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Navigating the records of communism

COMMUNISM has been the last regime to document itself, said historian Timothy Snyder at the Central European Forum’s panel discussing ‘The second life of totalitarian structures’. And it is exactly this documentation that, among other things, represents a controversial part of the post-communist heritage. The overarching question left to people living in post-communist countries now is how to view the archives of the communist secret services: as trustworthy sources of historical facts or as questionable records keep by regimes based on lies.

COMMUNISM has been the last regime to document itself, said historian Timothy Snyder at the Central European Forum’s panel discussing ‘The second life of totalitarian structures’. And it is exactly this documentation that, among other things, represents a controversial part of the post-communist heritage. The overarching question left to people living in post-communist countries now is how to view the archives of the communist secret services: as trustworthy sources of historical facts or as questionable records keep by regimes based on lies.

“Being in Eastern Europe as the archives were being opened in the 1990s to understand communism was like participating in this extraordinary Freudian drama,” said American historian Marci Shore, referring to the idea of the mind’s unconscious part, that great dark closet where anything too painful for the conscious mind gets repressed. “But sooner or later that which is repressed, returns. And the fall of communism has been a Freudian drama about the return of the repressed rather than a happily-ever-after story. And the opening of the archives has been a bit like looking into the dark closet of the unconscious.”

According to Shore, archival research never reveals the entire story, only fragments which, along with other factors, makes it difficult to draw firm judgments because there are no documents in the archives produced out of a certain time and place, none produced without regard to human imperfections and frailty.

Shore said it is important for a historian to try to understand the people written about in archival documents, to try to understand why they made the choices they did, rather than to solely judge and condemn them or to justify and rehabilitate them.

“I have written about people who in some cases very much had blood on their hands,” she said. “And I don’t want to justify them; I only want to try to understand them.”

Timothy Snyder said his experience from working with the secret service archives has taught him that these are extremely valuable sources but also ones with which to be extremely careful with files bearing individual names.

“If you just pulled out one document and read it or published it, you might be convinced that a person was a secret police agent,” Snyder said. “But then you might find another document the following week about someone else which says that although this person was mentioned as an agent in the report on such and such a day, they [the secret police] never actually managed to recruit him.”

Snyder said an authentic document is not necessarily the same as the carrier of truth; it is just where you start. He also said there should be no privileged documents or sources.

“All sources should be accessible and all sources should be subject to critique,” he said.

The same applies to secret police sources – they should be understood in context and, according to Snyder, they ought to be open. It should not be only particular groups of historians who have access to these documents.

On the other hand, Adam Michnik, a former Polish dissident and currently editor-in-chief of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, said he was against opening the archives unless it was done in a certain way since they are presently in the possession of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, which selects which information to be revealed to the media and to the people.

“I say if [the archives] should be open, then they should be published as a whole on the internet,” Michnik said, adding that the Polish Institute does not agree with that approach because with the archives published online there would be no reason for the institute to exist anymore.



“These archives should be handled in the same way as in any democratic country: if they should be open, let’s open them all and for all,” Michnik said.

According to Michnik, the opening of the archives and dismantling of communism in Poland is one of the ways in which political struggle is conducted, which has nothing to do with searching for the historical truth. If a political group wants to eliminate its opponent, then lustrations and dismantling communism are very good techniques, Michnik said. According to him, the lustration legislation makes it possible to sue practically any person who lived in those times for collaboration with the regime.

“The archives cannot serve as a baseball bat to kill people,” Michnik said.


Michnik’s opinion is that people should not draw moral judgements from the archival materials.

“You cannot build a democratic state on revenge as a founding act,” he said.


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