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The perils of memory loss

THE FALL of autocratic regimes never brings hope for the overnight purification of society. In the shining light of change, much more survives from the old regime than people realise. There is no clear-cut dividing line between past and present; there is only a long and traumatic transition.

THE FALL of autocratic regimes never brings hope for the overnight purification of society. In the shining light of change, much more survives from the old regime than people realise. There is no clear-cut dividing line between past and present; there is only a long and traumatic transition.

Late September the Nation's Memory Institute (ÚPN), which guards files of the country's communist-era secret police (ŠtB), released additional records maintained by the counter-intelligence units that the communist regime used to fight internal and external enemies between 1969 and 1989. The release included 45 books with 38,800 records on everything that could have possibly piqued the interest of the ŠtB.

Even 18 years after the revolution, the records have the potential to shock by peeling off some of the layers of the monstrous machinery that was the communist secret police. Only very few organisations were immune to this communist infiltration, in which the overarching ideology of the day drove agents to modify every functioning cell of society. Yet the agents and informers were not a bunch of deformed individuals who could be weeded out and stripped of their positions overnight. They were an essential part of society. Sometimes the bitter joke about the communist regime saying that half of the nation was watching the other half does not seem that absurd and far-fetched.

It seems to be a pretty well-known scenario. First the ÚPN releases shocking information that politicians, writers, journalists, actors or businessmen collaborated with the communist regime, filing reports on a colourful tapestry of issues and keeping their eyes on a wide range of enemies. Then the people deny cooperation and say their activities were completely innocent, that they were only involved on paper, or that they just faked it. And then, usually nothing happens.

Only very few people have withdrawn from public life. Very few have resigned, and very few have said, "Yes, I did it and I apologise."

And of course, some of those whose names appear on the files did not do it; but once the suspicion is linked to them, it will keep their company for the rest of their lives.

The ÚPN recently discovered that about 30 documents were falsified. According to the head of the institute, Ivan Petranský, that means information in the files that could have identified certain people as ŠtB agents was modified. Reportedly, agents who monitored people were, with the stroke of a pen, turned into victims who were followed by the police.

The challenging thing is that the institute cannot clearly say when the ŠtB files were modified, let alone why.

Can historical memory be so fragile? Is it possible to change the past with a little note in official files? Petranský said it is not, and that the files administered by the ÚPN are still credible.

But what it really proves is that the files are a sort of weapon that should never have ended up in the hands of political nominees, who always have a reason to search for little bullets to shoot at their enemies or simply deflect attention.

Back in 1990, for example, former interior minister and prime minister Vladimír Mečiar had pretty easy access to the files, a parliamentary defense-security committee concluded in a report released back in 1991 and 1992.

The ÚPN is not just a historical institution that guards the traumatic memories and documents of the past - it also has a real power to decide when to release certain "truths" or when to hide them.

This time it was the former editor-in-chief of the defunct Národná Obroda daily, Juraj Vereš, and writer and artist Albert Marenčin whose names might be recorded with a different colour in the nation's memory, now that the ÚPN has announced that their files have been modified.

Both Marenčin and Vereš said that they had not even known they had files with the ŠtB, let alone that they were altered. They said they had never really told the secret police anything that could have harmed anyone.

It is interesting, though, that no ŠtB employees - the people who were directly performing the main tasks for the secret police - have been charged with crimes based on ÚPN files.

It is also interesting that the ÚPN felt the need to reveal only two names of the 30. Who are the other ones and why are not they interesting enough to reveal?

If anything, the incident only shows the vulnerability of the documents and the depth of the wound that the communist regime has left behind.

Future generations deserve some kind of guarantee that one day they will be able to put together the fragments of the past without fearing that they have been distorted by a bunch of people who happened to be around with pens in their hands. We do not seem to have that guarantee yet, which just shows that we have a long way to go to recover from the past.

By Beata Balogová

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