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Great (Unmet) Expectations : Managing the East's moral transition to democracy : THE HAUNTED LAND: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism, By Tina Rosenberg (Random House: $25; 448 pp.)

August 13, 1995|David Rieff | David Rieff's most recent book is "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West" (Vintage)

It could hardly have been expected that many Eastern European dissidents during the Communist era would spend their time mapping out in practical terms how they would deal with the legacy of communism. For all their heroism, people in the East did not really imagine the fall of the Soviet empire any more than people in the West did. When they did think about the future, it was in the broad sense of replacing injustice with justice, communism with democracy. The more down-to-earth issues of how to move from one to the other arose less frequently.

And yet, as Tina Rosenberg demonstrates in her fine book "The Haunted Land," managing the moral transition was bound to be as critical to the success of these societies as any economic undertaking. How the new democracies of Eastern Europe dealt with their collective past was the first test of whether tolerance and the rule of law would prevail.

Rosenberg examines the efforts of the people and governments of Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. From the time she began traveling to Eastern Europe in 1991, she writes, "I watched as these nations debated the facts of their Communist Party leaders, border guards who shot fleeing citizens, secret police informers and spies."

She chronicles various responses of the new states, ranging from the decision by the German government to put Erich Honecker and other members of the East German leadership on trial and the Polish government's trial of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, to the Czech government's passing of a "lustration law"--a measure that prohibited members of the old regime from holding public office. Rosenberg also chronicles, at times quite movingly, the response of individuals, particularly within the dissident movement, as they discovered who among their friends, colleagues and, in some instances, spouses had been police informers.

About the efforts of states, Rosenberg is caustic. For her, lustration laws and public trials are counterproductive and morally suspect. In their approach, they remind her unpleasantly of the communist period. Too often, she insists, the process of confronting the past was one in which the new regimes showed themselves eager to arrogate all authority to themselves. These governments, she writes, were unwilling to grant their citizens "the right to defend themselves from [state] power," withheld information about what actually went on, and have "twisted the legal system to suit political ends." The result has been the re-emergence of unchecked state power, which, in Rosenberg's view, is the deepest evil of the communist system.

It is a gloomy picture. In effect, what Rosenberg is suggesting in "Haunted Lands" is that communism has been replaced less by the rule of democracy and by civil society, than by an anti-communism that at times greatly resembles what came before. The former Communist rulers, the border guards who carried out orders to shoot to kill and the web of secret police informers may indeed by guilty of everything the state-run prosecutions and commissions of inquiry accused them of. But by denying them much due process, or the opportunity to clear their names, Rosenberg argues, the new states have fallen into what is in effect the old Communist trap: supplying the people with ready-made moral judgments supplied by the state, rather than allowing people to come to their own judgments.

This is not to say that Rosenberg dismisses the need for trials altogether. In cases of torture, murder and disappearance, she insists, justice is an absolute necessity. But, she writes, important though trials are, what is essential to the survival of democracy in Eastern Europe is for individuals to sit in judgment, privately and informally, on their own actions during the Communist period. What is needed, Rosenberg writes, is "a society-wide examination of how the dictatorship maintained its power, especially its relationship to ordinary citizens. For citizens to acknowledge their own part in maintaining a repressive regime will require great courage, but it is crucial to preventing dictatorship's return."

Rosenberg writes moving of how the problem with communism was that "its utopian landscape . . . was stocked with ordinary people." So she must be aware that the kind of self-examination by individuals that she is calling for is itself something of a utopian project. Indeed, if there is an intellectual flaw in the argument of "Haunted Lands," it is Rosenberg's failure to come to terms with the possibility that if the new post-Communist states have dominated the process of judging--and, equally importantly, of defining--the Communist past, this is not just some legacy of Communist conformity and fear, but because people in Eastern Europe are more comfortable not having to examine their own conduct too closely.

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