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The Truth About Dictatorship

Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes Studies, 780 pp.; Volume III: Laws, Rulings, and Reports, 834 pp.,

Volume I: General Considerations, 604 pp.; Volume II: Country, edited by Neil J. Kritz
United States Institute of Peace Press, $135.00 (paper)

Politik und Schuld: Die zerstörerische Macht des Schweigens [Politics and Guilt: The Destructive Power of Staying Silent]

by Gesine Schwan
Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 283 pp., DM 19.90 (paper)

Die Enquete-Kommission ‘Aufarbeitung von Geschichte und Folgen der SED-Diktatur in Deutschland’ im Deutschen Bundestag [Inquiry Commission in the German Bundestag (for the) ‘Treatment of the Past and Consequences of the SED-Dictatorship in Germany’]

Nomos/Suhrkamp, 18 volumes, 15,378 pp., DM 198.00 (paper)

Spór o PRL [The Controversy about the Polish People’s Republic]

Kraków: Znak, 192 pp., Zt 11.90

The question of what nations should do about a difficult past is one of the great subjects of our time. Countries across the world have faced this problem: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Spain after Franco, Greece after the Colonels, Ethiopia, Cambodia, all the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. There is already a vast literature, mostly written by political scientists, lawyers, and human rights activists, rather than historians, and mainly viewing the past as an element in “transitions” from dictatorship to—it is hoped—consolidated democracy. Three invaluable, thick volumes, too narrowly entitled Transitional Justice, document the way the past has been dealt with in different parts of the world up to 1995. The material for a fourth volume is even now being prepared in South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia, and The Hague.

Yet what exactly are we talking about? There is no single word for it in the English language. German, however, has two long ones in regular use: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. These may be translated as “treating” the past, “working over” the past, “confronting” it, “coping, dealing or coming to terms with” it; even “overcoming” the past. The variety of possible translations indicates the complexity of the matter at hand. Of course the absence of a word in a language does not necessarily indicate the absence of the thing it describes. Byron remarks somewhere that while the English do not have the word longueurs they have the thing in some profusion. But the presence of not just one but two German terms does indicate that this is something of a German specialty.1

To be sure, many rivers flow into this ocean, and everyone comes to the subject in his own particular way. The lawyer and human rights activist Aryeh Neier, for example, traces what he calls the “movement for accountability” back to the demands of the mothers of the “disappeared” in Argentina in the early 1980s, and there is no doubt that a major impulse did come from Latin America, with its various models of a “truth commission.” An article reprinted in Transitional Justice identifies no fewer than fifteen “truth commissions” established between 1974 and 1994; the present tally is probably close to twenty.2 Yet Germany is the only country (so far) to have tried it not once but twice: after Nazism and after communism.

I have come to this subject through the curious experience of reading my own Stasi file, and, more generally, through watching how the countries in Central Europe have coped—or not coped—with the communist legacy. I recently wrote in these pages about how South Africa has been tackling its horrible past,3 but here I shall concentrate on the Central European experience over the eight years since the end of communism. In particular, I want to compare the very special case of Germany with those of its East Central European neighbors.

In doing so, I pose four basic questions: whether to remember and treat the past at all, in any of the diverse available ways, or simply to try to forget it and look to the future; when to address it, if it is to be addressed; who should do it; and, finally, how?


The answer given to the first question—whether?—in Germany since 1989 has been unequivocal: “Of course we must remember! Of course we must confront the history of the communist dictatorship in Germany in every possible way!” And Germany has set a new standard of comprehensiveness in the attempt.

The arguments made for tackling the past like this are moral, psychological, and political. Interestingly, the moral imperative, the commandment to remember, is often quoted in Germany in forms that come from the Jewish tradition: “To remember is the secret of redemption.” Then there is the psychological notion, discussed in an influential book by Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, that it is bad for nations, as it is for individual people, to suppress the memory of sad or evil things in their past, and good for them to go through the hard work of mourning, Trauerarbeit. Above all, there is the political idea that this will help to prevent a recurrence of the evil. How many times has one heard repeated in Germany George Santayana’s remark that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it?

You can see at once why it is regarded in Germany as Politically Incorrect, to say the least, to question this received wisdom. After the Holocaust, how dare anyone talk of forgetting? Yet the basic premise has in fact been rejected in many other times and places. Historically, the advocates of forgetting are numerous and weighty. Just two days after the murder of Caesar, for example, Cicero declared in the Roman Senate that all memory of the murderous discord should be consigned to eternal oblivion: Oblivione sempiterna delendam. European peace treaties, from the treaty between Lothar, Ludwig of Germany, and Charles of France in 851 to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, called specifically for an act of forgetting.4 So did the French constitutions of 1814 and 1830. The English Civil War ended with an Act of Indemnity and Oblivion.

Even since 1945, there have been many examples in Europe of the policy of forgetting. The postwar French republic was built, after the first frenzy of the épuration, upon a more or less conscious policy of supplanting the painful memory of collaboration in Vichy and occupied France with De Gaulle’s unifying national myth of a single, eternally resistant, fighting France. In fact, much of postwar West European democracy was constructed on a foundation of forgetting: think of Italy, or of Kurt Waldheim’s Austria—happily restyled, with the help of the Allies, as the innocent victim of Nazi aggression. Think, too, of West Germany in the 1950s, where determined efforts were made to ignore the Nazi past.

The examples don’t stop there. The transition to democracy in Spain after 1975 was made with a conscious strategy of not looking back, not confronting or “treating” the past. Jorge Semprun speaks of “a collective and willed amnesia.” To be sure, there was an initial explosion of interest in recent history, but there were no trials of Francoist leaders, no purges, no truth commissions. On the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, issued a statement saying the war was “finally history” and “no longer present and alive in the reality of the country.”

What is more, we find something similar in Poland after the end of communism. Poland’s first non-communist prime minister for more than forty years, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, declared in his opening statement to parliament: “We draw a thick line [gruba linia] between ourselves and the past.” He has since repeatedly insisted that all he meant by this was what he went on to say in the next sentence: his government should only be held responsible for what it itself would do. Yet the phrase “thick line,” often quoted in the slightly different form gruba kreska, rapidly became proverbial and was understood to stand for a “Spanish” approach to the difficult past. While this was unfair to the original context in which Mazowiecki first used the phrase, it was not unfair as a shorthand characterization of the general attitude of Mazowiecki and his colleagues.

As I well remember from conversations at that time, their general attitude was: let bygones be bygones; no trials, no recriminations; look to the future, to democracy and “Europe,” as Spain had done. Partly this was because Poland in 1989 had a negotiated revolution, and representatives of the old regime were still in high places—including the government itself. Partly it was because by 1990 they simply could not imagine the post-communist party being voted back into power in free elections. So there seemed no pressing political need to remind people of the horrors of the communist past, and many, many more urgent things to do—such as transforming the economy with the so-called Balcerowicz Plan. Yet it also reflected a deeper philosophy—of forgiveness—one that Mazowiecki, a liberal Catholic and veteran Solidarity adviser, shared with many from the former opposition movements in Central Europe.

In Germany it was former East German dissidents, such as Gerd Poppe of the “Peace and Human Rights Initiative” and the priest Rainer Eppelmann, who pressed for a radical and comprehensive reckoning. Elsewhere in East Central Europe it was the dissidents—those who had suffered most directly under the old regime—who were often most ready to draw that “thick line” between the present and the past. Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia was a classic example, and his policy in his first year as president, like that of Mazowiecki, could be described as one of preemptive forgiveness. The Hungarian case was rather different. Here the conservative government of József Antall, composed of people who had not been in the front line of opposition to communism, indulged a vivid rhetoric in which they demanded that communists be purged—but their purgative words were not matched by purgative deeds. The sharpest contrast, as so often, was between Germany and Poland.


This brings me to my second basic question: When? For there is an intermediate position which says: “Yes, but not yet.” One argument for this is the neo-Rankean one made against any attempt to write the history of the very recent past: we don’t have sufficient distance from the events to understand their meaning, we are emotionally involved, and the sources are not fully available. Better wait thirty years for the relevant official papers to be available in the archives. In post-communist Central Europe, however, the last part of the argument is circular, since those who say, “The sources are not available,” are often the same people who are keeping the archives shut.

Beyond this, the arguments are political. What is supposed to strengthen the new democracy might actually undermine it. To examine the difficult past too closely will reopen old wounds and tear the society apart. You need the participation of the functionaries, collaborators, and mere supporters of the dictatorship in building the new democracy. The philosopher Hermann Lübbe has suggested that it was precisely the fact that Adenauer’s West Germany in the l950s suppressed the memory of the Nazi past, with both amnesty and amnesia, that permitted the social consolidation of democracy in West Germany. It helped Nazis to become democrats.

Against this it can be argued, I think powerfully, as follows. First, the purely historiographical loss is as large as any gain in evidence or detachment. The witnesses die; others forget or, at least, rearrange their memories; and it is the worst horrors that are often the least well documented in the archives. Second, the victims and their relatives have a moral right to know at whose hands they or their loved ones suffered. Third, delay and suppression have their own psychological and political price. The fact that the torturers or the commanders go unpunished, even remain in high office, compromises the new regime in the eyes of those who should be its strongest supporters. Dirty fragments of the past constantly resurface and are used, often dirtily, in current political disputes.

  1. 1

    There are also no fewer than three words for the politics of dealing with the past: Geschichtspolitik (the politics of history), Erinnerungspolitik (the politics of memory) and Vergangenheitspolitik (the politics of the past).

  2. 2

    The article is by Priscilla B. Hayner, who is currently working on a book about truth commissions. I am grateful to her for confirming my estimate of some twenty truth commissions to date.

  3. 3

    See my “True Confessions” in The New York Review, July 17, 1997.

  4. 4

    I owe these references to a very interesting discussion of the subject by Christian Meier in a lecture to the Berlin-Brandenburg (formerly Prussian) Academy of Sciences.

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