27 January 2008

How Best to Reharvest a Ruined Past

From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 276-277:
There is probably no such thing as a good purge, even if it is politely called lustration. The Czechoslovak lustration was prompt and crudely effective but deeply flawed by procedural injustice. The German "gaucking" has been procedurally more just: careful, individual, appealable. But it has sometimes been perverted by media abuse, and it has suffered from elephantiasis. Did postmen and train drivers really need to be gaucked? Again we come back to the question of who is doing it, for would the West Germans ever have done this to themselves?

Yet Poland has shown the price of not purging. The Hungarians, with their nice habit of taking the German model and then improving on it, came up with a defensible refinement: It applied careful individual scrutiny only to those seeking senior positions in public life. But this was seven years late. Now Poland has finally followed suit, with a law that is probably the most scrupulous of them all.

I believe the third path—that of history lessons—has been the most promising in Central Europe. Much of the comparative literature comes to a similar conclusion for other countries: What is somewhat biblically called "truth-telling" is both the most desirable and the most feasible way to grapple with a difficult past. This is what West Germany did best in relation to Nazism, at least from the 1960s on. What united Germany has done in this regard since 1990 has been exemplary: the parliamentary commission, the open archives, the unique opportunity for a very personal history lesson given by access to the Stasi files.

To advocate the third path does, of course, assign a very special place to contemporary historians. In fact, I do think that if you ask "Who is best equipped to do justice to the past?" the answer is, or at least should be, historians. But this is also a heavy responsibility. Truth is a big word, so often abused in Central Europe during the short, rotten twentieth century that people there have grown wary of it. Studying the legacy of a dictatorship, one is vividly reminded how difficult it is to establish any historical truth. In particular, across such a change of regime, you discover how deeply unreliable is any retrospective testimony.

Yet studying this subject also strengthens one's allergy to some of the bottomless, ludic frivolities of postmodernist historiography. For this is too serious a business. Carelessly used, the records of a state that worked by organized lying—and especially the poisonous, intrusive files of a secret police—can ruin lives. To interpret them properly tests the critical skills that historians apply routinely to a medieval charter or an eighteenth-century pamphlet. But, having worked intensively with such records and read much else based on them, I know that it can be done. It is not true, as is often claimed, that this material is so corrupted that one cannot write reliable history on the basis of it. The evidence has to be weighed with very special care. The text must be put in the historical context. Interpretation needs both intellectual distance and the essential imaginative sympathy with all the men and women involved—even the oppressors. But, with these old familiar disciplines, there is a truth that can be found. Not a single, absolute Truth with a capital T but still a real and important one.

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