PERHAPS THE most idiosyncratic characteristic of twentieth-century despotism was its obsession with historical revision. When considered against history’s many brutal tyrants, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and Stalin stand out as pathological rewriters of personal and state history. If, as Stalin said, a totalitarian regime imposed ideological consent through the engineering of human souls, then much of this effort was spent creating and enforcing elaborate counter-histories. “Day by day and almost minute by minute,” George Orwell wrote in 1984, “the past was brought up to date.”
What ails a polity, however, can also cure it, and the late-twentieth-century’s civil resistance to totalitarianism was not only against the state’s nefarious reach into the present but also the past. Retrospection—in its refusal to participate in the present—became the ultimate technique of antipolitics. Soviet-bloc novelists Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Joseph Skvorecky, Czeslaw Milosz, Danilo Kiš, and George Konrád not only resisted the reigning culture of kitsch; they became vast cataloguers of personal history, practitioners of what can be called the “semi-autobiography.” Their novels served as covert antihistories that, in their non-linearity and depoliticization of memory, refused to accept the pervasive oneness of state history.
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