The legacy of communism and the need to reunite European history

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Last month Prague hosted a major international conference on the crimes committed by the communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. Delegates from both sides of the former Iron Curtain discussed their research into atrocities that in many cases had been swept under the carpet for decades. To give a couple of examples: how many Europeans today remember that up to 130,000 people were executed in the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia in the aftermath World War II, or that in Romania hundreds of opponents to the Stalinist regime were shot by the Securitate and buried in unmarked mass graves between 1948 and 1952? Raluca Grosescu from Romania’s Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes points out that her institute’s work has involved a great deal more than just sifting through archives:

“What we had as a very important mission was to dig for common graves and to write the history of those groups who were never exhumed before the creation of our institute [in 2005]…”

So this is quite literally digging up graves and finding out who it was who was murdered, and when and how…

Raluca Grosescu
“… and by whom.”

And you’ve had success in that?

“Yes, in fact we found over 100 bodies in common graves. So we had a lot of success and I believe that this was very important for the families, because the families of these victims didn’t know where their relatives were buried and what happened to them.”

A common pattern emerges throughout the former Eastern Bloc, especially in the first years after World War II, of crimes on a huge scale, whose perpetrators, almost without exception, have never been brought to justice even twenty years after the fall of communism. In the case of Romania, Raluca Grosescu sees four main reasons for this:

“First of all is the lack of political interest of the Romanian political elites to come to terms with the past, because most of the post-communist political parties were created by former nomenklatura members and because they were still in power – and are still in power. The second reason is the fact that the prosecutors in charge of these files come from the old system, and in fact they are supposed to judge their colleagues or the system that formed them. The third reason is the lack of mobilization of civil society, because Romanian civil society is weak. The fourth reason is an ignorance of international law.”

Photo: www.ustrcr.cz
To a greater or lesser extent there is a similar story in many of the former Eastern Bloc countries. Unlike in the aftermath of World War II, there has been little international coordination to deal systematically and consistently with the crimes committed by communist states against their own citizens. With EU expansion this is no longer a matter that Western Europe can ignore, but the lack of broad public awareness in the old EU countries of what happened behind the Iron Curtain is striking. Recent research in Sweden showed that while most teenagers were well informed about the horrors of World War II, few had even heard of the Soviet Gulags.

This is how the Latvian MEP and former dissident Sandra Kalniete summed up the key issue confronted by the conference:

“The task really is to reunite European history, because it is not enough for Europe to be reunited politically and economically. We have to reunite our consciousness.”

And at this point, she argues, it is important for European Union institutions to become involved:

“It is the task of Europeans to create the instruments and institutions to raise that knowledge, and one of the most important parts of that process is to allocate sufficient financial resources. We have a few programmes now, but I remember that we had to fight before the programme on the remembrance of totalitarian regimes, established on the insistence of the ministers of culture of the Baltic States, was finally also applied to Stalinism.”

And where does the resistance come from?

Sandra Kalniete, photo: www.ustrcr.cz
“First of all, for Western Europe, what happened behind the Iron Curtain is something from the past, which happened long ago. Secondly, there is a part of the ideology in socialist parties, which maybe is in need of being revised. And then of course, there is a very powerful factor, which is Russia itself. Probably you have heard that the Russian Duma is discussing a move which would criminalize any person having a different view on the consequences of the Second World War in Europe. What is also important is that political elites in new member states, partly at least, still come from that background.”

It has proved surprisingly difficult to get the question of the communist past onto the European political agenda and still harder to reach consensus. In 2005 the European Parliament passed a resolution to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and at the time a group of Central and Eastern European MEPs tried to persuade their parliamentary colleagues to include a paragraph pointing out that the war also led to the crimes of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. One of its initiators was Jana Hybášková from the Czech Republic.

“In 2005 this paragraph was not voted through and there was very strong opposition from Members of Parliament from Western Europe. This rang a warning bell, because we thought, we are now one Europe, we live together, and so Europe has to admit that communism was not an exotic issue of easterners coming somewhere from Asia, but that this drastic episode is a common part of our unified European history.”

Jana Hybášková, photo: www.ustrcr.cz
Eventually, in 2009, a resolution was passed in the European Parliament, entitled “European Conscience and Totalitarianism”, which stated that “there can be no reconciliation without truth and remembrance". This was then approved by the Council of Ministers. But for many at the Prague conference, this was not enough. Raluca Grosescu:

“I believe that we have to fight in order to find legal solutions to consider communist crimes as crimes against humanity and to judge these crimes, in order to give a message to the further generation that this thing mustn’t happen again.”

Jana Hybášková shares this view. She calls for what she describes as a “moral tribunal” – a kind of European court for the crimes of communism.

“What we are trying to do is to find enough political will to call for a commission of lawyers, or for a kind of moral tribunal which can decide that communism is a crime against humanity. Of course we cannot use the usual international legal way, which is the United Nations, since China and Russia, of course, will not allow for any international tribunal court deciding about communism.”

And so are you actually talking about bringing specific perpetrators to justice?

“Yes. Definitely.”

In a concluding statement at the Prague conference, delegates expressed their support for such a tribunal. However, the chances of it becoming a reality in the near future are virtually zero.

But what is clear from conferences like this is that the legacy of communism is at last being seen as a pan-European issue that should not and cannot be swept under the carpet. As one of the delegates pointed out, only the victims themselves have the right to forgive and forget.