Shadow of the Files

For the past 15 years, every time I’ve returned to Warsaw — a city I first saw shrouded in the gloom of martial law — I’ve been surprised anew by the scale of the changes. Every year there are more new buildings and more small businesses. Every year the middle class seems larger, and the once-vast gap between the average Pole and the average European seems smaller. Last week was no exception. While I was there, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was also in Warsaw, while the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was in Washington — and nobody made a fuss about either visit. Business as usual, in other words, in an ex-communist country that is now an active member of NATO and the European Union.

Yet not everything has changed. Quite by accident, my visit to Warsaw also coincided with the unexpectedly fierce renewal of a debate that last gripped the country a decade ago. At stake was a list of actual and potential secret police informers, preserved intact from the communist era, discovered in an archive, electronically copied by a journalist, and then somehow posted, in an unverifiable form, on the Internet. Since it appeared the country has been convulsed by an intense, deja vu frenzy. One acquaintance told me that she walked into her office the morning after the story broke and found everyone silently scanning the list with their doors shut, looking for the names of friends, neighbors or themselves. The list was the most sought-after item on Polish Google. On the day I visited, crowds of people were standing outside the Institute of National Memory, where the files are kept, clamoring to see their files.

Yet the semi-accidental appearance of the semi-secret list is the result of decisions made more than 10 years ago. Soon after the fall of communism, the ex-dissidents who took control of the Polish government decreed that they would not conduct any form of “lustration,” or political vetting, of anybody who came into the new government. Unlike the West Germans, who gave East Germans access to their police files, the new Polish leadership kept the files locked up. Partly they feared the social consequences, partly they wanted to protect their friends, and partly that was the deal they made with the outgoing communists. When some accused them of hiding the truth, they called their opponents “witch-hunters.” After a few rounds of name-calling, the argument petered out.

Yet in the intervening decade, the specter of the “files” kept haunting politics. More than one politician was brought down by rumors of his secret agent past. More than one journalist became the victim of a whispering campaign. Some pointed out that those in power still had access to the files and could use them for bribery or blackmail. Some pointed out that the Russian government still had some copies, too, and would presumably not feel shy about using them either. Slowly attitudes thawed, and access to the files became possible. But because there was no broader discussion, shock and misinformation followed publication of “The List” on the Internet. In a different society, the result might have been murder or violence.

Given how moribund the whole issue seemed until last week, it is remarkable how many people seem to agree that a real discussion of the past — one that could provide the context for a simple list of names — is long overdue. “We should have been talking about this 15 years ago,” people kept telling me. Despite much effort, in other words, restricting access to the files didn’t make them go away.

This Polish experience is hardly unique. Not long ago I spent an evening with a group of young politicians and economists from around the world, all of whom had come to spend a semester at Yale University. I brought up this subject — how to discuss the undemocratic past in a new democracy — in a conversation about Russia, where locking up the secret police files has helped former secret police officers return to power. It quickly became clear that almost everyone in the room, whether from South Africa, Chile or Slovakia, had grappled with some version of the problem. So had the Iraqi Kurd. And their conclusions were simple and unanimous: Whether through public debate, trials or parliamentary investigations, the crimes of the past have to be dealt with. In some fashion, justice has to be served if the new democracy is to be perceived as a just society.

It’s worth remembering those conclusions this week, as Iraq forms a new government, and it’s worth remembering them in general, as we analyze what has happened there over the past two years. It is certainly possible that “de-Baathification” — the removal of Saddam Hussein’s officials from power — went too far and too deep. It’s also possible that Iraq might have been worse off in the long run if it hadn’t happened at all. Either way, if Hussein’s crimes are not discussed now, and if the Baathist archives, many still in the possession of the CIA, are not made accessible to Iraqis, they will continue to haunt Iraqi public life. Whether in Central Europe, southern Africa or the Middle East, the more information that is made public about the past, the less the past can be used to influence the politics of the present.

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