NYT: Eastern Europe, Bulgaria Reconcile with Communist Past*

Views on BG | February 23, 2012, Thursday // 16:28
NYT Eastern Europe, Bulgaria Reconcile with Communist Past: NYT: Eastern Europe, Bulgaria Reconcile with Communist Past* Bulgaria's newly elected President, Rosen Plevneliev, promised to remove ambassadors and diplomats who worked with the Communist state security apparatus. Photo by BGNES

New York Times

By NICHOLAS KULISH, Joanna Berendt contributed reporting

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 the unfinished business. 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." Bulgaria's president is trying to purge ambassadors who served as security agents. The Macedonian government is busy hunting for collaborators, and Hungary's new Constitution allows legal action against former Communists.

On Sunday in Germany, 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 Poland's Institute of National Remembrance. 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 a long-awaited reckoning.

Reconciling with the past is an issue that has hovered over post-Communist Europe for 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-serving dictators, raising similarly uncomfortable questions about individual complicity in autocratic regimes.

Arab nations are forced to grapple with the same issues of guilt and responsibility that Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe are once again beginning to seriously mine. Time makes 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 look inward.

The sudden turn to the past in Europe is not just in the realm of 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 episode in 1970 when government troops gunned down dozens of 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 stymied by public apathy. The movie was a hit last year precisely because of the unsettling subject matter: unarmed protesters and innocent 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, the court that ruled on the Communist leaders from 1981, when martial law was imposed, gave just a two-year suspended sentence to the interior minister at the time, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former Communist leader of Poland who declared martial law, was found medically unfit to stand trial last year.

In Bulgaria, the newly elected president promised to remove ambassadors and diplomats who worked with the Communist state security apparatus, even as it was recently revealed that 11 of the country's 15 highest-ranking bishops were former agents; the president's plan has run into opposition in the courts. In Macedonia, part of the former Yugoslavia, the constitutional court last month temporarily halted government plans to expand the search for former agents and collaborators.

In Latvia on Saturday, voters rejected a proposal to make Russian the country's second official language, underscoring the difficulties in coming to terms with the Soviet heritage there. During the recent demonstrations in Romania, signs and chants by protestors in Bucharest equated the increasingly unpopular, and critics say ever more authoritarian, President Traian Basescu with the deposed dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

And even in Albania, one of the poorest nations in Europe, the national museum on Monday opened a new pavilion focusing on the abuses of Communism under the dictator Enver Hoxha.

The resurfacing a generation later of these issues is not entirely without controversy, often driven by hard-line governments and prompting accusations of score-settling and political opportunism.

In Germany, domestic intelligence agents have been observing dozens of members of Parliament from the Left Party, which includes elements of the former East Germany's governing Socialist Unity Party. "That they are seriously still doing this in the year 2012, that really floored me," said Gregor Gysi, head of the Left Party parliamentary group and one of the politicians being watched. "They still think in the categories of the cold war."

When Hungary's new Constitution went into effect on Jan. 1, it expressly rejected the validity of the Communist Constitution while opening the door for future legal action. "We deny any statute of limitations for the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens under the National Socialist and Communist dictatorships," the Constitution says.

According to Istvan Rev, director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, the successor to the Communist Party returned to power too quickly in 1994. "They came back to power too soon, just four years after the changes, and didn't feel the need to confront the past in a serious way," Mr. Rev said.

In most cases these revolutions were not complete overthrows, but moderated transitions of power. The Communist authorities stepped aside, but with conditions.

In Poland the return of the post-Communists came even more quickly than in Hungary, with the Democratic Left Alliance winning in 1993, reinforcing cleavages in Polish society between those ready to move on and those who could not.

"I expected some kind of Nuremberg for Communism," said Tadeusz Pluzanski, whose father was tortured by the Communist secret police. "There was no revolution," he said, "just this transformation process."

Mr. Pluzanski published a book in October about the experiences of his father and others with the provocative title "Beasts," the cover marked by red splashes like bloodstains. To his surprise, the first two printings, 6,000 copies, quickly sold out and a third printing is on its way to bookstores.

"With dictatorship comes a dark heritage and after the dictatorship is gone; at first no one wants to deal with it," said Antoni Dudek, a member of the board at the Institute of National Remembrance in Poland. "Usually it comes with the new generation that is ready to ask inconvenient questions."

Zygmunt Miloszewski, 35, included a subplot about surviving elements of the secret police in his 2007 crime novel "Entanglement." The book became a best seller and was made into a movie last year. "I have a feeling since this time wasn't explained at all, the foundations of my country are fractured," said Mr. Miloszewski in an interview, his youthful features accentuated by his scraggly beard and disheveled hair.

In both the novel and the film, fictional researchers at the Institute of National Remembrance play a role in unraveling the mystery. The law creating the actual institute was passed in 1998 and work began in 2000. Today the institute keeps the equivalent of nearly 12 miles of files in 11 branches and 7 smaller offices across Poland, with an annual budget of roughly million.

The institute has hosted conferences and symposia and worked with teachers on lesson plans, as well as publishing more than 800 titles about the Nazi occupation and the Communist period. The institute also helped support Mr. Krauze's film "Black Thursday."

When Mr. Krauze began filming in Gdynia in 2010, he found that the support for the project ran deep in the local population, with volunteers spontaneously pitching in to shovel snow, local government officials clearing the way with permits and businesses waiving location fees. "You could clearly see people wanted this story told," Mr. Krauze said.

When it came time for the film's premiere last February, he said he was still unsure what to expect, with not only the Polish prime minister and the speaker of Parliament in attendance, but also the widow of one of the victims who played a central role in the film's plot. As the credits rolled, Mr. Krauze received a standing ovation.

*The title was changed by Novinite.com

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