Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Death of Solidarity



As the wisdom of the age goes, there are no final victories in politics. When the leaders of Poland's Solidarity movement (Solidarnosc) sat down with the long reviled Communist Party authorities to hammer out the timing and logistics of a genuinely contested election, however, they were faced with a most peculiar anomaly: a victory so final that even their enemies willed it. In the end, the totalitarian world was finished off not with a bang but with a firm handshake and an international press release. Realpolitik trumped idealism in an apparent validation of the old adage that politics is "the art of the possible."

The enemies of Solidarity - in the form both of the deep state calcified over decades of Communist Party rule and Soviet foreign policymakers -  may have been obliging in the end, but the victory, and Solidarity's subsequent pacification, was the product of the movement itself along with its internal conflicts.

To transplant a phrase of Rousseau's to a very different context, where the intensity of clashing interests makes social movements necessary, the agreement of those interests makes them possible. Invariably, a social movement is comprised of internal factions with different aims and different methods of achieving them. What longevity the later consensus achieves cannot be determined normatively, but is subject to the particular differences internalised at the outset. This internalised heterogeneity is at once strength and weakness. Inevitably, social movements must become acquainted with one form or other of defeat. The question is always, defeat of what kind? In the case of Solidarity defeat took the form of an encroaching respectability, one which allowed a centralised leadership eventually to make peace with the crooked, authoritarian regime. 

The Solidarity movement had formed in 1980 in the wake of price hikes by the central government on basic foodstuffs, undertaken in a delayed and inadequate attempt to restrain economic pressures emanating from indebtedness to the West. In a process that I have described as "contradictory subsumption" of the Polish Party leadership - and its extended network of economic stewards and institutional cronies - within Western financial markets, the centrally-managed economy and the so called "socialist basis" of production was being undermined from within. Solidarity took shape against this backdrop of a self-reinforcing debt trap and the consequent internal transformation of the functionality of the Polish state. The movement was based not on a unitary, organised class or class-political ideal (as the Communist Party had, in its own distorted way, once been), but on the mutual recognition of an overlapping space of interests by all those who, for whatever reason, opposed the regime. To return to Rousseau, heterogeneous social strata were brought together through recognition of a single "common element." Opposition to the communist regime, once recognised, became a binding "social tie" of the movement.

The key question is, then, whose interests were counted in the movement of 1980-81 and how evenly or unevenly were they weighted? Cemented by an initial, astounding set of concessions following the 1980 strikes, the movement managed to recruit ten million members in its first year of existence. Already the most bullish voice in the now formal civic opposition, Lech Wałęsa said: “We have achieved everything that was achievable under the circumstances. We will achieve the rest as well, for we have what’s most important: our independent, self-governing trade unions. This is our guarantee for the future.” Wałęsa and other worker-dissidents, among them Andrzej Gwiazda and Anna Walentynowicz, had been campaigning for some time for bread-and-butter worker protection and safety issues, as well as the freeing of political prisoners. Yet the real strength of the movement came from the working class itself, which had never been fully subordinated to Party rule and had caused major disruptions in Poznan in 1956 and Gdansk in 1970. Primarily workerist in composition, Solidarity emerged out of the September 1980 conference of union delegates following the decision to form a single, national union.

Whatever socialist ideology was expressed in the strikers' list of demands, it remained necessarily inchoate and, couched as it was in language acceptable to the regime, incoherent. Indeed, the communist system placed an effective block on the sharpening of ideological daggers, effectively displacing and dispersing any nascent unity of outlook. Though policy itself - from wage increases to increased press freedom - was easy to come by (the list of grievances being long; the weight of disapproval evenly shared), forming a homogeneous identity was necessarily difficult. This also worked to the movement's advantage. Though composed overwhelmingly of an industrial proletariat concentrated in Gdańsk, Katowice, Wrocław and the Mazowsze region, the emerging leadership had a distinctly Catholic flavour. This was understandable: Polish Catholicism ran deep in the cities and the countryside, and had never fully been suppressed by the Party. In part, Polish Catholicism had liberated itself by announcing early on its tactical toleration of the regime. Its survival as a truly non-communist civil society organisation was both a necessary linkage in communist hegemony and, in moments of crisis, a threat to that hegemony. Both Lech Wałęsa and his later rival, and first postcommunist Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki were explicit about their Catholic allegiances. This made them at once acceptable to what civil society existed as well as making them comprehensible to the Party authorities. After all, a long tradition of Catholic independence had been semi-manageable, even partly incorporated into the Party's reign. In a society divested of articulate political dissent or public debate, there was little cultural space besides the Church into which Solidarity could insert its own discourse.

Despite the extraordinary mobilisation of proletarian workers, the ideological content of the movement was always up for grabs. Debate still rages today as to whether the 1980-81 union upsurge constituted a movement with revolutionary intent. For historians like Tony Judt, unions achieved little of significance with regard to concrete reforms and change to the system. According to the editor of Polish Le Monde Diplomatique Przemyslaw Wielgosz, however, the first mobilisations were the first stage of a "workers revolution", with the 1989 Round Table talks, which led to the first semi-free elections and the re-installation of capitalism, acting as a kind of counter-revolutionary Thermidor. His evidence is based on strong support among Polish workers (80% in 1984, he claims) for "self-management" style socialism rather than capitalism. Solidarity, or at least its significant proletarian element, was intended to achieve real socialism through democratising ownership of the workplace, not installing a free market and liberal democracy. What halted the mass movement was the implementation of Martial Law and the banning of Solidarity by the Jaruzelski government:

In these new conditions, Solidarity had to lose its’ mass-movement character. Nevertheless, most of the trade union structures survived in secret, but the logic of the mass movement which had kept them animated, was shattered. Opposition leaders and activists became effectively cut off from their social base. Under these new conditions, their support came not from the factories and industrial plants, but the church.
The wave of strikes and stoppages in the spring of 1988, resulting from a fresh debt crisis, was not a victory lap but a final death spasm of the original movement. By now, a centralised leadership had had time to develop a coherent ideology combining the popular appeal of the Church and deep Polish national and anti-Russian sentiment, with endorsement of hyper-modern, Reaganite free markets and liberal democracy. According to Wielgosz, liberalisation had already begun in 1987, under the communist regime. The 1989 Round Table talks completed by the Solidarity leadership and the Party merely secured a tacit agreement over the reintroduction of capitalism by the elites of the two camps.

Though Wielgosz is far from completely wrong, the very heterogeneity of the Solidarity movement - with shared appeals to socialist, nationalist, and religious sentiment - made its eventual transformation into a "locomotive of capitalism" possible. Moreover, the very "contradictory subsumption" of Communist Party leaders into western financial markets meant that, in debt-laden Poland above all, authorities were inadvertently engaged in reintroducing capitalism even as they honestly struggled to maintain the authoritarian system. Only in China, where the Party formally and openly adjusted the economy to capital markets, did the regime manage to hang on to power. Otherwise, the process went on behind the Party's backs.

"Solidarity," according to Frances Millard, "did not emerge from a vacuum but drew upon existing social networks and shared Polish national-religious cultural traditions." (Politics and Society in Poland, 8) The elite, though having already informally granted concessions and having brought the wolf of international finance closer to the door, had no choice in 1988 but to draw up the 'Anti-Crisis Pact', for the first time accepting the opposition into an informal co-governing position. The Party may have anticipated winning the semi-free June 1989 elections which were the result of the Round Table negotiation period, but in the end it was trounced (famously losing every contested seat bar one). The election did not reaffirm the Party's legitimacy, bringing a rebellious social opposition to heel, but in fact affirmed their irrevocable loss of stature.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, from the conservative leadership of Solidarity, was made Prime Minister in the Sejm with Jaruzelski narrowly maintaining the Presidency for the Party. Mazowiecki led a Grand Coalition from Solidarity, the Communists, and two former satellite parties. The Communists, with their eyes fixed on the Soviet Union, kept hold of the Defence and Interior Ministries. By Spring 1990, however, Wałęsa was moving against Mazowiecki in the Sejm. In the suddenly open ideological playing field, confusion reigned among Solidarity's ranks. Radical economic liberals, gradualist interventionists, political liberals, and conservative nationalists vied for position in a movement now substantially funded by the USA (see 1989's SEED Act). Not only this but the new political class assumed power during a deep economic crisis, fostered in part by the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ravages of capitalist finance.

Yet in some respects there was startling consistency on the part of the Solidarity and ex-dissident leadership. Within a fortnight of the new government's formation in 1989, Minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz had submitted a plan to marketise the Polish economy to the IMF. In a program of merciless, government-backed reconstruction, Poland would remodel its devastated, heavy industries following advanced, western models. In a gesture of extraordinary vanguardism (contradicting the idea that neoliberalism was all about relinquishing human controls on the economy), Balcerowicz promised to skip the "middle-income" development phase and join western Europe as quickly as possible. Even the IMF must have understood the improbability of such a rapid reconstruction, though they surely relished liberalisation for its own sake. Indeed, no international body had been more important in generating financial subservience of the Socialist bloc economies and their leaderships to the West than the IMF. Balcerowicz's plan was, then, timely tribute to them.

Despite the many changes of government under the democratic system after 1989, the deep liberalisation trends unleashed by the first Solidarity regimes remained pretty constant. Wałęsa, having got the presidency, installed the relatively unknown small-time Gdansk entrepreneur Jan Bielecki as prime minister, and together they stuck to the Balcerowicz path. The now familiar syndromes of economic shock therapy soon set in - harsh public spending cuts, never deep enough for international creditors; a constant cycle of public and private sector corruption; and recurrent strikes and protests.

"Precisely because the Polish revolution began with a compromise," the historian Timothy Snyder has claimed, "many Poles have trouble seeing it as an achievement." It is not the compromise that leaves a sour taste, but the actors who made it and the consequences it helped instigate. As early as 1980 Lech Wałęsa was heard to maintain that, "We will have to build capitalism." The lifelong dissident and Solidarity activist Karol Modzelewski's reply was equally telling: "I wouldn't have spent eight and a half years in prison for capitalism."

This month that bastion of liberal thought the UK Economist celebrates twenty-five years of Polish success, though they are careful to remind Poland of the need for further and deeper liberalisation. For a country that went further and faster than anyone else, one is left wondering if any extent of liberalisation will ever be satisfactory. The magazine sounds another note of caution: Poland will have to build new high-tech industries and services if it is to keep up with Germany and the like. It doesn't take the most historically reflective of economic commentators to realise that such an outcome is unlikely. Just as the dream that lay behind the Balcerowicz plan, the dream formulated in the shadow of Solidarity's destruction, was unattainable, so today's liberalisers will inevitably be confronted with the dead-end of "endless accumulation" and global competition. Tacitly, even the Economist is now highlighting the approaching limits of the economic catch-up regime instituted by the early Solidarity governments. When growth rates of four percent finally dry up, there will be little left for the liberal-democratic state to tout as major achievements of its twenty-five years of competitiveness.         

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

"The No Bullshit Approach": Orban and Authoritarianism in Hungary




"As I get older [he is still only 50], I tend to be more sceptical. Values are more important than money. National sovereignty is more and more important in my mind. The question 'Who is governing us?' is the key question."

-- Hungarian Prime Minister and Leader of the Right Wing Hungarian Fidesz Government in a roundly collegiate interview with the Daily Telegraph


Viktor Orban came to power in 2010 promising liberal reforms and firm western-oriented stewardship of the Hungarian economy, with perhaps a few crumbs thrown towards his supporters on the Hungarian nationalist Right. Since then the steady din of European Union condemnation has been unrelenting. Despite various moves to liberalise the economy, Fidesz has been messily authoritarian, suppressing dissent and restricting media freedom. Such are the tensions and limitations of Orban's electoral success: an angry electorate, high on old school Magyar nationalism, demands significant improvements in their welfare. EU macro-policy, however, is too inflexible to allow any significant growth in government expenditure. The comfortable synthesis of national sovereignty and EU-financed prosperity that Orban anticipated has evaporated. What remains is an increasingly reactionary nationalism caught in a financial sinking-hole out of which it can find no means of escape.   

It is by no means exceptional to find a former anti-communist dissident in power in Eastern Europe tacking to the Right. More interesting is the fact that Orban and his Fidesz party rule over a more economically centralising and politically authoritarian regime than their Communist predecessors. Orban denounces the EU while depending on its largesse (precisely $42 billion from the next seven-year budget). Decades of mass consumerism, always debt-financed, meant capital markets failed to wow Hungarians after the collapse of the old regime. Orban's rise to power, then, was closely related to a growing weariness with liberalism and its associated internationalism. Less a reactionary force in the mould of the west's Eurosceptic Far Right than old fashioned national conservatives, Fidesz's closest predecessors are the Magyar nationalists of the Dual Monarchy.

Though that tradition is deeply cemented in the Hungarian psyche, in personal appeal Orban reflects a certain international zeitgeist, the possessor of a no bullshit, tough guy approach whose generic tropes are manifest in a whole sweep of global leaders, normally burly, hectoring and claiming the "common touch" - from Putin to Sarkozy to Bush. However, Orban's closest resemblance is to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erogan, whose steadfast electoral coalition is mutatis mutandis very much the image Orban's own. What is most innovative in both the approaches of Turkey's AKP and Hungary's Fidesz is their wielding of a tight bond between peasants, entrepreneurs, and the devout at the ballot box. Though forged in very different contexts, both had the advantage of capitalising on their respective countries' adaptation to membership of the capitalist semi-core. The authoritarian streak is common to both, as is the taste for favourably adapted electoral systems. On just over 44% of the vote in 2014, Fidesz took 133 of 199 seats in the Hungarian parliament. The Left coalition was smashed. Jobbik, on the Far Right, experienced no squeeze, increasing its result to over 20%. A long reign of the Right seems unavoidable in such conditions. By all accounts, the Left is rudderless.

Charles Gati has complained in the Washington Post that no European leader since Napoleon had changed his spots more often than Orban. This backhanded flattery aside, there is more than a whiff of disappointment among western political commentators about Orban's apparent flightiness. More relevant than the Corsican for Orban is the fate of another likeminded turbo-president, this one more recent. At the time of his election, Nicholas Sarkozy was meant to bring market liberalisation and a slimmed down state and welfare receipts to the French economy, finally accepting the country's special-but-subordinate role in European politics. In the event he did none of them, resorting to nationalist hand-wringing, promoting industrial champions, and even practising a bit of religion, though just for the regions. Orban's trajectory has been no less earthward in this sense. Starting out as a liberaliser he has quickly fallen back on long-term Hungarian political tropes, chief among them its victim status. This Oxford alumnus and admirer of such sceptical Anglo-Saxons as John Locke and Margaret Thatcher would have liked to plant the seeds of a liberal renaissance at home. Electoral coalitions, as well as his own dislike of dissent, would have it otherwise. 

At once conservative and nationalist, Fidesz's base imposes a caricature of earlier Magyar national struggles upon it. In 1848 the great Magyar nationalist Lajos Kossuth could no more hold the young nation together under the weight of European revolution than could Metternich, whose overthrow meant the transformation of the old order. Kossuth was ultimately undone by the external contradictions of imperial confrontation and the internal contradictions of a nascent ethnic nationalism. Orban has much the same difficulty, though in less combustible circumstances. Groping towards a more stable, less truculent electoral coalition will take real changes not to the relative international standing of Hungary but to the welfare of its still poor population. Orban can grandstand over the former; he can do nothing but remain silent (in light of a flat tax rate of 16% and wage suppression to promote exports) about the latter.         

Where reality has no doubt failed Orban's ambitions most is in the bile of the western media. This may ultimately have less to do with his authoritarian tendencies - which are dissected on a near daily basis in American and European papers - than his courting of Russia. Indeed, so long as Erdogan danced to the EU's tune on trade relations and NATO's on US military operations, he was free to deploy all manner of coercive and Islamist policies on the secular opposition. Orban's greatest misstep might be buried in the very tactics that have won him two elections. By tacking too far to the right he risks isolation from the moderate international consensus he once represented. Yet to retain his majority - declining even in the face of tight media controls and a massaged electoral system - Orban cannot risk ditching his Magyar chauvinism. Without it he is indistinguishable from the spineless Centre Left and the technocrats he rails against.      

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The High Tatra Mountains, Slovakia: "All the Way to the Snowy Bit with My Shopping"




A distinct odour of boiled eggs and old shoes hung on the air. In the corridor's semi-gloom a bandana wearing teenager shuffled past, too engrossed in a bowl of cereal to cast us even a sulky hint of acknowledgement. In the adjacent kitchen people sternly buttered bread and muttered awkwardly to each other about clean towels and forthcoming stop overs in German villages. A man with a too-big-laugh blurted whinnying, nervous expulsions at the sole staff member. Skis and signed t-shirts and drapes and pizza eating-league-tables clung to every available surface. Everything exuded an air of dampness. So, exactly the kind of hostel we'd come to dread.

We were a little surprised to find this familiar feeling chunk of backpackers' paradise in a far flung corner of the Slovakian mountains. Despite the nearby slopes of the Beliankse Tatry - making up a craggy panorama visible from the front porch - one of the guest's signally failed to leave the hostel throughout our whole stay. There in the living room when we arrived, and still there when we left three days later, he seemed far more interested in the hostel's DVD collection than the scenery.

Still, one guest did make a good point: "When I'm staying by myself all the time I go kinda crazy. It's lonely; I need people." One woman, we were sagely informed, was in the midst of two years' "intensive journeying". If that was me, I'd want any company I could get. And we had to admit we benefited a great deal from our hostel hosts, whose generosity and patience were ample (perhaps because, this being the mountains, there was nothing else to do).

"It's a bit of a slog. About half an hour uphill," the aforementioned friendly host said.

Fresh off the Prague sleeper train, a good six hours' clattering, rhythmic sleep under our belts, this seemed doable.

The thick black clouds curling around the highest peaks of the Vysoke Tatry (the High Tatras) promised rain. But we weren't going up that high, so what did it matter?

We followed a medium level blue trail for the first half an hour, traipsing over foot-hills still half buried in the wreckage of the 2004 storms that took apart over a third of the forest. Felled trees rested everywhere. It was a bit like the video to 'Earth Song' by Michael Jackson. A scene of Hollywood-esque devastation.


Following the storm the Slovakian Environmental Ministry declared that, since the Tatras had suffered so much, their protected status should now be downgraded and tourist development accelerated. Quite the terrifying example of a government turning crisis into opportunity. There was, however, decreasing evidence of development as we scrambled higher up the mountainside.

We were jubilant as we reached the checkpoint that led us off the blue trail and onto its red cousin. Now we had joined the so called Magistrala - the only trail that runs the whole length of the Tatras, themselves a part of the greater Carpathian range. Almost stopping to drink the beers we'd brought with us, we decided to wait until we reached the rumoured frozen lake. It would probably only be another half hour, I gamely told myself.

Fatefully it hadn't occurred to me to wonder why the lake was still frozen in May, the sort of commonsensical query I've got a frustrating habit of avoiding. Nor did I really wonder why everyone else we passed on the trail was in proper hiking gear and thermals. I, on the other hand, had just my trusty Primark hoodie and a bag of shopping with said beers and some cheese in.

The trail cut remorselessly uphill, delving under thick foliage as the now low-hanging clouds began to spit. Then, after scrambling over rocks, we emerged blinking from the underbrush to be confronted with the magnificence of the plain below. Perched on the sheer crest of an outcrop poking out of the side of Lomnicky stit (the range's tallest peak), the vastness of the land rolled out around us in a thick balm of green. The rain was now a little icy, prickling the back of my neck, but worryingly we still had higher to go.


As the elevation increased so did our vague sense of disquiet. Less confident of our speed, this drawn out slog, winding ever higher up the side of the mountain, gave me plenty of time to reflect.

"About half an hour uphill," we had been told.

This was ostensibly true: the immediate ascent had taken about half an hour. But the red path was now winding upwards in deceptive and increasingly craggy increments. Siobhan - who has a distinct tendency to go a bit 'jibbly-wibbly' in the knees when confronted with heights - was scaling the endless system of rocky promontories with admirable firmness.

"How is it?" I asked as she scrambled over one particularly jarring ledge.

"Good if you're a mountain goat."

I followed carefully, trusty shopping bag in hand, just a tiny bit unbalanced. Even the plant-life had changed, reduced from the rain-forest-density below to thick clumps of low-lying shrubbery clinging tenaciously to the unforgiving rock face.

Below stretched a vast expanse; distances I was more accustomed to enjoying from the comfort of a plane seat than when standing upright on an icy, windswept ledge. The Slovakian countryside rolled out, unbroken save for the occasional copse and a few winding roads, for miles.

Slovakia is an interesting national case. Plucked from Hungarian territory post-WWI, it was partly defined by the ambitions of their neighbours, the Czechs, and partly by the Slavic linguistic minority who had resided in the territory for centuries. It had once been incorporated in a Moravian empire which unified the Slavs of the region and which produced the first cyrillic alphabet. After the disintegration of that empire Slovakia was swiftly annexed by the growing power of Hungary. The city that now serves as Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, for a time became the Hungarian capital, under the name of Pressburg, after the Ottomans took Buda. A small reminder, then, that territories and the sovereignties declared over them are composite, contingent things. The panorama around us had changed hands multiple times - its earth subject to multiple constructed sovereignties. These remain unresolved for a few staunchly nationalist politicians on both the Slovakian and Hungarian sides of the border. "Let's get in our tanks and bulldoze Budapest," nearby Zilina's former mayor and all round extremist, Jan Slota, has suggested. 


At last we were in view of the frozen lake, which was indeed still frozen. And now snow lay at our feet. A final scramble along a much flatter path - to the evident amusement of other hikers, clad in winter-style gear - led us to it. Finally stopping, it struck me just how cold it had become.

"Shall we save the beers?" Siobhan said.

"Probably not a bad idea, yeah," I said, putting on my jumper.

After all, we had to get all the way back down.

We stayed in: Zdiar, a surprisingly sizeable village in the Belianske Tatry mountains with copious accommodation. Our hostel was the Ginger Monkey.

Friday, 6 June 2014

"The Swastika on Jan Kubis's Ass" - Laurent Binet, Hegel, and Historical Judgement

Lidice



Unsuspecting eyes might mistake Lidice, a pleasant strip of countryside just outside of Prague, for an oddly situated national park. From the viewing platform on the crest of its northern slope a few nondescript public artworks - grey statues ringed with stone met by a few winding paths - can be made out at the bottom of the valley's shallow basin. A bright spring day has brought people from the neighbouring villages out to play frisbee and tussle with their dogs on the grass. If people remember what this place is famous for it goes unspoken. On the night of 10th June 1942 German soldiers arrived in the then-village to destroy it. They gathered the men together at Horak's Barn and proceeded systematically to shoot them. Nine other men, who were not from Lidice but whose bad luck it was to be stranded after dark in the village, were met with a brief reprieve. The local mayor, tasked with pointing out the men to the SS troops, let it be known they were not locals. They would be taken to Prague and later shot anyway. As soon as his work was done the mayor was also shot. The women were taken to Ravensbruck; most of the children were sent to the extermination camp at Chelmno, a decision made personally by Adolf Eichman. The buildings themselves were not only ruined but literally pulled from the ground. Nothing was to remain. In the middle of Lidice's bare northern slope stands a memorial - its text in English, Czech and German - to the children. On the day of our visit a few flowers set around it are tugged lightly by a fresh spring breeze. Second-hand toys addressed from England sit looking up at the huddled statues. The eyes of the children gaze past us in either fear or reproach.

Almost immediately after its destruction, Lidice became a cause celebre. A famous campaign in Stoke-on-Trent galantly, if naively, pledged to rebuild the village entirely. Streets, towns and factories around the non-fascist world were renamed in tribute to it. The reason for this propaganda victory - considering the relative quiet surrounding other Nazi crimes at this point in the war - was its direct relation to the successful assassination of Rienhard Heydreich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in Prague just days before. Though the two assassins bore no connection to Lidice, the occupying Nazi regime, in a blind fury coaxed on by Hitler's extraordinary viciousness, decided vengeance was necessary no matter the victims. This was hardly an isolated conclusion in Nazi history (another being the desperate, orgiastic destruction of Warsaw following the 1944 Uprising), but it lit a very specific torch. The Czechoslovak Government-in-exile, still headed by the frenetic plotter and pre-war President Edvard Beneš, had been behind the startling, courageous murder of Heydrich by two Czechoslovak agents. Flown over from London, and parachuting into the Bohemian countryside, Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, later joined by Jozef Valčík, had studied the movements of Heydrich for months before confronting his unprotected limo on a bend in a road in the Libeň district of Prague. It was Kubiš who hurled a bomb at the Blond Beast, already on his feet and aiming at Gabčík, whose English Sten had jammed in his hands. The bomb destroyed the car and chaos quickly ensued. Heydrich looked at first to have survived. Then, after an operation removing his spleen, he was hit by a fever and shortly died. Apoplectic with rage - apparently at Heydrich's naivety as much as the gall of the Czechs - Hitler ordered revenge. Nazi investigators had soon 'uncovered' conspiratorial connections of the Resistance with Lidice.

The story has been told many times, a fact repeatedly recounted in Laurent Binet's own racy, buoyant effort, HHhH. Throughout Binet's book, established fact intersects with the reports of others and the author's own memory:

[New information] has forced me to qualify my opinion of Seven Men at Daybreak, the Allan Burgess novel I had previously thought rather fanciful. I had been particularly skeptical about the swastika branded on Kubis’s ass. I also condescendingly picked up on a glaring error regarding the colour of Heydrich’s Mercedes which the author claimed was green.... Anyway, I’m probably attaching too much importance to what is, at the end of the day, just a background detail. I know that. In fact, it is a classic symptom of neurosis. I must be anal-retentive. Let’s move on……

...I asked Natacha about the Mercedes. She remembers it being black as well.

With some cunning, Binet transforms his own neurosis into a narratorial device. By framing this obsessive concern with detail as a quest for truth, however, Binet dodges over-familiar postmodern reflexivity. Though the novel's pre-history, its method of production and its factual and textual shortcomings, are made explicit parts of the story, this is done for quite specific ends. Here truth is expressed in the form of scrupulous self-doubt and self-qualification. Motivating Binet's modesty is a thoroughly traditional, realist concern with justice and the passing of historical judgement. Memory - that notoriously unreliable relayer of facts - constantly interweaves itself with established truths, undermining them and also adapting them. Thus the author's own memories of Košice, the Slovakian town where he was once stationed as a French teacher to the Slovakian military, forms the basis of Jozef Gabčík's introduction to the story. As it turns out, Gabčík couldn't have been in Košice in 1938 because it had already been absorbed by Hungary. How and when did Gabčík and Kubiš first meet? Binet asks himself. "I'm not yet sure if I'm going to visualize (that is, 'invent') this meeting or not. If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything." Inevitably the novel ends with Gabčík and Kubiš meeting for the first time on a rusty boat on the moonlit Baltic ("like in a Nezval poem").

By assuming that all fictional intrusions on the facticity of history are artificial, Binet permits himself errors but only insofar as he tries to atone for them. The overriding goal is to overcome one's factual shortcomings by acknowledging them, and through such acknowledgement pass judgement on history itself. Thus by passing judgement, Binet can bring the protagonists of the past to justice. It is in the grey areas between which parts of history - Tukhachevsky's defeat outside Warsaw and Heydrich's role in his later downfall under Stalin; or the ghosts of the thousands of anonymous Czech resistance members who are "haunting" Binet with their demands for inclusion - truly form part of the story that Binet's concern with justice is most pronounced. Here the author explicitly takes on the role of a historical judge.

Justice can be understood in two related senses: on the one hand there is just representation, or the writer's responsibility to do justice to her subject. On the other, there is the need to bring people to justice through the passing of certain normative moral judgements. Binet deals with the former on a regular, explicit basis (though in French justice would be substituted here for honneur). The book is punctuated at steady intervals with Binet's concerns about his own adequacy to the task of representation. More controversial for contemporary readers is the latter notion, conferred by the author and legitimate only if one accepts the right of the author to pose as transhistorical moral judge. Thus naming and describing the families who aided and sheltered Gabčík and Kubiš gives them fitting and appropriate representation and also confers justice on their sacrifices (they would mostly be murdered after Heydrich's assassination). However, it is only when the story comes to the climactic moment of Lidice's destruction that Binet allows his concern with judgement and justice to directly seize the narrative.

As it happens Kubiš and Gabčík were still alive when the Nazis attacked Lidice. In fact, the assassins were hiding in a church on Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square) in Prague. Binet tells us that they knew about the Nazis' terrible retribution. The assassins sat with their comrades in a dank cellar and could do nothing but blame themselves for the town's destruction. No amount of pleading would convince them they were not personally responsible for the slaughter. Indeed they were sure that Heydrich's death had achieved nothing. "Perhaps I am writing this book," Binet says, "to make them understand that they are wrong." The obsessive compiling of facts is thus less significant for Binet than justifying the assassination of Heydrich.

In the same chapter, Binet makes clear what exactly the destruction of Lidice meant for the world resistance to Nazism:

With Lidice, the scales have fallen from the whole world's eyes. In the days that follow, Hitler will understand. For once, it is not his SS who will be let loose, but an entity he does not fully understand: world opinion. Soviet newspapers declare that, from today, people will fight with the name of Lidice on their lips - and they're right... By reacting like the crude psychopath he is (rather than the head of state that he also is), Hitler will suffer his most devastating defeat in a domain he once mastered: by the end of the month the propaganda war will be irredeemably lost.

That was no mean feat in a world where European ruling classes had long been anticipating, and indeed making, compromises with Nazism. World opinion aside, however, the actual job of bringing history's protagonists to justice is undertaken by the novel itself. More than a catalogue of events, HHhH attempts to formulate a moral judgement about Heydrich's assassination and the consequent destruction of Lidice; in other words, a kind of post-mortal redemption of the assassins ("I am writing this book to make them understand..."). Redemption through testimony; justice through perspicacious analysis of the facts; judgement through the exercise of universal moral norms. Binet himself admits he's a scion of Communist parents and a believer in French Enlightenment values. Whatever the self-conscious, postmodern form, Binet's ambition is to conjure a classically modern moral universe.

There is something of Hegel's system of historical judgement to this ambition, the account of which given by Angelica Nuzzo in her book Memory, History, Justice in Hegel (2012) I am entirely indebted to. Nuzzo understands Hegel as having two separate philosophical models of historical process, the cumulative moment of which comes in the Philosophy of Right when Hegel describes how the ethical collective system of historical understanding is "overcome"(aufgehoben) by a properly universal system of judgement - in Hegel's own words, from "objective" to "absolute", in which Weltgeschichte (world history) emerges as Weltgericht (the world's tribunal). This being Hegel, there is no fine line drawn between the working of the logical system and the actual material stuff of history upon which the interpretive intellect acts (ideas being history's motive force). Nuzzo argues that historical judgement and justice are systemically possible because, in a Hegelian way, history is grounded in the logic of the dialectic. In sum, history is not just the accumulation of random effects, of chaos producing further unintended chaos, but proceeds via contradiction, and contains conflictual stages which are themselves subject to the logic Hegel describes as belonging to the dialectic.

What does "absolute judgement" mean in the context of history? Nuzzo separates the dialectical logic of history proper, which achieves universality in art, philosophy and religious representation, from memory, which is always enclosed by particular ethical-collective "national" consciousness. In short, the collective memory of particular national identities - subject to the social structuring of meaning - is not adequate for historical judgement. One cannot adequately write history from a particular, narrow perspective, but must aim for this universal possibility of judgement and justice. To take a concrete example, no adherence to, say, Serbian or Croatian "national consciousness" will provide a convincingly full explanation of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. That task falls to a kind of "absolute" philosophical judgement, though how one articulates such an unbiased judgement is hard to say.

To return to Binet's HHhH, the textual demand for historical justice, or the demand for a kind of redemption of the novel's heroes and condemnation of its villains, stems from just such a Hegelian urge for universality - that is, an urge for a form of judgement not constrained by particular considerations but one able to take a "God's-eye-view" of historical events. Appropriately for a Hegelian project, however, historical judgement is interwoven throughout the novel with its opposite - the act or process of remembrance. Yet whereas the latter always takes place within a particular ideological configuration of social values, history proper exists in a space of "absolute" or universal judgement.

This brings us to a crucial moral impasse pertaining to three events, all of which are covered in Binet's book. Can the decision to assassinate Heydrich be justified, despite the destruction of Lidice and the terror inflicted after it, because of its achievement in mobilizing anti-Nazi sentiment? And does it matter that the widest propaganda success in the wake of the assassination came about as a result of Lidice's destruction? Debates about the wisdom - on the part, especially, of Beneš, comfortably housed in Britain - of the assassination of Heydrich will continue interminably. Aside from Lidice and later the village of Ležáky (which was also utterly destroyed), an estimated 1,357 Czechs were executed and 3,188 arrests made as a result of the Heydrichiada (the month-long terror that resulted from Heydrich's assassination). It was, in the assessment of the historian Mary Heimann, "the most horrifying chapter of the war" for protectorate Czechs "since the brutal assault on the universities at its beginning. Worse, because it resulted in the liquidation of the underground resistance, it represented the loss of the bravest and most steadfast patriots, the flower of the Czech nation." Being the "politically savvy" operator he was, Beneš was able to capitalize on Heydrich's assassination for the benefit of his own propaganda effort. Even at the time UVOD had advised the government-in-exile that the assassination of a Czech quisling would have been a wiser tactical move. But Beneš plumped for a major German target, reprisals be damned. Binet, fulsome in his praise for the exiled Czechoslovak president, will have none of this. He sees the agents of Operation Anthropoid's sacrifice as among the greatest of the war.

At stake here is more than just the tactical salience of Beneš's wartime decision-making or the heroism of Gabčík and Kubiš. The thousands of Czechs murdered in the aftermath of Operation Anthropoid beg a broader moral view. In a certain sense, and despite his streak of heroic romanticism, Binet provides it. Historical fiction of the type he creates in HHhH escapes morally unanswerable questions of historical cause and effect, and instead, by reflecting on the lives involved, produces a representation of the aspect of a priori goodness of certain historical acts without having to measure them against the unintended tragedies which followed from them. This, then, might be the the value behind Hegel's dialectical "absolute" judgement: not to paint the impossibly complex web of historical interconnection, of cause and effect, in its entirety; but rather to pronounce the universal, properly philosophical "goodness" of acts - say, the assassination of Heydrich or the sheltering and protection of his assassins by various families who put themselves at extreme risk and very often died because of it - irrespective of ethical or pragmatic considerations about such actions' effects. It would be impossible to inhabit a day-to-day world ordered only by such "absolute" philosophical considerations; art, however, can provide the space for such reflections.