We Are Not Like Us Transitional Justice: The (Re)construction of Post-communist Memory

Introduction: Post-communist transitional justice in a comparative context

The notion of transitional justice became fashionable following the recent fall of authoritarian regimes in East-Central Europe, Latin America, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. It denotes those procedures, legal or otherwise, which occur after regime change, civil war, or occupation, and addresses the question what to do with former elites, collaborators (e.g., agents of the secret services) and perpetrators of human rights violations. In emerging democracies, the issue became an integral part of public discourse and political debates, and the attempts of new democracies to prosecute, or in other ways punish, former political elites also generated a significant body of literature in political science, law, and human rights studies.

In the post-communist context, most countries perceived that they had to address the issue and they tried to deal with it in two basic forms: retroactive criminal procedure (that is, the trial of former elites and other perpetrators, or an attempt at this); or what is usually called screening/lustration (that is, checking the past of politicians and others and then either publicizing it, or banning them from certain positions; usually former leaders or secret service informers). While almost all post-communist countries carried out some form of transitional justice, the most notable examples are the Czech lustration law of 1991; the failed, but hotly debated Hungarian attempt at lifting the statute of limitation for crimes not prosecuted for political reasons (the so-called Zétényi-Takács law).

Although the revival of pragmatic, as well as scholarly, interest in transitional justice has been prompted by the recent democratization procedures, transitional justice is not a modern phenomenon, but has been part of a general stocktaking that occurs after long occupations or dictatorships throughout history. Revolutions and liberations aim at repudiating some basic aspects of the past. Doing this they try to respond to the demand of victims of the old regime for some kind of corrective justice that will both rectify injustices and provide for a thorough investigation of the past.

The literature on transitional justice in general focuses on the dilemma between carrying out justice on the one hand, and potential collisions with the principles of liberal democracy and the rule of law on the other. The question of transitional justice is often posed as a choice between “backward looking” approaches, that is, dealing with the past, holding perpetrators accountable and learning the truth about the previous system; and a “forward-looking” approach focusing on building new, workable democracies. This latter approach is often termed as a strategy of “forgive and forget.” Here the main question is which solution is more conducive to the establishment of democracy, and more responsive to the demands of justice. Thus the literature addressing the issue is overwhelmingly focusing on the problems of legality (i.e. the possibilities of holding elites accountable while staying within the confines of the rule of law), and on human rights (i.e. individual security and protection of people involved). While this touches upon important problems, it does not address some crucial aspects of transitional justice in the post-communist context.

The above dilemma usually relies on the assumption that victims and perpetrators are easily identifiable, so that the only problem is posed by prescriptions of rule of law and the liberal democratic order. However, while this approach might be useful in South Africa or Latin America, it is hardly applicable to the problems faced in Eastern Europe.

Post-communist transitional justice is usually discussed with reference to such examples as the war criminal trials (especially the Nuremberg procedure), the South African Truth Commissions, and procedures in post-authoritarian Latin America. People have invoked the idea of war crimes and crimes against humanity and tried to apply them to Stalinism in general and to particular atrocities committed during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, or the Polish Martial Law, in order to justify retroactive legislation, or the lifting of the statute of limitation. However, these parallels seem overstated: with a few exceptions, war crimes are not applicable to most of the individuals these laws intended to cover. Neither was there in post-communist Eastern Europe an act of public confession and atonement, followed by forgiveness and possible reconciliation comparable to what the Truth Commissions intended to achieve. The few occasions when such events took place, looked rather like a mockery of the South African process, and in any case served immediate political goals, rather than an honest confrontation with truth and history. With respect to South America, a s Tina Rosenberg pointed out, while repression in Latin America was deep, in Eastern Europe it was broad. That is, in Latin America the perpetrators (army or police officers, death squads) could be easily identified, and so could those victims who were tortured, murdered, or “disappeared.” In Eastern Europe, however, following the Stalinist period a much larger number of people exerted its power over a much larger number of people, but through much less violence or direct pressure. More importantly, many people were on both sides at different times, and society was interwoven with many threads of everyday compromise and conformity. Furthermore, Latin American dictators did not require anything else from their subjects than their silence and obedience. The communist regime on the other hand, expected people to signal their agreement with and acceptance of the official ideology, and thereby, even though only through very innocuous means, made them complicit (see for example, Havel’s famous greengrocer).[1]

While temporal simultaneity (and the concept of the “third wave of democratization”) would suggest a comparison between post-communist and Latin American or South African transitional justice, the general spirit of Eastern European efforts is more reminiscent of the national endeavor that ensued in many European countries after WWII.[2] In both cases one of the goals has been, of course, elite change, but the contribution of transitional justice to national memory is even more important. Transitional justice procedures endeavor to judge, condemn, or at least name culprits who helped maintain the system either by actively serving it through filling responsible positions in the communist parties or the state apparatus, or by collaborating with the secret services. Doing this new political elites hope to draw a clear line between those responsible for the endurance of communism and the rest of the population (regarded as victims), as well as to create the illusion of a general and widespread anti-communist resistance. In this way, these elites also try to compensate for the lack of an anti-communist revolution and emphasized political discontinuity over the legal continuity between predecessor and successor regimes. This approach explicitly rejected Havel’s oft-quoted statement that to various extents, everyone bears some level of responsibility for the maintenance of the totalitarian machinery. Thus, carrying out transitional justice these countries inevitably engaged in the reconstruction of national history, the reframing of national memory, even myth-creation.

Thus, in the following I will propose a third reading of transitional justice. Indeed, it is an effort to come to terms with the past, as well as to build a future, but it is not achieved through a meticulous examination of past events or crimes, aimed at understanding the way the dictatorship worked, but is rather an exercise in myth-creation: the reconstruction of the past in a way that would make it more comfortable to live with. Thus, while truth-telling is often regarded as the main goal and underlying principle of transitional justice, oftentimes it might be more appropriate to speak about “truth-creation.”

Before proceeding, one methodological remark is in order. At this point I am not proposing a comparative study between postwar and post-communist transitional justice along the strict methodological requirements of comparative politics, or history. Rather, I am using the postwar case, especially that of France, as a model to draw out some of the important features and goals of post-communist transitional justice, while, at the same time, highlight the fact that the East European procedures, despite their idiosyncrasies, do not constitute a sui generis.

The creation of memory

Decommunization, says Vladimir Tismaneanu, “is also a vital search for identity, for the assertion of a genuine rupture with the past.”[3] Political identity itself is usually constructed, invented and often reinvented, elaborated on in discourse or in political action. It can happen through the interpretation of history, which is an essential component of the national memory. Any political regime constructs its own version of the past, which it eill try to elevate to the level of an official memory. A nation’s memory, part of its cultural heritage, is emanating from many sources, which usually propose a reconstruction in service of a societal or political goal. Official carriers include national holidays, ceremonies and monuments, which try to offer universal representations of the shared identity.

The significance of such a process is even greater in transitional societies. “All authoritarian and, to an even greater extent, totalitarian experiences leave some sort of fratricidal memories in the nation, since all dictatorships enjoy the support of part of the national community and its more or less active participation in the repression of the other part.”[4] A new democracy has to deal with this conflictual legacy and fit the period of repression into the history of the nation, by either emphasizing continuity, or rejecting it. A confrontation with the past is also necessary for political, moral and psychological order: past moments left in the shadows could reappear and serve partisan interest. Thus an authoritarian, or some other uncomfortable period, such as occupation or civil war, will inevitably have to become a part of the collective memory.

What is being remembered and how this memory is created is, however, altogether a different question. Remembering may be the secret of redemption and forgetting the past is, according to Santayana, to be condemned to repeat it, but sometimes “to forget should be as much a part of a nation’s tradition as its memory of past glories”.[5] The, at least temporary, erosion of memory might serve immediate good causes: the cohesion of the state might call for highlighting patriotism and unity, while, at the same time, repressing uncomfortable episodes related to violence or collaboration. Forgetting and restructuring memory is a way to deal with trauma and a collective rewriting of memory may very well be the response to a collective trauma, such as the Spanish Civil War, the German occupation of France, or forty years of communism with its violent tragedies and everyday compromises. The reconstruction of memory, argues Maurice Halbwachs, obeys the requirements of the present and those of collective norms.[6] Thus official memories often serve political purposes and can, in turbulent times, change as often as the governing elite alternates in power. However, these official memories cannot always achieve either a general consensus, or a lasting existence. If, as Henry Rousso argues, official memories are results of compromises among contending forces, this compromise only materializes in the barest basics and undergoes various changes as the fortune of interested parties changes. Thus, in many respects it is easier to talk about competing organizational memories in most cases. [7]

Postwar founding myths

Every regime needs to construct some sort of a founding myth either by giving new meaning to previous national holidays and other important dates, or by finding entirely new ones, reinterpreting past historical events or periods. In this manner, the regime will attempt to inform society about how they should regard and interpret their own history.

If the historical period to be reworked and interpreted does not sit very comfortably with those who underwent it, the need for reconstruction will be even greater. Here comparisons with the postwar period are very much in order. As Tony Judt points out, during WWII most of occupied Europe either collaborated (out of ideological affinity, or simply because the opportunity to settle ethnic or territorial scores was too good to pass up), or they resigned to the occupation, with very few engaging in active resistance, and the activities of these résistants were regarded by the population as troublesome, more often than not.[8]

The experience of the postwar (liberated) societies of Europe was not one of heroism, but of hardships and humiliation. Victimhood, however, is not an entirely satisfying national myth and being “liberated” was a very passive experience. Fragile national consciousnesses were in need of an epic myth only the Résistance could deliver. Only through the prism of resistance could humiliation, passivity, and in worse cases, complicity, be dealt with, and only Résistance was a suitable foundation for a true national myth.[9]

In France de Gaulle constructed the “myth of a resisting France massively confronting the invader”, a “sublime half-lie” in the words of Henry Rousso, allowing the reconciliation of the French with one another after the Liberation, and serving as the moral cornerstone for the country’s reconstruction.[10] Early myths maintained that with the exception of a handful of collaborators, France in general supported de Gaulle and his actions, even though only a small minority took active part in the Résistance itself. (This post-war Gaullist myth of a “nation of resisters” has later been replaced by a new myth of a “nation of collaborators”, equally untrue and one-sided.)

Among the carriers of memory, Rousso included courts. The role of the judicial systems is to ensure the legitimacy of the new regime, but in postwar Europe it also served the purpose of depriving the collaborators or former elites of their legitimacy. This was the goal of the postwar purges, and post-communist transitional justice had similar aims. Post-war transitional justice was designed to serve the Résistance myth and thus reconciliation with the past and the reconstruction of national unity. As an immediate effect, in France it was quick and limited. (Here I naturally do not consider the numerous examples of spontaneous acts of retribution, such as the summary executions of collaborators, which were prevalent everywhere in occupied Europe towards the end of the war, and during the early days after liberation.) De Gaulle proposed lenient sentences, sometimes aided by parliament, angering with it some of the most distinguished figures of the Résistance. Getting rid of the most obvious collaborators, the official line tried to forget the indifference or ambiguity of the majority, welcoming everyone in their ranks, even if they had initially supported Pétain. It aimed at the elimination of a few “bad apples”, and in general gave a pass to society at large in order to maintain de Gaulle’s myth of a unified and unwavering support for the Résistance. Wallowing in shame, or carrying out extensive and prolonged purges would have resulted in a political backlash, domestically, as well as internationally.

The French also declared Vichy and the Armistice illegal. This way they tried to cover up the very real divisions of French society before and during the war, and instead hold the Germans and their few collaborators responsible for everything. Similar efforts were made in other postwar countries: the trial of former Protectorate ministers in Czechoslovakia served to demonstrate the illegality of the occupation and thus show that the postwar regime was the legitimate successor of the First Republic. The Austrian attitude towards the country’s post-Anschluss history was similar: between 1939 and 1945 Austria ceased to exist and became no more, than, as Hitler’s first victim, a province of the Reich. As regards the postwar stocktaking, this attitude resulted in the lack of any extensive purge: war criminal trials usually ended in verdicts of “not guilty”, not only dissociating the country with everything Germany did, but also refusing to find individual collaborators or culprits.

Transitional justice in service of post-communist myths

The post-communist case resembles the French process in its aims, although not necessarily in its methods: in order to establish something similar to the myth advanced by de Gaulle, post-communist countries also attempted to crack down on former elites and collaborators. The examples of accommodation and passivity under communism were similar to those under the war, except that communism lasted a lot longer and therefore was much more pervasive. This of course, did not offer a good founding myth, so the former communist countries had to look elsewhere. One of their obvious founding myths is the end of communism itself: the new elites based their legitimacy on the rejection of the communist experience. All the symbolic gestures, such as the changing of street-names, the national coat of arms, and the removal of statues, emphasized this discontinuity with the past. Attempts at transitional justice signify this rejection and try to assign responsibility for the disaster that had fallen upon the nation. At the same time, the continuous efforts to reject and condemn communism and everyone who had supported it, reveals a complicated and conflicted attitude towards the past. Transitional justice is one way to remember the past, to interpret it and to ultimately pass a judgment over it and it is the fruit of the political will to fix the norms of the interpretation. People approach transitional justice depending on how they look at history and the mode of transition, and they are also motivated by political considerations. Therefore it is not surprising that supporters and opponents of transitional justice hardly share the same historical view.

In the post-communist context two main attitudes can be distinguished with respect to transitional justice. The first is in line with the sentiments expressed by Vaclav Havel in his New Year’s Address in 1990, which emphasized shared responsibility for the maintenance of the communist system, if only through quiet acceptance, ideological and behavioral conformity, or by accepting certain benefits. Their motivations ranged from genuine ideological commitments through personal gains, sheer opportunism and laziness to fear. Rejecting the “they did it to us” distinction, Jan Urban said: “The question isn’t what some ‘they’ did. It’s what we did.”[11] Consequently, the best possible solution would be to move on without recriminations. “The only way to democracy is compromise; look at Spain” referred Adam Michnik approvingly to the example of the Spanish transition, in November 1989. “[F]rom the perspective of a man who has been a prisoner”, he warned against a Nuremberg-like process, emphasizing shared guilt for Poland’s participation in the 1968 invasion in Czechoslovakia: “we are guilty and we are very sorry”.[12]

Such an approach, however, obviously does little for national self-esteem and does not offer a very appealing memory. Thus a segment of post-communist elites and societies insists that the communist system was altogether the creation of a foreign power (the Soviet Union), with the help of a small (and in general alien) minority, that undertook the role of Quislings in these societies, for various advantages in the political and economic sphere. This view treats the bulk of the population as victims at worst and heroic resisters at best – whatever activity this latter word might cover. Consequently, it should be possible to identify and penalize these perpetrators of the regime and those who collaborated with them while, at the same time, absolve the rest of the population from any responsibility.

Approaches to transitional justice thus depend on one’s interpretation of history: those who are inclined to agree with Havel, will most likely oppose criminal trials or purges, and instead propose complete openness of the secret police files, restricting themselves to getting familiar with facts, without attaching punishment to various revelations. Those who reject this approach will be more ardent supporters of recrimination and punishment.

Settling accounts with the communist regime, or, with those who contributed to its maintenance, is also an examination of one’s own conscience and therefore will, to some extent, inform one’s attitudes. Many French intellectuals tried to compensate for what they thought mistaken in their behavior during the war: even those who took real risks survived the war in relative safety, while their career as writers advancing. This could be interpreted as support, or at least acceptance of the occupation and Vichy. These intellectuals were the people who took the most intransigent stand after the war, turning against their opponents, to strengthen their weak or non-existent credibility and authenticity.[13]

Those who actively resisted and suffered find it easier to forego the settling of accounts. Ironically, the dissident opponents of lustration are often joined by those high ranked former officials who would not want to be brought to account: the latter cite mitigating factors in their defense, which at least retrospectively, suggest that they did not believe in the regime they served and perpetuated: in fact, they tried to bring it down in their own way. The most difficult is the position of those who carried out orders without ideological convictions, or never broke with the adaptation strategy – usually the vast majority of the population in every country. For them the best coping strategy seems to be to point fingers: in fact, they are often the quickest to pass judgment on others.

To alter this unflattering picture of the majority, transitional societies need to achieve two goals. The first is trivializing the role of actual dissident movements; the second is to find the appropriate scapegoats who can be held accountable and punished. (If these two can somehow be combined, so much the better.) Prosecuting former leaders would be the most obvious way to achieve this second purpose, and certain attempts were made at it in post-communist Europe, the most notable cases taking place in the former East Germany, although even there charges only covered acts deemed criminal (like giving the order to shoot at those trying to escape through the Berlin Wall), not participation itself in the leadership. Although such procedures were problematic in countries where transition took place via pacts and negotiations, Poland still made an attempt to try Jaruzelski for Martial Law and Hungary also tried to bring to court certain individuals through the ill-fated Zétényi-Takács law.

In response to this story former communists have their own reading of history. They have created their own myth: they either try to defend their past against condemnations, or, while not denying the dark side of communism (due to the Soviet influence or to the mistakes committed by communists themselves), they insist that this was the only possible route to take in the post-war constellation defined by Yalta, and that it brought many beneficial changes to society. This reading of history was best illustrated by the ill-fated parliamentary trial of Jaruzelski. Although offering an apology in his farewell speech as Poland’s president, he attempted to defend Martial Law against charges of treason arguing that he chose the “lesser evil”, in order to avoid an even greater catastrophe (also a familiar defense of Vichy France known from the “shield and sword” argument). The case reveals the difficulties of grappling with historical facts and conviction: how to evaluate his claim does not only depend on the real danger of a Soviet invasion in 1981, but also on how Jaruzelski viewed the available indicators at the time of making his decision.

Former communist officials also try to conceptualize themselves as people, who at worst tried to do their very best to further national interest in the face and within the confines of foreign occupation, and, at best, were active participants in the dismantling of the very system they were supposed to sustain. Thus they like to portray themselves as at least closet reformers, working on the liberalization of the system – doing the same work as dissidents, only from a different power position. This argument flared up in Hungary in 2002, the case of the agent lists, when freshly inaugurated Prime Minister, Péter Medgyessy, explained that his main task as a counterintelligence agent was to hide those Hungarian policies which served the nation’s interests, but would not have been approved of by the Soviet Union, such as Hungary’s joining the IMF (after a previous attempt foiled because of Soviet objections).

Former leaders, however, were well known and visible, and settling scores with them did not address the problem of “grassroot” collaboration. Thus, almost everywhere attention soon focused on the secret police files, in order to filter out those “ordinary people” whose collaboration could actually be “proven”. The most notorious example of this is the Czech lustration law accepted in 1991, but other countries followed suit, even if in a less radical fashion.

Transitional societies feel the urge to separate themselves from those responsible for the establishment and maintenance of communism and thus spare themselves the painful task of self-examination. Lustration was designed to draw a line between the “silent majority” (thus the “victims” of communism) and those who actually did work for the secret services and who informed on their friends, colleagues, even family. Some of them did it out of ideological conviction, but their number was remarkably negligible; the most frequent motivations were petty jealousy, revenge, career advancement, fear for careers, families, or the inability to withstand pressure. Many signed an agreement to collaborate, then changed their minds and never reported, or went near the secret services anymore, or even (re)joined the opposition.

The various criminal procedures proposed against different categories of people who played some role in the oppressive apparatus of the state or participated in the repression of the anti-system movements, such as the Hungarian uprising in 1956, would have served similar purposes. Only through the individualization of guilt, that is through the naming of the guilty, as Imre Kónya said when defending the Zétényi-Takács Bill of retroactive criminal justice, could one remove the odium of “collective guilt” from society and distinguish between active supporters and those who simply acquiesced in order to go on with their lives without being harassed by the authorities.[14]

Echoes of the past

Purges and other judicial methods attempting to come to terms with the past hardly ever reach their goal of forging national unity or consensus. In France, for example, almost nobody was satisfied with the postwar épuration and its outcome, although for different reasons. In post-communist Europe the process was additionally saddled with a sad reminiscent of the past. Foreign observers often attribute the zeal surrounding lustration procedures to a general tendency amongst Eastern Europeans to “like purging.”

One could take issue with a blanket statement like this, but a grain of truth is undeniable: the former communist bloc has an unfortunate history of purges as the method of doing away with political opposition and of finding (or rather, creating) scapegoats for economic and political problems. Purging was a well-known method during communism and as such, rightly distasteful for the bulk of the citizenry. Even though attitudes concerning transitional justice, the evaluation of the past, or opinions about the desired features of the new democracies varied, there seemed to be a consensus in differentiating the new from the old. The “thick line” proposed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki could also signal the will not to employ the methods of the discredited regime. “We are not like them” was the rallying cry of the Czech crowd on November 17, 1989, and at that time not only did they hope that it was indeed so, but had every reason to believe it. However, with the appearance of various transitional justice efforts this conviction started to weaken, because the immediate political goals of transitional justice as well as its methods invoked some disturbing memories from the past.

That transitional justice attempts to recast national history in a more favorable light is but the most glaring example of how the present echoes the past. The destruction of old elites and the exclusion of certain groups of people from certain positions are aims shared by both postwar and post-communist transitional justice procedures. In Eastern Europe, however, attempts to use lustration or screening to remove one’s political rivals or settle old accounts, bear a painful reminder of the methods communists employed to facilitate their road to power. In some cases, charges or proofs of collaboration are also useful for blackmail, which is how the communists often employed the Gestapo files inherited from the war.

One consequence of the myth of national resistance established by de Gaulle was the playing down of the significance of the Résistance itself. Liberation and Résistance, according to this reading, were not the achievement of individual résistants, but of the nation as a whole.[15] No matter how high the prestige of resisters, even in France, after the Liberation many former résistants spoke of solitude, even ostracism.[16] Similarly, post-communist countries often try to play down the role of dissidents in bringing about the end of the system. The most ardent proponents of lustration are usually not the main victims, those who indeed suffered under communism – not Jacek Kuron or Petr Uhl – but those political aspirants whom Adam Michnik called “the prudent people with clean hands,” who never lifted a finger against the regime, but would like now to push former dissidents out of politics.[17] Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic is a prime example of such an attitude. Not only did he claim when running for election that he was just like the average person, not a hero engaged in opposition, but he also valued his own activities, such as running officially tolerated, but controversial seminars, as laying the groundwork for sweeping economic reforms and thereby “doing much more than the so-called dissidents.”[18] Hungarian conservatives also created their own myths of “real resistance,” such as the cultivation of old fashioned “Christian” family and ethnic values. They also go another step further, claiming that the actual dissidents in fact had always enjoyed at least immunity, since their parents were often communists, but some right wing politicians went as far as suggesting that their opposition activities had been tacitly supported by the communists.[19] Thus charges of collaboration or trumped up charges are often directed against former dissidents. Such methods can easily invoke the communist practice, when the credentials of those engaged in wartime resistance at home were undermined by Muscovites during the 1950s.

The transition also created fantastic expectation in the people, which at least in the short run it was unable to meet. In such situations it is useful to designate some individuals or groups who can be blamed for immediate troubles. Scapegoats are useful in two ways: the countries’ economic troubles could again be blamed on “sabotage” and the perseverance of old communist networks. Their hidden hands can be discovered behind unsuccessful policies or social inequalities. Simultaneously people’s attention could be diverted from these troubles by discussing and implementing various measures of decommunization. Since people cannot be offered immediate economic goods, they should be offered symbolic goods instead: communist heads, suggested Jaroslaw Kaczi?sky, then a Walesa-appointee, whose argument was sometimes adopted by Walesa himself.[20]


Concerning some of the methods employed, the most obvious worry is the adherence to the rule of law and due process, which has been violated in many instances. The Zétényi-Takács Bill wanted to lift the statute of limitation, and had it passed constitutional muster, it would have also equaled political responsibility with criminal responsibility, which was a favorite method employed under communism. The Czech lustration law did not initially specify ways for individuals to fight charges of collaboration with the secret services. This further complicated the already troubling assertion of guilt based on one set of evidence, when innocence, rather than guilt had to be proved. In the case of lustration, the notion of collective guilt covering all communist officials beyond a certain rank, without examining their individual cases (an even more grievous omission in the case of the secret services), was also reminiscent of postwar and communist practices in which whole classes or ethnic groups had fallen victim to purges. Manipulating the legal system to respond to the demands for corrective justice may also endanger the constitutional enterprise.

When casting the shadow of suspicion over an individual, screening procedures often use unreliable documents (e.g., the secret police files), without further investigation, or even verification of their authenticity beyond the reasonable doubt. Thus accusations often emphasized certain aspects of an individual’s life and recast it as an act of collaboration, overstating certain elements, while ignoring others, or even accepted fabricated evidence without much questioning. In many ways this is similar to the communists’ use of former police files, especially if the accused, as was frequently and necessarily the case, had complicated, adventurous lives.

Finally, the accused themselves often faced arguments that ranked a perceived “collective/national interest” over individual rights. Even if innocent individuals were caught up in the web of suspicion and false accusations, many found it acceptable in order to strengthen the new democracy and weed out the “real enemy.” Victims of such methods were sometimes advised to “take the fall quietly,” rather than insist on their innocence, for the sake of the young democracy and its international reputation, as happened in the widely publicized case of Jan Kavan. Such references to a “higher interest” and demands for “self-sacrifice” can indeed ring the bells from earlier times.

This is, of course, not to say that there was ever the same danger for innocent or even guilty victims of lustration as for those of show trials and communist era cleansings. Obviously, the consequences for those who found themselves implicated were much less grievous than for communism’s victims. After all, nobody was executed, interned, or deported, and only very few imprisoned, and constitutional courts could prevent some serious violations of the rule of law. In fact, one could argue that such methods are not alien to long-standing liberal democracies: various charges and accusations are often leveled against political opponents, which later can prove right or wrong, but might ruin political careers regardless. However, as Jeri Laber pointed it out, the consequences of lustration can be close to what the communists did, depriving certain groups of people of employment in their chosen fields and the professions they were trained for.[21] Even more importantly, while certainly unbecoming wherever they are employed, the danger of using such methods in new and therefore still unstable democracies, where they used to be the order of the day, should not be underestimated, not only because constitutional guarantees might be still shaky, but, more importantly, because they might lead to a cynicism in the population towards the new democratic system if it appears to be “like them”.

Concluding remarks

The continuous efforts at (re)constructing history in the service of various political goals frustrate attempts at a nuanced and realistic assessment of the past. The blatant examples of manipulation also result in cynicism and create a demand for normalcy, which includes pulling a veil over the memory of the communist era. While normalcy in itself is nothing to be sneered at, various aspect of transitional justice as carried out in post-communist societies also contribute to sparing society the much needed self-examination of its past and past behavior, and prevent an honest confrontation with the decades of communist rule, including both its atrocities and daily compromises. While in the short run such avoidance might be regarded as harmless, even healthy, historical experience teaches us that sooner or later a backlash is usually unavoidable.

Post Scriptum

Finally, it is important to say a few words about those whose memories about communism are determined by the darkest years of the system, the 1950s, and who spent these years (or parts of them) in prison or internment camps. The basic premises of my research is that the communist systems are in general incomparable to Latin American dictatorships, as they were not only more pervasive, but also milder. This generalization obviously leaves out the Stalinist years. It is important to recognize that while we take issue with the view that would like to perceive forty years of communism as one uninterrupted and undifferentiated period of brutal oppression, the reality of Stalinism cannot and should not be denied. Real crimes took place during this period and if legally possible, there should be no reason not to prosecute the persecutors.[22] While legally and even in terms of historical memory, this period is the least controversial, some problematic aspects occur when trying to define collaboration, resistance or victims. First, many victims of the 1950s were themselves dedicated communists, like the most famous protagonists of the show trials. Recently it has been questioned whether these individuals should really be counted among communism’s victims, or regarded as faithful collaborators themselves. László Rajk used to be considered the innocent martyr of the Stalinists-Muscovites, with whom communism might have taken a better shape had he lived. By now he has turned into just one of many communist hardliners who deserved what he got, when recently some opposed his inclusion among the victims of communism.[23] Both of these evaluations of his role are simplistic and contain only one part of the truth, but little effort is made to gain a more comprehensive picture. Second, many who languished in prisons or suffered in internment and labor camps would like to present themselves as the earliest resisters to communism, rather than its victims. Although psychologically understandable (and in many ways similar to the rejection of “victim mentality” after the war), while some have indeed been imprisoned for genuine anti-communist activities and others for their ideological opposition, many found themselves in prison for their class background, financial position, or out of mere economic considerations. Finally, it must not be forgotten that some of these people were real war criminals, former Nazi collaborators, who would like to take the opportunity to present themselves in a different light and thereby rehabilitate their earlier activities and ideology.

By trying to emphasize that communism was something “they” did to “us,” this reading of history tries to hide the uncomfortable truth that the arrival of communism, especially its social policy aimed at the upward mobility of social strata formerly doomed to stagnation, as well as its often xenophobic, anti-Semitic, Stalinist parlance had been welcomed, at least initially, not only by a handful of real communists, but also by a significant portion of the population. In reality, very few people objected to communism: in Czechoslovakia it was even endorsed by a substantial number of people at free elections and eventually most people were forced into collaboration. At the same time, denying the existence of such a support, fits into a general reading of history which many Central Europeans share: that of heroic battle against usually foreign oppressors, which usually fails due to betrayal. “We try, we battle, but we are betrayed” – the catchwords are usually Munich, Yalta, as well as a few collaborators, which will also acquit the “people” of any responsibility for the failure of democracy, or the endurance of dictatorships.[24] Like in postwar Germany, there is also an exculpatory element in regarding the whole communist experience as a period of “totalitarianism”, imposed and maintained by a select few. If society has been in the grip in totalitarianism, then it cannot be blamed for what people did or did not do – or not very much. The focus on some pivotal dates of history and the investigation of the responsibility for them, like 1956, 1968, or 1981, allows emphasis to be placed on who was responsible for the invitation of foreign troops, or for the imposition of Martial Law, thus dwelling on the wrongs done to the majority of people by others, rather than on what people did to themselves and each other.


1. Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land. Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism, New York: Random House, 1995, 399. Timothy Garton Ash, “The Truth About Dictatorship”, New York Review of Books, February 19, 1998, 35-40, 36.

2. István Deák,, Jan T. Gross, and Tony Judt eds., The Politics of Retribution in Europe: World War II and its aftermath, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000, especially Tony Judt, “The Past Is Another Country”, 293-323.

3. Vladimir Tismaneanu, Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe, Princeton University Press, 1998, 116.

4. Paloma Aguilar and Carsten Humlebaek, “Collective Memory and National Identity in the Spanish Democracy: The Legacies of Francoism and the Civil War”, History and Memory, 14:1-2 (2002), 121-164, 121-22.

5. Winston Churchill, quoted by Noel Annan, “Secret Sharers”, The New York Review of Books, September 25, 1997, 22-23, 23.

6. Marie-Claire Lavabre, Le fil rouge: Sociologie de la mémoire communiste, Presse de laq Fondation Nationale de Sciences Politiques, 2004, 100.

7. Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, History and Memory in France since 1944, Harvard University Press, 1994, 219-20.

8. Judt, “The Past Is Another Country”, 295.

9. Pieter Lagrou, The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic Memory and National Recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 2, 26.

10. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, 16-18; John Hellman, “Wounding Memories: Mitterand, Moulin, Touvier, and the Divine Half-Lie of Resistance”, French Historical Studies, 19:2 (Fall 1995), 461-485, 483.

11. Quoted by Rosenberg, The Haunted Land, 400.

12. Lynne Jones, “ Warsaw Diary”, in Mary Kaldor, ed., Europe From Below. An East-West Dialogue, London; New York: Verso, 1991, 99-113, 109.

13. Tony Judt, Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, 55-56. His most famous example is Sartre, but he also mentions Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, among others.

14. Imre Kónya’s parliamentary speech, October 29, 1991.

15. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, 71.

16. Jankowski, “In Defense of Fiction, 475.

17. Adam Michnik, “An Embarrassing Anniversary”, The New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993, 19-21, 20.

18. Nagorski, The Birth of Freedom, 123.

19. See for example István Deák, “Post-Post-Communist Hungary”, The New York Review of Books, August 11, 1994, 33-38, 34, but also numerous publications from the era.

20. Timothy Garton Ash, “Eastern Europe: Après Le Déluge, Nous”, The New York Review of Books, August 16, 1990, 51-57, 55.

21. “In Response to Witch Hunt In Prague: Reply by Jeri Laber”, The New York Review of Books, 1992.

22. Unfortunately, this usually meets two basic obstacles. First, the perpetrators in most cases are either dead, or extremely old. Second, the crimes they had committed, even when they would be considered crimes under the constitution of the regimes in question, often fall under the statute of limitation.

23. György Asperján, “Rajk miért?” [Why Rajk?] Élet és Irodalom, 46:13.

24. Françoise Mayer, Les Tchèques et leur communisme. Mémoire et identitès politiques, Paris: Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2004, 27.

IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. XXI/1

History and Judgement

© 2006 by the author
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Preferred citation: Kiss, Csilla. 2006. We Are Not Like Us. Transitional Justice: The (Re)construction of Post-communist Memory. In: History and Judgement, eds. A. MacLachlan and I. Torsen, Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences, Vol. 21.