What is the perfect crime? Committing a murder so that no one knows or so that no one can prove who the murderer is even if they have their suspicions? Or would it be to commit an atrocious deed and then arrange things so that everyone knows who did it but prefers to turn away from the victim, offer the criminal a drink, and chatter about the need to "move on"? The criminal pulling off that crime not only destroys his victim, he also corrodes the decency and morality of the entire society.
In a nutshell, this is the point of a powerful television program in Poland called "Three Mates" that aired recently. The film describes the fates of three men who started their adult years as students and friends in communist-era Krakow.
One of the three became a poet and was murdered, likely by the communist police. The second was a fervent anticommunist dissident who eventually, under the Kaczynski twins, became the head of the major Polish television channel TVP.
The third became a journalist. But, as the film reveals, he was also a serious collaborator with the totalitarian regime, secretly informing on his friends. This particular collaborator later established himself in a senior post at "Gazeta Wyborcza," the famous newspaper formerly edited by Solidarity legend Adam Michnik. "Gazeta Wyborcza" has in recent years come out against lustration, the process of making public who did what to whom during the communist period.
"Three Mates" highlights the numbers of people who worked in or connived with the apparatus of Poland's communist repression who have since managed to secure generous pensions and privileges far beyond what average Poles receive.
It's a grim business. Imagine a gang of killers. They cover up the evidence of their crimes and set themselves up in protected positions. One of them becomes a famous journalist arguing strenuously in the media that murders in general should not be punished harshly because "society is to blame."
The issue of when and how these societies should "move beyond" communist-era abuses continues to pose profound questions across Europe. I considered the matter in my last British Foreign Office cable, which I sent from Warsaw in September 2007.
I noted that during the communist period officials often pressed citizens to sign a simple document indicating a readiness to cooperate, even when the police had no need of any cooperation.
"What they wanted," I wrote, "was the recognition by the person signing of his/her own psychological submission, expressed via just that mean little secret signature, whose very meanness and smallness and furtiveness made the act of submission even more total."
I reported that arguments against exposing communist-era crimes come from different quarters. Above all, they come from the former communist elites themselves. They and their families have huge incentives to keep the scale of their violence, plunder, and deceit hidden from the public.
Then, there are Lenin's "useful idiots" -- people in Western media and academic circles who themselves enjoy the accumulated privileges of Western civilization while downplaying communist wickedness. And there are moderates who reluctantly conclude that while the cause of openness is just, the pain and disruption -- including to the Catholic Church -- brought on by tackling these problems is not justified.
"The arguments and motives differ," I wrote in my cable last September. "The end result is the same. The days trickle into months and years. It all gets...difficult. Memories fade. People who presided over or benefited from the communist system are feted as modern European social democrats. Jewish, Polish, and other victims of communism who had their property stolen or heroically refused to cooperate appeal to European institutions for justice and often leave empty-handed."
What is striking about the Polish case is the way in which the former communists have muddied the isue and then tiptoed away. During my four years in Poland, the debate centered on what should be done about exposing "collaborators" -- not officials of the secret police, but those who signed up with them to inform on their fellow citizens. Some signed because they wanted to; others because they were bribed or blackmailed or scared.
Is it fair, goes the argument for "moving on," that someone who signed up as an informer to help a sick child get medical help should now be exposed? And the communist archives are not complete or reliable. Should lies or rumors planted there years ago now be recycled publicly, potentially ruining innocent lives?
These are hard questions. But there are others. Should not the people who withstood the threats and blandishments of the regime and who refused to sign, suffering hugely in consequence, get moral satisfaction and recognition now?
And, above all, why should the debate focus on those who collaborated or not, victims all, when the real villains are those who ran the system and gained generous pensions as part of the "deal" to end communism?
The debate continues, hotly. Even Lech Walesa, Poland's first post-communist president, faces claims that he too was an informer at one point. And Western Europe looks on in a bemused way. Isn't it all a bit...old? The Cold War ended nearly 20 years ago. Why keep raking over the dirt?
Many in former communist Europe say that is not good enough. Europe needs to be built on substantive justice, especially when so many of those who perpetrated abuses and those who endured them are still alive. Whose pension should be higher? The brutal prison guard, or the person unjustly imprisoned and beaten by him?
Poland leads the way here, partly because it has not had the more abrupt break with the communist era seen in the Czech Republic and former East Germany. Poles insist there are still internal and international "open questions" of momentous importance, not least the full truth about the Katyn massacres. That said, Poles in turn react angrily when probed on Polish roles in Hitler's extermination of the Jews.
When does the present leave the past? August 2009 sees the 70th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which led to the German Nazis and Soviet communists grabbing large areas of Europe. That anniversary should give the entire continent a lot to think about.
Charles Crawford served as British ambassador to Poland from 2003 to 2007. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL