They dug up the body of Nicolae Ceausescu. Or did they? The Romanian dictator and his wife Elena were executed on Christmas, 1989. But there are those who still won’t believe it. So last month, Romania dug up the body in Ceausescu’s grave to perform DNA tests on it, and to pronounce Nicolae Ceausescu dead, once and for all.
In “The Great Christmas Killing,” Hungarian author Peter Nadas wrote about the Ceausescus’ execution as he saw it on television, 10 years after the fact. He describes in stark detail the scenes before the killing and after, from the hasty trial to the hurried postmortem examination. “The captors of the dreaded Ceausescu couple…forced them into a space between the wall and the two steel-legged tables. Either it was cold in the room, or the uniformed members of the summary tribunal did not permit the tyrant and his wife to take off their coats.” He writes of the moment when the hands of the Ceausescus are tied behind their backs with clothesline as they protest, indignant, and the terror of the attending physician whose entire body shakes as he is called on to show the camera, the world, that Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are gone.
Conspicuously absent from Nadas’ account is the killing itself, which happened too fast to be captured on tape. Participants later explained that as the couple were led outside to be shot, the captain of the execution platoon got an itchy trigger finger and fired before giving the order. Once shots were heard, everyone started blasting like gangbusters. They seemed desperate to get the whole terrifying business finished before someone lost his nerve. Watching the film, you can indeed see that a scene of the couple being led outside is missing. By the time the camera is turned on again, guns are firing, but the Ceausescus are already dead. The actual shooting of the dictators — the moment when bullet hits flesh — is undocumented. Since there is no recorded proof of the killing, some Romanians have asked, who can say they were shot at all? Perhaps, they say, an execution did take place, only it was not the Ceausescus whose bloody corpses we saw, but body doubles brought in for the show. It’s the body doubles, they say, that really lie in the Ceausescus’ graves.
Even video evidence of an execution can be insufficient proof. The killing of Sadaam Hussein, for instance, shakily documented by a guard with a low-res cell phone camera, can be viewed by anyone with a proper internet connection, from beginning to end. You can watch the noose being slipped almost gently over the dictator’s head, hear the neck crack, stare into the close-up of his lifeless, gaping eyes. And yet, as in the case of Ceausescu, there are still those who believe that the man in the noose is a look-a-like, that the real Sadaam Hussein walks among them, among us.
It’s no easy task to kill a dictator. Partly this is because they have a special kind of life. A double life. In 1957, Ernst Kantorowicz published a classic study on the medieval theory of the rights of kings, which he called “The King’s Two Bodies.” Every king has two bodies, he explained: the body politic and the body natural. The body natural is a physical body — a screaming, pissing, farting, and, most importantly, dying body, just like yours and mine. Knowing that this natural body will eventually die, the king also has another body, the body politic that is the symbol of his divine right to rule. Being divine, the body politic transcends the physical body, allowing for a continuity of the kingdom even when the king had died. In other words, the king’s rule is still wielded over his subjects, even after death. As such, a king never really dies. The king is dead, long live the king.
It is really, then, the king’s subjects who keep the kingdom (and the king) alive. They are the believers with the immortality of the regime woven into their souls. So what happens to the king’s subjects when the unimaginable happens, when the kingdoms themselves fall (as in the cases of Iraq or Romania) but its subjects live on? How are they to piece together the disconnected parts of themselves that are neither present nor past? How do you decide what is really dead and what is still alive?
One strategy is to start digging up graves. This need not always be a literal affair. In the halls of the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives are files containing information about thousands of Romanian citizens, information that remained hidden from them for years. The archive is itself like a graveyard of the past lives of the old regime’s subjects. The Romanian Securitate (the secret service of the Communist regime) took great liberty with these lives, constructing the narrative as it saw fit. Few of us can imagine what it must feel like to know your government is rewriting your autobiography while you remain powerless to influence its contents. To read such a file must be akin to experiencing schizophrenia.
Little by little, the old files of the Securitate are becoming available to the public. The Romanian-born German author Herta Müller (winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature) has been trying to gain access to her own file ever since Communist Romania fell. Last year, twenty years after the death of Ceausescu, she was finally granted permission and wrote about the experience of reading it in an essay called “Securitate in all but name” (Sign and Sight, 2009). She learned that the Securitate opened a file on her in 1983, in response to the publication of her first novel Nadirs, for “tendentious distortions of realities in the country.” Notably missing from the file are records from three years during which Müller was persecuted for refusing to spy for the Securitate. Confusingly, she finds her file not under the name “Herta Müller”. Rather, it is called “Cristina”:
In my file I am two different people. One is called “Cristina,” who is being fought as an enemy of the state. To compromise this “Cristina” the falsification workshop of Branch “D” (disinformation) fabricated a doppelganger from all those ingredients that would harm me the most — party-faithful communist, unscrupulous agent. Wherever I went, I had to live with this doppelganger. It was not only sent after me wherever I went, it also hurried ahead. Even though I have always and from the start, written only against the dictatorship, the doppelganger still continues on its own way. It has taken on a life of its own.
In dictatorships, you see, the “kingdom” doesn’t just grant two bodies to its leaders. It also creates a second body for its citizens. Or as Müller puts it, a doppelganger. There is the identity created by the self, and the identity created by the State. As far as the State is concerned, Müller and her doppelganger are one. It sounds quite sinister, and it is. Yet all the more devastating is that, for the individuals living under a dictatorship, the bodies can become internally confused. You start to wonder yourself, “Who is the real me? Is there a real me beyond the Party me?” If you read the above quote carefully, you realize that “Cristina”, enemy of the State, is not even Müller herself. It is a fictionalized Müller. In other words, in the eyes of the Securitate, there isn’t Müller and her doppelganger. There are two fictional versions of Müller. Müller herself is erased completely.
You might think that when the Wall fell, when the kingdoms died, when the citizens of the former Soviet states were “free,” all the extra bodies would have disappeared. You might think that political freedom would have killed all the doppelgangers. But just as the king never really dies because his political legacy lives on, the kingdom lives on through the doppelgangers. This is what Müller means when she writes that the doppelganger continues on its way, takes on a life of its own. After the Wall fell, millions of people were left with a pre-dictatorship self and a post-dictatorship self, both living side by side in mutual suspicion of the other.
In “Securitate in all but name,” Müller wrote, “You can even get used to death threats. They are part and parcel of this one life we have. You can defy anxiety to the depths of your soul. But slander steals your soul.” The reason is that slander is the creation of the doppelganger. When Müller declined to be a spy, the Securitate simply convinced the people around her that she was one anyway. In doing so, she became the object of mistrust, of hatred. At work, people shouted, “Informer” and she was soon fired. “I was being slandered by precisely the people that I was protecting by refusing to spy on them,” Müller wrote. At least if she had been a spy and had been exposed, Müller could have experienced a feeling of punishment for an actual offense against her fellow citizens. Instead, she was punished for what her doppelganger did, which means, what no one did. Müller was forced to endure hours and hours of interrogation in which she was asked about her doppelganger’s seditious activities as if they were her own. She found herself trying to account for an identity she didn’t even know. She was accused of strange trivialities, like sleeping with men for makeup and tights, and told that she would be shown proof of her actions. Such an experience could drive a more fragile person mad. Certainly, it creates an enduring madness in a society, a fragmentation that can never completely be repaired until the last of the regime’s subjects have died. Perhaps not even then.
It is the life’s work of writers like Müller and Nadas to scratch at the tombs of uncomfortable truths, to come to terms with the doppelgangers by meeting them head-on. They know it is lonely work, that most would prefer to leave their past political selves behind simply by forgetting they ever existed. Müller and Nadas know, however, that such selves are too powerful to die of their own accord. Partly, Nadas explains, it is because the subjects and the king both carry within them the logic of dictatorship. In “The Great Christmas Killing,” Nadas quickly admits the absurdity of the Ceausescu’s clumsy pre-execution trial. Still, he finds himself dispassionately enjoying the film, as did so many other victims of Eastern Bloc tyranny.
Being vaguely aware that there had to be something to object to in this outrageously unlawful, dilettante farce — though I had no objection — and that there should be another law-abiding and humane person within me to protest my moral indifference and oppose my aesthetic naiveté — though there was no such person to be found — created a strange vacuum.
Watching the Ceausescu execution, Nadas goes looking for that humane and law-abiding person within himself — the one who ought to protest — and comes up with a vacuum. This empty space is the gap between self and doppelganger, between then and now.
There is no easy path toward filling up that gap, that empty space. It means finding and reabsorbing, somehow, the doppelganger out there causing trouble. The problem is that those in Romania who dug up the Ceausescus are looking for the wrong bodies. The DNA tests on Nicolae Ceausescu may very well prove that the body in Nicolae Ceausescu’s grave is the physical body of Nicolae Ceausescu. Few doubt that they will. But all the DNA tests in the world can’t kill the little Ceausescu that lives inside every Romanian who lived under his rule. The little doppelganger that makes them doubt themselves without always knowing why, that makes them wary of neighbors and think of friends as potential enemies. The “body politic” that makes them feel absent when they are present, present when they are absent. That makes them go digging around in search of bodies when they know the digging will only produce more ghosts. As the body of King Ceausescu is finally pronounced dead, many of his subjects will never fully believe in his death because his real life and legacy live on. “Even though the dictatorship has been dead for 20 years,” Müller wrote, “the doppelganger is still wandering about. For how much longer?”
The king is dead, long live the king. • 26 August 2010