Absent history

Without Nuremberg trials or public memorials to the millions who died in the gulags, post-communist countries cannot come to terms with their past. Anne Applebaum describes the moral and political squalor which results from allowing the criminals of the old regimes to go unpunished
April 19, 1996

In 1944, Primo Levi arrived at Auschwitz; years later, he described the event in his memoir, If This Is A Man: "Then the lorry stopped, and we saw a large door, and above it a sign, brightly illuminated (its memory still strikes me in my dreams): Arbeit Macht Frei." That was the image which Levi recorded. It is also the image that comes into the minds of millions of people when they hear the word Auschwitz: the gate, the sign, the slogan; sometimes train tracks too.

But had the Nazi guards had their way, that is not an image which would have remained, in Levi's mind, or anyone else's: the Nazi guards had not intended that there should be any survivors of Auschwitz; nor did they want to leave any evidence of what had happened there. After dismantling the Treblinka camp in 1943, the Germans sowed the fields with grain, planted pine trees and used the bricks from the crematorium to build a farmhouse. But because they left Auschwitz in a hurry, and because Auschwitz was so huge, several thousand people did survive. Some physical evidence, famously, remains to this day: rusting gates, watchtowers, heaps of clothes, suitcases.

Since then, the camp itself has become so familiar that we take its existence for granted: it is marked on maps, mentioned in guidebooks, visited on day trips from Krak?w. Along with dozens of similar sites, it serves as a physical reminder-to Germans, and to the rest of the world-of what happened. But what if it were not there? What if the buildings of Auschwitz, the monument to the Warsaw ghetto uprising, the photographs taken at Belsen-had disappeared?

Worse, what if the absence of physical monuments were combined with an absence of history? What if Germans had never read about the Holocaust? What if German bureaucrats objected to the construction of Holocaust museums and memorials? What if there were no guilt about the Holocaust in Germany at all?

To imagine what such a world would be like-in other words, to imagine what Germany would be like if there had never been a Nuremberg trial-it is necessary only to attempt to ponder the millions who died in Stalin's gulags. Try to do it, and no images come to mind-because there aren't any.

There was no conquering power to discover the Siberian camps and photograph their inmates, and there were very few older photographs at all: a British television company I recently worked with tried to find film from the gulags, and was told that none remained. There are witnesses, of course, and during the 1980s, when perestroika began, it seemed for a time as if the hunger for their tales was unquenchable. But now, such books are scarcely reviewed in Russia. "People don't want to hear any more about the past," I was told last year by Lev Razgon, author of one of the most popular Russian survivors' accounts, and now virtually forgotten.

Since the collapse of communism, in fact, the history of communist crimes is probably told less frequently, not more. At least before the Berlin wall fell, parents who remembered the past felt a duty to tell it to their children. During the heady days of perestroika, the first official publications of the work of Solzhenitsyn and other survivors proved hugely popular in Russia, while a series of "revelations"-of the Hitler-Stalin pact, for example-from the Soviet archives made headlines across the old Soviet bloc. As a gift to the Poles, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted for the first time that Stalin, not Hitler, gave the order to murder thousands of Polish officers at Katyn.

Now the 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 camps, is an unimportant organisation, without money or national presence. Memorial, the group in Russia which has dedicated itself to documenting and publishing the history of the gulag, is hardly at 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. In his book about Russia, Imperium, 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... I walked further, but on the next street, the same thing: many people. 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 eastern and central European cities it is possible to find the occasional, usually very modest, memorial. In one Warsaw suburb, a priest has put up a very moving monument to the victims of communism; 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 in Wenceslas Square, where visitors can lay flowers.

But these efforts are small and scattered and often stymied by post-communist authorities refusing to put up monuments. The Belorussian government has refused to devote resources to building a monument outside Minsk, where thousands were shot in the forests (bones still poke up from among the leaves). The same Belorussian authorities objected to President Bill Clinton's wish to visit the forests on his recent trip to Minsk; the presidential entourage agreed to stay away. The Russian government is also hampering the construction of a 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, 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 after all committed by the Nazis, not by the Soviet Union, and describes the dead officers as "aggressive idiots," servants of a Polish state which resembled a "gluttonous European prostitute." Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the resurgent Russian Communist party, recently told reporters that only 680,000 people were murdered by the Soviet state, 15m less than most western historians estimate.

but what really marks the difference between postwar Germany and post-communist eastern and central Europe is not the lack of photographs and historical memory and 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. During that decade, only a handful of people have been put on trial or called to account in any way.

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. Until recently, most of the men who carried out the Katyn massacres were still alive. The KGB conducted an interview with one of them before he died-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 attach? of the Polish embassy in Moscow. There was no suggestion that the man on tape should have been returned to Warsaw for trial.

True, there have been one or two highly publicised trials: a few east German border guards, a KGB chief in Latvia, a Czech Stalinist who assisted the Russian invasion of 1968. In Poland the trial of Adam Humer, accused of brutal torture during the brief Stalinist era, received little attention in the press. Perhaps that was why, when confronted with one of his victims, an elderly woman, he felt perfectly comfortable in replying: "Shut up, you old bitch." In Russia, where admittedly the problem of the guilty is huge, there has not even been a symbolic trial, a mini-Nuremberg, an attempt to point a finger at anyone.

It can be argued that such trials are not a successful way of dealing with the past, nor are they easy to carry out. The Nuremberg trials themselves were fraught with contradictions (not the least of which was the presence of Soviet judges who knew 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 were notoriously corrupt, and easily swayed by personal jealousies-but 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. Nuremberg took place directly after the war, when the perpetrators of terrible crimes still had blood on their hands.

It is also true that-if the comparison is to be made-the Germans themselves were not, during the 20 years after the end of the war, very eager to discuss the Nazi past either. Yet in postwar Germany, Nazi memorabilia was illegal and the Nazi party was banned. The German state also paid enormous reparations to individual Jews 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 Nuremberg; the groundwork was laid for the younger generation to discover the past. By the 1960s, when the national debate finally began-sparked, in fact, by the trial of Auschwitz guards-it was at least possible for the children of Nazis to discover what their parents had done. By the 1980s, the past had become a national obsession: hardly an evening passed without a programme on German television dealing with the war.

In eastern and central Europe, by contrast, communist symbols 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, cars and homes. Retired communist party members continue to receive outsize pensions. No other political party can match their wealth because no other political party existed in post-communist Europe before 1989. Partly as a result, in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and now Russia, well funded former communist parties are enjoying a revival. No groundwork is being laid for the next generation to discover, or to condemn, their past.

Oddly enough, the only systematic attempts to confront the past have involved not Stalinist criminals, but petty bureaucrats; not trials, but vetting procedures. At issue has been what is known as "lustration": the opening of files which contain names of former secret police informers. Vigorous debates about lustration took place in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and East Germany, among others-mainly revolving 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 files.

Frequently, debates about lustration have become the focus for broader debates about the past-which is hardly surprising, given that the past has not been expiated in any other way. Without memorials, without trials, many central Europeans came to expect too much of lustration; they believed that lustration would help clear the air altogether. Perhaps as a result, 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 files, emerged shocked at how many of his old colleagues had in fact been informers. He later led the fight against lustration.

Elsewhere, 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 do not want to confess their guilt, or be associated with the crimes of others. Boris Yeltsin is only one of hundreds of former Soviet politicians in this category.

In the end, only the Czech and the German governments passed laws allowing access by ordinary citizens to their files. In the Czech Republic, people who had previously worked as informers or as high-ranking communists cannot hold elected office. In former East Germany, some high-ranking former communists also lost their jobs. The results are there to see: although the political scene in most of central and eastern Europe is dominated by former communists, neither the Czech Republic, nor former East Germany, is led by former communists.

Does it matter? Does the failure to open files, to discuss the past, to build museums at Vorkuta, to ban ex-communists from politics, make any difference? In eastern and central Europe, there are still people who believe that lustration would have been a national disaster, that the past should be left untouched, that trials would be a distraction. (True, there are fewer now: in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper which led the fight against lustration, has since recanted.)

In the west, an influential argument has also been mounted against all attempts to examine and condemn the behaviour of communist regimes. This argument was most eloquently put in a book which recently won the National Book Award in the US, Tina Rosenberg's The Haunted Land. Rosenberg, after enumerating the many complexities and drawbacks of lustration and war crimes trials, concludes that no reckoning should have been carried out at all. She approves of trials for Latin American dictators, but not for east Europeans, because she makes a 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," she writes. (Nazis were also "idealists"-having ideals should never be an excuse for mass murder.)

But most of Rosenberg's argument-like the arguments of others 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, persecution of innocent people, moral self-righteousness and (figurative) burnings at the stake.

As things turned out, with one or two notable exceptions, there have been few unjust persecutions of former communists, because there have been hardly any persecutions of any kind. There is little evidence of obsession with the past, because the past is not remarked upon at all. Yet neither Rosenberg nor anyone else who made this argument has ever bothered to ask what the absence of lustration or official condemnation of the past might also do to civil society, and to popular awareness of concepts such as "justice" and "public morality"-or, more importantly, to contemporary political behaviour.

Compare, once again, the role of history in the politics of postwar Germany and the politics of post-Soviet Russia. In modern Germany, the memory of the second world war continues to matter tremendously. Germany's commitments to Nato, and to the EU, both derive from fears of repeating the past; Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, has explicitly stated his desire to lock Germany permanently into a European superstate-to prevent Germany from misbehaving again. As recently as last year, the German parliament debated for weeks over sending peacekeeping troops abroad: the 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 blithely to 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.

The effects of the failure to remember the past elsewhere are less dramatic, but no less damaging. Compare Poland (where the files were not opened) and the Czech Republic (where they were). The Czechs went through a very brief period of obsession with spies, secret agents, and personal files, while they carried out their lustration programme. Mistakes were made, as Tina Rosenberg recorded; some people who felt that they were innocent were excluded from national politics (but from nothing else). Some unattractive young people, none of whom had ever faced their parents' dilemmas, made use of lustration for their own ends. Now the wave of interest in the subject is subsiding-but the stigma attached to communism remains. As noted above, the Czech Republic is one of the few countries 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. Jozef Oleksy, the Polish prime minister, was forced to resign over the issue: he had been accused of having been a KGB spy, indeed of remaining one after 1989. This information came from the then Polish president Lech Walesa. Why did Walesa have privileged access to the files? What is the truth about Oleksy's position? Nobody has answers. And so it will go on-the presence of secrets will weigh heavily on politicians, poisoning public life.

the return of elites who are associated with the totalitarian past will also have a profound impact on the shape of the economies of eastern and central Europe. 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 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 not of a wholesome kind. For all the talk of liberalism 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 postwar Italy. There will be some robust private entrepreneurs, an enormous, untaxed, grey market, and large companies, some state-owned, some private, enjoying corrupt relationships with politicians. Various forms of Mafia will dominate parts of the region; politicians will come to "represent" various business interests, as they do already, particularly in Russia. Yegor Gaidar once said that Russia faced the choice between aspiring to be like America, or being forced to become like Africa. Latin America is an option too: huge gaps between rich and poor, political violence, massive slums, 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: if scoundrels of the old regime go unpunished, good will not have been seen to triumph over evil. This may sound apocalyptic, but it is relevant. 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 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 today's perspective, it seems that the more you collaborated, the wiser you were. Those who got ahead in the past have kept their dachas and the businesses which they bought 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 do.

Communism is over, in other words, but the communist hangover has just begun. And without an honest discussion of the communist era, we should expect the morning after to last well into the next generation. Everywhere, the past continues to play a shadowy role in the present, affecting politics, morals, business, everyday life. And there will be more to come. Expect "revelations" about politicians, usually from their enemies. Expect scandals, based on events which took place long ago. Expect the rise of a generation which does not know what its parents lived through. Thanks to that generation, expect a resurgence of imperial emotions in Russia; elsewhere, expect attempts to bring back close state control over individual behaviour. "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting," wrote Milan Kundera in 1979. In 1979, those words were thought to be merely descriptive. Soon, they may look prophetic.