• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Truth About Dictatorship

For France, the historian Henry Rousso has described this vividly as the “Vichy Syndrome.”5 He compares it to a chronic fever, an old malaria in the bones of the French body politic. As we have seen in recent years with the revelations about François Mitterrand’s Vichy past, and, now, the trial of Maurice Papon, it still has not gone away. So also with Germany. In her new book Politics and Guilt, the Berlin political scientist Gesine Schwan sensitively explores the political and psychological price paid by the Federal Republic in the 1950s for what she calls the Beschweigen, that is, the practice of “deliberately keeping silent about” the crimes and horrors of Nazism in West German public life, schools, and, above all, families. The systematic academic, journalistic, and pedagogic treatment of the Nazi past in the 1960s and 1970s developed as part of an often angry reaction against the suppression of the 1950s. In fact the portmanteau terms I mentioned at the outset, Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, seem only to date, in regular usage, from the 1960s.

Many among the hugely influential West German “Class of ‘68” also thought the suppression of the Nazi past and the anticommunism of the older generation were two sides of the same coin. In reaction, they produced sympathetic, even rose-tinted accounts of communist East Germany, with, for example, no mention of the “Stasi” secret police. There is an interesting if perverse connection here. Their revolt against their fathers’ failure to treat fully the past of the previous German dictatorship contributed to their own failure to see clearly the evils of the current one.

In any event, a sense of the high price of that delay in addressing the Nazi past is one reason why the demand for an immediate, comprehensive “treatment” of the communist past was so swiftly accepted in Germany after 1989.


The German case also raises the third question: Who? Before the long silence of the Fifties there had, of course, been the attempt at denazification, carried out by the occupying powers, and the Nuremberg trials, conducted by the victorious Allies. Both Nuremberg and denazification have ever since been basic reference points for all such discussions.6 Having it conducted from outside, after a total defeat, does have obvious advantages. There are no domestic political constraints to compare with Putsch-happy armies in Latin America or the still-functioning security services in today’s Russia. Something gets done. But it also shows the disadvantages. Indeed, one could argue that the suppression of the Adenauer years was itself, in part, a reaction to what had been seen as “victors’ justice”—and victors’ history.

In most of post-communist Europe we have the opposite position to that of post-1945 Germany. Far from being newly occupied, most post-communist countries see themselves as newly emerged from occupation. Moreover, only in five countries—Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania—is the communist past being faced (or not faced) within the same state boundaries as those in which it occurred. Everywhere else, in the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, and the former Czechoslovakia, there are a number of new, smaller successor states. Or rather, they might and do say, they are not successors—not heirs to that past. In a country like Lithuania, emerging from an oppressive occupation, and struggling to build up a new national and state identity, the temptation to say, “That was them, not us,” is almost irresistible. Even for the Russians there is a large temptation to say, “That was the Soviet Union, not Russia.”

The German position is, once again, unique. Whereas Poles and Hungarians are, so to speak, alone with their own pasts, East and West Germans have to work it out together. Disgruntled East Germans, mixing their historical metaphors, talk of an Anschluss followed by “victors’ justice.” But this was a voluntary Anschluss, voted for by a majority of East Germans in a free election, and the boldest steps of confronting the past—opening the Stasi files, identifying the officials responsible for persecution—were actually pressed for by East Germans. Still, the resentment is understandable. In many cases, West Germans sit in judgement, whether in courts of law or simply by executive decision, over East Germans.

Yet what right have we outsiders, who never faced the dilemmas of living in a dictatorship, to sit in judgment on those who did? Do we know how we would have behaved? Perhaps we, too, would have become party functionaries or secret police informers? So what right have we to condemn? But equally, what right have we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes Zbigniew Herbert, the great poet of Polish resistance, Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.

Only the victims have the right to forgive.


Even inside a country, the question remains: Who has the right to judge? Parliament? Judges? Special commissions or tribunals? The press and television? Or perhaps historians? At this point, the question of who shades into the question of how. Three main paths seem possible—trials, purges, or history lessons. (I leave aside here the very important but also very complex issues of rehabilitation, compensation, and restitution for the victims or their relatives.)

The choice of path, and the extent to which each can be followed, depends on the character of the preceding dictatorship, the manner of the transition, and the particular situation of the succeeding democracy—if that is what it becomes. Thus, for example, the political constraints in Central Europe are far less acute than in Latin America. In Argentina, a powerful military effectively stopped the trials against them, and even won pardons for those already convicted. But the preceding repression was also very different.

The American writer Tina Rosenberg has put it simply but well: in Latin America, repression was deep, in Central Europe it was broad. In Latin America, there was a group of people who were clearly victims—tortured, murdered, or, in that awkward but strangely powerful locution, “disappeared”—by a group of people—army and police officers, members of death squads—who were clearly responsible for killing and torturing. In Central Europe, since the high Stalinist period, and with a few major exceptions, the regime was generally kept in power by a much larger number of people exerting less violent or explicit pressure on a much larger number. Many people were on both sides. Society was kept down by millions of tiny Lilliputian threads of everyday mendacity, conformity, and compromise. This is a point Václav Havel has constantly stressed. In these late or post-totalitarian regimes, he says, the line did not run clearly between “them” and “us,” but through each person. No one was simply a victim, everyone was in some measure co-responsible.

If that is true, it is much less clear who, if anyone, should be put on trial. Havel’s implicit answer is: everyone, and therefore no one. The Polish writer Adam Michnik has taken a similar position. Exceptions to prove the rule are individual cases of abnormal brutality, such as the Polish secret police officers directly responsible for the murder of the Solidarity priest, Father Jerzy Popieluszko.

The record of trials in post-communist Central Europe is, in fact, a very checkered one. In what was then still Czechoslovakia, two senior functionaries were convicted for their part in the repression of anti-regime demonstrations in 1988 and early 1989. In 1993, the Czech Republic’s “Law on the Illegal Character of the Communist Regime” lifted the statute of limitations for crimes which “for political reasons” had not been prosecuted in the communist period. An Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism was established, and earlier this year brought charges against three former Communist Party leaders for their role in assisting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In Poland, General Jaruzelski was investigated for ordering the destruction of Politburo records and then indicted on charges relating to the shooting of protesting workers on the Baltic coast in 1970-1971. A number of senior figures have been charged with causing the deaths of striking workers during martial law in 1981 and 1982. But altogether the judicial proceedings have been fitful, fragmentary, and usually inconclusive.

Germany has, unsurprisingly, been the most systematic. Border guards have been tried and convicted for shooting people who were trying to escape from East Germany. More recently, the country’s last communist leader, Egon Krenz, was sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment for his part in the “shoot to kill” policy at the frontier. Several other senior figures were found guilty with him. Yet even in Germany, the results are very mixed, to say the least.

The arguments generally made for trials are that they go at least some way toward doing justice for the victims; that they help to deter future transgressions by the military or security forces; that they exemplify and strengthen the rule of law; and, finally, that they contribute to public knowledge and some sense of a wider catharsis. The first consideration—justice for the victims—certainly applies in some of these cases; the second applies to a much smaller degree, since, broadly speaking, where such deterrence might still be important (as in Russia) there have been no such trials, and where there have been trials (as in Germany) the deterrence is hardly needed.

Have these trials exemplified and strengthened the rule of law? It is very hard to say that they have. Equality before the law is a fundamental principle, but even in Germany, still more elsewhere, there has been a radical, arbitrary, and politically inspired selection of the accused. Then there is the familiar problem of trying people for actions that were not crimes on the statute books of their countries at the time. How to avoid violating the time-honored principle of nulla poena sine lege?

Determined to avoid such a “Nuremberg” procedure, German prosecutors have therefore tried to identify crimes that were offenses in East German law at the time they occurred. However this has involved a highly selective application of East German law, thus violating another basic principle. Otherwise, the prosecutors should themselves be prosecuted for defaming the East German state, which was an offense under East German law! When the case could still not quite be made to stick, they awkwardly invoked “natural law.” The former minister for state security, Erich Mielke, was convicted not for his heavy responsibility in the regime but for his part in the murder of a policeman as a young street-fighting Communist in 1931. The trial of Erich Honecker, the Party leader from 1971 to 1989, was finally abandoned on the grounds of his ill health. He then flew off to spend his last months quietly in Chile. None of this contributed much to any sense of popular catharsis. As for public knowledge: the thousands of pages of legal argument in court did little to illuminate the true history of the regime, certainly not for the general reader. Nor in my view will future students of communism use the records of these trials as we still use those of the Nuremberg trials to understand Nazism; for they yielded little new information.

  1. 5

    See Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Harvard University Press, 1991).

  2. 6

    For a sovereign discussion of de-nazification, by someone directly involved in it, see Noel Annan, Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany (Norton, 1996).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print