For the Western press the Chernobyl disaster was splendid copy, both sensational and anti-Soviet. Western European newspapers, drawing mostly on U.S. sources, began by speaking of 2,000 dead, stressed the radioactive dangers of the nuclear cloud and damned the Soviet regime for its secrecy. No one should minimize the seriousness of the Chernobyl meltdown or praise Moscow for the absence of a free press, but these same papers did not write with such assured condemnation of the fire at the Windscale nuclear facility in England in 1957 or the near-meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. But in their anti-Soviet zeal newspapers that usually know their place dealt an effective, if unintended, blow to the nuclear establishment in their own countries.,
This boomerang effect was particularly noticeable in France, which in absolute terms produces more electricity from nuclear reactors than the Soviet Union and leads the world on a per capita basis. By the time the journalists realized that their readers could draw domestic conclusions from the alarming stories about Chernobyl, it was too late. They tried to argue, "It can't happen here,". but that was just too ridiculous. A Ukrainian minister said very much the same thing a week before the Chernobyl tragedy.As The Economist put it, "Those, like us, who have long championed nuclear power must accept that the debate will never be the same again." The servants of the establishment have made, however unwittingly, a contribution to the antinuclear movement.
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The other day we had dinner at a friend's place in Paris. Most of the guests were former Communists, which was not surprising considering ex-C.P. members would make up the biggest political party in France. Among them was a writer famous in the good old Stalinist days for attacking Tito and his fellow "traitors." Now she says she is apolitical. We learned this when another woman, a well-known historian who also left the party but who has remained politically active, wittily described the confrontations that take place at the monthly reunions of her family, in which is represented every shade of the French left, from Socialists to Communists, orthodox and critical, to the New Left. The ex-Stalinist zealot loudly expressed her astonishment over this survival of political commitment, commenting, "We must be indulgent; after all, I do have friends hooked on other drugs." Many of us were ready to pounce on her past, but she rendered any reply superfluous with a slip of the tongue: "I am now willing to be active for only one cause--amnésie internationale." Obviously she meant amnistie ("amnesty") and not amnésie ("amnesia"). There was a spontaneous burst of laughter and then a moment of awkward and wistful silence. Clearly Freud had a point.
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Vienna 1880-1938, an exhibition devoted to Freud's city, just closed here. An extraordinary collection of painters and musicians, writers and thinkers, over the fifty-eight years covered by the show, turned that former imperial capital into the crucible of European culture. The lavish exhibition catalogue bears a strange subtitle, borrowed from Hermann Broch: "The Joyous Apocalypse." Joyous?
Today postapocalyptic Vienna is embracing the results of the first ballot of the Austrian presidential elections, in which Herr Kurt Waldheim missed outright victory by a fraction of a percentage point. Let us beware hypocrisy. In Paris, Arabs, not Jews, are the main victims of racism. Those who turn a blind eye to the racial oppression of Arabs, Pakistanis or blacks lose the moral right to preach not only about anti-Semitism but about the Holocaust itself. The Anschluss took place nearly a half-century ago, and one cannot, in biblical fashion, extend the curse to future generations. That said, however, the way in which Waldheim "forgot" the Jewish children of Salonika who were sent to be slaughtered, or the massacre of Yugoslav civilians, the skillful way in which he turned revelations of his war record into an electoral asset, with a majority of the nation not only denying its past but flaunting its oblivion--all this was, to put it mildly, sickening.
A nation as well as an individual may suffer from amnesia, and in both cases it is a serious disease. The horrible past hidden in the recesses of the unconscious weighs on the present and may surge back at any time. For reasons varying from country to country we have not fully settled our accounts with Nazi crimes. In France the mythical syllogism--De Gaulle is France, De Gaulle resisted, ergo France resisted--enabled the people to erase the guilt of collaboration. In Germany the cold war caused the occupying powers to forgive and forget. Austria was sheltered by the persistent legend that it had been the Nazis' first victim: The wretched behavior of the Austrians today is the direct result of this postwar parody of innocence. We are paying for the illusion that opposition to racism can be sporadic and selective. The tongue of the anti-Stalinist lady did not slip: amnesia is international.