Trials, Purges, and History Lessons 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 Salvador, Spain after Franco, Greece after the colonels, Ethiopia, Cambodia, all the postcommunist 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 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: Geschichtsalfarbeitung 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. 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 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 20 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 Eastern Central European neighbors.

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, how?


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 attempt.

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 mem­ories of 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 premise 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 postwar 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 postwar Western 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.

The examples do not 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 Jorge 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 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the prime minister, Felipe Gonzalez, 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 noncommunist prime minister in more than 40 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 postcommunist 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 Europe.

In Germany, it was the former East German dissidents who pressed for a radical and comprehensive reckoning. Elsewhere in Eastern 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 preemptive 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 that 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 do not have sufficient distance from the events to understand their meaning; we are emotionally involved, and the sources are not fully available. Better wait 30 years for the relevant official papers to be available in the archives. In postcommunist 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 mere supporters of the dictatorship into the new democ­racy. Thus, Hermann Lubbe 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 1968” also thought the suppression of the Nazi past and the anticommunism of the older generation were two sides of the same coin. In re­action, they produced sympathetic, even rose-tinted, accounts of communist Eastern 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 de-Nazification, carried out by the occupying powers, and the Nuremberg trials, conducted by the victorious Allies. Both Nurem­berg and de-Nazification 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 victors’ history.

In most of postcommunist Europe we have the opposite position to that of post-1945 Germany. Far from being newly occupied, most postcommunist 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 such as 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 judgment, whether in courts of law or simply by executive decision, over East Germans.

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 judg­ment 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 resistance:

“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 stressed constantly. In these late or posttotalitarian 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 coresponsible.

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 postcommunist Central Europe is, in fact, a very checkered one. In what was then still Czechoslovakia, two senior functionaries were convicted after 1990 for their part in the repression of antiregime 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 that “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 it 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 1970–1971. A number of senior figures were charged with causing the deaths of striking workers during martial law in 1981–1982. 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 ex‑emplify 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-honored principle of nulla poena sine lege?

Determined to avoid such a “Nuremberg” procedure, German prosecutors have therefore tried to identify crimes that were of­fenses 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 offense 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 that, 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 work 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 17th to the 19th centuries, are “purification esp. spiritual or moral” and “the performance of an expiatory sacrifice or a purificatory rite.”

The 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 111 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 labor 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: as of the end of June 1996, more than 1.7 million vetting inquiries 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 face.

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 anticommunist 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 postcommunist 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 postcommunist President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, 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 postcommunist 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 Court.

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 southeastern Europe—the postcommunist 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 postcommunist 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 postcommunist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) received in eastern 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 postcommunist parties with impeccably social-democratic pro­grams 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 postcommunist 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 acknowledgment is the goal. In truth commission, there is a strong element of political theater. 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 other.2

You might think that this model would be particularly well suited to the postcommunist 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 judgments represent compromises among 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 locus 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 that 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, filmmakers—and then to let a hundred documentaries bloom. Yet again, Germany has gone farthest, 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 marvelous 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 staffed partly 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 re-suits 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 improved significantly. 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 identities. 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 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 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 in which 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 files. 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 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 has passed a law that 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 program, 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 neighbors. Who would have imagined 50 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 “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 been inclined to focus on the re­sponsibilities 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 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 toward 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 40 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 applied 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 20th 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 any retrospective testimony is.

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 apply routinely to a medieval charter or an 18th‑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.


1 / I am grateful to Priscilla Hayner for confirming this tally. Her book about truth commissions is due to be published as Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity, Routledge, New York, forthcoming.

2 / I look at the work of the South African truth commission in “True Confessions,” The New York Review of Books, New York (July 17, 1997).


Timothy Garton Ash, “Trial, Purges, and History Lessons,” History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, Random House, New York 1999, p. 256–277.