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East: Introduction To Past Imperfect -- Coming To Terms With Past Difficult, But Critical

By Kestutis Girnius

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the fall of communism from 1989 to 1991, Eastern and Central European countries have been urged to come to terms with their pasts and openly analyze the behavior of their citizens during the German and Soviet occupations.

It is not an easy task. Neither ordinary citizens nor public figures are wont to reflect on difficult or shameful moments of their national history. Until the 1970s, most national histories were chronicles of triumph, while the darker episodes were either ignored or brushed off in a sentence or two as regrettable but unavoidable events.

For many years, Western democracies were no more forthcoming. Public discussion of slavery, racism, and the vanquishing of American Indians was not commonplace in the U.S. until the 1960s.

In France, debate on the complicity of the Vichy government and individual Frenchmen with the Germans in World War II only began after the release of Marcel Ophuls' film "The Sorrow and the Pity" in 1971. Even then, discomfort caused by the film was so great that it was not shown on French television for another 10 years.

For even longer, Austria portrayed itself as the first victim of Nazi aggression, passing over in silence the participation of its citizens in some of the most heinous atrocities of the war.

The complex legacy of Eastern European countries and former republics of the Soviet Union makes coming to terms with the past especially formidable. For almost 50 years, government censors determined which matters could be the subject of historical research and what could be said about them, leaving many "blank spots."

The natural reluctance to deal with shameful events of the past was exacerbated by the beliefs of many Eastern Europeans that they were victims of Nazi and Soviet aggression, rather than the perpetrators of crimes; that the most serious crimes were committed by or under the auspices of the occupiers; and that offering aid to Jews was much more dangerous in their region than in the West.

As victims, they felt they were owed sympathy or redress rather than being burdened with an obligation to address an onerous past.

Istvan Deak, a historian at Columbia University in the U.S. and an expert on the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, has often emphasized the exceptional brutality of the Nazis in the East. He told RFE/RL that someone in Poland or the Baltic states who hid a Jew placed his whole family at risk. "If any Pole tried to protect a Jew or even tried to give a piece of bread or a cigarette to a Jew, he risked extermination. If a peasant family hid a Jew on their farm, the Germans came and killed everybody, not just the farmer but his family [and] burned down the whole estate," Deak said.

But Deak noted that being a victim does not preclude an individual from also being a perpetrator, that a nation that has suffered pain can also inflict pain. "Many Poles actually participated in the persecution of the Jews or were themselves perpetrators.... It is one thing not to let somebody in your house, a person whose presence might cause the death of the whole family. Another thing is to go out into the forest, as many Polish peasants did, and hunt down Jews who were hiding in the forest and deliver those Jews to the authorities," Deak said.

There is a decided reluctance throughout the region to relinquish the role of victim. Czechs still emphasize that the Western democracies betrayed them in Munich in 1938, but remain reluctant to analyze the suffering of the Germans they forcibly evicted in 1945. Romanians admit Jews were killed in Romania during World War II, but are quick to mention that more were killed in Hungary.

Nonetheless, change is taking place, not only in the West but in Eastern Europe. Historians are doing the necessary research. Presidential commissions have been established in the Baltic countries to investigate the past and publicize their findings. While historical details still need to be flushed out, the broad contours of events are now clear.

In many countries, textbooks are being rewritten to include more candid portrayals of the collaboration that took place during the Nazi and Soviet occupations. In Lithuania, a course on the Holocaust is taught to cadets at the military academy. In Poland, a book by American historian Jan Gross describes how the local population massacred the Jews of the village of Jedwabne in Poland in 1941 and has led to frank discussion in that country.

In the U.S., slavery, racism, and the mistreatment of American Indians have been discussed openly for more than a quarter of a century, but racism still exists. Coming to terms with the past will not eliminate anti-Semitism or xenophobia in Eastern and Central Europe, but there will be less of it, and it will be less respectable.

In an eight-part series, RFE/RL correspondents in Washington, Paris, and Prague find that getting the facts right is but the first part of the task facing the West, Russia, and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Equally important, if not more so, is the need to make the facts widely available and to convince citizens to erase interpretations of the past that went unchallenged for decades.