Draft resolution

Resolution 1096


Communist Terror
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Decommunization > Decommunization



Czech Republic





Trials, Purges and History Lessons

by Timothy Ash


...In what was then still Czechoslovakia, two senior functionaries were convicted after 1990 for their part in the repression of anti-regime 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 which '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 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 1970-71. A number of senior figures were charged with causing the deaths of striking workers during martial law in 1981-2. 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 Hungarian case is an interesting contrast. Here parliament initially passed a law which, 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.


...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 job 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 seventeenth to the nineteenth 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 III 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 labour 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: to the end of June 1996 more than 1.7 million vetting enquiries 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'.

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 anti-communist 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 post-communist 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 post-communist president of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, 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 post-communist 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.

History Lessons

You might think that this model would be particularly well suited to the post-communist 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 judgements represent compromises between 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 focus 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.


...Virtually all the archives of the former GDR are open, and provide a marvellous treasure trove for the study of a communist state.

...The research department of the Gauck Authority, for example, is partly staffed by younger historians from the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, famous for its studies of Nazism.

...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 identity. 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 500,000 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.

...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 significantly improved. 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.

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 file. 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 judgements 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 which 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 programme, the Catholic nationalist leader of the Solidarity Electoral Alliance, Marian Krzaklewski, called for a 'lustration archive on the model of the Gauck Authority’.

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