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Coming to terms with the past in Eastern Europe

by Ines Kappert

A central question for Europe's post-communist states is how to deal with the legacy of the old regimes, in particular the secret police files. Should they be closed and forgotten or made accessible to the public for review?

Nineteen years after the collapse of the so-called East Bloc, the process of addressing the communist past has made only slow progress in most of these countries. Nevertheless, in all them public discussion has taken place about what to do with the files of the former communist secret police.

National Remembrance Institute (IPN) archive in Warsaw, Poland

Whereas in Germany discussion of the communist era in the GDR began soon after the fall of communism and was particularly intense in the early and mid-1990s, countries like Poland and the Czech Republic initially tried to make a clean break with the past. Yet the debates flared up time and again – in the wake of spectacular accusations or revelations or when new laws were introduced governing the official approach to the secret police files, such as the so-called "lustration” law in Poland last year.

The role of the media

The files document the involvement with the former power apparatus of both ordinary citizens and in many cases people currently in positions of authority. But one should also bear in mind that they served their authors as an instrument of persecution, so that unless one examines the circumstances under which they came into being, the revelatory value of these files is limited. In addition, many of them are now incomplete, for in many cases the most compromising material was destroyed as the old regimes were collapsing.

In recent years the media have played a key if ambivalent role in addressing the communist past. By criticising public and official reluctance to bring what went on under communism out into the open and by uncovering prominent informers – including church representatives, intellectuals and artists who today are leading national figures – they have acted as a driving force in the revelation process. At the same, though, many media organs have ruthlessly vilified suspected or exposed informers.

Society under scrutiny

The latest debate about how to deal with the former secret police files began in Poland, but was soon taken up in the other post-communist countries and received a lot of attention in Western Europe. At the beginning of 2007, the Law and Justice party (PiS) led by Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński pushed through a revised version of the lustration law, requiring 700,000 people – primarily journalists, politicians, intellectuals, lawyers and judges—to disclose their pasts by 15 March. If they were proven to have collaborated with the Polish secret police, the SB, they stood to lose their jobs and have their pensions drastically reduced.

The first lustration law, passed back in 1997, required only about 300,000 people holding public office, such as MPs, ministers or high-level civil servants, to submit a "lustration declaration" giving information about whether they had collaborated with the communist secret police. It did not provide for them to be prosecuted, however.

At the time there was still little public interest in the issue. Indeed, by the end of 2004 just 17,000 former victims had applied to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) for access to their files. By comparison, in Germany at that time, as Poland correspondent Konrad Schuller recalled in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 13 January 2007, two million applications had already been received by the agency administering the files of the former state security apparatus, the Office of the Federal Commissioner (BStU).

Former civil rights activists compromised

The PiS law of 2007 was so clearly designed to "name and shame" that on 11 May 2007 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. In reaching this decision, the court was upholding Poland's status as a state based on the rule of law, Jarosław Kurski wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza. Even before the court's decision the law had already come in for severe criticism by liberals and government critics, who dismissed it as an instrument being used by the PiS to rid itself of awkward opponents.

One of those critical voices was Bronisław Geremek, a liberal member of the European parliament, a former member of Solidarność and former Polish foreign minister. After he refused to provide further information about himself, conservatives called for his resignation. Geremek criticised the new lustration law: "We are moving towards the end of the freedom of the press and the autonomy of information if a Minister of Truth can decide who is honest and who isn't, who can do a certain job and who can't ...," said Geremek on 26 April 2007 in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

Files on the Internet

The question is, however, how one can defend oneself against attempts to confront the past in the way envisaged by the Kaczyński brothers. By dispensing with lustration altogether? Adam Michnik, chief editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, changed his position in the course of the debate. Having initially been vehemently opposed to opening the archives, he declared in Gazeta Wyborcza on 14 May 2007: "We must make the files public to end their power over us."

In June 2007 Lech Wałęsa decided to publish 500 pages of his secret police files on his own homepage. "I close my eyes and throw the papers to the world," he declared in Gazeta Wyborcza on 14 June 2007.

Reactions in Western Europe

Already alarmed by the Kaczyński brothers' policies, western commentators took a keen interest in the debate in Poland, with most of them emerging as critics of the new lustration law. The case of European MP Geremek or the posthumous exposure of star reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski came in for sharp and sometimes sarcastic criticism in Western Europe.

Maja Zoltowska, Poland correspondent for the French newspaper Libération, described the new law as a "Warsaw-style purge". Ulrich M. Schmid of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung defended Ryszard Kapuscinski on 23 May 2007: "Newsweek [Polska] is continuing the tradition – a tradition that is as long as it is fruitless – of Polish newspapers confronting leading personalities with their communist past. The uproar it causes is like a storm in a teacup." The information provided to the secret police was trivial and really just a way of getting a travel permit, he wrote. On 16 March 2007 El Periódico de Catalunya even spoke of a "crusade" in the service of the PiS.

Reactions in the post-communist countries

The Polish debate was also taken up by other Eastern European countries, with the press using it as an opportunity to call on their own societies to take a critical look at the past and at the networks that still function today.
According to Cristian Pirvulescu in Romania Libera on 20 March, "In Romania, enthusiasm for confronting the past has ebbed since the country joined the EU and the political crisis has finished it off. Not a single moral reform or political project that had to do with lustration has been carried through” . In fact in the run up to EU accession in 2006 a wave of "denunciation hysteria" led to renewed discussion about the Securitate past, as Luca Niculescu reported in the French Libération.

When Polish Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus resigned following revelations in January 2007 about his work for the secret police, he was praised by the liberal media in eastern Europe as an example to be followed. After all "all the heads of the Hungarian Bishops Conference and most of the Bishops themselves have worked with the Hungarian Secret Service," Làszló Kasza commented in Népszabadság of 12 July 2007."Unlike their Polish counterparts, they don't say a word about it publicly".

In Hungary too there were a number of spectacular cases the previous year. At the end of January 2006 the cultural weekly Élet és Irodalom published revelations by a historian about the past of Oscar-winning film director István Szabó as well as a number of other prominent Hungarian public figures. But once again this did not result in a systematic investigation of the past. The index of the names of former secret service employees remains explosive material in Hungary, and is periodically leaked to the media to promote political interests, Keno Verseck reported in a feature on Deutschlandfunk on 6 February 2006.

Sensationalising the issue

The European debate on the lustration law in Poland demonstrates in an exemplary fashion that confronting the communist past is an essential process for establishing democracy. Probing secret police files is, however, only productive if it is supported and supervised by central civil institutions – an independent press, a legally working parliament and a functioning state based on the rule of law. Otherwise opening the files serves only to sensationalise a wide-ranging social problem.

Ines Kappert
Dr. Ines Kappert is opinion editor of Die Tageszeitung. Prior to that she worked in the field of cultural exchange with Eastern Europe for the ...
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Melanie Newton

Original in German

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