Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Europe, a Reckoning for Communism Arrives

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

In Europe, a Reckoning for Communism Arrives

Article excerpt

Eastern Europeans have decided the time is right for a long- awaited reckoning with their Communist history in the form of government actions and cultural explorations, some seeking closure, some payback.

For all that Poland has accomplished since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has long resisted fully coming to terms with its Communist past, the oppression, the spying, even the massacres. Society preferred to forget, to move on.

So it may come as a surprise that Poland and many of its neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe have decided the time is right to deal with unfinished business, for a long-awaited reckoning. Suddenly, there is a wave of accounting in the form of government actions and cultural explorations, some seeking closure, others payback.

A court in Poland last month found that the Communist leaders behind the imposition of martial law in December 1981 were part of a "criminal group." The Bulgarian president is trying to purge ambassadors who served as security agents. The Macedonian government is busy hunting for collaborators, and the new Hungarian Constitution allows legal action against former Communists.

In Germany on Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel nominated as the next president a former pastor and East German activist, Joachim Gauck, who turned the files of the Ministry for State Security -- better known as the Stasi -- into a permanent archive.

"In order to defend ourselves in the future against other totalitarian regimes, we have to understand how they worked in the past, like a vaccine," said Lukasz Kaminski, the president of the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland. Across Central and Eastern Europe, a consensus of silence appears to have ended, one that never muted all criticism and discussion but did muffle voices crying out for an accounting.

Reconciling with the past is an issue that has hovered over post- Communist Europe for two decades. But today that experience has broader global resonance, serving as a point of discussion across the Arab world, where popular revolts have cast off long-ruling dictators, raising similarly uncomfortable questions about individual complicity in autocratic regimes.

Arab states are forced to grapple with the same issues of guilt and responsibility that Eastern Europe is once again beginning to mine seriously. Time and distance make the past easier to confront, less threatening, but no less urgent to resolve. The experience here, however, suggests that it may be years, decades perhaps, before the Arab world can be expected to turn inward.

The sudden turn to the past in Europe is not just in politics and justice. There have been trials and verdicts, but also dramas and documentaries, thrillers and histories, all seeking closure to a past that refuses to be forgotten.

In Poland, nearly one million people have filled theaters to watch Antoni Krauze's "Black Thursday,"' a film exploring an incident in 1970 when government troops gunned down 44 protesters in Gdynia and other cities on Poland's Baltic coast.

It took Mr. Krauze four decades to make the film. First, he was wary of Communist censors, and then he was stymied by public apathy. The movie was a hit last year precisely because of the unsettling subject matter; unarmed protesters and bystanders are shot in the streets or sadistically beaten in police stations.

"In the beginning of the '90s, people thought it wasn't right to go back to those times," Mr. Krauze, 72, said over coffee recently in a bustling Warsaw shopping center.

Poland is wrestling with its past on multiple fronts. After years of legal action, a court in January gave the interior minister at the time of the imposition of martial law in 1981, Czeslaw Kiszczak, a two-year suspended sentence for his role, a sentence intended to convey guilt, not revenge. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Communist leader of Poland who declared martial law, had been found medically unfit to stand trial last year. …

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