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Central Europe: The Present Past

The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism

by Tina Rosenberg
Random House, 437 pp., $25.00

The past is something, we all have some,” sang—if I remember rightly—the Incredible String Band. But some have more than others, and countries emerging from dictatorships have to confront “the past” in a special sense. Thus in Germany for forty-five years after 1945 the very phrase “the past” denoted the twelve years of Nazi dictatorship. Of course there were other things past—the rest of German history, for example—but the past, die Vergangenheit, was Nazism. Then the next German dictatorship passed away, and the country was cast into another bout of trying to come to terms with or to overcome “the past.”

Tina Rosenberg watched this process of trying to confront the past in Latin America in the second half of the 1980s. In 1991 she started traveling to Central Europe, to see how the post-Communist countries were dealing with the problem. The Haunted Land examines the experience of the former Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Germany, making interesting comparisons with Latin America along the way.

This is a book from the great tradition of American investigative journalism, full of scrupulous and exhaustive on-the-spot research and reporting. In each section, Rosenberg builds the story around portraits of individual characters: the former Czech dissident whose life has been ruined by the revelation of an earlier brief dalliance with the secret police; the secret policeman who started tipping off the dissidents; General Jaruzelski and Adam Michnik in Poland; border guards and dissidents and informers in Germany. The result is a genuine achievement: rich, vivid, and stimulating. Though not convincing in all its arguments or conclusions, The Haunted Land will teach you more about the real life of post-Communist Central Europe than many a multi-author volume of academic transitology.

In the former Czechoslovakia her main subject is the administrative purge known as “lustration,” which is, as she well shows, a good example of how not to go about it. In lustration, people have been banned from public office and had their reputations ruined simply because a commission found that their names appeared on the Interior Ministry lists of secret police (StB) informers. There was no fair procedure for the examination of their records, or serious provision for due process, appeal, or redress. The only recourse for most of those thus publicly pilloried was to sue the Interior Ministry. Rosenberg reports that by April 1993 the courts had rendered judgment in seventy cases, finding all seventy “StB-positives” innocent of collaboration.

By talking to past informers and secret policemen she shows how misleading the records can be. For example, the secret police was also part of the centrally planned economy, so each officer had a goal for the number of agents to recruit. When the target number was difficult to achieve, rules were bent, casual contacts listed as regular informers, and so on.

Particularly dubious was the category of “candidate” informer. Among those briefly included in this category was one Václav Havel. StB Captain Cinka reported on a conversation on June 23, 1965, with the young playwright:

The interview with Havel was concluded with our suggestion that in case of need we will contact him again. He agreed and said that he himself was glad he had talked to us, as it was an inspiration for further literary endeavours.

Clearly deaf to the heavy irony that comes shouting through the lines of his own report, Captain Cinka concludes: “Havel’s relation to this establishment [the StB] can be described as positive.” By the end of the year, they have been disabused, and for the next twenty-five years and seven hundred pages Havel is treated not as a candidate but as an enemy. On this basis, the lustration committee generously issued the president with a certificate saying he had not been a conscious collaborator. “This certificate made me a little sad,” Havel mildly commented in a radio talk on the subject. Yet it is also a little sad that the president had earlier felt obliged—for reasons he has explained in these pages—to sign such a bad law and thus sanction such absurdities.1

In Poland, Rosenberg’s main subject is the attempts to bring General Jaruzelski to book for the imposition of martial law to crush Solidarity in December 1981. She produces a brilliant portrait of Jaruzelski—certainly the best currently available in English. The general was obviously keen to impress his version of history, with exquisite but insistent courtesy, on the young lady from America. Starting with a wholly sympathetic portrait of his wartime banishment to the Altai Mountains of Siberia, the source of his curiously stiff bearing (his back was permanently damaged by woodcutting) and dark glasses (the eyelids were cracked by the mountain glare), she takes us through the irresistible rise of Wojciech J., an upright, in private life even puritanical, but morally (as physically) broken-backed careerist, politely protesting his own inadequacy as he takes on each new office.

Taking her cue from the Polish parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Responsibility, Rosenberg then explores at length the evidence as to whether Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law preempted a Soviet invasion of Poland in the winter of 1980-1981, or whether he actually blew a real chance to call Brezhnev’s bluff, as Gomułka had (up to a point) called Khrushchev’s bluff in 1956, when he stood up to Khrushchev’s bullying. Despite new (though disputed) Politburo records from the Soviet archives, the evidence remains inconclusive, and the question ultimately unanswerable. What is clear, however, is that Jaruzelski did not even try to “do a Gomułka.”

This story is excellently told, and the history of martial law is a major part of what constitutes the past for today’s Poland. Yet this leaves Rosenberg rather little space to discuss how the Poles have been dealing with the broader problem raised in her Czechoslovak section. She rightly emphasizes the fact that the Jaruzelski period ended with a negotiated (or, as the transitologists sometimes say, a “pacted”) transition. The extraordinary experience of the Solidarity leaders sitting down with their former jailers at the first, path-breaking Roundtable of 1989 contributed to the new Solidarity government’s decision to draw a “Thick Line” (in Prime Minister Mazowiecki’s phase) through the past: no retribution, no show trials, no special commissions. She quotes a revealing remark by Adam Michnik: “If I didn’t tell [General Czesław] Kiszczak at the Roundtable that he would be judged if I come to power, it would be wrong of me to demand it now.”

Yet, she does not explore as deeply as she might have the full, complex mixture of motives behind Adam Michnik’s passionate advocacy of the “Thick Line.” Nor does she ask what exactly he thinks he has achieved by what has seemed like a cult of mutual admiration with that same Wojciech Jaruzelski, whose deeply flawed moral character and heavy historical responsibility she has just so sharply depicted. Nor, most importantly, does she consider the wider cost of the “Thick Line” policy.

She rightly criticizes the “night of the long files,” of the Olszewski government of 1992, when Interior Minister Antoni Macierewicz (himself a former dissident) suddenly produced a summary short list of alleged secret police collaborators, most of whom happened to be the government’s political opponents—including President Lech Wałesa. Procedurally, this was even worse than the Czechoslovak lustration, and the Olszewski government deservedly fell in the aftermath. But it does not follow that, as Rosenberg suggests, this “perfectly illustrated why the Thick Line was the correct policy.”

Indeed, one could argue the reverse: it is precisely if you don’t establish regular, fair, legal procedures for dealing with the problem of past collaboration and crimes that you are most likely to end up, sooner or later, with irregular, unfair, blatantly political ones. Rosenberg’s imaginative sympathy, which is wonderfully extended to former dissidents, former informers, former Communists, even former agents, to victims turned victimizers and victimizers become victims, just will not stretch to conservative, Catholic, more or less nationalist anti-Communists who now felt cheated of any historical justice or catharsis. And does the return to power and rather unabashed self-confidence of the post-Communists who currently govern Poland have nothing to do with the fact that there was no systematic public exposure—even in the well-tried Latin American shape of a state or parliamentary “truth commission”—of the evils of Communist rule?

Here there is a stark contrast with her third example, Germany, where every last horrid detail of East German Communist rule has been relentlessly exposed and, so to speak, rubbed into public consciousness. The German case is, of course, unique: with the huge, paranoid bureaucracy of the State Security Service (the Stasi), the tiny opposition, and, above all, the fact that the process of confronting “the past” has taken place in a country united on West German terms, with West German journalists, scholars, politicians, and judges putting the East German past in the dock.

As if herself touched with German thoroughness, Tina Rosenberg covers virtually all aspects of the last German round of past-beating: the trials of frontier guards accusing of shooting escapees at the Berlin Wall; those of the former East German leaders, including Erich Honecker himself, the Stasi minister Erich Mielke, and his legendary spy chief Markus “Mischa” Wolf; the Bundestag’s Enquete Kommission on the history of what West Germans have again started calling the East German “dictatorship” (a term largely banned as politically incorrect in the 1980s); the whole extraordinary story of the opening of the Stasi files and the work of the so-called Gauck Authority, named after the East German pastor Joachim Gauck, who presides over its 179 kilometers of files.

Rosenberg describes the famous cases like that of Vera Wollenberger, who found from the Stasi files that her husband, Knud, had for years been informing on her (Rosenberg finds the now divorced Knud cracking walnuts in a forlorn, echoing apartment). She also evokes the supposedly therapeutic conversations between the informers and the informed-upon, or between Stasi officers and their victims.

Once again, by taking the time to tell individual, personal stories she exposes much more effectively than an analytical synthesis ever could the full complexity of life in a late-totalitarian state, and the fact—so often emphasized by Václav Havel—that the line usually did not run clearly between Us and Them, but rather through the heart of each man and woman. Tina Rosenberg’s first book, on violence and the violent in Latin America, is called Children of Cain. But a banner I saw prominently displayed in an East Berlin church in 1989 proclaimed “I am Cain and Abel.” This is not, of course, for a moment to suggest that all were equally guilty—and therefore equally innocent.

Rosenberg rightly stresses that the Germans had two major advantages: the secure Western frame for the new state and, quite simply, money. They could afford to do it properly. She might have added that they, unlike the others, also had the experience of doing it before. Thus, for example, several of the historians now employed by the Gauck Authority had previously spent years working at the famous Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, which was established to write the history of the Nazi dictatorship. This helps. Nonetheless, she is rightly critical of some of the sensationalist abuses of revelations from the Stasi files, especially by the West German press and television, and of the legal contortions of virtually all the trials. Perhaps she could have stressed a little more strongly the resentment many East Germans felt at West Germans sitting in judgment on them—giving a new twist to the old complaint about Siegerjustiz, “victor’s justice.” But that is a minor criticism of what is the best account yet in English of this latest round of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a term which she curiously, but perhaps wisely, avoids).

Altogether, Rosenberg’s book is a very fine example of the genre. By patient journalistic research, and by seeing the key to this history in individual biographies, she gets closer to the truth than do most other approaches. After three hundred pages I did occasionally find myself wishing for a passage of straight narrative or analysis, without direct quotations complete with a colorful potted description of the interviewee and the interview location, but that is perhaps just a vagary of transatlantic taste. I feel the same way after just ten pages of some New Yorker pieces.

One of the greatest strengths of the tradition Tina Rosenberg represents is scrupulous accuracy and attention to detail, far outdoing in this respect many scholars and certainly most European journalists. She even gives everybody—with, so far as I can see, the single (and perhaps signal?) exception of the Slovak leader Vladimír Meciar—their correct diacritical marks. This is all the more impressive since Rosenberg seems to have come completely fresh to the region in 1991, and worked entirely through interpreters.

Inevitably, there are still errors. Pan and pani in Polish do not really translate as “lord”’ and “lady”: “sir” and “madam” would be closer. It was not a “national congress” that Solidarity was holding in Gdansk in December 1981 but a meeting of its national commission. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was not a “KOR adviser”; he was a Solidarity adviser. Staatsbürgerkunde in East Germany really does not need to be translated cumbersomely as “state-citizen-information”: “civics” will do. She has taken over from good authorities the claim that Stalin said communism fitted Poland like a saddle on a cow: actually he made the remark to a Polish politician but about Germany. Lech Wałesa’s alleged secret police code-name, “Bolek,” certainly does not mean “cigarette lighter.” “Bolek” is merely a diminutive form of the Polish Christian name Boleslaw, like Fred for Frederick. “Cigarette lighter” was not Wałesa but the well-known critic and biographer of Joseph Conrad, Zdzistław Najder, his distinguished record of intellectual and journalistic opposition now besmirched by an early and (as so often) obscure episode of supping with the devil. Yet another subject for a Rosenberg sketch!

I make these points not in any spirit of nit-picking or Besserwisserei, but because I trust they’ll be useful for the paperback and, more important, because the fact that these are the only factual slips I have noticed in more than four hundred pages shows what a good job of accurate reporting she has done.

More questionable are a few of the pithy historical generalizations, for which she has a penchant. Some work well. I like “all Europe turned left after the war,” and, for the 1980s, “a specter was haunting communism…the specter of Europe.” Even “the Germans, with their tendency…to mind other people’s business” is nicely put, though coming a little close to those sweeping statements about national character which Tina Rosenberg utterly deplores when made by, say, Vladimír Meciar, about, say, Gypsies or Jews. But the suggestion that Jaruzelski was “perhaps the only man in Poland who was a Communist because he believed in communism” really cannot be sustained any more than the sweeping statement that “Poles welcomed” Jaruzelski as Party leader in autumn 1981 or that “the average Pole” (who he?) had never considered Polish Jews to be “real Poles.” Moreover, she occasionally seems to adopt the popular Western prejudice that Eastern Europe is distinguished from Western Europe by having had authoritarian regimes before 1945—thus presumably making Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia authoritarian, while Franco’s Spain, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany were democratic. But again, these are minor flaws on a large and meticulous canvas.

What conclusions are to be drawn? I’m not sure that the main conclusions are those that Rosenberg herself chooses to draw on the last pages of her book: that the greatest threat in these countries today is “not communism, but the state’s own unchecked power,” and that “the opposite of communism is not anti-communism, which at times resembles it greatly” but rather “tolerance and the rule of law.” Actually Poland, for example, has the problems of a weak state rather than those of a strong one. And while naturally agreeing that tolerance and the rule of law are what one hopes will prevail, I’m not sure that the notion of “the opposite” of communism is very meaningful nor that even the cruder forms of “anti-communism” really do resemble it.

Moreover, one can reasonably ask whether these countries are quite as “haunted” by the Communist past as Rosenberg suggests. It is true that skeletons keep falling out of cupboards with remarkable regularity and usually disastrous consequences for the individual concerned. But one can also be impressed by the degree to which everything has now got thoroughly mixed up together, with Adam Michnik being a bosom friend of Wojciech Jaruzelski and old incorruptibles like Władysław Bartoszewski, a veteran of both Hitler’s camps and Stalin’s prisons, now serving as foreign minister in a government led by ex-Communists. (When asked how he, of all people, could serve in a Communist government, Bartoszewski replied: If I’m in it, it can’t be Communist.)

Furthermore, cogent as her critique is of all the various ways of confronting the past in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, and interesting as are the comparisons with Latin America (which she develops further in a recent Foreign Affairs article), the most important comparison is surely with those post-Communist countries such as Romania or Russia which have not confronted the past in any serious way. For the less you confront it the more you live in conscious or unconscious continuity with it. Indeed, there is a quite striking correlation between the degree of facing up to the past, however clumsily, and the state of progress from dictatorship to democracy. Which is cause and which effect is a moot point: they go together.

This said, The Haunted Land does offer us, besides a rich historical account, a rough guide to which ways of confronting the past are more or less effective. Trials rarely work. The true evil that political, military, or police leaders did is very seldom covered by the laws in force at the time they were in power. Unless you take the Nuremberg route of retrospective justice on account of “crimes against humanity,” with all the problems that entails (recently again debated in these pages),2 you are left trying to nail them for ordinary criminal offenses. This often results in those who gave the orders walking free while the small fry—such as the East German border guards—take the rap. Since the leaders are often old and sick, and the evidence flawed, you end up with a farce like the Honecker trial, or, scarcely less absurd, Erich Mielke being convicted not for heading the Stasi but for the murder of two policemen in Berlin in 1931.

Administrative screening and purges are almost invariably unjust, although they certainly don’t have to be as clumsily handled as the Czechoslovak lustration. Again, the Germans have done better, with the Gauck Authority providing a usually balanced report and samples of the evidence to the employer, at whose discretion the employee can then be dismissed or retained. (And even then, another employee can take a different view.) Here, too, however, one has to balance the costs of any such procedures in individual unfairness against the cost in, so to speak, collective unfairness of having no such procedures at all.

What is most effective of all, however, is simply information, knowledge, and—dare one say?—truth. This is what West Germany did so well (though after a very slow start) about Nazism, and what united Germany has done best about its Communist legacy. The closest we have had in Europe to a Latin American-style “truth commission” is probably the Bundestag’s Enquete Kommission. Such hearings have the advantage of public, official authority to summon witnesses, a sense of solemn, almost ritual state catharsis, the resources to produce extensive documentation, and, finally, a well-publicized report. The disadvantage is that such an inquiry is invariably constrained by political considerations—whether it be fear of the military in Latin America or the party politics that are even now plaguing an attempt to open a second round of Enquete Kommission hearings in Germany.

Best of all, however, is giving individual citizens the opportunity to confront, preferably in private, their own pasts. This is where the opening of the Stasi files has been, in my view, exemplary. It is painful. It often carries a very high personal cost: the discovery that a dear friend, even a husband or brother, has informed on you. It has led to painful confrontations all over East Germany in the last few years. But it has not, as critics feared, torn East German society apart. It has, for many, many people, brought a sense of catharsis, resolution, the feeling of a chapter closed which enables them to go forward to another. And while it gives every person the right to know, it also gives most people—except those in public life—a right not to know.

It is on this basis, individually, privately, slowly, that people actually do “come to terms with” or even “overcome” the past. The same is true of reconciliation between peoples: governments can help to create the right conditions, but what matters, ultimately, are the feelings and experiences of individual men and women, which governments can neither force nor direct. As Rosenberg concludes in her German section: “If the past could be worked through, it would happen in smoky pubs and around kitchen tables.” This is the true healing of Europe.

Letters

Do Trials Work? October 19, 1995

  1. 1

    See his “Paradise Lost,” The New York Review, April 9, 1992.

  2. 2

    See István Déak, review of The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir, by Telford Taylor, October 7, 1993; the exchange between István Déak and Aryeh Neier, “The Nuremberg Precedent,” November 4, 1993; and, most recently, Norman Davies, “The Misunderstood Victory in Europe,” May 25, 1995.

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