By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 24/05/07):
From Northern Ireland to Rwanda, and from Kosovo to East Timor, people face the problem of how to deal with a difficult past. Should you remember or forget? Should you use trials, purges, truth commissions, or simply throw open the archives? If you want a textbook example of how not to do it, take a look at Poland.Winston Churchill once said that there are few virtues the Poles do not possess and few mistakes they have not made. When it came to putting a peaceful end to communism, the Poles proved him wrong. Between 1979 (the first visit of the Polish pope to his native land) and 1989 (the end of communism negotiated by Solidarity at a round table), they were the European pioneers of a new kind of non-violent revolution. But they have subsequently made a complete mess of dealing with the communist past. Eighteen years after 1989, the red ghosts are still bedevilling Polish politics in a messy, dirty and sometimes farcical way.
Poland’s latest episode of black farce concerns its so-called lustration law, introduced by the country’s rightwing, nationalist prime minister and president, the near-identical twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, who came to power on a promise of finally cleansing the country’s public life of the red poison. Lustration, originally a Roman term for ritual purification, has come in post-communist Europe to mean the process of vetting people in public life to see if they collaborated with the former regime, and especially with its secret services; naming and shaming those who did; and sometimes excluding them from various public service positions as a result.
The new Polish law was very broadly and very badly drawn. Among the categories of people to be lustrated were all journalists and academics. A procedure was introduced by which everyone affected had to submit a declaration saying whether they had consciously and secretly collaborated with the communist security services.
When I was in Poland last month, everyone was talking about who had or had not “signed”. One of the architects of Poland’s peaceful transition from communism, Bronislaw Geremek, dramatically announced that he would not sign such a humiliating declaration. Spokesmen for the ruling Law and Justice party said he should lose his seat in the European parliament as a result. Cries of protest arose from all corners of our continent, where Professor Geremek is known and admired.
Earlier this month, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that large parts of the lustration law – including the blanket coverage of academics and journalists, and the individual declaration in its present form – were incompatible with the constitution. So the lustrators have to go back to the drawing board.
By now, everyone’s motives are hopelessly mixed. No more is this about what it might have been at the beginning: a genuine attempt to mark a new start for a young democracy. In the meantime, lustration has been instrumentalised by one part of Poland’s political elite, represented by the Kaczynski twins, in a struggle against another. Its target is as much the more left-liberal (for want of a better shorthand) side of the post-Solidarity opposition – people like Geremek – as it is the post-communists.
There’s also a generational twist. Several of the most energetic promoters of the lustration law are in their 30s and early 40s: the class of ’89. Not unlike the class of ’68 in West Germany, but this time from the right rather than the left, these angry young men (who themselves never had to face the difficult moral dilemmas of living under a dictatorship) confront an older generation with its failure to deal with a difficult past. Beneath that noble call for historical truth and justice, they too are saying – with the relentless self-righteousness of youth – our time has come.
What lessons might others learn? After 1989, the (roughly speaking) left-liberal, post-Solidarity leaders advanced several arguments for not making a public reckoning with the communist past, including lustration. They were initially in a coalition government with communists, who had just peacefully conceded power, and the Red Army was still there. There were more urgent things to do: building a market economy, a liberal democracy and the rule of law. Beyond that, some of them – such as Adam Michnik, the influential Solidarity activist and political writer – argued for doing it “the Spanish way”. Like Spain after Franco, Poland after Jaruzelski should let bygones be bygones.
This approach can now be seen to have failed. In fact, about the only place I know where it has succeeded is Spain – and even there, only at a price. In every other country where the nasty past was not confronted, it is still plaguing current politics. Having conducted a friendly argument about this with Adam Michnik for many years, I was amazed to open my copy of his paper, Gazeta Wyborcza, the other day and find him arguing that the only thing now, given the Polish mess, is to throw open all the secret police files. From one extreme to the other! But to do this, while protecting basic privacy rights, requires a scrupulously neutral, well-funded, professional archive administration, with well-trained personnel committed to ensuring that, for example, purely personal details drawn from secret police snooping on sex lives and medical histories are carefully blacked out on the photocopies of the records that are opened. Such an administration is precisely what Poland does not have in its highly politicised, chronically leaking Institute of National Memory. So to go down this route would probably add yet another layer of injustice, insult and injury.
There is, however, a version of the 1989 anti-lustration argument which is not about principle but timing. The case, which was recently put to me by no less an authority than Ralf Dahrendorf, goes like this: first lay the foundations for the future, then turn to tackling the past. First build your liberal democracy, market economy and the rule of law, as West Germany did in the 1950s and Poland in the 1990s; then you will be better placed to wrestle with the brown or red ghosts. This is a serious argument. Poland today, a member of Nato and the EU, with independent media, a booming economy and a constitutional court strong enough to strike down a bad law, is better placed to weather the storm than it would have been in the autumn of 1989. On the other hand, the storm has grown so much bigger in the meantime. Delay has its own heavy price. The poison accumulates in the system.
On balance, I remain convinced that the sooner you can do it the better. “It” should mean a rapid, scrupulous, individually appealable lustration of those in genuinely important positions in public life and, even more vital, some form of public reckoning with the larger issues of the difficult past. The necessary complement to a velvet revolution is something along the lines of a truth commission, which also gives people a sense of historical catharsis – otherwise often lacking in peaceful, negotiated transitions – and draws a clear line between dark past and better future.
God alone knows what Poland will do next. Indeed, in the absence of a Polish pope, I would suggest that God does need to get on the hot line Himself to the devoutly Catholic twins, and tell them how to sort this out. Meanwhile, at least other countries can learn from Poland’s mistakes.