The Lessons of History

It was obvious when we were there this summer that there is a certain longing for the past in Romania, at least among those who aren’t old enough to remember the bad old days. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown in 1989. For all intents and purposes that means that anyone under 30 really has no memories about what life was like during the Communist era. This may be why they are nostalgic for it.

Talking with young Romanians brought to mind something philosopher George Santayana said early in the 20th century: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I admit my sampling is not statistically valid. My information is entirely anecdotal, taken from a very small sample size. We were only there four days. But the message was consistent: Communism wasn’t all that bad. When Ceaușescu was in power everyone had a job, which meant everyone had money. The problem was that there was nothing in the stores for anyone to buy with that money. Today, in democratic, capitalist Romania the stores are full of goods – you can buy anything you like, the same things that you would find anywhere. But no-one has a job and therefore no-one has money to buy those goods. In fact, people have jobs, but the pay is nowhere near what it is in Western Europe for the same work.

Yes, that is a simplification, but it was the prevailing sentiment of Romanians in their twenties that we talked to. They were all well-educated, multi-lingual, under-employed and not very optimistic about their future prospects if they were to stay in Romania.

I gather the experience of democracy has led to mixed feelings, and not just about the political situation (which I chose not to discuss with those I talked with). The Communists, I was told, got things done. The parliamentary palace was 90% completed in 1989, and no work has been done since. A power plant still remains unfinished after 25 years. The reminder of “democratic” inefficiency is there, the memory of Communist oppression is not.

It’s easy to be selective, to only remember the good things. In the 1920s the Italian rail system was a disaster. Dictator Benito Mussolini claimed that under his administration the trains ran on time. Not true, but who was going to challenge him on that? Challenging the assertions of a dictator is not usually a recipe for a long and peaceful life. (For the record, Italian trains still don’t run on time.)

I suspect young Romanians really don’t want the return of Communism, but they are very much aware of how much more there is to be had. In this age of instant gratification, they want it now. When you don’t have a chicken in your pot you are willing to listen to those who are willing to provide one. You might not be too critical of the message or the methods if all you want is the trains to run on time. In a simplistic way that is what happened in Germany in 1933. It could happen again. I got the impression that many young Romanians think perhaps a return to Communism would be a positive change. That’s what happens when you don’t remember history.

It is natural to want what we don’t have, and young Romanians are very much aware of just what they are lacking, both materially and socially. I suspect that many of the young and educated, the future of the country, will try and make up for that lack by leaving for work elsewhere. Which is both understandable and a shame.

Nicolae Ceaușescu gave his last speech from the balcony, then fled the mob. Hours later he was arrested, tried and executed, all on Christmas Day 1989.

Nicolae Ceaușescu gave his last speech from the balcony, then fled the mob. Hours later he was arrested, tried and executed, all on Christmas Day 1989.

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3 comments

  1. Communist societies usually start out with the best of intentions. History shows us that they invariably deteriorate into totalitarianism and oppression.

    1. History shows that people are constant variable while an ideal communist society is constant 🙂

  2. Communism is not a negative thing as well, it has different faces of benefits…

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