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Canfora's scandalous history of democracy

Adam Krzeminski explains why Luciano Canfora's history of democracy in Europe is a scandal not worthy of publication

"Democracy of Europe" is Luciano Canfora's contribution to the "Making of Europe" series initiated and edited by the French historian Jacques Le Goff. But the book is creating a scandal and the German publisher of the series has refused to print it.

Germany and Poland on the same side of a historical debate? That's the way it looks for Luciano Canfora, the 63-year-old author of "Democracy in Europe", which has already been published in Italy, France and Spain and will soon appear on the British market. The Munich based publishing house, C.H. Beck, however, has refused. Amongst other reaons, it cited Canfora's comments on Poland, his analysis of the Hitler Stalin pact and his interpretation of Stalin's politics as a possible third way alongside western parliamentary democracy and fascism.

Canfora is a reknowned historian in Italy and author of a valued biography of Caesar; his Italian publishing house and the press rallied to his defence. The Germans were criticised for censorship, not because of Poland but because Canfora compares the Adenauer years in Germany to General Franco's Spain.

Detlef Felken, chief editor of C.H. Beck publishing house says these allegations are nonsense. After all, C.H. Beck published Norbert Frei's work, "Vergangenheitspolitik" (politics dealing with the past) about the failure to come to terms with Nazism during the Adenauer period, a book which was also well-known in Poland. And the decision had nothing to do with censorship, in his opinion. Anyone who wants to publish Canfora's book, he says, may do so. It's just C.H. Beck didn't want anything to do with it because, he claims, the Italian has written a pamphlet against democracy. "He criticises western democracies wholesale as a system of exploitation and tries to rehabilitate the "people's democracies," seeing their degeneration as a tragic failure or the result of external intervention."

Canfora is an Italian Euro-communist. He dedicates much space in his book to the Paris Commune of 1871 and to the French torture of Algerians during the Algerian war, but fails to even mention the Gulags or Stalin's purges. For him, Stalin was a great statesman and he believes the communist "people's democracies" developed a higher level of democracy than parliamentary democracies. This is what he writes of the pact between Hitler and Stalin:

"We know that the Russians felt they had been cheated by the deliberately inconclusive way in which the English and French conducted the negotiations. They repeated the decision of Brest-Litovsk, so-to-speak in a totally different political situation, extracting themselves from the coming war as then they had come out of the anti-imperialist war. Over the years, a myth has sprung up over the 'partition' of Poland by Hitler and Stalin, yet another episode in the long history of partition. The truth is that in 1938/39 Poland was a hysterically anti-Soviet and compliant towards Hitler's Germany, on whose behavior Poland's foreign minister Beck, modelled his own (including withdrawal from the League of Nations on August 11, 1938). After the Munich Agreement of September 1938 Poland played a part in the partition of Czechoslovakia annexed by the Reich, receiving, as its share of the spoils, the mining area of Teschen. Polish policy in the months leading up to the Nazi-Soviet pact is described in the following terms by Hugh Seton-Watson, the greatest Western historian of eastern Europe, in his fine study 'Eastern Europe Between the Wars, 1918-1941'(1945). 'Confident of their hold on army and police, "cleverly" playing off against each other the different sections of the Opposition, the bosses of the regime prayed that the crisis would last as long as possible, and meanwhile made small preparations either on the home front or on the frontiers.' For its part the USSR, through the pact, regained the territories it had lost in the peace imposed upon it by Germany in 1918 (a loss which the Versailles treaty had not remedied)." (quote taken directly from "Democracy in Europe", Blackwell Publishing)

The absurdities and misrepresentations are really overwhelming. Canfora doesn't only ignore the secret ammendment to the pact between Hitler and Stalin, which defined the border of a further partition of Poland, he also keeps quiet about the 1921 peace treaty signed in Riga and Stalin's breach of the 1934 Non-Aggression Pact. He skims over the fact that Hitler was determined to wage war against the USSR but Poland repeatedly rejected the proposition. However, Stalin and Hitler's preparations for war against Poland are depicted by the Italian professor as a "pre-emptive peace," which created "a convenient framework for the expanison of Soviet influence."

The reader can't believe his eyes. 15 years after the collapse of communism and here is Canfora fully embracing the basic principle of Stalinism; everything that served the USSR was historically right. That's not very far removed from Putin's comment that the break-up of the USSR not only spelled disaster for the fate of Russia, but also for Europe.

Felken is completely right when he says that the afore-mentioned passages from Canfora's book are "scandalous". He's also right to argue that calling the anti-Russian (and anti-German) Poles hysterical is tantamount to "ignoring the past experiences of the Poles as well as those still to come. This hysteria was more than justified..."

Canfora's incredibly arbitrary excerpts from the history of democracy concentrate on ancient Greece, Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany and naturally Russia – from the "obscina" (traditional village community) to the USSR. Not a word about the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth which lasted centuries, with its tradition of freedom and tolerance and the nobles' democracy. Not a word about the Sejm (Polish parliament) and the Polish Constitution of May 3, which was in fact the first consitution in Europe. The Italian historian doesn't recognise the fundamental dilemma at the heart of the Tsarist system after 1815 – a liberal constitutional monarchy in the kingdom of Poland and an autocracy in Russia. He pinpoints Mazzini and Garibaldi as the fathers of democracy in the 19th century and disregards the Polish and Hungarian freedom movements.

Another horrendous footnote must be added to the list of omissions and distortions which the publishing house C.H. Beck initiated. In his book, Canfora dedicated several pages of warm words to the polish Tito, Wladyslaw Gomulka, but doesn't spare a thought for Solidarnosc (the Solidarity movement), the strikes in 1980 or the roundtable talks in 1989. He lauds Stalin but doesn't even mention Lech Walesa's name.

Even if the book is written with great effect, is has neither an intellectual nor a moral justification. It's a scandal that it was incorporated in the valuable international series "Making of Europe" which is edited by the well-reknowned French Medievalist Jacques Le Goff.

In 1993, when Le Goff began the "Making of Europe" series, he wrote the noble words, "Europe is being built. Borne on great hope. But the hopes will only be fulfilled when they do justice to what has gone before. A Europe devoid of history would have no past and no future." To date there have been 20 publications. Among the authors are reknowned historians, such as Hagen Schulze, Joseph Fontana, Charles Tilly, Aaron Gurjewicz, Umberto Eco, Massimo Montanari, Werner Rösener, Peter Brown... Their books are written stuninngly, using daring hypotheses and razor-sharp argumentation.

Yet you'll only find references to central eastern Europe in the footnotes. Listed in the index of names are a scattering of Poles and Hungarians. In Hagen Schulze's "State and nation in the history of Europe" there's solely Kosciuszko who pops up at the Vienna Congress to demand the restitution of Poland. In "European Revolutions", Charles Tilly mentions Stenka Razin but not Walesa. It's incredible how the revolutions in 1989 in central Europe are classified – there was a revolution in the GDR but not really in Poland. There is also a little information about Poland in Tilly's chapter on Russia. The author writes that the Res publica had been aggressive in the 16th century, but had guaranteed Russia a comparatively stabile border to the north-west.

These books are, on the whole, a legacy of the eighties when historiography was dominated by a view of history that looked at events through the prism of the great powers. But even then, Norman Davies was working on his book, "Europe. A History" in which he took pains not just to include the centres of power but also the countries and cultures on the peripheries who often played the role of catalyst to European processes.

Then as now, historians are incredibly obstinate creatures. The publishing house C.H. Beck deserves all the more recognition, as their refusal to publish Canfora's book has drawn the attention of the western European public to the drastic deficit in knowledge about the history of our part of Europe and the downplaying of Stalinism.


The article originally appeared in Polish in the Gazeta Wyborcza on December 31, 2005, and it was published in German by Perlentaucher on March 15, 2006.

Adam Krzeminski was born in West Galicia in 1945 and has been editor of the magazine Polityka since 1973. He is one of Poland's leading journalists and chairman of the Polish-German Association in Warsaw.

Translation: Abby Darcy.

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