Coming to terms with the Communist Past

November 1989, Prague - Wenceslas Square

Hello and thanks for tuning in to this final edition of Central Europe Today. Some 13 years ago, at the end of 1989, the Communist regimes of central and eastern Europe collapsed, bringing an end to four long decades of oppressive, totalitarian rule and yet, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia that have been independent democracies for over a decade are still referred to as post-Communist countries and their Communist background still remains very much alive today.

November 1989,  Prague - Wenceslas Square
"Perhaps one of those defining lines is that it is the less educated people who are less concerned, to put it mildly, with the issue of the Communist past being treated, being healed. It is the educated classes, the politicians, the media, who are much more interested in coming to terms with the Communist past. Then again, it is for different moral and political reasons. It is exactly in this segment of society where the lines of division regarding the coming back to the past, the not so old history of twelve or twenty years, are still very deep. But that does not apply to the society at large, I would say."

According to Polish journalist and former Communist dissident, Adam Szostkiewicz, for the people at large, the issue of coming to terms with their Communist past is a non-issue for many and different reasons. Some people just do not want to think about it, return to all those very delicate and sometimes very brutal memories. Others feel there is not much that can be done after all those years and that there are more important things on the national agenda, such as the economy, unemployment, living standards. It is not about the past but about the present and the future.

"It is sometimes extremely difficult even for younger people to live a good life because there still is this shortage of housing, for example. So, the freedom of movement, of circulation, of searching for better life opportunities is limited by those very harsh and brutal realities of post-Communism. Tens of years of Communist rule, of a Communist economy. Of course, there are very serious social consequences of this."

... and the social consequences are still very visible. With the transformation process to the free market economy being long and difficult, the people of post-Communist Central Europe are losing patience.

Havel giving his first speech as Czechoslovak President

Vaclav Havel's first public speech as Czechoslovak President on December 29th 1989. From the balcony of Prague Castle, the former dissident promised to provide a better life with freedom and democracy in exchange for patience and endurance. Thirteen years after the promise, most Czechs no longer believe that their generation will experience this change. For them, the transformation is a never-ending process especially since further patience is required as preparations for EU membership continue.

"We are going through a process of disillusionment with the transformation because the social price that is to be paid for this is very high. Of course, not all of us are beneficiaries of all those changes which are really very deep and sometimes shocking, given the pace of the changes. People living in big cities who have a better education and better access to all sorts of information and contacts are much more enthusiastic about the changes and the modernisation and to a certain degree they are quite ready to pay a personal price. This gap between those who do benefit from all those changes and those who do not is growing wider and wider."

Karel Kryl, one of the Czech Republic's most vocal dissidents, expressing his anger and frustration with Communism in his songs. But according to Mr Szostkiewicz, not all dissidents have found a way of coping with the past. With most of them being artists, intellectuals, and students, many began to feel empty after the feeling of euphoria faded just years after the fall of the Communist regimes.

"People sometimes feel alienated from the mainstream and that is enough for them to feel furious sometimes because they feel excluded. They are not ready to go through a detailed analysis why they are alienated. Have they tried strong enough to find a place for themselves in this new situation or have they not? They are not ready to ask themselves those very serious and painful questions because sometimes the answer might be that they have not tried."

Whilst Mr Szostkiewicz feels that many of his dissident colleagues have not made an effort to lead comfortable lives in the new democracies, he believes that post-Communist Central Europe itself has made attempts at dealing with its past. The so-called 'lustrace', or screening laws, came into force in the early 1990s with the purpose of preventing former Communist secret agents and other people associated with the former regime from taking government and civil service posts. Whilst some have criticised these measures, arguing that they institutionalise the failed principle of collective guilt, others feel it is the least the governments could do. There have also been several attempts at bringing high ranking Communist functionaries to justice. The dilemma here, however, is that it is difficult to prove them guilty of violating basic human rights without violating the guiding principles of the rule of law, a civil society, and democracy.

"All those post-Communist East European societies have to go through a cycle of psychosis. On one hand, the majority of people in this part of Europe say that there is of course no comparison to the freedom and the democracy that we have now. But on the other hand, they say that they wish that the Communist times were back because they felt more secure. So, perhaps this issue of security is one of the most central issues in the post-Communist era in Central Europe. All in all I would say there is a light of hope in this tunnel of transformation and modernisation. Part of it is a coming to terms with the Communist past but it cannot be forced on the people. It should be a more genuine, grass-roots process."