Trials, Purges and History Lessons
by Timothy Garton Ash
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 Savador, Spain after Franco, Greece after
the Colonels, Ethiopia, Cambodia, all the post-communist states
of central and eastern Europe today. There is already a vast literature
on it, mostly written by political scientists, lawyers and human-rights
activists rather than historians, and mainly looking at treating
the past as an element in 'transitions' from dictatorship to - it
is hoped - consolidated democracy. The material for another library
is even now being prepared in South Africa, Rwanda, Bosnia and The
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 in hand. Of course the absence of a word in a language
does not necessarily indicate the absence of the thing it describes.
But the presence of not just one but two German terms does indicate
that this is something of a German speciality.
To be sure, many rivers
flow into this ocean, and everyone comes to the subject in his or
her own particular way. The lawyer and human-rights activist Aryeh
Neier, for example, traces what he calls the 'movement for accountability'
back to 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'. In the years since then there have already
been close to twenty truth commissions, although not all were called
that.1 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 I know best,
in Central Europe, have coped - or not coped - with the communist
legacy. 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 neighbours.
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 and look to the future; when to address it, if it
is to be addressed, who should do it; and, last but not least,
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 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, spelled out 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 uf 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 premiss 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, 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 one 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. 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 a policy of forgetting. The
post-war 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 post-war 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 forget the Nazi past.
don't stop there. The transition to democracy in Spain after 1975
involved a conscious strategy of not looking back, not confronting
or 'treating' the past. The writer Jorgé 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 González, issued a statement saying that the
civil 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] under the past.' He has since
repeatedly insisted that all he meant by this was what he went on
to say in the next sentence: that his government should be held
responsible only for what it would do itself. Yet the phrase 'thick
line', often quoted in the slightly different form ‘gruba kreska’,
rapidly became proverbial and was understood to stand for a whole
'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 to be 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 - one
that Mazowiecki, a liberal Catholic and veteran Solidarity adviser,
shared with many from the former opposition movements in Central
In Germany it was the
former East German dissidents 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' under 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 pre-emptive 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 in a vivid rhetoric of reckoning
— 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.' An intellectual 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 to integrate
the functionaries, collaborators and merely supporters of the dictatorship
into the new democracy. Thus Hermann Lübbe has suggested that
it was precisely the fact that Adenauer's West Germany in the 1950s
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.
For France, Henri Rousso
has described this vividly as the Vichy Syndrome. 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
Francois Mitterrand's Vichy past, 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 for
what she calls the ‘Beschweigen' — that is, the 'deliberately
keeping silent about' the crimes and horrors of Nazism — in West
German public life, schools and, above all, families, in the 1950s.
The systematic academic, journalistic and pedagogic treatment of
the Nazi past 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 to date, in regular usage, only from the 1960s.
Many among the hugely
influential West German 'class of '68' also thought the suppression
of the Nazi past and the anti-communism 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. 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
my third question: Who? Before the long silence of the 1950s,
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.
To have the business done by outsiders, after a total defeat, does
have obvious advantages. There are no domestic political constraints
to compare with putsch-happy militaries 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
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
- you have a number of new, smaller, successor states. Or rather,
they might and do say, not successors - not heirs to that
past. In a country like Lithuania, genuinely 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. Yet 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 past, east and west Germans have to work it
through 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 were actually pressed for by east Germans. Still, the resentment
is understandable. In many cases, west Germans do sit in judgement,
whether in courts of law or simply by executive decision, over east
This extraordinary German
self-occupation, or half-occupation, poses in a singular form the
issues always raised by outside participation in the process. There
is the practical issue of popular acceptance. But there is also
the moral issue. What right have we, who never faced the dilemmas
of living in a dictatorship, to sit in judgement 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
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.
This is a problem for
those inside a country too. Even inside, the question remains: Who
has the right to judge? Parliament? Judges? Special commissions
or tribunals? The media? Or perhaps historians? At this point, the
question of who shades into the question of how. In
my title, I have indicated three main paths: 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 eventually becomes. Thus, for example, the political constraints
in Central Europe are far less acute than in Latin America. 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. They were 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 perpetrators. 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 individual.
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. Adam Michnik
has made this answer explicit. 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 chequered one.
In what was then still Czechoslovakia, two senior functionaries
were convicted after 1990 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 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, more substantially,
indicted on charges relating to the shooting of protesting workers
on the Baltic coast in 1970-71. A number of senior figures were
charged with causing the deaths of striking workers during martial
law in 1981-2. 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 co-responsibility
for 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 to providing
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 political selection of the accused. Then there is
the familiar problem of trying people for crimes that were not crimes
on the statute books of their countries at the time. How to avoid
violating the time-honoured principle of nulla poena sine lege?
Determined to avoid such
a 'Nuremberg' procedure, German prosecutors have therefore tried
to identify crimes that were offences in East German law at the
time. However, this has involved a highly selective application
of East German law, thus violating another basic principle. (Yet,
otherwise, the prosecutors should themselves be prosecuted for defaming
the East German state, which was an offence under East German law!)
And, when the case could still not quite be made to stick, they
bridged the gap with an awkward invocation of 'natural law'. Meanwhile,
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 did little to illuminate
the true history of the regime, certainly not for the general reader.
Nor will future students of communism, I think, use the records
of these trials as we do still use those of the Nuremberg trials
to understand Nazism.
The Hungarian case is
an interesting contrast. Here parliament initially passed a law
which, like the Czech one, lifted the statute of limitations for
acts of treason, murder and manslaughter during the communist period,
but the Constitutional Court struck that down on the grounds that
it was retroactive justice. A new law was then passed specifically
on Crimes Committed During the 1956 Revolution. This took a different
tack, and applied the Geneva and New York conventions on 'war crimes'
and 'crimes against humanity’ to what happened in 1956. Unlike the
German prosecutors, and uniquely in Central Europe, they therefore
claimed that some things done in the communist period did qualify
for those Nuremberg trial categories - 'crimes against humanity',
'war crimes' - and that these provisions had at least notionally
been in force in international law at the time.
The second path
is that of purges. Or, to put it more neutrally, administrative
disqualification. In this field alone it was not Germany that set
the pace. Partly in reaction against Havel's policy of preemptive
forgiveness, the Czechoslovak parliament passed a draconian law
in the autumn of 1991. It laid down that whole categories of people
- including high party functionaries, members of the People's Militia,
agents and what it termed 'conscious collaborators' of the state
security service - should be banned from whole, widely drawn categories
of job in the public service. In Czech, the process was called not
'purge' (a somewhat compromised term) but 'lustrace', a word
derived from the Latin and implying both 'illumination' and 'ritual
purification'. Thanks to the Czechs, we can therefore revive an
old English word: 'lustration'. Among the meanings given by the
Oxford English Dictionary, with supporting quotations from
the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, are 'purification esp.
spiritual or moral' and 'the performance of an expiatory sacrifice
or a purificatory rite'.
Czechoslovak lustration was fully effective in its original form
for little more than a year, since Czechoslovakia then broke into
two. While the Czech Republic continued with a slightly modified
version, Slovakia virtually dropped it. Yet there is no doubt that
the law did keep a number of highly compromised persons out of public
life in the Czech lands, while such persons remained to do much
damage in Slovakia. However, the original legislation was also so
crude and procedurally unjust that President Havel publicly expressed
deep reluctance to sign the law, and the Council of Europe protested
against it. Disqualification by category meant that any particular
individual circumstances could not be taken into account. A commission
determined, on the basis of a sometimes cursory examination of secret-police
and other official records, whether someone had belonged to one
of the specified categories. The people thus publicly branded often
did not see all the evidence and had only limited rights of appeal.
In effect, they were assumed guilty until found innocent.
The German law on the
Stasi files is more scrupulous. Employers receive a summary of the
evidence on the individual's file from the so-called Gauck Authority
- the extraordinary ministry set up to administer the III miles
of Stasi files, and colloquially named after its head, Joachim Gauck,
an east German priest. The employer then makes an individual decision,
case by case. Even in the public service, some two-thirds of those
negatively vetted have remained in their jobs. The employee can
also appeal to the labour courts. Yet here, too, there clearly have
been cases of injustice - even when denunciatory media coverage
has not ruined the person's life. And the sheer numbers are extraordinary:
to the end of June 1996 more than 1.7 million vetting enquiries
had been answered by the Gauck Authority. In other words, about
one in every ten east Germans has been, to use the colloquial term,
'gaucked'. Here the strict, procedural equality may, in fact, conceal
a deeper structural inequality. East German employees are being
subjected to tests that west German employees would never have to
Yet one also has to consider
the cost of not purging. In Poland, that was the original 'Spanish'
intent. Within a year, however, the continuance of former communists
in high places became a hotly disputed subject in Polish politics.
In the summer of 1992, the interior minister of a strongly anti-communist
government supplied to parliament summaries of files identifying
prominent politicians as secret-police collaborators. Of course
the names leaked to the press. This so-called noc teczek -
or night of the long files - shook the new democracy and actually
resulted in the fall of the government. In December 1995, the outgoing
interior minister, with the consent of the outgoing president, accused
his own post-communist prime minister of being an agent for Russian
intelligence. The prime minister subsequently resigned, and the
affair still rumbles on. In the latest parliamentary election campaign,
this autumn, it was suggested that the current post-communist president
of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, himself had close contacts with
the Russian agent who allegedly 'ran' the former prime minister.
So, in the absence of
an agreed, public, legal procedure, Poland has enjoyed not Spanish-style
consensus but bitter, recurrent mud-slinging and crude political
exploitation of the files. As a long-overdue antidote to all this,
the Polish parliament has this year finally passed a carefully drafted
lustration law. It obliges people in senior positions in public
life, including in the state-owned media, to sign, at the time they
stand for elected office or are appointed to the job, a declaration
as to whether they did or did not 'consciously collaborate' with
the security services in the period June 1944 to May 1990. At the
recent parliamentary elections, I saw polling stations plastered
with long lists of the candidates, and under each name the appropriate
declaration. The admitted fact of collaboration does not in itself
disqualify you from standing for public office. Indeed, several
candidates on the post-communist list stood admitting their past
collaboration. Only if you lie, saying you did not collaborate when
in fact you did, are you disqualified for ten years. The declarations
of innocence are to be checked, in secret, by a so-called Lustration
Hungary passed a lustration
law in 1997, and this is slowly being implemented. There, a commission
vets senior figures in public life, but exposes them publicly only
if they refuse to resign quietly. Shortly thereafter, the prime
minister, Gyula Horn, admitted that he had been negatively assessed
in the terms of the law, both on account of his service in the militia
assembled to help crush the 1956 revolution and because, as foreign
minister, he had been the recipient of secret-police information.
However, he declined to resign and said he now regards the matter
as closed. In both the Polish and the Hungarian cases, the circle
of persons to be vetted is - wisely, in my view - drawn much more
closely than in the German case.
Some analysts have taken
the argument for purges a step further. Where there was no lustration,
they say, as in Poland and Hungary - and elsewhere in eastern and
south-eastern Europe - the post-communist parties returned to power.
Only where there was lustration, in Czechoslovakia and Germany,
did this not occur. Yet to deduce causality from correlation is
an old historian's fallacy — cum hoc, ergo propter hoc. On
closer examination, you find that in eastern Germany the post-communist
party has done very well in elections, and one reason for this is,
precisely, resentment of what are seen as west German occupation
purges and victors' justice. In fact, the number of votes the post-communist
PDS received in east Germany at the last Bundestag election, in
October 1994, is remarkably similar to the number of people who
have been 'gaucked': about 1.7 million in each case. (Not that I
would deduce causality from this correlation, but still...)
One should by no means
simply assume that the return to power of post-communist parties
with impeccably social-democratic programmes has been bad for the
consolidation of democracy. Yet it is true that, in Poland and Hungary,
the new democracy has been shaken by issues arising from the lack
of lustration, including the current activities of the security
services. And the return to power not just of the post-communist
parties but of historically compromised persons within them has
furnished the populist, nationalist right with arguments against
the working of the new parliamentary democracy altogether. 'If such
people are elected, there must be something wrong with elections.'
Finally, there are what
I call 'history lessons'. These can be of several kinds: state or
independent, public or private. The classic model of a state, public
history lesson is that of the 'truth commission', first developed
in Latin America and currently being used in South Africa. As José
Zalaquett, one of the fathers of the Chilean truth commission, has
noted, the point is not only to find out as much as possible of
the truth about the past dictatorship but also to see that this
truth be 'officially proclaimed and publicly exposed'. Not just
knowledge but acknowledgement is the goal. In truth commissions,
there is a strong element of political theatre: they are a kind
of public morality play. Archbishop Tutu has shown himself well
aware of this. He leads others in weeping as the survivors tell
their tales of suffering and the secret policemen confess their
brutality. The object is not judicial punishment: in South Africa,
full confession leads not to trial but to amnesty. It is formally
to establish the truth, insofar as it can ever be established; if
possible, to achieve a collective catharsis, very much as Aristotle
envisaged catharsis in a Greek tragedy; and then to move on. In
South Africa, as in Chile, the commission's aims are both 'Truth'
and 'Reconciliation'. The hope is to move through the one to the
You might think that this
model would be particularly well suited to the post-communist world,
where the regimes were kept in place less by direct coercion than
by the everyday tissue of lies. But, again, only in Germany has
it really been tried, and even there they somehow did not dare to
use the word 'truth'. Instead, the parliamentary commission, chaired
by an east German former dissident priest, was cumbersomely called
the 'Enquete Commission in the German Bundestag [for the] "Treatment
of the Past and Consequences of the SED - Dictatorship in Germany"'
(SED being the initials of the East German communist party). Hundreds
of witnesses were heard, expert reports were commissioned, proceedings
were covered in the media. We now have a report of 15,378 pages
- and a successor Enquete Commission is working on another. There
are problems with this report. The language is often ponderous.
Some of the historical judgements represent compromises between
the west German political parties, worried about their own pasts.
Yet, as documentation, it is invaluable. For students of the East
German dictatorship this may yet be what the records of the Nuremberg
trials are for the student of the Third Reich.
In Poland and Czechoslovakia,
by contrast, the national commissions of inquiry concentrated on
major crises in the history of the communist state: Solidarity and
the Prague Spring. In each case, the focus was on the Soviet connection.
Who 'invited' the Red Army to invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968?
Who was responsible for martial law in Poland in 1981? In Hungary,
too, official inquiries have concentrated on the 1956 revolution,
and the Soviet invasion that crushed it. 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: the historically defensible but also comfortable conviction
that the dictatorship was ultimately imposed from outside and 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, film-makers – 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 3 October 1990. Virtually all the archives of the former GDR
are open, and provide a marvellous 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 precious 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.
In Prague, a new Institute for Contemporary History concerns itself
with the history of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to 1992. In Hungary,
a whole 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 its
contents. 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.
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
500,000 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 irresponsible,
sensationalist media coverage - denouncing people as informers without
any of the due caution about the sources or circumstances. In German,
such exposure is revealingly called 'outing'. Here is a structural
problem of treating the past in societies with free and sensation-hungry
media. 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 plan 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 have been used selectively by them
and their political masters. Limited access has been given to just
a few individual scholars.
Yet, interestingly, this
is now changing. Hungary has provided for individuals to request
copies of their own file. The precedent is clearly the German one,
although the Hungarian rules demand even more extensive 'anonymization'
- that is, blacking-out of the names on the copies. The Hungarian
Gauck Authority has a simple but rather sinister name: the Historical
Office. In sanctioning this access, the Hungarian Constitutional
Court drew heavily on the judgements 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 has
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
1997. 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. There is a strong sense that
the Czechs 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.
When I was there in mid-November 1997, a lively debate was going
on about how best to do this. Frequent reference was made to the
German experience. In the parliamentary debate on the government's
programme, the Catholic nationalist leader of the Solidarity Electoral
Alliance, Marian Krzaklewski, called for a 'lustration archive on
the model of the Gauck Authority’.
Altogether, it is remarkable
to see how, in this of all areas, Germany has been not just a pioneer
but also, in the end, something of a model for its eastern neighbours.
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?
There are no easy generalizations,
and certainly no universal laws. So much depends on the character
of the preceding regime and the nature of the transition. Even my
first, basic, question - Whether? - does not have a simple
answer. The ancient case for forgetting is much stronger than it
is comfortable for historians to recall. Successful democracies
have been built on a conscious policy of forgetting - although at
a cost, which often has not appeared until a generation later.
In Central Europe after
communism, Germany's policy of a systematic, unprecedentedly comprehensive
'treatment' of the past contrasted with Poland's initial policy
of drawing a 'thick line' between the past and the present. But
the Polish attempt to follow the Spanish example did not work as
it had 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 ‘Then?' 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 been
inclined to focus on the responsibility of others rather than their
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 and selective,
and often ended in simple failure. It has hardly exemplified or
strengthened the rule of law. This is one area in which the international
component may be a real advantage.
Difficult though it is,
the least bad way forward must be to try to establish a firm international
framework of law on 'crimes against humanity' or 'war crimes'. Building
on the Hague tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda, we need to move towards
the permanent international criminal court for which Aryeh Neier,
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 precedent.
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, appealable.
But it has sometimes been perverted by media abuse, and it 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 purging. The Hungarians, with their nice habit of taking
the German model and then improving on it, came up with a defensible
refinement: it would apply careful individual scrutiny only to those
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 believe the third path
— that of history lessons — has been the most promising in Central
Europe. 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 does, of course, assign 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, one is vividly reminded how difficult
it is to establish any historical truth. In particular, across such
a change of regime, you discover how deeply unreliable is any retrospective
Yet studying this subject
also strengthens one's allergy to some of the bottomless, ludic
frivolities of postmodernist historiography. For this is too serious
a business. 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 interpret them properly tests
the critical skills that historians routinely apply to a medieval
charter or an eighteenth-century pamphlet. But, having worked intensively
with such records, and read much else based on them, I know that
it can be done. It is not true, as is often claimed, that this material
is so corrupted that one cannot write reliable history on the basis
of it. The evidence has to be weighed with very special care. The
text must be put in the historical context. Interpretation needs
both intellectual distance and the essential imaginative sympathy
with all the men and women involved — even the oppressors. But,
with these old familiar disciplines, there is a truth that can be
found. Not a single, absolute Truth with a capital T, but still
a real and important one.
Trials, Purges and History Lessons in History of the
History of the Present: Essays,Sketches
and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s,
Timothy Garton Ash, Penguin,
Published with the kind permission
of the author.