Tuesday, January 25, 2005

After the Fall

The New York Times has published an interesting article by Tina Rosenberg about the very difficult process now underway in Poland to determine who was a collaborator under the Communist regime. The mechanisms for deciding this seem to be nothing short of faulty, with the result that injustices occur. As the article makes clear, similar problems have dogged the process in the Czech Republic:

Poland will have to continue struggling to balance between fairness for those the archives unjustly accuse and the openness that's necessary to encourage debate about what constitutes true collaboration and how Communism managed to induce it in so many people. Simply publishing the names of everyone who had ever been listed as a collaborator - the strategy espoused by some right-wing politicians who want to manipulate the files for political ends - would be a disaster.

Poland needs only to look to the Czech Republic for a lesson in doing this the wrong way. There, after Communism fell, people holding important government jobs were checked by the Interior Ministry against an index of secret police officers, collaborators and candidates for collaboration. The screeners did not read the files to look for actual evidence of guilt; those named lost their jobs. Versions of the lists leaked to the press, and despite being widely denounced as inaccurate, they were treated as gospel by many Czechs. This process slandered thousands of innocent people and perpetuated the Communist mentality of the enemies list. The policy has been softened, but its essence remains.

Among the accused was none other than Vaclav Havel. We know the details of his case only because he happened to be president of the Czech Republic when his file was opened. In it, he was named as a candidate for collaboration. According to the file, on June 23, 1965, one secret police captain Cinka went to the apartment of one dissident absurdist playwright Havel. Cinka wrote in the file: "The interview with Havel was concluded with our suggestion that in case of need we will contact him again. He agreed and said that he himself was glad he had talked to us, as it was an inspiration for further literary endeavors." On the basis of that, Cinka evaluated Havel as suitable for recruitment and recommended maintaining contact.

Evidently Cinka had no further success. Six months later, Mr. Havel was moved from the category of Candidate to that of Enemy, and there he stayed, piling up prison terms for the next 24 years. He included a house call from the secret police in his play "Notification."

The article goes on to illustrate the slightly different nature of the difficulties in Poland:

In Poland, by contrast with the Czech Republic, the files are controlled by a nonpolitical organization. Government officials cannot be fired for being collaborators. Instead, high officials must state whether they informed, and can be fired only if a special court determines they are now lying. These courts can also declare that an individual was a collaborator who did harm, but only after a long investigation. The court releases a detailed public explanation.

With individual consideration of each case, Poles can find out if an alleged informer signed an agreement and received a salary. They can know if someone agreed to collaborate because he was being blackmailed, or to end a long jail term, understandable if not admirable choices. The public can see what kind of information the agent provided.

Read it all. Via Marius, who tells me that this article was of particular interest to him, as he is travelling to his old country Poland this summer, "to see what kind of documents the secret services had collected and put in my file."

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