A Dearth of Feeling

An essay about the absence of memory of communist crimes.

  • This essay was also reproduced in the anthology The Future of The European Past, ed. Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1997.

Venice has the Piazza San Marco, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and now Prague has the Charles Bridge: wide and pedestrianised, blackened with age – and suffused with the spirit of capitalism. There are buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and, every fifteen feet or so, someone is selling very much what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot. Paintings of appropriately pretty streets are on display, along with bargain jewellry, “Prague” key chains, and, of course, Soviet military paraphenalia: caps, badges, belt buckles and little pins, tin Lenin and Brezhnev images of the sort which Soviet school children and Soviet veterans once pinned to their respective uniforms.

It is a familiar sight now, but still an odd one. After all, most of the people buying these things are Americans and West Europeans, people who would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika. They see nothing wrong, on the other hand, with sporting the hammer and sickle on a t-shirt or a hat. It is a minor observation – but sometimes, it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed. For here, the lesson could not be more clear: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh.

There are other ways, both minor and less so, in which the same phenomenon can be observed. Look, for example, at the use of the term “collaborator” in English: it is applied broadly and frequently to the leaders of Vichy France and other Nazi parties in Europe – but it is almost never attached to East European communists like General Jaruzelski or Janos Kadar. Equally odd is the different sense of propriety that applies to Western statesmen visiting foreign graveyards. In 1994, Bill Clinton visited Minsk, and asked, on the prompting of locally-based diplomats, to visit the mass graves which lie in the woods of Kuropaty outside the city, the scene of a Stalinist massacre. The Belorussian leadership refused. The president went anyway (on the ‘unofficial” part of his trip) but where was the outcry? Where were the furious editorials, the letters to the editor?

If there is a dearth of feeling among politicians, journalists and Prage tourists that what happened in Eastern Europe was evil in some fundamental way, that is matched and multiplied in Western popular culture. The Cold War produced James Bond and thrillers, and cartoon Russians of the sort who appear in Rambo films, but nothing even approaching the attempted quality of Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice, or the mass popularity of the television series Holocaust. Steven Spielberg, probably Hollywood’s leading director (like it or not) has chosen to make films about Japanese concentration camps (Empire of the Sun) and Nazi concentration camps, but not about Stalinist concentration camps. The latter don’t catch the imagination in the same way.

As I say, these are all small things: slips of the tongue, lines in an article, the presence or absence of Hollywood films. But put them all together and they make a story. Intellectually, Americans and West Europeans know what happened in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn has been published here; the revelations of the glasnost years received due publicity abroad. The information about what happened is widely available: most educated people know that Stalin killed, by means of mass murder and concentration camps, at least twice as many innocent people as Hitler – not because he was a “worse” or “more unique” dictator (that is a pointless debate if there ever was one) but because he was in power much longer. He and his henchmen had time to stage the purges in Russia and the artificial famine in Ukraine, the murder of one in ten Balts and the near-liquidation of the Crimean Tartars, as well as the Katyn massacres, the Vinnitsa massacres, the Kuropaty massacres, among thousands of others. They also had time to plan an educational and judicial system which were designed to alter human nature and to erase historical memory – and in some cases succeeded. They even had time to foment civil wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America as well. Hitler had time only for one attempted genocide, although he planned others.

And yet – Cold War propaganda notwithstanding – almost no one in the West feels these crimes to have been evil in the same, visceral way that they feel Hitler’s crimes to have been evil. No one feels that the system itself was based on inhumane principles, or upon a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. Ken Livingstone, a British MP who is a leading light of what is now referred to as “Old Labour” (as opposed to New Labour, led by Tony Blair) recently struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the Nazis were “evil,” he said. But the Soviet Union was “deformed”. That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even people who are not Old Labour, even people who think of themselves as “conservative” or “right- wing”: the Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler’s Germany was wrong. The ideas were good – it was the people who failed.

Until recently, it was possible to explain this lack or absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European communism as the logical result of a particular set of circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: communist regimes did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was really frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even Brezhnev. The absence of hard information, backed up by archival research, is clearly part of it too: the paucity of academic work on this subject was long due to a paucity of sources. There were no journalists to record the Siberian camps,as there were journalists in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime. There were no television cameras to film the victims, as there were in Germany after the Second World War.

But ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East European history as well. A small part of the Western Left struggled to explain and sometimes to excuse the purges from the 1930s onwards: even in the 1980s, there were still academics (for some reason, they often tended to be British academics) who went on describing the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives. The fact of the matter was that the founding philosophers of the Western Left were the same as those of the Soviet Union. Some of the language was shared as well: Marx and Engels, the masses, the struggle, the proletariat, the exploiters and exploited, the ownership of the means of production and more. To condemn the Soviet Union too thoroughly would be to condemn a part of what the Western Left held dear as well.

The Western Right, on the other hand, did struggle to condemn Soviet crimes, but sometimes in an unhealthy way: surely the man who did the greatest damage to the cause of anti-communism was Senator McCarthy. Recent documents showing that some of his suspicions were correct don’t change the fact that the main effect of his over-zealous pursuit of communists in the American political establishment was to tarnish the cause of anti- communism with the brush of chauvinism and intolerance forever. Even what ought to be the most basic, universally accepted assertion – “Communism was evil” – sounds, to the modern ear, “McCarthyite”: simplistic and jingoistic and almost ignorant.

Of course, many of our current attitudes are also a fading by-product of the World War II alliance. For if Stalin was even half as bad as Hitler, that reflects rather badly on us: in effect, it is unacceptable to say that we defeated one genocidal criminal with the help of another. To admit that by sending thousands of Russians to their death by forcibly repatriating them after the war – or by consigning millions of people to Soviet rule at Yalta – the Western allies might have participated in war crimes on a vast scale would have undermined the legitimacy of the entire war effort. To admit that Churchill, at least, knew perfectly well what had happened to the Polish officers at Katyn (he denied it at the time) and guessed with some accuracy what was going to happen to East Europeans after the war is to admit that the war was not fought for moral reasons at all. And if we admit that Stalin was the moral equivalent of Hitler, that makes some of those old photographs – Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt together – look damaging, almost terrifying now.

All of which is logical, but all of which is now old. In the wake of the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it seemed to me, as it did to many people, that this form of moral fuzziness, this dismissing of uncomfortable facts, would disappear. I had thought that our old ways of thinking about the Soviet Union would crumble along with the Berlin Wall, that anti-anti-communism would disappear along with the Warsaw Pact. Freed of ideological constraints, of the legacy of McCarthyism, of memories of a wartime alliance with a country which no longer exists, with new access to archives and survivors’ stories, we would at last be able to think and write about what happened in Eastern Europe with some degree of objectivity, some understanding of the depth of the experiment with human nature which was conducted there, and the horrors that it produced.

I was wrong: ideology twists our recollections of the past there now more than before, not less. And it looks set to go on doing so.

* * *

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the moral confusion about the past is at its worst, and at its most damaging, in the former territories of the Communist world. This was not always the case: during the 1980s, when glasnost was just beginning in Russia, gulag survivors’ memoirs sold millions of copies, and a new revelation about the past could sell out a newspaper. But more recently, history books containing similar “revelations” are badly reviewed in Russia – a new biography of Lenin, based for the first time on archival material, was dismissed by critics as “uninteresting” – or ignored. ‘People don’t want to hear any more about the past,’ I was told last year by Lev Razgon, the author of one of the most popular Russian survivors’ accounts. ‘People are tired of the past’.

Since then, survivors’ accounts have become harder to find, while archives from Vilnius to Vladivostok are closing their doors. Even historians need to eat, and there is more money to be made serving as an interpreter for a Western bank. The survivors themselves are ignored. In Poland, the society of “Siberiaks”, the survivors of Siberian concentration camps, is a small and unimportant organisation, without much money or national presence. In Russia, Memorial, the group which has dedicated itself to documenting and publishing the history of the gulag, is weak, underfunded and divided, and remains far from the centre of public debate.

If there is little attention paid to the written memorials, there are few physical memorials either. In Siberia there are almost none at all. At Vorkuta, where hundreds of thousands died in the mines, the barracks are still inhabited: when the camp was closed, there was nowhere else for ex-guards and ex- prisoners to go. In other parts of Siberia, camp buildings have simply faded back into the forest, unmarked and unremembered. In Imperium, his book about Russia, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes his attempt to leave flowers somewhere in Vorkuta, in remembrance of the dead:

I wanted to place them somewhere, but I didn’t know where. I thought, I’ll stick them into some snowdrift, but there were people everywhere, and I felt that doing so would be awkward. I walked farther, but on the next street, the same thing: many people. Meanwhile, the flowers were starting to freeze and stiffen. I wanted to find an empty courtyard, but everywhere children were playing. I worried that they would find the carnations and take them…so I went beyond the town limits, and there, calmly, I placed the flowers amid the snowdrifts.”

In some East European cities it is possible to find the occasional, usually very modest, memorial. In one Warsaw suburb, a historically-minded priest has put up an impressive, and very moving, monument to the victims of communism, and there are one or two others in the city. In Moscow, there is a small sculpture in front of the Lubyanka, the prison through which thousands of people passed on their way East – but nothing on the scale of the immense monuments to the Great Victory in the Great Patriotic War. In Prague, there is a monument to Jan Palach’s self-immolation, where visitors can lay flowers. In Vilnius, people leave flowers beneath a plaque which hangs outside the old KGB headquarters.

But these efforts often seem small and scattered, and they are countered by examples of post-communist authorities refusing to put up monuments too. The Belorussian government has refused to devote any resources to building a monument outside of Minsk. The Russian government is also hampering the construction of a full-fledged Polish cemetery in Katyn, on the grounds that it is unnecessary to commemorate the deaths of a few Poles when so many Russians died. Along with this refusal – how quickly things come full circle – the re-writing process has begun. A new book, The Katyn Detective Story, has recently been circulating among Russian parliamentarians. It contends that the Katyn murders were committed by the Nazis, not by the Soviet Union, and describes the dead officers as “aggressive idiots”, servants of a Polish state which was little more than a “gluttonous European prostitute.”

But what really marks the difference between post-war Germany and post-communist Eastern Europe is not the lack of photographs and the lack of historical memory and the lack of monuments: it is the lack of any public discussion of guilt. A decade has passed since the first glimmerings of perestroika and the first, tentative, debate about the more distant past – the 1930s in the old Soviet Union, the 1950s in Eastern Europe. During that decade, only a handful of people have actually been put on trial – or called to account in any way for the crimes of the past.

Leaving aside the question of ordinary communists, or ordinary informers (of whom there are thousands) there are, at large in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, people who qualify as actual war criminals: men who were directly responsible for organising mass murders, or for helping to carry them out. Until recently, most of the men who carried out the Katyn massacres were still alive. Before he died, the KGB conducted an interview with one of them, asking him to explain how the murders were carried out, from a technical point of view. Last year, the Russian security services presented it to the cultural attache of the Polish embassy in Moscow. There was never any suggestion that the man on tape should have been returned to Warsaw for trial.

True, there have been one or two highly publicised trials and arraignments: a few East German border guards, a KGB chief in Latvia, a Czech Stalinist who assisted the Russian invasion of 1968. In Poland, a handful of small trials have been carried out, attracting little attention. The trial of Adam Humer, a man accused of carrying out brutal torture during the brief Stalinist era, has received only the briefest notices in the press. Perhaps that was why, when confronted with one of his victims, and elderly woman, he felt perfectly comfortable replying, “shut up, you old bitch.” In Russia, where admittedly the problem of the guilty is vast – the Russian republic is still home of Stalinist prosecutors who sent millions to die – there has not even been a symbolic trial, a mini-Nuremburg, an attempt to point a finger at anyone in particular.

It can be argued that such trials are not a wholly successful way of dealing with the past, nor are they easy to carry out. The Nuremburg trials themselves were fraught with corruptions and contradictions (not the least of which was the presence of Soviet judges who knew perfectly well that their own side was also responsible for mass murder). In the years after the war, West Germany also brought more than 85,000 Nazis to trial, but obtained fewer than 7,000 convictions. The tribunals which examined the cases were notoriously corrupt, and easily swayed by personal jealousies and disputes – although few would argue, in retrospect, that they should not have been carried out at all.

It can also be argued that it is too late for most Stalinist prosecutors to stand trial. Those who committed their crimes before the war are almost certainly all dead, those who were responsible for the deportations of the 1940s are very old. Nuremburg took place directly after the war, when the perpetrators of terrible crimes still, figuratively, had blood on their hands. Of course this argument would be anathema to Simon Wiesenthal, to the Israelis who put Eichmann on trial in 1961, and even to British prosecutors, who have recently arrested an elderly Belorussian, Szymon Serafimowicz, under the British war crimes act, passed in 1991. Even Steven Spielberg, when asked why he made Schindler’s List, replied “I was afraid of the world my children were being raised in, that something like the Holocaust could happen to them.” It is a sentiment that many, rightly, share.

Certainly it is also true that – if the comparison is to be made – the Germans themselves were not, during the twenty years after the end of the war, very eager to discuss the Nazi past either. Yet in post-war Germany, Nazi memorabilia was illegal, the Nazi party was banned – and it has never revived on any large scale. The German state paid enormous reparations to individual Jews (if not always to others) and to the state of Israel. While the Germans may not have talked much about the war in public, official histories of the war were published, monuments were constructed. Everyone knew about Nuremburg; the groundwork was laid for the younger generation to discover the past. By the 1960s – sparked, in fact, by the trial of Auschwitz guards – when the national debate finally began, at least it was possible for the children of Nazis to discover what their parents had done. By the 1980s, the past had almost become a national obsession: hardly an evening passed when there wasn’t a documentary or a talk show on German television dealing with the war.

In Eastern Europe, by contrast, communist symbols and songs are not banned. Communist parties are not banned everywhere either. On the contrary, although the laws vary from country to country, in many places communist parties have been allowed to retain their (sometimes enormous) assets: buildings, foreign bank accounts, membership lists, cars and homes. Retired communist party members continue to receive outsize pensions. No other political party can match their material wealth: no other political parties existed in Eastern Europe before 1989. Partly as a result, in Poland, in Hungary, in Bulgaria, in Lithuania, and in Russia, well-funded former communist parties are enjoying a revival; in many countries, they have slowly come to dominate the political scene. Communism has been discussed, but not condemned; communists have been denounced in the heat of political campaigns, but not put to trial by the judicial system. No groundwork is being laid for the next generation to discover, or to condemn, their oppressive behaviour in the past.

Oddly enough, the only systematic attempts to make an official condemnation of the past have occurred in Central Europe, and have involved not Stalinist criminals but petty bureaucrats, and not trials but vetting procedures. At issue was “lustration”: the opening of files which contained names of former secret police informers. Vigorous debates about lustration took place in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, among others – although in none of those countries were the aims of lustration very broad. Arguments about lustration mainly revolved around the question of whether it was proper for high-ranking officials, particularly elected officials, to go on serving if they had carried out extensive deceptions in the past – and whether the public should have access to the secret files which still contain extensive records of its day to day activities. Corruption was also at issue, along with the need for openness: among other things, the interior ministry files in most post-communist countries contain evidence of which communist leaders stole what money, and how.

Frequently, debates about lustration degenerated into debates about the past – which was hardly surprising: the past had not been discussed or expiated in any other way. Issues sometimes merged. Without any memorials, without any camp monuments, without any trials, many Central Europeans came to expect too much of lustration; many believed that lustration would help clear the air altogether, that it would provide a solution both to the nagging sense that the more distant, Stalinist crimes had not been punished, and to more recent memories of spying and petty theft. Perhaps as a result of these high expectations – and the depth of the objections – the lustration debate in Poland was so vicious that it brought down the first fully-elected democratic government; in Hungary, it was no less controversial. Curiously, in both countries the strongest case against lustration was made not by former communists, but by former dissidents. Mostly, they seem to have feared what it would reveal about their opposition movements: Adam Michnik, a Polish dissident who was allowed to look at his friends’ files soon after the fall of communism (an anomaly of the sort created by the failure to give equal access to the files: why Michnik? why not others?) emerged shocked at how many of his old colleagues had in fact been informers, as he has since told many people. He later led the fight against lustration.

Elsewhere, of course, files were kept closed for more obvious reasons. Former communists object to lustration for the same reason that they object to trials of Stalinists and monuments to Stalinist crimes: they object because they do not want to confess to their own guilt, or do not want to be associated with the crimes of others. Boris Yeltsin is only one of hundreds of former Soviet politicians who fall clearly into this category.

In the end, only the Czech and East German governments succeeded in passing such a law: in both countries, it is possible for ordinary citizens to get hold of their own files. In the Czech republic, it is also the case that people who had previously worked as informers or as high-ranking communists cannot hold elected office. In Germany, some high-ranking former communists have also lost their jobs. The results are there to see: although in most of the Eastern block, the political scene is dominated by former communists, that is not the case in either the Czech republic or former East Germany.

* * *

But if the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 did not bring about a reassessment of the legacy of the communist past in former communist parts of Europe, the transformation in the West was no less incomplete. The lack of moral certainty where Soviet crimes are concerned was always academic, as well as popular, for example: until five or ten years ago, Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, was often considered a paranoid alarmist for claiming that Stalin had murdered millions of people, when most history books spoke of hundreds: certainly I was taught as much when studying Russian history at Yale in the mid-1980s. His views are, of course, now mainstream: they are supported by archival evidence, to the limited extent that such evidence is now available, and by Soviet historians.

And yet – the opposite view persists as well. Legitimate academics, with prestigious jobs at prestigious universities, can write books which amount to “gulag denial”, and nobody finds their writing either offensive or objectionable. The most famous, J. Arch Getty – famous for having written than “thousands” died in the gulag – goes on teaching and writing as always, but there are younger ones too. Robert Thurston, a tenured professor at a reputable university, recently wrote a book called Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia, published by the equally reputable Yale University Press. In it he suggests, among other things, that the great purge took place without Stalin’s knowledge, that it was supported by many people, and that, by promoting upward mobility, it laid the foundations for perestroika. Aside from getting most of his facts wrong – see Conquest’s list of them in his review in the Times Literary Supplement – Thurston seems unable, throughout the book, to understand the absurdity of what he is saying. After all, the same could be true (once again) of Hitler’s Germany: Hitler was voted into power, after all; there is no proof he knew about the Holocaust; and many young, enthusiastic people came to power much earlier than they would have done under his regime. None of which amounts to a defence of regime which also murdered millions of people.

Most of the “interest’ in the book partly derives, of course, from the fact that it is different, that it purports to offer an opposite idea, a new perspective. This point of view – the idea that there is still “another side to the story”, that not to acknowledge it would be “one-sided” – persists in the less genteel world of journalism as well. Not long ago, I was told by the editor of the London Review of Books that a review I had written (of David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb) could not be printed because it was too anti-Soviet. When I pointed out that the book itself was not exactly pro-Soviet, she replied that if that were the case, the book would not be reviewed. It wasn’t.

In the West, a similar, and closely related, argument has also been mounted against those East Europeans who want to examine – and to condemn – the behaviour of communist regimes. This point was most eloquently put in a book which recently won the National Book Award in the United States as well as a Pulitzer Prize: Tina Rosenberg’s The Haunted Land. Yet despite all of the awards she received, what is most extraordinary about her effort is how much time she spent working in Central Europe, and how little insight into the region she appears to have gained. Certainly she does a good job at carefully enumerating the many complexities and drawbacks of lustration and war crimes trials. However, she then comes to the conclusion while trials are fine for Latin American dictators, they are not acceptable for East Europeans. Her reasoning depends partly upon the distinction, common among Western intellectuals, between the evil aims of most dictatorships, and the good intentions of communism: “communism’s ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed are indeed beautiful,” in her own words. Here it is again: the ideas were fine, it is the people who failed. That the ideas were wrong, still escapes her; that Hitler had ideals too is also not mentioned.

But most of Rosenberg’s argument – like the arguments of others in the Western and Eastern media who feared an anti-communist “witch hunt” – emphasises the fragility of civil society in the newly democratic societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Condemnation of the past, she feared, could degenerate into violations of civil liberties, into persecution of innocent people, into moral self-righteousness and (figurative) burnings at the stake. What she appears to be afraid of is resurgent “nationalism” of a 1930s sort, perhaps in the form of an “anti-communist right-wing.” Even the title of her book, like the title of so many books written about the region recently, gives the idea away: Central Europe is “the haunted land” in her words, just as the lands of ex-Yugoslavia are filled with Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan ghosts”.

But the problem with modern Eastern Europe is not the legacy of the 1930s: the problem with Eastern Europe is the legacy of communism, whether in the form of corruption, poverty, pollution, ill-health, or distorted values. Equally, the real danger to democracy and capitalism in Poland or Russia is not some form of warmed-over fascism, but communist ideals, the communist economic legacy, and the corrupt habits of former communists themselves. Almost every time a regime has gone sour in the former communist bloc over the past five years – in Serbia most notably, but in Slovakia as well, for example – the root cause is not some group of new nationalists, but former communists wearing new clothes. And, as noted above, there have been very few unjust prosecutions of former communists in the region, because there have been hardly any prosecutions of any kind.

In fact, Rosenberg’s argument, like that of Thurston or Getty, appears to be rooted not in actual observation of life in Central Europe, but in a deep desire to protect the legacy of the Western Left, again in her words, “communism’s ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed.” Perhaps not coincidentally, she has also defended Thurston in print, in an odd little article in the New York Times book review. In the course of denouncing David Irving, the Nazi apologist, and arguing that his book should not be published by a reputable publisher, she applauds the decision of the Yale University Press to publish Thurston, the Stalin apologist, on the grounds that challenging and controversial ideas, even if they amount to gulag denial, deserve to see the light of day. Again, her argument only makes sense if we assume that one version of totalitarianism and mass murder this century deserves a moral condemnation, while others ought to be treated as neutral historical phenomenon. It only makes sense if we assume that there was, within communism, something “good” which can still be rescued and brought to light, whereas there was no such “good” to be found in Hitler’s Germany. In other words, it doesn’t make sense at all.

* * *

But does it matter? Does the existence of popular and highly-regarded journalists and academics who play down the terror and distortions of communism make any difference to us? Does the failure to condemn, or even to think about the past, matter to the Central Europeans either?

Alas, it does. Look first, again, at the former communist bloc: the most obvious danger to civil society in the region is not that posed by non-existent anti-Communists. The real fear is now what the absence of lustration or the absence of official condemnation of the past might do to civil society, and to popular awareness of concepts like “justice” and “public morality”.

Compare, once again, the role of history in the politics of post-war Germany and the politics of post-Soviet Russia. In modern Germany, the awareness of guilt – the memory of the Second World War – continues to matter tremendously to German politicians. Even in the years before the flowering of popular memory, this was the case. Germany’s commitments to NATO, and to the European community, both derive from German politician’s fears of repeating the past; Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, has followed his predecessors, and explicitly stated his desire to lock Germany permanently into a European super-state, the better to prevent Germany from misbehaving again. As recently as last year, the German parliament debated for weeks over whether to send peacekeeping troops abroad: the very thought of Germans in uniform outside Germany, for whatever purpose, was too much for many German politicians.

The Russian leadership feel no such qualms. If they really remembered – viscerally, emotionally, remembered – that Stalin, in the name of communism and Great Russian imperialism, deported tens of thousands of Chechens to Siberia, the inhabitants of the Kremlin would be unable to blithely drop bombs on civilians in Chechnya today, murdering 40,000, or to announce a plan to “eliminate the Chechens like dogs,” as Boris Yeltsin promised in the wake of one recent Chechen hostage crisis.

The effects of the failure to remember the past elsewhere in Eastern Europe are less dramatic, but no less damaging. Take another comparison: Poland and the Czech republic. While they carried out their lustration programme the Czechs went through a very brief period of national obsession with spies, secret agents, and personal files. Many mistakes were made, as Tina Rosenberg recorded; some people who felt they were innocent were excluded from national politics (although not excluded from anything else). Some unattractive young people, none of whom had ever faced the decisions which their parents had faced, made use of lustration for their own political ends. Now the wave of interest in the subject has virtually disappeared (so much for the disruption of civil society which Rosenberg feared) but the stigma attached to communism remains. As noted above, the Czech republic is one of the few in Central Europe which has not elected former communists back to power.

In Poland, on the other hand, the unopened files remain a hovering presence in political life. Last month, the Polish prime minister, Jozef Oleksy, was forced to resign: he had been accused of having been a KGB spy, indeed of remaining a KGB spy after 1989. Originally, this information came from Lech Walesa, who was then the Polish president. Why did Mr Walesa have privileged access to the files? What is the truth about Mr Oleksy’s position? Why were his Russian contacts not known before he became prime minister? Nobody has answers. And so it will go in the future: the presence of secrets will weigh heavily on politicians, poisoning public life.

The return to dominance of elites who are associated with the totalitarian past will also have a profound impact on the shape of the economies of the eastern bloc. Of course it might be argued that the former communists are now merely a nascent bourgeoisie, which is to be applauded; and that is what the best of them indeed are. But it is not quite that simple. The evolution of a bourgeoisie is a healthy phenomenon when it grows and prospers thanks to bourgeois values: hard work, honesty, personal responsibility. What happens when you have a corrupt business class which is intimately entwined with a corrupt political class? You might still have a bourgeoisie, and you might still have capitalism, but they won’t necessarily take the form that everyone would applaud.

For all the talk of liberalism and Thatcherism and free markets that took place in the region in 1989, the model which Central Europe will probably most closely resemble in the coming years is that of pre-Tangentopoli Italy. Whether northern or southern Italy depends upon the country (Poland might be the former, Rumania is perhaps the latter) but the idea is the same: there will be some forms of robust private entrepreneurship, an enormous, untaxed, grey market, and large companies, some state-owned and some private, which enjoy deeply corrupt relationships with powerful politicians. Various forms of criminal Mafia will dominate some parts of the region; politicians will come to ‘represent’ various business interests, as they clearly do already, particularly in Russia. Some post-Soviet republics may, of course, slide further. Yegor Gaidar once said that Russia faced the choice between aspiring to be like America, or being forced to become like Africa. But Latin America is an option too: huge gaps between rich and poor, political violence, massive slums, perennially unstable fiscal and monetary policies.

Worse than the effect on politics and economics, though, is the effect which the denial of all guilt has on ordinary East Europeans themselves. Leaving aside the scandals which will continue to engulf successive regimes, leaving aside the lack of history which allows Mr Yeltsin to behave as he does in the Caucasus, there is another way in which the resurgence of old elites will have a powerful impact on the politics of Eastern Europe in the future: if scoundrels of the old regime go unpunished, good will in no way have been seen to triumph over evil. This may sound apocalyptic, but it is not politically irrelevant. The police do not need to catch all the criminals all the time for most people to submit to public order, but they need to catch a significant proportion. Nothing encourages lawlessness more than the sight of villains – even if they are merely people who took money for information, not concentration camp guards – getting away with it, living off their spoils, and laughing in the public’s face.

For millions of people, the failure to condemn the past proves that it does not pay to be decent. Tina Rosenberg wrote that “under communism, the lines of complicity ran like veins and arteries through the human body.” But that was patently not the case: there were people who collaborated far more than others. And from the current perspective, it seems to most people that the more you collaborated, the wiser you were. Those who got ahead in the past have got to keep their apartments, their dachas and control of the businesses which they bought up on the cheap. Millions of ordinary people, who were never seduced by the ideology, never joined the Party for the sake of a career, simply look foolish. Honesty does not pay; corruption does. Those who work hard do not succeed, those who murder and bribe their way to power and prominence do.

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Our failure in the West to understand the magnitude of what happened in Central Europe does not, of course, have the same profound implications for our way of life. Our tolerance for “gulag deniers” in our universities or admirers of communism in our press will not destroy the moral fabric of our society: the Cold War is over, after all, and there is no real intellectual or political force left in the communist or even the socialist parties of the West.

But there will be consequences. For one, our understanding of what is happening now in the former Soviet Union is distorted by our misunderstanding of history. Again, if we really felt – if we really, viscerally felt – that what Stalin did to the Chechens amounted to genocide, it is not only Yeltsin who would be unable to do the same things to him now, but we who would be unable to sit back with any equanimity and watch them. In fact, our response to the shocking invasion of Grozny, to the murder of many thousands of people, has been to turn away and call it an internal Russian matter: there is even some evidence that American intelligence may have been used in the (unsuccessful) attempt to defeat the Chechens. The moral horror which we would have felt following a German invasion Sudetenland in 1952, or which we do feel when we observe German neo-Nazism today, is simply not there in our attitudes to Russia.

Our approach to European security questions is distorted in similar ways. When Nazi Germany finally fell, the rest of the West mobilised in a way it never had done before, and may never do again. Both NATO and the European Community were created in part to cement Germany into the West, to prevent Germany from ever breaking away from civilised “normality” again. No such efforts have been made with either Central Europe or Russia. On the contrary: when the nations of Central Europe first petitioned to join NATO in 1991, the Bush administration treated them like unwanted guests. They were told to be quiet, to go home, to stop disrupting the world of “adult” diplomats and statesmen. There was no sense that they had a right to be afraid – even a right to be paranoid – about their national sovereignty, after the experience of forty years of occupation. Even now, as NATO membership for some Central European states begins to look possible, it is still possible to meet Western ambassadors in Central European capitals who complain privately that NATO expansion is a “great bother”, more trouble than it’s worth.

Finally, though, if we go on tolerating is our own history which we will go on misunderstanding. Why did we fight the Cold War, after all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole thing and forced two generations of Americans to go along with it? Or was there something more important happening? Was there a real ideological enemy, whose ideas and weapons really did threaten some of the most fundamental principles of our civilisation, whose political aim was to destroy the West, and whose political achievements included the destruction of the economies and civil societies of half of the European continent – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Eastern Germany, the nations of Yugoslavia, the Baltic States, Belorussia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – not to mention large parts of Africa and Asia as well?

I am afraid that it is only a matter of time before the latter proposition begins to seem true: until the Cold War seems like a joke got up by a few fanatics and “McCarthyites”, the NATO alliance seems like an expensive bother, the support for dissidents and human rights advocates in the former Soviet Union seems like the whim of a few ancient politicians with bees in their collective bonnets. Already, we are forgetting, very rapidly, what it was that mobilised us, what inspired us, what convinced our politicians to spend the billions which they undoubtedly did spend. Our elites are forgetting why the rest of the world still expects us to behave like a “moral” power, not merely a Machiavellian one; they will soon not understand why they American public responds to “moral” adventures abroad but not to cynical ones, an attitude which is one of the more profound legacies of the Cold War.

The change is already happening. Not long ago, I was in California, the land of lost history, and listened to an educated acquaintance complain at great length about the amount of money which the Cold War cost: asked whether he would have preferred to see a Western Europe dominated by communist regimes, he shrugged and said he didn’t much mind. Five decades worth of Western solidarity, carefully forged in the NATO alliance, a myriad of free trade agreements, a thousand summits and conferences: all had disappeared. His sense that there is something called Western civilisation, which needs, periodically, to be defended from challenges like the one once posed by communism – that had disappeared too.

As long as communism is not seen, along with National Socialism, as one of the great ills of our century, Californians and others will grow more inclined to see the Cold War as a waste of time and the West as a fiction. In the end it is we Americans who will not understand our past, we will not understand why the world perceives us as it does, we will not understand how our country came to be the way it is. In the end it is we who will wake up and realise that we do not know who we are.
Copyright 1997, Ivan R. Dee