The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism.
First, the central square in Sofia, Bulgaria, on a clear, cold Saturday afternoon in November 1989: Half a million Bulgarians stand together, many of them weeping and hugging strangers. They are stupid with joy. In a nation that has never known anything other than government-by-thugs, they are suddenly and bewilderingly free. After four hours of singing and chanting "Dem-O-Kratz-See-Ya," a computer operator named Mario Musilev walks home with his wife. Both are drunk on visions of the future. "It is a situation in my country that I just can't believe," he says. "We have no tradition of democracy. But we can learn."
Second, two years later, the ruins of Vukovar in the former Yugoslavia on a rainy November afternoon: The Serb-controlled Yugoslav Army is hosting a press luncheon to explain why it had to pulverize this city on the Danube in order to save it from the Croats. Before the meal, the Serbian high command stops the bus in the front of a bombed-out hospital. As reporters pile off, a Serb officer explains that "massacre victims are to the right." In a garden, heaped together in the mud, are the bodies of about 60 civilians, many of them elderly men and women. Several of them have skulls that appear to have been popped open with axes. Grayish brain tissue has spilled on their faces and shoulders. Eyes have been gouged out and arms hacked off. After showing off the dead, whom reporters are assured were all killed by merciless Croats, the Serb tour guide explains it is time to eat. Soup and bread are served in a freezing hotel dining room that has been ventilated by months of Serbian shelling. Plum brandy is poured and a wild-eyed Serb colonel makes a toast: "I would ask you to see the fate of Vukovar as the reincarnation of fascism."
I don't think I am alone in succumbing to the power of these images. Similar pictures of joyful revolution and nauseating violence have come to dominate whatever shared recollections Americans may have of the changes that erupted in Eastern Europe in 1989. Sadly, the endless procession of violent television images coming out of the former Yugoslavia may have by now purged memories of the extraordinary civility that characterized most of Communism's fall. Does anyone remember that dissidents in Prague advised demonstrators in Wenceslas Square not to step in flower beds while kicking out Communists?
Violence is easy to write about, easy to photograph, and it fascinates. But by fixating on it, journalists and the audiences they feed have tended to ignore most of the human beings who live in the former East Bloc. In The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts after Communism, Tina Rosenberg makes amends. She looks between the familiar bookends of joy and bloodshed and fills in the vacuum with a fresh, superbly reported, and well-written triptych of tales about the human mechanics of the shift from totalitarianism to democracy.
It is a quiet business Rosenberg undertakes. There are no crowds weeping in the central square, no brains splattered in the mud. Her book revolves around matters of justice and vengeance, amnesty and amnesia, reconciliation and the rule of law. Instead of nations that are war-shattered basket cases, Rosenberg concentrates on "the more fortunate countries": Poland and what used to be East Germany and Czechoslovakia. These are places where, for the most part, democracy has taken root and where capitalist change has been far-reaching. And yet, as Rosenberg eloquently shows, the totalitarian past infects the lives of the peacefully liberated. An East German woman divorces her beloved husband because files in the secret police archives show that he spied on her and their children for the Communists. Such quiet agonies fill this book.
Rosenberg's considerable success lies in the subtlety of the questions she asks and in the diligence with which she has dug up human stories that offer answers. In countries where almost everyone collaborated with the system, who is guilty? How can a free nation punish the guilty without falling back into repression? Rosenberg, a freelance journalist whose previous work has dealt with violence and dictatorship in Latin America, shows in The Haunted Land that shades of gray are excruciatingly difficult to sort out for Eastern Europeans who grew up being taught by an absolutist regime. Before the revolutions, there were always clear villains - the CIA, the bourgeois, the imperialists. After the revolutions, there remains an insatiable appetite for simple answers. Everyone has a conspiracy theory to explain why the streets are not yet paved with gold. A Czech dissident insists that "we need new guilty people." Poland no longer has Jews, but it blames them anyhow.
Wiktor Osiatynski, a Polish constitutional lawyer, is quoted in this book saying that every revolution faces three dilemmas: "First, what to do with the king. Second, what to do with his courtiers. And third, and by far the most difficult, what to do with people's frustrated expectations. And then it occurs to the new leaders - aha! We have a king we haven't guillotined yet!"
The heart of The Haunted Land is the story of the reluctant Communist king: General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish leader who imposed martial law in 1981 and snuffed out Solidarity for the better part of a decade. A bald, funny-looking general with ram-rod posture and dark glasses, Jaruzelski took center stage in Poland's attempt to purge the remnants of communism,
Former Defense Secretary Caspar A. Weinberger once called Jaruzelski "a Soviet general in a Polish uniform." In a revealing profile that is by far the most readable, deeply reported, and morally vexing part of her book, Rosenberg shows how simple-minded assessments like Weinberger's miss the essential tragedy of Soviet-imposed rule in nations such as Poland. A fundamental truth about Jaruzelski is that he is a Pole. He is the son of Polish nobility, a man who speaks Polish with the loving precision of a poet, a man obsessed by posterity's judgment of his role in the survival of his tortured homeland. He never drinks, never cheats on his wife, never steals a single zloty. He and his family suffered terribly under Soviet rule after World War II and when Gorbachev loosened the reins of empire, Jaruzelski gracefully surrendered power to Solidarity.
Yet he was a Communist. As Rosenberg neatly puts it, "perhaps the only man in Poland who was a Communist because he believed in communism." His loyalty was such that when his mother died, he checked with the Party before attending the funeral. He collaborated in obscenities carried out in the Party's name. He did not object to anti-Semitic purges, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the order to shoot striking Poles. As for martial law, Jaruzelski insists that he had to do it to head off a brutal Soviet invasion.
Rosenberg sifts through the voluminous evidence for and against the imposition of martial law - a subject of endless debate in Poland - and concludes that Jaruzelski was probably justified in believing that he was choosing a lesser evil. A central contention of this book is that Jaruzelski and others like him should not be tried in courts of law for acts that are morally and legally ambiguous. Rather, Rosenberg argues that Eastern Europeans can shake free of totalitarianism only by examining what has been done to their collective humanity. The cure is truth, not prison.
A truthful examination of Jaruzelski's deeply compromised humanity contains lessons that every post-Communist resident of Eastern Europe needs to learn about his or her collaboration with Them, the faceless authority of the Party.
"When does it end, this submission to Them?" Rosenberg asks. "A man joins the Party thinking: These bastards are idiots, but I'll go along, and someday I'll be making the decisions myself. But when? No one in the history of Polish communism had more formal authority than Jaruzelski in 1981. And yet above him still loomed Them. Worse, the Them was in himself.... Martial law was the culmination of decades of belief that Poland had no choice but to submit. [Jaruzelski] was guilty of not a moment of servility but a lifetime."
So much for the king. What of the courtiers of communism? Again, Rosenberg finds less criminal guilt than human weakness, petty selfishness, and habits of mind that refuse to comprehend shadings of culpability. The Czechoslovaks, those charmingly peaceful revolutionaries who did not step in the flower beds, decided after the fall of communism to tar and feather fellow citizens whose names showed up on secret police lists of informers. Lacking documentary evidence, they ignored most of the big fish responsible for running the police state. They focused, instead, on snitches, the names of whom were contained in government files. These little fish were banned for five years from high-ranking public office, university, or state enterprise positions. Their names were published in newspapers. They lost private-sector jobs, friends, and reputations. Many of those whose names were listed as informers were guilty of nothing more than bad luck, unfortunate friends, or the disclosure of useless banalities. But new lieutenants of the post-Communist state felt they had to punish someone. Rosenberg presents Prague democrats who categorically refuse to believe that secret police files were riddled with errors and distortions. She observes that "even dissidents cannot avoid absorbing the pathologies of the system that formed them."
The final third of this book deals with East Germany, whose 16 million people were the most economically prosperous and most spied upon inhabitants of the Eastern Bloc. At least 4 out of 10 East Germans had some connection to the gargantuan secret police structure called the Stasi, either as informer or victim. For such a state to exist, Rosenberg shows, there had to be mass acquiescence. "The system was confining, boring, and vaguely sinister, but it was comfortable and it was theirs."
After the collapse of such a state, Rosenberg makes a convincing case for bending Western conceptions of justice. She argues that a border guard - chosen for his lack of intelligence and sealed away from all non-official sources of information - can genuinely believe it is moral to shoot human beings trying to jump the Berlin Wall. Here again, Rosenberg insists that the cure for the inherited sicknesses of the past is not a court of law. It is truth-telling, embraced by the new state, officially sponsored, and widely disseminated. This prescription, though, can backfire in a wealthy, westernized place like the united Germany. Stasi informers have profited handsomely from making Oprah Winfrey-style confessions on television.
At several points in this book, Rosenberg veers away from her focus on justice to deliver long, detailed accounts of bungling by the U.S. government in its dealings with the old Eastern Bloc. She even reaches back to the aftermath of World War II, damning Washington for appeasing German industrialists with Nazi connections. These wanderings make me suspect that the author, a first-rate journalist, is padding a theme she has thoroughly mined. I also suspect she grew a bit impatient with her narrow focus on peaceful change, while a hot war raged on in the former Yugoslavia. The occasional marbling of fat in the narrative, however, does not come close to spoiling a work that is hard-nosed, neatly organized, and, on occasion, wickedly insightful.
For this reader, the most enduring lesson taught by The Haunted Land is probably not what the author had in mind. The book shows that - no matter what sickening events may transpire in the Balkans - the changes in Eastern Europe have been spectacularly beneficial. I put this book down reassured that the process of building a civil society is well begun. The savagery that grinds on in Bosnia does not speak to the lives of the majority of those liberated in 1989. The joy that then filled the streets of Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, and Sofia was not fool's gold. It was genuine, precious beyond measure, and it has been invested - albeit with many cruel and stupid mistakes - in the building of free democratic societies.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1995|
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