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.

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. 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, 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 …

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