Dictatorships or totalitarian leaders exploit and control the mass, turning it into a formidable political weapon. All united behind the leader in euphoria an ecstasy, unquestioning obedience and blind imitation. Unity is fostered by creating an enemy, by picking out groups of people, branding and persecuting them.

Where, however, totalitarian rule has not been prepared by a totalitarian movement (and this, in contradistinction to Nazi Germany, was the case in Russia), the movement has to be organized afterward and the conditions for its growth have artificially to be created in order to make total loyalty. Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaint.

Basically speaking, totalitarian domination strives to restrict propaganda methods solely to its foreign policy or to the branches of the movement abroad for the purpose of supplying them with suitable material. Whenever totalitarian indoctrination at home comes into conflict with the propaganda line for consumption abroad (which happened in Russia during the war, not when Stalin had concluded his alliance with Hitler, but when the war with Hitler brought him into the camp of the democracies), the propaganda is explained at home as a “temporary tactical manoeuver.”

As far as possible, this distinction between ideological doctrine for the initiated in the movement, who are no longer in need of propaganda, and unadulterated propaganda for the outside world is already established in the pre-power existence of the movements. The relationship between propaganda and indoctrination usually depends upon the size of the movements on one hand, and upon outside pressure on the other. The smaller the movement, the more energy it will expend in mere propaganda; the greater the pressure on totalitarian regimes from the outside world.

Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. This demand is made by the leaders of totalitarian movements even before they seize power. It usually precedes the total organization of the country under their actual rule and it follows from the claim of their ideologies that their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race.

The legacy of genocide, gross human rights violations, mass political violence, and historical injustice has been arguably laid bare through a whole range of mechanisms: official apologies, vetting, international criminal tribunals, national, or local legal proceedings, truth commissions, official commemorations, restitution, revising school history curricula, establishing monuments and museums, and hybrid trials.

Each of these mechanisms seeks to contribute in their own way to accountability, reconciliation, the historical record, victims’ rights, and competing ‘truths’.

As the international ad-hoc trials -often instigated in the immediate aftermath of, or during conflict – wind down, we enter a new phase of evaluating the efficacy of these and other institutionalized means of confronting the violent past. We can now begin to assess their impact on the societies from which the perpetrators and/or victims emerged.

What about societies that maintain official amnesia or actively repress the memory of violence with regard to historical injustices? Is there a right timing for addressing the violent past? Should and could historians and historical dialogue play a more instrumental role in these processes?