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The Truth About Dictatorship

In Poland and Czechoslovakia, by contrast, the national commissions of enquiry have concentrated on major crises in the history of the communist state: Solidarity and the Prague Spring. In each case, the focus has been on the Soviet connection: Who “invited” the Red Army to invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968? Who was responsible for the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981? In Hungary, too, official enquiries have concentrated on the 1956 revolution, and the Soviet invasion that crushed it.7 So instead of exploring what Poles did to Poles, Czechs and Slovaks to Czechs and Slovaks, Hungarians to Hungarians, each nation dwells on the wrongs done to it by the Soviet Union. Instead of quietly reflecting, as Havel suggested, on the personal responsibility which each and everyone had for sustaining the communist regime, people unite in righteous indignation at the traitors who invited the Russians in.

Any explanation for the absence of wider truth commissions must be speculative. Part of the explanation, at least, seems to lie in this combination of two elements: first, the historically defensible but also comfortable conviction that the dictatorship was ultimately imposed from outside and, second, the uneasy knowledge that almost everyone had done something to sustain the dictatorial system.

Another kind of history lesson is less formal and ritualistic, but requires permissive state action. This is to open the archives of the preceding regime to scholars, journalists, writers, filmmakers—and then to let a hundred documentaries bloom. Yet again, Germany has gone furthest, much helped by the fact that the East German state ceased to exist on October 3, 1990. Virtually all the archives of the former GDR are open, and provide a treasure-trove for the study of a communist state. I say “virtually all” because a notable exception is the archive of the East German foreign ministry, in which are held most of the records of the often sycophantic conversations that West German politicians conducted with East German leaders. In opening the archives, West German politicians have thus fearlessly spared nobody, except themselves.

It has also helped that Germany has such a strong tradition of writing contemporary history. The research department of the Gauck Authority, for example, is partly staffed by younger historians from the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, famous for its studies of Nazism. Theirs are strange careers: progressing smoothly from the study of one German dictatorship to another, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. The results are impressive. Whereas a West German schoolchild in the 1950s could learn very little about Nazi Germany, every German schoolchild today can already learn a great deal about the history of communist Germany. Whether they are interested is another question.

Elsewhere in Central Europe, the opening of the archives has been more uneven, partly because of the political attitudes I have described, partly for simple lack of resources and trained personnel. Yet here, too, there have been some interesting publications based on the new archive material and school textbooks have significantly improved. In Poland, there has been a lively intellectual and political debate about the nature, achievements, and (il)legitimacy of the Polish People’s Republic.8 In Prague, a new Institute for Contemporary History concerns itself with the history of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to 1992. In Hungary, an entire institute has been established solely to study the history of the 1956 revolution. It has roughly one staff member per day of the revolution.

Beyond this, what Germany has uniquely pioneered is the systematic opening of the secret police files, administered by the Gauck Authority, to everyone—whether spied upon or spying—who has a file and still wants to know. The power is in the hands of the individual citizen: you can choose to read your file, or not to read it. The informers on your file are identified only by code names, but you can request formal confirmation of their true identity. Then you have to decide whether to confront them, or not to confront them; to say something publicly, just to tell close friends, or to close it in your heart. This is the most deep and personal kind of history lesson.9

Maddeningly, the Gauck Authority’s statistics do not enable us to say exactly how many people have gone through this experience. But a reasonable estimate is that more than 400,000 people have seen their Stasi files, over 300,000 are still waiting to do so, and more than 350,000 have learned with relief—or was it with disappointment?—that they had no file. I can think of no remotely scientific way to assess this unique experiment. People have made terrible personal discoveries: the East German peace activist Vera Wollenberger, for example, found that her husband had been informing on her throughout their married life. Only they can say if it is better that they know.

There has also been highly irresponsible, sensationalist coverage in the press. People have been denounced as informers without any of the due caution about the sources or circumstances. In Germany, such exposure is revealingly called “outing.” Here is a structural problem of treating the past in societies with a free and sensation-hungry press. Against this, however, one has to put the many cases where people have emerged from the experience with gnawing suspicions laid to rest, enhanced understanding, and a more solid footing for their present lives.

Elsewhere in Central Europe, the German experiment was at first strongly criticized and resisted, on the grounds that it would reopen old wounds and unjustly destroy reputations, and that the Polish or Hungarian secret police records are much more unreliable than the German ones. (This last comment is made with a kind of inverted national pride.) Officers put innocent people down as informers, or simply invented them—the so-called “dead souls”—in order to meet their assigned targets for the number of informers. Many files were later destroyed, others tampered with, and so on. So instead, the secret police files have remained in the hands of the current interior ministry or still-active security service, and been used selectively by them and their political masters. Limited access has been given to just a few scholars.

Yet this is now changing. Hungary has provided for people to request copies of their own files. The precedent is clearly the German one, although the Hungarian rules demand even more extensive “anonymization”—that is, blacking-out the names on the copies. The Hungarian equivalent of the Gauck Authority has a simple but slightly sinister name: the Historical Office. In approving this access, the Hungarian constitutional court drew heavily on the judgments of the German constitutional court, notably in using the interesting concept of “informational self-determination.” In plain English: I have a right to know what information the state has collected on me and, within limits, to determine what is done with it.

The Czech Republic last year passed a law which provides for people who were Czechoslovak citizens at any time between 1948 and 1990 to read their own files, under similar conditions. The first applications were accepted in June this year. Thus far there has been remarkably little debate about individual cases, and few prominent former dissidents have applied to see their files. Perhaps this will change when sensational material is found and published, but at the moment one is told in Prague that there seems to be little public interest. The Czechs seem to feel that they have already “been through all this” with the great lustration debate of the early 1990s.

Poland is now following suit. The new post-Solidarity government has committed itself to making the secret police files accessible to individual citizens. Poland’s post-communist president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, has swiftly presented to parliament his proposal for a “Citizens’ Archive,” supervised by an independent board. But the devil will be in the detail. When I was there in mid-November, a lively debate was going on about how exactly this should be done, with frequent reference to the German experience. In the parliamentary debate on the government’s program, the Catholic nationalist leader of the Solidarity Election Action alliance, Marian Kraklewski, called for a “lustration archive on the model of the Gauck Authority.”

Altogether, it is remarkable to see how, in this of all matters, Germany has been not just a pioneer but also, in the end, something of a model for its eastern neighbors. Who would have imagined fifty years ago that, when it came to dealing with their own difficult past, the Poles would turn to the Germans for an example?10


There are no easy generalizations about how best to deal with a difficult past, and certainly no universal laws. Even my first, basic question—whether it is right to remember and confront past injustice at all—does not have a simple answer. The ancient case for forgetting is much stronger than it is quite comfortable for historians to recall. Successful democracies such as postwar France have been built on a conscious policy of forgetting, although at a cost, which often has not shown up until a generation later.

In Central Europe after communism, Germany’s policy of a systematic, unprecedentedly comprehensive search into the past contrasted with Poland’s initial policy of drawing a “thick line” between past and present. But the Polish attempt to follow the Spanish example did not work as it did in Spain. Within a year, the issue of the communist past had come back to bedevil Polish politics, and continues to be used in a messy, partisan way, with ill-documented accusations being made about past collaboration with the communist authorities. My conclusion is that if it is to be done it should be done quickly, in an orderly, explicit, and legal way. This also has the great advantage of allowing people then to move on; not necessarily to forget, perhaps not even to forgive, but simply to go forward with that knowledge behind them.

If the questions “Whether?” and “When?” are thus closely connected so are the questions “Who?” and “How?” In Germany, the process has been made both easier and more difficult by West German participation: easier administratively, more difficult psychologically. Yet doing it among themselves, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks have all too humanly inclined to focus on the responsibility of others rather than their own.

There are places in the world where trials have been both necessary and effective. In Central Europe, trials have been—with a few important exceptions—of only questionable necessity and even more dubious efficacy. The attempt to use existing national laws has been contorted, selective, and often ended in simple failure. It has hardly exemplified or strengthened the rule of law. Difficult though it is, the least bad way to proceed must be to try to establish a firm international system of justice for “crimes against humanity” or “war crimes.” Building on the Hague tribunals dealing with Bosnia and Rwanda, we should move toward the permanent international criminal court for which Richard Goldstone and others have eloquently argued—a court to which all dictators, everywhere, should know that they may one day have to answer. Meanwhile, the Hungarian path of writing the existing international law into domestic law is an interesting one. It was however confined to just one event, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, now more than forty years past, and its implementation has been plagued by all the problems of evidence that we know so well from the trials of Nazi criminals in recent decades.

As for purges, there is probably no such thing as a good purge, even if it is politely called lustration. The Czechoslovak lustration was prompt and crudely effective, but deeply flawed by procedural injustice. The German “gaucking” has been procedurally more just: careful, individual, subject to appeal. But it has often been perverted by abuse in the press and has suffered from elephantiasis. Did postmen and train-drivers really need to be gaucked? Again we come back to the question of who is doing it, for would the West Germans ever have done this to themselves?

Yet Poland has shown the price of not having any kind of purge. The Hungarians, with their habit of taking the German model and then improving on it, finally came up with a defensible refinement: it would apply careful individual scrutiny only to those holding or seeking senior positions in public life. But this was seven years late. Now Poland has finally followed suit, with a law that is probably the most scrupulous of them all.

I personally believe the third path, that of history lessons, is the most promising. Much of the comparative literature comes to a similar conclusion for other countries: what is somewhat biblically called “truth-telling” is both the most desirable and the most feasible way to grapple with a difficult past. This is what West Germany did best in relation to Nazism, at least from the 1960s on. What united Germany has done in this regard since 1990 has been exemplary: the parliamentary commission, the open archives, the unique opportunity for a very personal history lesson given by access to the Stasi files.

To advocate the third path, of course, assigns a very special place to contemporary historians. In fact I do think that if you ask, “Who is best equipped to do justice to the past?” the answer is, or at least should be, historians. But this is also a heavy responsibility. Truth is a big word, so often abused in Central Europe during the short, rotten twentieth century that people there have grown wary of it. Studying the legacy of a dictatorship, you are vividly reminded how difficult it is to establish any historical truth. In particular, when confronted with such radical changes of regime, you discover how deeply unreliable is any retrospective testimony. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, people “have a grand memory for forgetting.”

Carelessly used, the records of a state that worked by organized lying, and especially the poisonous, intrusive files of a secret police, can ruin lives. To use them carefully tests the critical skills that historians routinely apply to a medieval charter or an eighteenth-century pamphlet. But having worked intensively with such material, and read much else based on it, I am sure it can be done. It is not true, as is often claimed, that these records are so corrupted that one cannot write reliable history on the basis of them. The evidence has to be weighed with very special care. The text must be put in its historical setting. Interpretation needs both intellectual distance and the essential imaginative sympathy with all the men and women involved, even the oppressors. But by using these old familiar disciplines, a truth can be found. Not a single, absolute Truth with a capital T, but still a real and important one.

  1. 7

    See my “Hungary’s Revolution: Forty Years On” in The New York Review, November 14, 1996.

  2. 8

    The debate is documented in Spór o PRL (see “Books Discussed in this Article”).

  3. 9

    On this, see my The File: A Personal History (Random House, 1997).

  4. 10

    The Romanian government recently announced that it, too, would be opening the files of Ceausescu’s dreaded Securitate, although exactly when, how, and to whom has yet to be spelled out.

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