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Before 23 August

Ljubljana, 18.8.2012  |  statement

Statement by the President of the Republic of Slovenia

Europe has many reasons to commemorate the day of remembrance for the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. In its long history, the 'Old Continent' has seen many forms of oppression and violence, described today as totalitarian or authoritarian rule. The European Parliament proclaimed 23 August to be the day of remembrance, chosen to coincide with the date in 1939 when the non-aggression pact was signed between two key totalitarian regimes of the 20th century – Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. A series of tragedies followed: the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the partition of Poland and the Second World War.

The fact that 23 August was selected as the day of remembrance for the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes conveys much tragic, historical irony. This date speaks not only of totalitarianism and its victims, but also of the policy that facilitated its rise. Claudio Magris, a well respected Italian writer, has given a good description of the times before 1939:

'During those decades Fascism, up to a certain point, was a force that others thought they could exploit; the Western powers tried to use it to annihilate Communism and launch it against the Soviet Union, while the latter turned the tables, trying to to gain time to consolidate itself by allying itself to Hitler. At a certain point the game collapsed, and Fascism no longer served any useful purpose, political or otherwise. It set itself against everything, and everything was against it, and its destiny became one last adventure of frenzy, infamy and desperation.' (Claudio Magris, Danube, London: Collins Harvill, 1989, p. 371).

The 23 August 1939 was not the beginning of the 20th century European totalitarianisms –it only marks one of the crucial moments in its history. The beginnings of totalitarianisms reach back to the period of disintegration and political and social chaos, which were caused almost two decades earlier by the First World War. This period saw the disintegration of not only the centuries -old empires, but of entire societies and their political and moral structures. The 'collapse of the old world' left behind a very dangerous vacuum. Space for fatal illusions about new paths to a better future for people was opened up, and at the same time there was room for cynical disregard of human life and for spreading the cult of death. The totalitarian regimes emerged – the Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It was a time of intolerance and great anxiety in which the conditions for a new major war were created. All totalitarian regimes offered their own 'illusion of a new world'; the short-sightedness of politicians and their manoeuvres, such as the 1938 Munich Agreement, by which the Western powers left Czechoslovakia to Hitler's Germany, put the world into a position that Magris describes as 'one last adventure of frenzy, infamy and desperation'.

Slovenians started to face this traumatic experience early. Slovenians from Primorska were among the first victims of Fascism – and among the first anti-fascists. For Slovenians (unlike Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians and Poles), 23 August 1939 is not a date when totalitarianisms or the fight against them started. Slovenian history was unmistakeably marked as early as 13 July 1920, when the Slovenian cultural centre 'Narodni dom' in Trieste was burnt down. This date was followed by a period of Fascist violence lasting over two decades, by the anti-fascist struggle of Slovenians from Primorska, by the Nazi and Fascist occupation of the entire Slovenian territory, and by the heroic national liberation struggle of the Slovenian nation between 1941 and 1945. The national liberation struggle was a struggle to survive, fought by the Slovenian nation whose existence, under Nazism and Fascism, was to be destroyed. This struggle indelibly cemented its place in Slovenian and world history as a struggle for a just and victorious cause, and a contribution by the Slovenian nation to global efforts for a better post-war world.

However, the Second World War and its aftermaths were also times of a new and bitter historical irony. The new rule brought national liberation to Slovenians and an opportunity for creating a better society; at the same time, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which was the leading political force of the time, created a system that carried out mass killings of members of quisling armies without court trials in the final months of the war and immediately thereafter. Many victims fell prey to the revolutionary violence in the war and post-war period. Numerous violations of human rights were committed and different totalitarian practices were introduced.

The breakaway of Yugoslav communists from Stalin in 1948 at first exacerbated the situation, but eventually enabled the gradual introduction of a unique model of socialism based on the principle of self-management. In the subsequent years, Yugoslavia was an authoritarian state ruled by one party. As such, it did not provide those who were not like-minded with equal opportunities, and caused numerous wrongs. Nevertheless, Yugoslavia facilitated the development of its nations and, considering the then circumstances, was respected by the international community for its self-management model and policy of its non-alignment. All serious analysts of that period are in agreement that the situation in the authoritarian Tito's Yugoslavia was considerably better than in the neighbouring countries to the east where totalitarian elements were preserved.

After the Second World War, for the first time ever, Slovenia’s ethnic territory has become essentially unified. Furthermore, Slovenia established considerable legal and actual autonomy and developed a comprehensive state structure. The cultural creativity of Slovenians intensified. Step by step, Slovenia not only increased the economic prosperity of its people but also strengthened human rights protection. Although these developments were not ideal, progress was evident.

The end of the 1980s saw the demise of the decades-long rule of the League of Communists. Powerful civil society movements emerged along with the new political parties of the “Slovenian spring”. Circumstances were ripe for a peaceful transition to a democratic society. All of this also guaranteed a relatively smooth transition from the authoritarian system to democracy, a quickly gained independence and the success of our armed defence against the aggression of the “Yugoslav People's Army”.

The independent Slovenia continued to advocate gradual change. As a success story among transition countries, Slovenia, through its membership of the European Union, has secured its rightful place in modern Europe. The economic and other difficulties experienced by the present-day sovereign Slovenia are similar to those of other EU member states. They stem from mistakes made by the financial sector and economic policies after it joined the European Union in 2004. However, rational solutions to these problems exist. We must revive economic growth, rehabilitate banks, set up a new system for the management of state assets, and introduce structural reforms, in particular of the pension scheme and labour relations. We need a competent, reform-focused government and a responsible parliament. These are our current priorities.

Now, what should we reflect on to mark this year's day of remembrance for the victims of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes? To continue our way forward, we must meet the following three key political and ethical conditions.

In the first place, we must study our past seriously and show respect to the victims of war and violence. History books should be free of ideological explanations and political calculations. The respect for the victims of wars and totalitarian violence must reflect the true meaning of this word – tribute to the deceased and awareness of the fragility of human life. Let us not forget the many painful memories and the inalienable right of everyone to his or her own memories.

Second, wrongs afflicted in the past must be redressed whenever possible. All of the deceased have the right to a grave and remembrance. All of the living who suffered injustices have the right to redress and suitable compensation. The Redressing of Injustices Act adopted by the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia in 1996 has already been implemented to the greatest extent. The provisions of the war laws of 2009 are also enforced. The government and the parliament have the responsibility of enabling full implementation of these laws.

Last but not least, today, we must take care to prevent the elements of authoritarian or even totalitarian practice from settling in Slovenia's political sphere. Our response to all systematic violations of human rights and to any form of intolerance towards those who are different must be clear and resolute. Respect for human rights begins here and now. It stands to reason to condemn past violations of human rights but this should not be used to cover up present-day violations of human rights. The justice system must be respected. Contempt of the Courts and various forms of weakening of the judiciary are traditional features of a totalitarian mind-set. Attempts of the executive power to encroach upon the activities of the civil society or autonomous institutions, such as a university or a cultural institution, must be firmly rejected. Respect for the rule of law, an active civil society, heightened awareness of the significance of autonomous institutions and responsible democratic political practice are the prerequisites that form a society's immune system. Strengthening this immune system is the best way to pay tribute to the victims of the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of the 20th century.

Dr Danilo Türk
President of the Republic of Slovenia

(Published in the Daily “Delo”, Ljubljana, 18 August 2012)
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