Commentary Magazine

Their Lustration-And Ours

When Hitler’s Germany was defeated in 1945, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that if a democratic regime were to be established in that country (or at least the part of it under Western control), a period of “denazification” would be necessary. Thus, with very broad support in the United States, a process was set into motion involving the prosecution at Nuremberg of the major Nazi criminals, as well as the rooting-out of lesser functionaries who had served the Nazi regime, even if they had not actually committed crimes themselves.

All this stands in the sharpest possible contrast to what has happened since the defeat of European Communism, the other great totalitarian system of our time. So far as criminal acts committed under Communism are concerned, what Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out nearly two years ago remains true:

To this day, though we have been saturated with revelation after revelation of the monumental scale of Stalinist crimes, literally not one, not even one Stalinist murderer has been punished for Stalinist crimes anywhere by anyone!

Yet even much milder efforts of “decommunization” have not only been sharply resisted within the former Communist countries themselves, but have also been denounced in the U.S., where very similar efforts as applied to Germany were once so widely applauded.

In Russia, for example, when President Boris Yeltsin did to the Communist party what was done to the Nazi party in postwar Germany—namely, ban it as a criminal organization—a group of Communists challenged this action in court as unconstitutional. As the trial opened, the well-known American specialist on Soviet affairs, Professor Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton, speaking from Moscow, told the New York Times that “This country has had too many political trials already, and this one will have a chilling effect on the development of democracy here.” Would an American professor have said anything like this in Berlin in 1946?

The decommunization issue has also arisen in one form or another in the former Soviet satellites of Central and Eastern Europe. In Poland and what used to be known as the German Democratic Republic, the focus has been on the exposure of people listed in secret-police files as informers or collaborators; in Ukraine, the relation between leaders of the Orthodox church and the KGB has become an especially neuralgic point.

But the case generating the most attention in the U.S. has been the so-called lustrace (or vetting)1 law passed by the federal parliament of Czechoslovakia in October 1991. Hence a review of the background of this law and of the debate it has provoked provides a window of special clarity into the argument over post-Communist accountability—both in Eastern Europe and in the U.S.




In the euphoria following the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia, it might have been hoped that the moral reckoning with the past would come quickly, even naturally, as a result of the revolution of conscience which had preceded and made possible the Velvet Revolution of 1989. But the corruption was too deep and too pervasive for that. The managers and principal beneficiaries of the ancien régime did not go gracefully; in the main, they did not go at all. As the new president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Hßvel, put it in October 1991:

Those involved in one way or another with the totalitarian system were given a magnanimous opportunity. They could leave their posts quietly and inconspicuously. Nothing would have happened to them. They could have reflected on the roles they had played. They had enough opportunities to do so. They have not made use of this opportunity. They have just perked up. They have settled down in various new posts and positions and have even started to laugh at us. . . . This has aroused general dissatisfaction, nervousness, when people see the selfsame people who were humiliating and persecuting them in various ways for years still sitting in various offices, occupying leading posts in farm cooperatives, district authorities, local and municipal administration, ministries, and the like, and they are working using the selfsame methods to which they had become accustomed. They behave toward people in the same arrogant way as they did before.

And again, several months later:

I am very concerned by something that I have been hearing for two years: that various nomenklatura clans—including members of the former State Security—still control many enterprises and offices, continue to enrich themselves illegally, continue to invest stolen money, and continue happily to rule over those who have always lived honest lives. Those people take advantage of the fact that we have not managed early enough and with enough emphasis to part ways with the past and to restrict the influence of all those who actively co-created that past.

In these circumstances something clearly had to be done, for to do nothing would have meant consigning the new Czechoslovak democracy to the death of a thousand cuts: the knife, in this instance, being the dull blade of cynicism, slicing away at the body politic until it bled to death, morally and politically. Out of these considerations was born the lustrace law passed in October 1991.

Its aim was not revenge; its aim was to secure and consolidate the transitions to democracy and the free economy that had begun with the Velvet Revolution. The new law proposed to do this by restoring public confidence in the basic fairness of the machinery of governance, and by preventing former Communist officials, state-security (StB) agents, and their collaborators from sabotaging democratic and market reforms.

In light of the subsequent charges of “witch hunt” (with the inevitable overtones of McCarthyism that such charges carry in the American context), it is important to clarify just what the lustrace law does not do, as well as what it does.

It does not ban former Communists and collaborators from employment.

It does not impose criminal sanctions for past actions.

It does not remove pension claims or rights.

It does not forbid anyone from running for the federal parliament.

It does not forbid anyone from publishing.

It does not forbid anyone from speaking.

It does not forbid anyone from organizing.

It does not exile anyone.

What does the lustrace law do, then?

By requiring a “clean” certification from the federal Ministry of the Interior (which controls the old party and StB files), the law bans former high-ranking Communists, and former StB members and collaborators, from employment for a period of five years in key sectors of the society. (These include the federal police and internal-security forces, the senior courts, and the upper levels of the state administration, the armed services, state-owned enterprises, and state radio and television.) Those currently employed in these posts who fail to provide such a certification must leave them within fifteen days; applicants for the same posts who lack the required certification are simply not hired. (But two levels of appeal, administrative and then judicial, are available.)



Considering the Communist repression and corruption to which it is a response, the law is remarkably lenient. It lays down none of the civil penalties involved in the denazification program in postwar Germany; nor are there to be any criminal trials of the sort held at Nuremberg. (The law, incidentally, is also far less severe in its impact than the measures taken during the occupation of Japan, by which the United States “purged” some 220,000 public figures, banning them from public office at any level and also from important private-sector positions, which are unaffected by the lustrace law.)

Moreover, it should be noted that many of the state-owned enterprises in Czechoslovakia are privatizing, and employment in senior positions in them will not fall under the law’s ban. And even within the state-run enterprises, those in high-ranking positions need not leave; they can accept lower positions if they wish. Similarly, an army colonel could accept a demotion to major and remain in the service.

Critics of the law (like the former dissident and recent Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier) have claimed that it is based on the notion of “collective guilt.” This claim is particularly provocative in the Central European context, given recent history and the depredations of both the Nazi and Communist regimes in the region. But it is not so easy to find the kernel of moral persuasiveness within the husk of this particular bit of rhetoric. After all, people prospered in the higher echelons of the Communist party and the StB, and collaborated with the latter, not by accident of birth or race, but by choice. Thus the guilt in question is individual, not “collective.”

Critics also charge that the lustrace law violates what they take to be a fundamental “democratic norm,” namely, the presumption of innocence. But since the law does not involve a criminal proceeding, it is not altogether clear why the canons appropriate to criminal law should be considered normative here. (It should also be remembered that at least one established democracy, France, does not include a “presumption of innocence” in its criminal law.)

In any event, it is not easy to see what procedure would have more satisfactorily removed from power, during the crucial period of democratic and free-market consolidation, people who had been the prime beneficiaries, and in many cases the active agents, of the old regime’s crimes and persecutions—and who, in far too many instances, remained in positions of power and influence. Some have suggested that a case-by-case review process, involving what would amount to a virtual criminal charge against an officeholder or applicant for a post, would have been less problematic. But Pavel Bratinka, a former dissident who led the parliamentary struggle for the law, argues precisely the opposite.

Bratinka thinks that a host of inquisitorial tribunals investigating and passing judgment on every senior job-holder or applicant would have been more humiliating for the individuals in question, and more susceptible to corruption (since “charges” would, presumably, have been brought to such tribunals by people who might have had various axes to grind). It would also have taken an extraordinary amount of time, during which the problems (uncovered in July 1991 by a parliamentary investigative commission) of mafia-like nomenklatura conspiracies, racketeering, and theft would have continued unabated, and public cynicism about the democratic prospect would have sunk to new depths.

At first glance, the lustrace law may appear vulnerable to the criticism that it does not differentiate between levels of guilt, and therefore levels of accountability, for former senior party members and for StB operatives and collaborators. Yet in fact the law does distinguish between “big fish” (who are banned) and “little fish” (who are not), in terms of party membership. As for StB collaborators, the law’s terms of reference are rather carefully defined to ban those who participated in the most odious activities, which required deliberate choices to persecute or to collaborate in persecution.

A more serious problem is that the law does not provide adequately for former Communist officials who made a clean break with the party after the Prague Spring of 1968; this, though, could be remedied by amendment. There is also the question of the reliability of StB files—although file-rigging can presumably be caught, and “positive” vettings based on rigged files can be reversed, in the appeals process.




It is easy enough to understand why the lustrace law, mild though it is, should have provoked a heated debate within Czechoslovakia, where so many people—some of them perhaps innocent of any real wrongdoing—are in danger of being hurt by it. One can also understand why even some former dissidents have come out against the law: they would rather put the past behind them than go on struggling with it indefinitely. But it is not so easy to understand why the law has consistently been attacked in the United States.

According to Stephen Engelberg of the New York Times, for example, the entire issue of post-Communist accountability has been “fanned and perpetuated by self-serving politicians.” Czechoslovakia and the other countries of the old Warsaw Pact are, Engelberg says,

in the midst of a painful economic transition, so politicians are strongly tempted to divert attention from the grim reality to “decommunization.” If they cannot deliver bread, why not the heads of a few supposedly fat Communists?

Even Jeri Laber of Helsinki Watch, who diligently and forcefully chronicled the depredations of the StB for years, has joined in the denunciation of the lustrace law. Writing in the New York Review of Books, she declares that the law has led to a “witch hunt” and a public atmosphere of rumor-mongering, revenge, and fear. “Rather than judge,” she adds elsewhere, “they [the Czechs and Slovaks] should seek a general healing.” But as Havel, himself a critic of certain aspects of the lustrace law, once put it:

It would be very unhealthy if we were to say that what’s done is done. This might be the simplest way out, but this is a sore which has to be lanced.

As for Laber’s charge of a “witch hunt,” her colleagues in the British Helsinki Human Rights Group had this to say:

Unlike witches and unlike the subversives who, in Senator McCarthy’s febrile imagination, peopled the State Department, members of the Politburo and secret policemen did exist in Czechoslovakia between 1948 and 1989. Czechs and Slovaks at every level know that the StB and its informers distorted their lives and preserved a totalitarian regime in power [for] four decades.

The particularities and merits of the argument over the lustrace law aside, however, what we see here is a symptom of how sensitive the question of accountability in the aftermath of Communism has become even for us in the United States. We, of course, do not have the problem of dealing with the remnants of a totalitarian regime. But we do have our own post-Communist hangover, and it takes the form of an extreme reluctance to tally up the moral balance sheet at the end of the cold war, and to assess who got things right and who got things wrong.



A recent, and very blatant, manifestation of the hangover came this past May in the approbation, even enthusiasm, with which the American political class, the business and cultural elite, and the prestige press responded to Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt to rewrite the history of the cold war from the very podium in Fulton, Missouri, at which Winston Churchill once lamented the fact that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended” on Europe. But “iron curtain” was an image Gorbachev took pains to avoid—as, evidently, did those businessmen, foundation executives, politicians, and editorialists who fawned over him. Indeed, rather than remember the terrible facts of the recent past, Gorbachev’s message, similar to that which he peddled while in office, was that there were no winners or losers in the cold war, only “victims” who had been released from their common bondage.

Now that may be a comforting thought to the likes of Jimmy Carter’s adviser for disarmament, Paul Warnke, who will find in it confirmation of his image of the cold-war superpowers as “two apes on a treadmill.” And one suspects that Gorbachev’s spin-doctoring of the recent past was not entirely distasteful to those editors at the New York Times who had suggested on more than one occasion that the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the de-facto leader of humankind. But Gorbachev’s rendering of the origins and dynamics of the cold war blatantly distorts the historical record, insults the memory of the victims of Communism, and demeans the sacrifices of blood and treasure that the American people made to see through the long war against Communist totalitarianism that they first engaged in earnest with the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947.

For if there were, in truth, no “winners” or “losers” in the cold war, then there was no real contest between the United States and its allies on the one side, and the Soviet Union and its epigones on the other; and if there was no real contest, then there were no grave issues of right and wrong, decency and depravity, at stake between us; and if there were no such issues in the contest, then there is no reason to remember the immediate past as anything but a foul nightmare, and no need to assess the responsibilities of those who claimed to understand our situation and prescribe policy for it.

But that is neither the way things were, nor the way they are. The struggle between imperfect democracies and pluperfect despotisms was fraught with peril for the future of freedom. It made all the difference in the world—literally—that the West won the cold war, and that the Communists lost. If that claim is regarded as arrogant, or untoward, or embarrassing in the House Democratic Caucus, or in certain quarters of the White House, or at the Turner Broadcasting Corporation, it is taken as a simple statement of the truth among the people behind the old iron curtain who (at great peril to their lives) brought off the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of August 1991—thus immeasurably enhancing the security of the United States. One might have thought that the debt of gratitude we owe to these people required us to pay more attention to their account of the cold war than to Gorbachev’s. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely that the United States will have anything sensible to say about the future of a post-Communist world order unless it clears its mind on the realities, and the moral meaning, of the immediate past.

Such an examination of public conscience will not require a lustrace law. But it will require an act of memory, and a public conversation about accountability. And as for remembering, it is not McCarthyism, but simple intellectual honesty, to note, with chagrin, that many of the key culture-forming institutions of American public life did rather badly in the post-Vietnam phase of the cold war.



There were, to begin with, the churches. Against the counsel of brave dissidents among their own co-religionists behind the iron curtain, mainline/oldline Protestantism and its chief ecumenical agencies, the National and World Councils of Churches, taught the morality of accommodation and participated in the propaganda activities of crude front organizations like the Christian Peace Conference.2

The Catholic Church’s American leadership was only marginally better during the 1980′s. Pope John Paul II was a great influence on the moral revolution that set the foundations for the political revolution of 1989, but the Catholic bishops of the United States could make no such claim on their own behalf. Like their Protestant confreres, the bishops, in their famous 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” largely accepted the political logic of the nuclear-freeze movement and its one-eyed focus on weapons, not regimes. Two years later, the bishops (whose policy statements persistently reflected the orthodoxies of the arms-control mandarins) expressed grave reservations about the Strategic Defense Initiative—which most leaders of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe regard today as a crucial factor in resolving the end-game of the cold war in their favor.

Nor was it on matters of nuclear weapons and U.S.-Soviet relations alone that the churches proved to be deficient moral mentors. Throughout the 1980′s, domestic resistance to the application of the anti-Communist/pro-democracy Reagan Doctrine in Central America was primarily based in the churches—and this despite the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua by the Sandinista regime.

Then there was the American philanthropic community. Though one of the distinctive ornaments of American democracy, it, too, has considerable reason to examine its conscience in the aftermath of the cold war. For it, too, in the early 1980′s, listened to the siren songs of “nuclear winter” as sung by the likes of Jonathan Schell and Carl Sagan, and poured tens (perhaps even hundreds) of millions of dollars into “preventing nuclear war.” Possibly a few interesting books thereby got written, but does anyone wish to argue seriously that the anti-nuclear agitations paid for by the MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation had any real impact on the collapse of Communism—which was, indisputably, the sine qua non for the end of the nuclear arms race? Have any of the grant-makers who insisted that the issue was weapons, not regimes, taken stock of their responsibility for the expenditure of vast sums of money on a chimera?

The last decade of the cold war also witnessed the moral-political deconstruction of certain of the professions. There is no need here to rehearse the various styles of political and moral myopia that beset the American professoriate as the phenomenon of “tenured radicals” took hold on the campuses. But these follies were hardly limited to the universities. Indeed, doctors and lawyers, regurgitating themes from the campuses and the anti-American-nuclear-weapons movement, soon discovered that they had a similar responsibility for “preventing nuclear war,” primarily by inveighing against Western security policy.

The mindset that dominated two typically accommodationist groups in the 1980′s, Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), was nicely (if crudely) captured at Stanford in 1987, where one IPPNW founder, Dr. Herbert Abrams, dismissed the recently-released Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov as an “arrogant son of a bitch”: Orlov had had the temerity to raise cautions about the relationship between regime-approved international exchanges (like those conducted by IPPNW) and the machinery of totalitarian control in the USSR.

The 1985 exchange agreement between the American Bar Association and the Association of Soviet Lawyers was another exercise in immoral accommodationism. The Soviet “association” was a well-known propaganda organ, led at the time by Samuel Zivs, a notorious anti-Semite whose secondary specialization was the defamation of Andrei Sakharov. But when a small band of dissenters challenged the propriety of the exchange agreement, they were dismissed as “noisy . . . insignificant . . . [and] misguided” by a leading light of the American bar; another legal worthy hailed the pact, on its expiration, as “extremely successful.” (At what?, one wanted to ask then, and now.)



Finally, there was the fourth estate. It, too, had drunk deeply from the wells of anti-anti-Communism in the wake of Vietnam. And that draught led to a pattern of coverage and commentary whose apogee (or perigee) was the description by NBC’s John Chancellor of the Soviet Union in a broadcast from Moscow on the day after the coup failed last August:

It’s short of soap, so there are lice in hospitals. It’s short of pantyhose, so women’s legs go bare. It’s short of snowsuits, so babies stay home in winter. . . . The problem isn’t Communism; nobody even talked about Communism this week. The problem is shortages.

(Imagine Edward R. Murrow standing in the rubble of Berlin in May 1945, and saying, “The problem isn’t Nazism; nobody even talked about Nazism this week. The problem is shortages.”)

In trying to account for the curious performance of the media in the end-game of the cold war, it is important to understand how anti-anti-Communism at the level of ideology intersected with a new concept of the press’s function in American society. The Watergate experience (and its subsequent cinematic romanticization) had moved “investigative reporting” from a specialty to the heart of the reportorial enterprise: the assumption was that the government (the American government, that is) was always lying, and that the task of the journalist was to expose its habitual fraud and mendacity. This is why the press could spend an inordinate amount of time ferreting about in the Iran-contra imbroglio while paying scant attention to a story of infinitely greater consequence: the beginnings of the unraveling of the Soviet imperial system.

Even the probes that were made into that world-historical situation were discolored by the media’s evident preference for Mikhail Gorbachev over Ronald Reagan. Thus the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a paper which had once supported that great cold warrior, Senator Henry M. Jackson, could editorialize in these terms after the 1988 Moscow summit:

Reagan’s insistence on making the abuse of human rights in the Soviet Union and the mistreatment of Soviet dissidents a major summit issue could have wrecked the summit, but Gorbachev to his credit wouldn’t let it.

The common thread through these disparate but related phenomena—the sentimentalism of the churches, the foolishness of the great foundations, the corruption of the professions, and the incomprehension of the media—was a failure of moral imagination and nerve in which fear of nuclear holocaust, and fear of a democratically elected Reagan administration, played large roles. The survivalism of the early 1980′s was, to be sure, only a long-winded variant on the old slogan, “Better Red than Dead.” But where an earlier generation of the cultural elite, faced with the threat of Soviet totalitarianism, produced Dean Acheson, containment, and NATO, this generation produced The Fate of the Earth, the nuclear-freeze movement, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and vigorously promoted all three as exemplars of moral sensitivity.

The great irony, of course, is that much of the American intellectual and cultural elite lost its moral nerve at precisely the point in the cold war at which Central and East European dissident intellectuals were regaining theirs. While American academics and columnists were teaching that Harry Truman had started the cold war and that Ronald Reagan was needlessly prolonging it, Vaclav Havel was emphasizing the necessity of “living in the truth” as the antidote to Czechoslovak Communism. While the churches of the mainline/oldline urged the morality of appeasement, Adam Michnik (a secularized Jewish intellectual) was stressing the importance for Poland of a recovery of the Christian notion of self-sacrifice. (That Havel and Michnik were men of the Left only intensified the irony.) While participation in the anti-nuclear agitations of the 1980′s was considered, among many American intellectuals, a moral imperative, one of the most devastating moral critiques of the mentality of Western “peace” activists was penned by none other than Havel.3



The Central and East European intellectuals had grasped, in other words, a moral truth that many American intellectuals and professionals had forgotten: that only a life lived “in the truth,” even if that meant a life at risk, was worthy of a human being. The Central and Eastern Europeans (under the pressure of a stultifying public atheism) had also grasped something that their more genteelly secularized American colleagues seemed to have forgotten: that “living in the truth” meant holding oneself accountable to transcendent moral norms. And, finally, the dissident intellectuals had grasped a practical truth that eluded many American tastemakers: that it was better to be neither Red nor dead, and that the odds on avoiding both slavery and incineration improved if one took account of the totalitarian nature of the adversary, and worked to change that.

What should be done about all this? In our circumstances, the legal system is no remedy. But taking a cue from one part of the Czechoslovak lustrace law, perhaps one might suggest that those American intellectuals and publicists who got it so desperately wrong in the end-game of the cold war should in all decency volunteer to maintain a repentant silence: for five years.


1 The word also suggests cleansing, as in the English “lustration.”

2 It is worth noting briefly that the Protestant churches that did not go down this ideological path in the 1980's—the evangelicals—grew dramatically during that decade, while the mainline/oldline continued to hemorrhage congregants.

3 In his largely-ignored 1985 essay, “The Anatomy of a Reticence,” originally published in samizdat and now available in a collection of Havel's essays, Open Letters (1991).

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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