It is now a quarter century since the torch of resistance to Communism was first lit. In August 1980, striking Polish shipyard workers of the Solidarity Trade Union opposed the state, demanded freedom, and kicked off widespread popular revolt. Cascading revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe followed in 1989 and culminated in the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The anniversary of Solidarity’s formation — the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain — is being celebrated in Poland this week.
Yet today, many former Communists, responsible for gross acts of injustice and oppression, refuse to acknowledge their pasts and continue to escape proper judgment. This is particularly true in Eastern Europe but the denial extends far wider.
The examples abound. Just two weeks ago a 51-year-old female judge, Jitka Formankova of the Czech Republic, was promoted to one of the top judicial posts in her country. In 1980 Formankova, a paragon of Communist legal thinking in the former Czechoslovakia, sentenced a restaurant manager, Jan Cermak, to ten months in prison for “political slander and hooliganism” after he had ejected a group of local Communist officials from his establishment in the town of Plzen, Western Bohemia. He had had the temerity to call their ideas “Communist hogwash.” For this “offense” Cermak lost not only liberty and job but also eventually even his family. A campaign of hate followed from former friends and neighbors, his daughter was ostracized at school and eventually his wife divorced him. With his “future” taken from him, Cermak died in 1987.
One might think that the good judge, whose appointment was confirmed on August 4th by the Czech Senate, might display a hint of remorse or contrition for acts such as these. Not a bit of it: she admits only to being “young and foolish,” as it was all 25 years ago. The case is now promoting much debate in the Czech Republic as to whether past actions like these are relevant today and whether there can be a statute of limitations on the actions of former Communist officials. Public opinion is split as to whether a sufficient “purge” of former Communists took place in the years following the country’s Velvet Revolution of 1989.
But unapologetic former Communists are not confined to the Czech Republic.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, failed this April to apologize for Soviet actions in Eastern Europe since 1945 and called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “catastrophe.” One month later at the 60th anniversary celebrations in Moscow marking the end of the Second World War in Europe, Putin shrugged off criticism of Stalin’s repression of Poland and the Baltic States. He also refused to acknowledge Poland’s record as one of the Allied victors over fascism.
In Britain this past June, the press announced the death of 93-year-old Melita Norwood (KGB codename Hola), a spy for Moscow since the 1930s. This avowed Communist betrayed her country by passing secret nuclear weapons files to the Soviets, yet the media either ignored her death or treated her life as the curious tale of a harmless old lady. Norwood even said recently that “communism was a good experiment… I would do it all again.” In London, USSR t-shirts and hats with the hammer and sickle remain commonplace as if these symbols were in any way different from the swastika.
In the United States, Hollywood remains fascinated by tales of “glamorous” Communists. Che Guevara was depicted last year in The Motorcycle Diaries, billed as describing “a journey Che went on in his youth that showed him his life’s calling.” Steven Spielberg, after a visit to Cuba, was reported as saying that “the best seven hours I ever spent were actually with Fidel (Castro).”
At the same time, myopia toward Communist crimes — perhaps as 100 million killed according to the respected Black Book of Communism — extends further afield. The EU and United States regularly turn a blind eye to the internal repressions in China, whose Laogai (Gulag) system remains notorious.
Unlike Germany, which has taken on the burden of its Nazi and Stasi pasts, seeking to educate Germans about their horrid history, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact seem remarkably reluctant to follow suit. Rather like Japan, whose wartime role has also come under scrutiny once more following the anniversary of her defeat by atomic weapons in August 1945, avoidance, denial, and evasion remain the order of the day. The media contributes by paying a highly disproportionate amount of attention each year to the atomic bombings as compared to the Bataan death march and other such evils.
How to explain such hypocrisy? Perhaps it is one of the better examples of “double think” — the term invented by George Orwell in 1984 to describe the capacity to hold two completely contradictory beliefs simultaneously, and accept both of them, while accepting an untenable lie. This was surely practiced among the millions behind the Iron Curtain who faced a system that murdered and imprisoned many. A balanced view of Eastern European Communism must surely accept that many who passively accepted the system were not, and are still not, themselves criminals.
And there is evidence that not all former Communists are in complete denial. General Jaruzelski of Poland, for instance, once the instigator of martial law, has declared considerable remorse over the years and on August 22 apologized for the actions of Polish troops who participated in crushing the Prague Spring revolutions of 1968 under the Warsaw Pact. But he is a figure of rare contrition.
As they review the events of 25 years ago this week, the peoples of Eastern Europe will find that the current denial will not work longer term. Even as they are tantalized by the EU’s expansion eastwards and the material improvements it promises, memories of what happened must not be denied, buried, or obfuscated. The truth is too terrible. Former and current fellow-travelers both East and West may still deny the reality but Communism was not a “noble experiment” — it was an atheist butchers’ yard under whom millions died. Placing Communism in its proper context, restating its inhumanity to new generations, warning the curious, and declaring its ideological bankruptcy must prevail.