PULITZER PRIZE WINNER: TINA ROSENBERG
APRIL 9, 1996
David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Tina Rosenberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize today for her book The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism. This dialogue originally ran in December 1995.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: In his inaugural address when he became president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel said, "The worst thing is that we live in a morally contaminated society." The many stories, you tell, the human interest stories you tell in your book, certainly bear that out. The story, for example, of Vera and Kanud Volenberger.
TINA ROSENBERG, Author: That has come to really symbolize how hard it is to deal in Germany with the legacy of the Secret Police, the Stazi, who were so pervasive there. Vera and Kanud were people who grew up as part of the East German system. Her father was a prominent Stazi agent. He--his father was a prominent academic. Their both children of privilege, and both of them rebelled. And they joined as young adults a peace circle in East Berlin, which is basically a protest group, and they did protests on environmental and human rights issues. And they were extremely active. Vera was arrested and was exiled, and, of course, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, they were--
MR. GERGEN: This is several years after they were married.
TINA ROSENBERG: That's right. That's right. They had been together for a long time. They were at the forefront of the protests, and she became essentially a congresswoman and was essential in getting the files opened. There was a big thing in former East Germany that the files of the Stazi should be opened to the victims, so the victims could go back and read about what happened to them, and she was really one of the people who was pushing hardest for this new law. And she succeeded. And she started to read the file about herself and found that there were details so intimate, details of her health, details of the couple's finances, excerpts of letters she wrote from her children, that she started to realize that the only person who could possibly have known her that well and have told the Stazi about these things was her husband. And she confronted him, and he admitted to, in fact, having been the informer on her.
MR. GERGEN: You went back and talked to Kanud.
TINA ROSENBERG: Yeah.
MR. GERGEN: And it was interesting that he felt very justified.
TINA ROSENBERG: He did feel justified. His position was we in this peace circle wanted to get our ideas to the government, we wanted to change the government, and one way to do that was to protest in the street. But another way to do that was to have private talks with people in the government we could interview--we could influence, and that's what he felt he was doing. He felt that what he was doing was telling his Stazi handler political information that would gradually move the government their way. And, of course, I mean, that is part of what he was doing, but the Stazi couldn't have cared less about their political views. What they were really interested in was this personal information that they could use to hurt and blackmail people and recruit other people to become Stazi agents. He now--he's divorced. She has custody of the kids. And he has become divorced from that entire world. He still considers himself a dissident. The apartment he lives in still has the stickers on the door from all the dissident ecological and human rights movements, and he's very bitter. He feels that these people abandoned him, and he feels that, in fact, he was a victim, and that they have done him wrong.
MR. GERGEN: Yeah. But what was so interesting about that was for a man to be spying on his wife, telling the Stazi, the Secret Police, about his wife's activities, was how many people who lived in this gray zone where they made compromises for money, sometimes to protect their families, sometimes for good reasons, but they lived, and--
TINA ROSENBERG: Communism was built on that. Everyone made compromises. I mean, the lines of complicity under Communism were not between people. They were inside people. I mean, they ran like veins and arteries inside the human body. Almost everyone under Communism was a victim and almost everyone under Communism was a collaborator, but because that was what was normal for society, people didn't think of themselves as collaborators. If you're a third grade teacher, and you're teaching kids the Communist version of Social Studies, in effect, you're a collaborator, because the system requires the help of everyone like you to be able to stay in power. And, of course, you don't feel that you are a collaborator. You don't feel that you are a bad guy. You feel that you're just doing what any citizen does.
MR. GERGEN: Right. So it was a morally contaminated society, as Havel said?
TINA ROSENBERG: Yes, it was. Havel was completely right.
MR. GERGEN: What did you learn about human nature, looking back now on how people complied and collaborated?
TINA ROSENBERG: Well, one thing I learned, looking at how they're dealing with that collaboration now is that you can change a government overnight, but it's much, much harder to change the political culture that that government leaves you with. And one of the really worst things about Communism was that it taught people that there's only one right answer, and the government has that right answer. And everyone who doesn't have it is the enemy. And unfortunately, there is the tendency now as the new democracies look back on the crimes of Communism to keep that formulation but reverse it. For example, the old textbooks used to have, you know, only a Communist system can guarantee the well-being of mankind.
MR. GERGEN: Right.
TINA ROSENBERG: Now, the new textbooks say only a capitalist system can guarantee the well-being of mankind. It's still a system in many places where there is one truth, and people who don't agree are considered not political adversaries but enemies.
MR. GERGEN: Now, one of the central arguments of your book is that a democracy must come to terms with its past, and in this case, the Eastern Europeans that you've looked at in Poland and East Germany and Czechoslovakia had to deal with these ghosts of the Communist past. How well do you think they've done that?
TINA ROSENBERG: Well, let me start out by saying that they've done--they've dealt with it much better than other countries in the former Soviet Bloc. I deliberately chose the ones that are being successful. If I had gone to Rumania or Albania, I would find very little attempt to deal with the past, because, in effect, not that much has changed. The countries I looked at are ones where a lot has changed. And I think they've had varying degrees of success. For example, in Germany, they are particularly interested in this question because they had to do it several times. I mean, this has been a big issue for Germans before in this century. And I think that the idea of opening the files up to individuals is a very, very good one, and, in effect, returns power to the spied-on citizen. You get to find out what happened to you. In the Czech Republic, when I started going there, it was Czechoslovakia, but not it's split. And mainly I focused on the Czech Republic. Instead of opening the files up, what they did was start something called "Luste Ratze." And what that means is that the interior ministry has the former Secret Police registries, and everyone whose name is listed then becomes someone who is "lust rated." And if they're lust rated, then they're banned from certain government jobs for, it was initially going to be five years, then this Fall, they voted to keep it till the year 2000.
MR. GERGEN: And they can make mistakes. Havel, himself, got caught up in this.
TINA ROSENBERG: That's right. Well, I think initially when they started this, they thought that that registry was perfect, but, in fact, the registry is full of mistakes. Havel, himself, was listed as a "lust rated" person because in 1965, a Secret Police agent came to visit him, and they had a conversation and Havel didn't tell him anything, but as the man was leaving, Havel said to him, "Well, thank you very much for coming. You've give me some good material for my next play." And this guy went back to the Secret Police headquarters and wrote a report saying, "He shows a positive attitude toward our organization," when, in fact, he just had no sense of irony, and Havel got listed as someone who was a potential candidate for collaboration. Now, that went out the window after a couple of months when they realized that they, that they were not going to have much luck with him. But there's lots of names like that in the registry. There's people who were just mistaken for someone else. The Secret Police agents were given money; they were given a quota. And if you did not recruit your 10 people, your pay was docked, so they would make up names, or they would put their neighbor on, when, in fact, the neighbor was not a collaborator. The problem with what they're doing now with the "Luste Ratze" process is that you're presumed guilty if you're on this list, and then you have to go to court to try and prove your innocence, and it's a process that does not guarantee citizens a right to defend themselves.
MR. GERGEN: So the process can be abused.
TINA ROSENBERG: It is being abused. And plus the files are being held by the interior ministry, which is an organ that is extremely politicized, and since all they have to give you is a little piece of paper that says yes or no, it's very open to political abuse.
MR. GERGEN: Let me bring you up to the present. What lessons do you draw from the way the Eastern Europeans have dealt with their ghosts, the kind of trials they've had, the administrative process they've had to deal with, those who were collaborators who are complicit, what lessons do you draw for Bosnia and the potential war crime trials that are coming?
TINA ROSENBERG: One thing I would say that I learned is the importance that people need to feel that justice is being done. And I think this is especially applicable to the Balkans, where you really have cycles that are six hundred or a thousand years old of retribution for crimes, and each nationality feels that they are justified in their aggression because of some aggression that was committed against them. And I think the War Crimes Tribunal is extremely important for this reason, that people need to feel that this man who committed crimes against my family or against my nation is going to be tried fairly and is going to be judged, and that's the only way that I can get out of my system the need to then retaliate later on.
MR. GERGEN: Now, there is a possibility, if they proceed with the war crime trials, that there will be some unrest and perhaps American soldiers will be put in some danger, but you think, overall, it's still worthwhile to push forward with a trial so people will have a sense of justice being done, and, therefore, the society can settle down and live with itself?
TINA ROSENBERG: I think it's extremely important to do that, both in the long run, and I think the dangers are somewhat exaggerated. I mean, people said that the War Crimes Tribunal would derail the peace process. It didn't. I mean, in my opinion, it probably contributed to the peace process, because it weakened some of the hard-liners. It put them in a bad position. And I think that right now there are threats from the Bosnian Serbs, and lack of cooperation from them and the Croats, but I, I don't think--I don't know if the threat to American soldiers and the other NATO soldiers who should be arresting these wanted criminals is as real as, as--it may be an empty threat.
MR. GERGEN: Well, we'll look forward to see if you go over there, yourself, to cover it, but thank you very much.
TINA ROSENBERG: Thank you.