06.10. until 08.10.2016 in Jena, Germany

The Allure of Totalitarianism

Link to this post: https://www.pol-int.org/en/node/3774

The Allure of Totalitarianism

The Roots, Meanings, and Political Cycles of a Concept in Central and Eastern Europe


International Conference and Workshop

Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena

Jena/Dornburg, 6–8 October 2016

The term 'totalitarianism' has experienced a remarkable comeback in political, historical, and social science discourses of the last half century. Having served as a key concept in the dissident critique of state socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, the term took on new life after 1989, losing its associations with the opposition and becoming widespread in the media and public sphere – alongside 'nation' and 'the return to Europe' – as part of a vocabulary used to legitimize the new system. This has been codified, too, with the terms 'totalitarianism' and 'totalitarian' being integrated into new laws and appearing in the names of state-funded institutions. Finally, in the new millennium, new meanings – half-derogatory, half-ironic – have emerged. The term has been adopted, for instance, by some civil rights organizations as a label for criticizing the mass surveillance of citizens as practiced by both state and commercial entities (i.e. 'chip totalitarianism'). In the international arena the term is used increasingly to criticize the global spread of religious fundamentalisms; and in the form of 'inverted totalitarianism' it is regularly directed at the 'managed democracies' at home.

This planned conference aims to investigate the roots, meanings, and political cycles of the concept of totalitarianism, one of the most contested intellectual concepts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A proper history of it, one that would combine the analysis of the types of political projects described by the term with reflections on its changing semantics and political uses, has yet to be written. The Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena hereby invites scholars to a workshop dedicated to the attempt to do the first step in such an endeavor. Speakers so far invited to participate in the conference include Dietrich Beyrau, Holly A. Case, Georgiy Kasianov, Lutz Niethammer, Jacques Rupnik, Dariusz Stola, and Aviezer Tucker. A collective volume based on the gathering is planned.

The project draws on a series of lectures held at the Imre Kertész Kolleg in 2013. Titled "Dependent Totalitarianism," the series sought to explore the meanings, contexts, roots, and uses of the concept and slogan of totalitarianism in the respective cultures of Central and Eastern Europe.

In an attempt to historicize the concept, the organizers propose that the conference be arranged in a handful of chronologically and conceptually defined panels. However, paper proposals that go beyond this schema are also encouraged.

I.On Novelties and Similarities: Early Concepts of Totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe

Many have noted the fundamental novelty of the political experiments of the early twentieth century. This panel focuses on the pioneers in the region, who were the first to discuss the innovative nature of the communist, fascist, and National Socialist movements and regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. How were these movements and regimes, their agendas and realities, perceived in the interwar period and during the Second World War? How and by what theoretical or ideological references (forced modernization, authoritarian political cultures, backwardness etc.) do these theories explain the phenomenon of totalitarianism? Who were the first intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe to compare the different forms of totalitarianism and what were their intentions and conclusions? In what ways did critical reflections on these new regimes influence the understanding of modernity prior to 1945?

II.Stalinization, De-Stalinization, and the Problems of Totalitarianism: Central and Eastern Europe in the Early Postwar Period

As a consequence of the Second World War, Central and Eastern Europe became part of the Soviet sphere of influence, with political and socioeconomic systems of the Stalinist type being introduced by local communist parties on the road to absolute power. This panel explores the heuristic validity of the notion of 'dependent totalitarianism' as well as the contemporaneous usage of the notion of 'communist totalitarianism,' or 'totalism,' as a discursive tool in local political conflicts. What role did these unsuccessful struggles against the communists play in developing the concept during the semi-democratic period of 1945–1948? How was this historical experience processed in the anti-communist emigration during the Cold War? When and how did totalitarianism emerge as a term of political classification and how were the specificities of local political cultures articulated with reference to the concept? What was the genealogy of conceptualizations of totalitarianism by the early dissidents – and later the Marxist revisionists – of the 1950s and 1960s? What role was played by official, state-socialist research on fascism and Nazism in the criticism of and implicit comparison with the recent Stalinist past?

III.Consolidated Communist Regimes, Oppositional Thought, and the Uses of Totalitarianism Before 1989

The term 'totalitarianism' was one of the primary discursive and analytical tools of the anticommunist democratic oppositions during the last two decades of communist dictatorship. But the range of its uses, its intellectual roots and theoretical underpinnings, and thus its analytical implications as well, differed not only from one country to the next, but also within the diverse milieus of each community of dissidents or exiles. The concept of totalitarianism often ran counter to other crucial elements of oppositional political and strategic thinking, such as the politics of dialogue with power, legalism, and historical reconciliation, and the critique of Western notions of the state socialist East. What were the key contradictions in the concept's rise to prominence in dissident political language before 1989? What were the major intellectual influences and strategic incentives in this process? How did it relate to the broader discursive embeddedness of 'totalitarianism' in transnational and comparative research as well as in democratic activism? How did this development relate to the increasing importance of 'human rights talk' in the wake of the Helsinki Final Act? What were the reactions in official communist historiography, memory politics, and political agitation to the anti-totalitarian, anti-communist crusade at home and abroad?

IV.A New Anti-Totalitarian Consensus? Agendas, New Semantics, and Politicization After 1989

After the fall of communism, the history of totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe has emerged as a central object of scholarship of the recent past. At the same time, totalitarianism has been used politically as a counter-concept helping to legitimate the new emerging liberal democracies. It has also emerged as a key concept in various conservative and nationalist milieus, where it serves as a conceptual tool in spreading new forms of anti-communism and anti-socialism. Does the term now operate simply as a political slander or has it remained an analytical tool as well? What is the relation between research projects related to totalitarianism in the post-communist period, the changing semantics of the concept, (especially as compared with dissident understandings of it), and its political uses for liberal democratic and conservative-nationalistic purposes? Has the term had a palpable resonance in popular memory or has it, in the form of a 'usable totalitarianism,' been made into a prefabricated tool, formatting the identity discourse of the neoliberal transformation era? In what ratio have the communist and fascist/Nazi pasts influenced the conceptual evolution of the concept in this period?

V.Totalitarianism after Totalitarianism: The Uses of the Concept in Twenty-First-Century Europe (Roundtable)

According to influential current narratives, Central and Eastern Europeans have brought totalitarianism back onto the European stage. This has had important consequences for memory politics in individual European states as well as on the level of Europe as a whole, with imagery of the Gulag, for instance, challenging the singularity of the Holocaust as the greatest historical trauma of twentieth-century Europe. What have been the motivations, approaches, and achievements of national and regional attempts to canonize totalitarianism internationally in the early twenty-first century? What role has been played in this process by the broader European reception as well as by cultural-political struggles in individual European countries? How have Central and Eastern European understandings of the experience of totalitarianism contributed to the changing image of Europe in the twentieth century?


Please send, no later than 15 March 2016, an abstract of 300–500 words and a short CV to imre-kertesz-kolleg@uni-jena.de

Organizational questions may be sent to Daniela Gruber (Daniela.Gruber@uni-jena.de), academic queries to Michal Kopeček (kopecek@usd.cas.cz).

Subsidies for travel and accommodation are available, but we ask potential participants to explore funding opportunities at their home institutions as well.

Contact Info:

Imre Kertész Kolleg

Leutragraben 1

07743 Jena