgraced party leaders. A sense that constant reference to external standards of evaluation might in this case be particularly unhelpful came through in papers that emphasized how contemporary framing strategies worked to create a shared experience of transition or how attentiveness to discourse might help us isolate the constitutive elements of the particular brand of "justice" at play.   

The takeaways of the conference were summed up in a concluding roundtable and discussion, which raised some conceptual, ethical, and methodological tasks involved in the analysis of how past injustice was dealt with under state socialism.

1. Throughout the three days of discussion, two normative frameworks were constantly in the background as many participants found it more productive to seek ways around them than to attempt a frontal assault. The first was that of transitional justice as a program, developed by international organizations in the late twentieth century, to promote democratic change and foster liberal values. The second one was the product of official historiographies written and policed by authoritarian rulers. In this context, the descriptive task—which identifies the types of entitlements, claims, justifications, and narratives at play—takes on a singular importance. The clarification of timelines appeared particularly important, in light of historical censorship and archival restrictions. Present chronologies of injustice and reconciliation are inevitably affected by state projects that have as their goal not only to redress past injustice, but to manufacture a dominant narrative promoting the "right" lessons for the present.

2. Because the state-led efforts to come to terms with the past are, in large parts, projects of history and public memory, it is impossible to avoid the question of how historians relate to their object of study. To the extent that “doing history” is “doing justice” (Charles Maier), the historians will need to engage with the ethos of their profession. This will involve discrediting political falsification and misappropriation of the past, even as we remain aware of the constant evolution of history and the multiplicity of interconnected pasts.

3. As one of the goals of the conference was to move toward a transnational history of how socialist states dealt with past injustice, the challenge of comparison was one recurring theme. The disparities in the patterns both of initial violence and subsequent redress in China and the Soviet Union appeared as a promising theme for future research. Beyond direct comparison is the question of transnational flows of the concepts, norms, and institutions that were involved in the process. 

The organizers are preparing a collected volume that will synthesize and develop the themes addressed at the conference that is to appear with a major university press.

Puck Engman.

Further information on the conference and on the project.