16 May 2011

Monday Book Review

Another week, another book review.  Today's book is The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg.  Published in 1995, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1996 and the National Book Award in 1995.  If those two awards don't recommend this book already, I hope my raving review will soften your jaded soul.  For those jaded souls who are wondering, "What's the fuss all about?" this book is an in-depth and complicated foray into Eastern Europe's reconstruction period.  No, this is not how governments shifted, who won elections, or the dismantling of socialist industry.  This is about the cultural revolution and the can of worms known as "lustrace" in the wake of Berlin's tumbling concrete walls.

The word is derived from the English word lustrate, which means "to purify by expiatory sacrifice, ceremonial washing, or some other ritual action", but is also a reference to the controversial law passed in Czechslovakia, with which Rosenberg opens the book.  The book delves into three countries' cultural revolutions: Czechoslavkia, Poland, and Germany (in the respective order of the book).  Czechoslovakia opens the book partially to explain "lustrace", which is used repeatedly throughout, but also to set the stage for a complicated and painful problem.  The question each of these three nations face is simply, "How do we purge the past to move forward?" The question is moral, historical, and political because it controls the narrative of the past, as well as the future, and deals with the complexity of human lives.  The one lesson that stuck with me the most was, "The future is certain, but the past is subject to change."  This illustrates the conundrum of lustrace: history is being rewritten by victims and aggressors.  Records from the StB (Czechoslovakian) or the Stasi (German) do not account for the various factors that informed people's decisions to cooperate and what they intended in their actions.  Furthermore, those complicit persons must also face the ugly face of their actions and realize that their victims are allowed to not forgive them.

The narrative within each featured nation is so multifarious that a summary does little justice to Rosenberg's delicate journalistic touches.  The book is ultimately heartbreaking because as people pass judgment and face the consequences of their actions, well intentioned or not, demons are reawakened and people turn to vengeance.  The idea of forgiveness and progression are in a delicate balance in all three scenarios, but take on various shades on meaning in each.  Jaruzelski's trial over declaring martial law highlights the murky waters of political decisions and historical interpretations; Czechoslovakia's unmerciful and bungled purging of StB cooperatives highlights the culpability of relying on inaccurate sources and a monochromatic view of the past; East Germany opening the Stasi files to victims and meticulously piecing together the past highlights the danger of minute documentation in the face of progression.  Rosenberg delves into individual stories within the larger narrative, but still retains the cultural nuances in each country's lustrace.  Her writing brings out the vengeance of Czechs and Slovaks, the romanticism of Poles, and the meticulous obedience of the Germans. 

Rosenberg is a "veteran of South American regimes" and this background provides a strong framework for this complicated issue.  The complication of forgiveness, political and moral decisions, and control over the historical narrative has application to the modern world.  [Africa is brought to mind since I recently finished The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuścińsky, as the continent is haunted by colonialism and multiple successive and simultaneous wars.]  How does a nation forgive, purge, and move on?  What is the correct balance between the justice to purge totalitarian supporters and the mercy to forgive poor choices in an extreme moral environment?  Almost all the victims of Communism were its supporters, whether through small or indeliberate actions, and this realization haunts these nations.  The witch hunt is lustration, but Rosenberg ponders the line between lustration and immolation.  Whether Eastern Europe realizes the difference remains to be seen: Marx's shadow still ominously looms over their lands.

If you love ECE and don't read this book, I don't know what to do with you.  The book will be easiest for those very familiar with the region (there are numerous political reference and figures), but still reads easily enough for someone who is new.  Out of all the books I've read over the years, I recommend this one the most because it takes you through the trenches of these nations and understands the ghosts that haunt them.