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:

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