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Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

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The Apology Olympics

Imagine an international event sometime in the near future known as the Apology Games. It is held every four years and features teams of professional diplomats, politicians, and conflict resolution specialists (with a few actors thrown into the mix). There are many rules in this Olympics, but one trumps all the others: contestants can only apologize for the conduct of their own nation.

In the event known as Tearful Remorse, the Olympians see who can use up the most tissues in a five-minute apology (crocodile tears trigger instant disqualification). In contrast to these sprinters, long-distance apologists in the Marathon of Contrition vie over who can address the most historical examples in a 26.2-hour mea culpa. Instead of shot put, the Don’t Cast the First Stone contest requires contestants, armed with a variety of projectiles, to resist the taunts of the other teams. There would be individual contests and team events. Gold medals would go to the most cathartic, the most restrained, the most diplomatic.

I doubt I’ll ever see such a sporting event in my lifetime. With a few exceptions, countries generally specialize in apology avoidance. After all, being a nation is never having to say you’re sorry.

Sometimes countries pretend that nothing ever happened (“Genocide? What genocide?”). Sometimes they offer rival versions of history (“That wasn’t a human rights abuse – that was self-defense!”). And sometimes, like petulant children, they practice damage control with half-apologies (“I’m sorry, okay?! Jeez.”)

Such apology avoidance was currently on display here in Washingon, DC with the visit of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, our man with a plan from Japan, the latest world figure to address both houses of Congress.

Our Man in Japan

Abe came to town as the anti-Netanyahu, as the foreign statesman popular with both President Obama and Congress who can bring the two federal branches closer together. But in fact, beyond Beltway bipartisanship, Abe and Netanyahu are cut from the same ultra-conservative cloth.

Like Netanyahu, Abe has dragged his country way out past right field – into the bleachers and possibly out of the stadium altogether. Abe, too, is a staunch militarist and anti-Communist who represents American interests – except when it behooves him not to — in a region full of U.S. adversaries. Yet Abe also has a tempestuous relationship with a near neighbor — in this case South Korea takes the place of Palestine — that holds back true regional cooperation. On the domestic side, both leaders want to eradicate the remnants of a corporatist economy and revive flagging nationalism.

Finally, Abe has also come to Washington to give a pitch for a piece of legislation. Netanyahu wanted to sink negotiations with Iran. Abe, on the other hand, wants to advance negotiations on the omnibus trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Of course, Abe comes here with his own “Pacific pivot” in mind. He wants to take advantage of the slipstream of American power to guide his country to regional hegemony. Before he can achieve his goal of a “normal Japan” with an authority and capacity to wage war, however, Abe has to confront Japanese history and address demands for various apologies.

In this 70th anniversary year of the end of World War II, this history may prove to be the biggest hurdle that Abe must clear.

Abe’s Amnesia Strategy

This week, with thousands gathered in front of the Supreme Court on the gay marriage issue, a smaller group of Koreans and Korean-Americans came together on the other side of the the Capitol building to send a message to Shinzo Abe. Some of the signs they carried were provocative, like “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Others were succinct demands, like “Mr. Abe: Official Apology!” And some were more explanatory such as “Remorse Does Not Equal Apology.”

The apology in question is around Japan’s conduct during World War II, particularly its treatment of women drafted into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. One of the survivors of this system of organized rape, Lee Yong-Soo, was on hand. She told her story a number of times to different audiences on the East Coast, even forcing Abe to use a backdoor to avoid protesters at his speech at Harvard. She is 86 years old.

Once this generation of Korean grandmothers dies, the direct link to the past will be broken. Perhaps Abe is counting on a strategy of outliving Japan’s victims. Indeed, most of the people at the Capitol protest were on the older side.

Japan, as its most vigorous defenders have pointed out, has already apologized for the “comfort women.” In 1993, the government issued the Kono statement, which read in part that the “Government of Japan would like to take this opportunity once again to extend its sincere apologies and remorse to all those, irrespective of place of origin, who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

That sounds like a sincere apology. The problem is that the current government has been trying to back away from the Kono statement. Abe’s attack dog, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, has testified in front of the Japanese politician that historians need to look into the validity of the 1993 document. There are plenty of Japanese politicians who believe that the “comfort women” story is a myth. They are part of the “Japan Coalition of Legislators Against Fabricated History.” Of course, they are not against the history that they themselves fabricate.

The Abe government also attempted to force a retraction of information contained in a UN report that addressed the issue of women drafted into sexual slavery in World War II. Abe even appointed the son of one of the men who helped set up military brothels – the future Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone – to chair a commission on the comfort women issue. And it has sought to change textbooks not only within Japan that report accurately – and not favorably – on Japan’s wartime conduct – but even textbooks in other countries, including the United States.

During his visit in the United States, Abe has gestured in the direction of contrition. “On the issue of comfort women, I am deeply pained to think about the comfort women who experienced immeasurable pain and suffering as a result of victimization due to human trafficking,” he said in response to a question during his press conference with President Obama. “This is a feeling that I share equally with my predecessors.  The Abe Cabinet upholds the Kono Statement and has no intention to revise it.  Based on this position, Japan has made various efforts to provide realistic relief for the comfort women.”

So, the prime minister is “deeply pained” but not apologetic. He has made a commitment to uphold the Kono Statement. But that’s also what he has said about the Japanese constitution, and we all know that he wants to change that too.

Meanwhile, in his speech to Congress, Abe neglected to mention the “comfort women” at all. He acknowledged that “our actions brought suffering to the peoples in Asian countries. We must not avert our eyes from that.” But then, essentially, he did avert his eyes from it, by focusing his speech on trade opportunities and Japan’s new security responsibilities.

In Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime. In Japan, by contrast, denial of World War II-era crimes is not only acceptable, it can be a winning electoral strategy for some politicians.

But history has a way of sticking around, inconveniently for those in power. The atrocities committed against the Armenians on the territory of the Ottoman empire continues to be a thorn in the side of the government of Turkey. The Pope has courageously declared the killings to be a genocide, and Germany, prompted by its legislators, has done the same. The Turkish government has reacted with predictable outrage.

Still, it’s not likely that Shinzo Abe will provide the kind of true contrition for Japan’s wartime conduct that his critics in South Korea, China, the United States, and elsewhere demand.

Unless he feels that he must.

A Distasteful Bargain

There are two ways of changing Abe’s position on the history issue. The first is to raise the costs so high that he doesn’t have a choice. The second is to make him an offer that he can’t refuse.

So far, the Korean government and Korean Americans have done an admirable job of raising the costs for Abe. They have helped to persuade a number of U.S. legislators – Mike Honda (D-CA) who sponsored a successful bill on the “comfort women,” Charles Rangel (D-NY) who wrote a recent op-ed – to take a very clear stand. They have made sure that this issue does not go away. After Abe’s speech, in fact, Honda sent out a fiery press release condemning the prime minister for failing to address, much less apologize for, the “comfort women” system.

It’s possible that Abe will buckle under pressure. But I have my doubts. He has demonstrated a remarkable contempt for public opinion – in Okinawa around the military base issue, in Japan as a whole over the constitution issue, and with other countries over the history issue.

But there is something that Abe desperately wants: a “normal” foreign policy. He wants to break free of the restraints of the Japanese constitution. To do so, he needs American support. But he also needs to reassure countries in the region that he doesn’t intend to recreate a militarist Japan. To do so, he has to prove that the Japan of the 1930s and 1940s is dead and gone. He has to solve the history once and for all.

So, here’s the deal Washington might dangle in front of him. If the Japanese government buries the ghosts of the past, it can have its normal military.

Since I’m a strong advocate of Article 9, this is not a deal that I personally would support. But I suspect that it might be the only way to force Abe and his influential cadre to pull a Germany and take an unflinching look at what the country did during World War II.

My preferred solution would be a regional Apology Olympics in which every country with a major stake in East Asia comes to terms with its own sorry history. Russia would finally deal with Stalinism, China with Maoism, Japan with its World War II conduct, the United States with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and perhaps the fire-bombings of Tokyo as well), South Korea conduct in the Vietnam War, and North Korea with its various aggressions against the South. And that would only be the first round of the six-party qualifiers.

But this isn’t going to happen. In fact, I’m sorry I ever brought it up. Okay?! Jeez….

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 29, 2015

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Articles Featured Human Rights US Foreign Policy

Asking the Hard Questions about Israel

In 1948, the village of Tantura fell within the borders of the newly created state of Israel. It was a small, seaside village of approximately 1,200 residents, most of them Arab farmers and fishermen. As the war between Israel and its Arab neighbors escalated, Tantura became an important transit point for smuggling supplies to a clutch of Arab villages in the area. To sever this supply line, and also because Tantura occupied a strategic location on the road between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the new Israeli government decided to “expel or subdue” the inhabitants.

What happened next was either an important military victory in a fledgling state’s effort to defend itself or a massacre of civilians in the human rights tragedy that Palestinians call the Nakba (the expulsion). In either case, Tantura no longer exists.

Ordinarily, the conflict over rival interpretations of what happened more than 60 years ago takes place in dry academic journals. But the battle of Tantura has been refought many times.

The most recent skirmish is taking place in Washington, DC.

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner grew up hearing stories of what happened in Tantura. “My neighbors and family members, they all knew about the massacre; some of them participated in it,” Lerner has said. “They were there and they saw it. This was not talked about frequently, but it was mentioned.” He was also familiar with the controversy generated by an Israeli graduate student’s thesis about Tantura, which detailed the actions of the Israeli Army’s Alexandroni Brigade. Members of the brigade had taken the student to court over the allegations in the thesis that a massacre had taken place.

Lerner turned these stories into a play, The Admission. The Washington-based Theater J, which is housed at the DC Jewish Community Center, planned to mount the first English-language production of the play in spring 2014. Theater J had presented other Lerner plays to Washington audiences and indeed had established a reputation for thoughtful and challenging productions addressing Middle East issues. It was natural for Theater J to stage Lerner’s take on a painful historical episode and its effects on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians today.

Not everyone agreed. A group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) mobilized to block the production. According to their website, COPMA believes that “there is no place in our Jewish community centers and institutions for anti-Israel propaganda and that the use of charitable donations to support activities harmful to the State of Israel is a breach of the trust that donors and supporters place in these institutions.” To stop The Admission, COPMA followed the money. It targeted the funders behind Theater J. Without ever seeing the play, COPMA managed to get the production downgraded to a three-week staged workshop, which is wrapping up its run at the end of this week.

If you only read COPMA’s description of the play, you might expect a piece of theater in the tradition of Soviet agitprop, with the message of Israeli wrongdoing pushed down your throat with all the subtlety of Hamas. But the play is far from one-sided. After standing outside the theater with a group in support of staging the show—and in preparation for the COPMA counter-protest that never materialized—I watched The Admission. The play presents both versions of what took place in 1948 with a measure of sympathy for both sides. But what did or did not take place in 1948 in the village of Tantura—called Tantur in the play—was of far less importance than the impact of these events on the lives of people who were born long afterwards. The play’s central question is a nagging one: to achieve co-existence, should we bury the past and move on, or dig up the bones and risk fighting those conflicts all over again? The obvious answer is truth and reconciliation, but that doesn’t seem to be an option for the time being in Israel, or for that matter in Washington, DC.

The effort to ban this play and shut down a vitally important discussion reflects a deeper anxiety in the Jewish community. For many years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee(AIPAC) practically monopolized the debate in the United States on Israel. But the perennial desire to resurrect the peace process, the sharp right turn in Israeli government policies under Benjamin Netanyahu, and the foreign policy fallout from eight years of the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous meddling in the Middle East have all threatened AIPAC’s dominance. Recently it has been dealt several political blows, particularly around U.S. engagement with Iran.

The most significant challenge to AIPAC—and by extension to groups like COPMA—comes from within the Jewish community. Liberal Zionism—with its various facets from J Street on the East Coast to Tikkun on the West Coast—has offered an increasingly vocal counterpoint. Former New Republic editor Peter Beinart has thrown down the gauntlet before the “American Jewish establishment” for its right-wing drift and even supported a modified BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) policy toward Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. A rebellion is brewing within the Hillel network of Jewish campus organizations, with several chapters becoming “open Hillels” because of their willingness to engage with controversial topics and speakers that Hillel International has put off limits.

Liberal Zionism faces its own conceptual challenges. Rabbi Brian Walt, for instance, has pointed out the reluctance of liberal Zionists to address systemic injustice inside Israel. “Like many progressive Zionists, I ignored this systemic injustice while acting to repair some of its symptoms: home demolition, uprooted trees, and more,” he wrote in Tikkun. “Along with others like me, I also ignored the devastating and hidden evidence of the Nakba: many towns, villages, and kibbutzim that I love in Israel where Israelis live (including close personal colleagues and friends) are built over the remains of Palestinian villages whose residents were banished and whose property was either nationalized or destroyed.”

It comes back to 1948. Writing in the Daily Beast, Yousef Munayyer listed the refusal to address the Nakba as one of the three contradictions of liberal Zionism. He points out that “Zionism necessitates a Jewish majority, which it achieved in 1948 through a series of events (including mass expulsion and the flight of civilians from hostilities), and perpetuated by systematically denying the human right of Palestinian refugees to return.”

This debate over Israel and Zionism is even more agonized in Israel. Two recent books by Israelis—liberal Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit and radical historian Ilan Pappe—illustrate the debate, at least on the liberal left. This week at Foreign Policy In Focus, Adam Cohen looks at how these books treat the history of Jewish-Palestinian relations.

Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land concludes that the Nakba was a necessary evil, even if it “is an integral and essential part” of the Zionist legacy. Ilan Pappe, perhaps the most prominent historian in Israel to argue that what took place in Tantura was a massacre, describes in The Idea of Israel how various movements and individuals have challenged the dominant state narrative in Israel, which has created space for works like The Admission to be staged. Pappe also mourns the more recent narrowing of space for this kind of discussion in Israel. In 2011, for instance, the Israeli government passed the Nakba Law, which allows the state to fine communities or state-sponsored organizations for commemorating the 1948 tragedy.

It is often said that the winners write the histories. But that has changed over the last few decades. Even the winners in 1948—or their offspring—have begun to tell the stories of those who did not prevail and were thrown off their land. And, of course, the “losers” have more opportunities to tell their own stories. The Israeli government and organizations like COPMA might try to keep the Nakba buried in history or offer only a sanitized, Thanksgiving-like version of this original sin of ethnic cleansing. But the historical works of Ilan Pappe, the plays of Motti Lerner, and the questions raised by many American Jews who refuse to toe the AIPAC line keep unearthing the bones.

The always-faltering Mideast peace process also reminds us that these are not just historical issues. The question that Israel felt that it had settled in 1948 remains a matter to be negotiated, namely its borders as a state and the disposition of the Palestinian inhabitants of the area. Frustrated at the lack of progress in the latest round of negotiations, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has followed through on his threat to gain the perquisites of statehood by joining 15 international agencies. As an enticement for the Netanyahu government to uphold its side of the bargain and release 104 long-term prisoners, the United States has considered an early release of Jonathan Pollard, in prison for 29 years for selling state secrets to Israel. This kind of horse-trading obscures the much deeper differences in how the two sides look at a conjoined history that stretches back to 1948, and from there to the dust and stones of the archaeological past.

Amid all the disagreements, however, one thing is certain. Progress can only be made through talking. If a work of art encourages that kind of debate, it is part of the solution, not part of the problem. The Admission offers no easy answers. But no one should try to stop it from asking the hard questions.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 2, 2014

 

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured Uncategorized

The Commission

The Romanian revolution in December 1989 was simultaneously the most violent of the transformations of 1989 and the most ambiguous. It was not a simple divide between regime and anti-regime protesters. There was no broad based movement like Solidarity to form the basis of a government to replace the Romanian Communist Party. The Group for Social Dialogue, a collection of dissident intellectuals, bore some family resemblance to Czechoslovakia’s Civic Forum, but it was a tiny organization of little more than a dozen members when it debuted on December 31, 1989. And it played no significant role in the revolution itself.

The group of people responsible for dismantling the Ceausescu regime – and trying and executing Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu – was the National Salvation Front (NSF). Composed of former insiders like Ion Iliescu – who had once been a member of the Central Committee of the party – the NSF nevertheless promised a clean break with the past. It banned the Communist Party, put the notorious Securitate under the control of the Army, prepared the ground for democratic elections, and in its December 22 communiqué outlined an economic program based on “eliminating the administrative-bureaucratic methods of centralized economic control and promoting laissez-faire and competence in running all economic sectors.”

But accusations of a “revolution hijacked” emerged almost from the beginning. Protests against the Front and its leader Iliescu broke out in Bucharest in January and February 1990. But it was the demonstrations in University Square in May and June that posed the greatest challenge to the Front. In the lead-up to the May elections, the political parties, students, and fledgling NGOs demanded that the Front abide by the eighth demand of the Timisoara Proclamation – put together in March by participants in the Timisoara uprising of the previous December – which argued for banning former members of the Communist Party and the Securitate from political office for ten years.

On May 20, however, Iliescu won a landslide victory in the presidential race with over 80 percent of the votes, while the NSF captured large majorities in the two houses of parliament. Many protesters in University Square packed up and went home. Others dug in their heels, and the confrontations with the police grew increasingly violent. Ultimately, Iliescu made an appeal to the Romanian public to restore order, and 10,000 miners descended on Bucharest. The clashes left several dead and hundreds injured. The unvelvet revolution was turning into an unvelvet post-revolution.

Vladimir Tismaneanu was at this time the chief American commentator on the evolving situation in Romania, appearing on the MacNeil Lehrer TV show, writing commentaries for The New York Times, and doing more in-depth analyses for The New Republic. Having grown up in Romania and with personal connections to many of the key political personalities, Tismaneanu took a very skeptical view toward the Front and the actions of President Iliescu. He was also a scholar of the Romanian Communist Party and thus well suited to analyze the critical question of how much of the old system survived under the guise of the new.

Although Iliescu and the NSF promised a clean break with the past, it would take Romania more than 15 years to confront this past in a systematic, government-sanctioned way. And it would be Tismaneanu who, in 2006, would lead the presidential commission into the abuses of the Communist system. As he told me in his Washington, DC apartment last April, the only hesitation he had over accepting the offer from President Traian Basescu was whether he would have complete access to government archives and complete freedom to write the report. The president gave his word. But access proved difficult.

“Initially the Archives wouldn’t give us anything or hardly anything,” Tismaneanu recalled. “Members of the commission were very angry. Then I went to Basescu. This was in June. ‘Mr. President I want to be very frank with you. Many of my friends — people that I admire, that you admire — believe that I have been caught in a trap. For you, it’s a great achievement. You are the president who created the commission to condemn Communism. The issue has been completely defused. For me, I put all my prestige, name, and authority on the line. The first thing I asked was for access to archives. What’s going on? Our people go there. They have no place to read. One of them told me that it took six hours to get half a file. No Xerox copies are allowed. There’s no permission to photograph the documents. They have to handwrite everything. They treat us with general hostility. The leadership of the archives is basically sabotaging what we are trying to do.”

Basescu called in the interior minister, Vasile Blaga, and directed him to fulfill Tismaneanu’s requests. Blaga dutifully set up a meeting for the next morning. “The next morning, I was there at the Central Committee, and it was the only time I saw Ceausescu’s office — the interior minister is in Ceausescu’s ex-office,” Tismaneanu told me. “The whole leadership including the general director of the archives was there. They were angry. And the seven of us were smiling. Blaga says, ‘This is an emergency meeting. The president of the country asked us to give full access and the complete cooperation of the ministry. I give this as an order as a minister. How long does it take to get them the Xerox machines?’ ‘Half an hour.’ And from that moment on, at the national archive, we got full cooperation.

We talked about his reflections on the events of December 1989, his interactions with Iliescu and Basescu, and the challenges of putting together the commission, writing the report, and dealing with its reception.

 

The Interview

 

Let’s start with November 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. What did you think would happen in Romania at that time?

 

November 1989 was an extremely hectic month for me. I was working at Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) covering the changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for their journal Orbis. I was also a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania teaching two courses each semester, one on what used to be called Communist political systems. Third, I was involved as a rapporteur with a study group that the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) put together. Some very interesting people were part of the group, including Charles Gati, Ambassador Thomas Simons (who later served as ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state), and some of the actors in the dramatic changes of 1989 through 1991-2.

My colleague from University of Pennsylvania also participated, a Yugoslav philosopher and member of the Praxis group, Mihajlo Markovic. That was the first time in my life when I presented papers for this USIP study group. I mentioned what was going on in Kosovo, and I referred to the memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Science.

Mihailo, with whom I was very close, suddenly said, “Vladimir, what’s going on? Have you become a spokesman for Albanian propaganda?”

“What do you mean? Everything here is based on Le Monde, The New York Times, and so on.”

“Oh, but they all are penetrated by Albanian agents,” he said.

I thought, “Something is going to go very badly in Yugoslavia if someone who is teaching about such things – about Marxist humanism — someone you would have expected to know better, says such things.” And we know what happened with Mihajlo Markovic.

This was in mid-1989, two years after the workers’ revolt in the city of Brasov in Romania. At that time, in December 1987, I’d published an op-ed in The New York Times with the title, “Tremors in Romania.” My suggestion was that something would happen in Romania some day. Immediately after the Berlin Wall fell, I submitted another op-ed to The New York Times entitled, “Will Romania Be Next?” After a few days, I received a nice phone call from the Times — since I had already written for them they were a little bit more personalized — and they said they would not be able to use my piece because they had another piece on Romania. This other piece, which they ultimate published, promoted the idea that nothing would happen in Romania.

Also in 1987, FPRI asked me to put together a conference in New York, the presentations of which were eventually published in a book. It took place in October 1987, and it was linked to the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The title was suggestive of the dramatic changes: “Will the Communist State Survive? The View from Within.” Among the participants were Mihajlo Markovic, the Cuban émigré and journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner, the famous Russian dissident Alexander Zinoviev. It was the only kind of place where left-wing liberals and right-wing conservatives could speak a common language. I couldn’t imagine any other kind of event that would have in the audience, though obviously sitting in different rows, Midge Decter and Susan Sontag. They had paradigmatically opposite positions, but not when it came to the condemnation of Communism. The idea of the conference was to focus not on the workings of the Politburo but on what the dissidents had to say. We invited Miklos Haraszti, and he contributed an incredibly pessimistic paper, “The Paradigm of the Boots,” which was published in the Week in Review section of The New York Times. The only two countries where the dissidents could come from were Yugoslavia and Hungary. Even in Hungary there were problems. We invited Janos Kis, and he didn’t receive a passport.

The two most pessimistic presentations — optimistic for the bureaucracy, pessimistic for the freedom supporters — were Zinoviev with his keynote address called “Crocodiles Cannot Fly” and Haraszti’s parable of the boots. Haraszti was referring to the boots that had remained of the Stalin statue in Budapest. At a certain moment in 1986, the boots were removed. And he said they were not necessary any more because the boots remained inside us. It was basically his argument about the velvet prison carried to its ultimate consequences. The volume, which covered China as well, came out in 1991, coedited by me and Judith Shapiro.

Two Romanian dissidents also participated. One of them was the dissident poet Dorin Tudoran, who came to this country as a human rights activist in 1985. He was the editor, and I the co-editor, of the journal Agora, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. The other one was Mihai Botez, a mathematician, who some people call the Romanian Sakharov. We were all very good friends, me, Mihai and Dorin. Mihai, after the revolution, became Romania’s ambassador to the UN and later to Washington. He died in 1994, quite young. Unlike Todoran and me, who had a very critical approach to the Iliescu regime, Mihai Botez’s position was more cooperative. He got those appointments, which is not something that would happen for staunch critics of what we considered to be the authoritarian inclinations and practices of the Romanian regime. Tudoran became a broadcaster with Voice of America and became very active in international democracy aid. That was his evolution.

Back to December 1989. In early December, I got a call from PBS, from McNeil Lehrer: they wanted someone to comment on Romania because it was the moment of the 14th Congress of the Romanian Communist Party. I remember this vividly. I appeared together with Ambassador William Luers, who had served as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, someone I’ve known for years. The third guest was Bulgarian. They were glowingly happy. And I was glowingly depressed. They were commenting on the demonstrations in Wenceslas Square in Prague with excitement and enthusiasm and euphoria. And I was commenting on the mechanical applause at the 14th Party Congress in Bucharest. I called the Congress on that show, and in my writings, the Congress of National Desperation and Disgrace. The whole thing had been staged like everything else. Ceausescu was reelected and his wife Elena was reelected, and the show seemed like it would continue like that forever. Meanwhile there had been a coup in Bulgaria, so everything seemed to be moving, except Romania, which could have been the setting for a novel called The Place Where Nothing Happens.

After that 14th Party Congress, things of course moved very fast. I was watching very carefully what was going on. There was a big meeting of the Warsaw Pact in the first part of December where Ceausescu was practically the only dinosaur still attending. Jaruzelski was still president of Poland but Mazowiecki was prime minister. Havel didn’t go, but he sent the prime minister. That was also the last meeting between Ceausescu and Gorbachev.

By mid-December, I received a call from CBC. They said, “We have a film from Romania that we filmed clandestinely. It’s from our main diplomatic correspondent. We would like you to do the commentary.”

I’d never been to Canada, so I said okay. As I was planning to leave Philadelphia they suddenly called and said, “Are you following the news?” This was before the Internet, so I hadn’t. “Apparently there is an uprising going on in Timisoara, and much of what we filmed was in Timisoara.” I went to Canada, and indeed, I discovered that there was an uprising in Timisoara.

I got another call from PBS to go back on their show. From that moment on, I was on the show every night, right up to the moment when I risked my career. That happened when Ceausescu delivered his last speech on the balcony of the Central Committee building.

Robin MacNeil asked me, “How long do you think it will take?”

I said, “Probably tomorrow.”

A friend of mine who was teaching history at Penn told me later that night, “You just risked your career! If it doesn’t happen tomorrow…” A colleague of mine had published a book on the future of East Germany, and that may have cost him his tenure at Princeton. A year later there was no East Germany, so why would they give you tenure? In my case, however, it worked.

The first shock after Ceausescu left Bucharest was that I could call anybody in Romania. It was unbelievable that feeling that one could speak absolutely freely and no longer use those convoluted circumlocutions. You could speak normally. One of the new weeklies in Romania called me up at that time and asked me to send them an article.

I said, “Are you going to print it?

“Why would we call you if we don’t plan to print it?”

“But my name is on the blacklist!” I still had the feeling that I was banned. I was born under that regime. I left it, but I internalized its modus operandi and all the rest.

The moment of the revolution was probably the busiest time of my life. I probably appeared on every single news channel in the world, including the Vatican! During this time, I got another call from The New York Times. The editor said, “Vladimir, you were right, we were wrong. We need a piece from you in the next six hours.”

This was on December 22. The phone was ringing every second. My then-director, and we were quite close, the well-known historian Daniel Pipes, said, “You have to do it.”

I said, “I don’t have time!”

“Vladimir, you don’t say no to The New York Times when they ask you to write an op-ed for tomorrow. Consider it a workplace assignment.”

I wrote the op-ed. After this experience, my advice to people is not to write an op-ed in six hours. My op-ed, which was reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, was full of illusions. Its message was: support Romania’s new leaders in their jump into democracy. Like everybody else, I was caught up in the extraordinary feeling that the evil was coming to an end.

On the evening of December 22, I was with Jim Lehrer this time. Mihai Botez was also invited, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who talked about the general transformation. We were asked to comment on what was going on in Romania. We were showed the first tape with the new leadership. Maybe Iliescu was there too. But Jim Lehrer described the person who was announcing everything as Romania’s former foreign minister Corneliu Manescu. I didn’t pay much attention to this. Mihai Botez intervened and said, “I don’t know exactly what’s going on in Bucharest. But the person speaking there is not Corneliu Manescu but a movie director and actor who was very involved in the Ceausescu regime.” That was the first sign that we had to be careful about what was going on in Romania.

So I started looking at the different signals. David Binder, who is a dear friend, interviewed me at that time for a piece he published in The New York Times about Petru Roman with the title, “An Aristocrat among the Revolutionaries.” Other leaders started to appear, including Silviu Brucan and Ion Iliescu.

The New Republic commissioned me to write a piece about what was going on, and it produced the first big clash between me and the Romanian regime. The article was called “New Masks, Old Faces: the Romanian Post-Communist Junta’s Familiar Look.” From that moment on, I realized that the old propaganda machine was working as if nothing had happened. It was the same old provocations. I’d broadcast a lot through Radio Free Europe, and I received these letters about my family that were clearly disinformation, but very professionally done, and it started up again as if nothing had happened.

 

When was your first trip back to Romania after these changes?

 

My first trip was together with Dorin Tudoran. We went in February 1990 and returned in March. We stayed 10-12 days. I had an assignment from the New Republic to write a second piece, which I called “Between Revolutions,” and from the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine to write a piece I called “Return to Romania.” Dorin and I went to see Iliescu, and we talked with many many people. We stayed in Bucharest and shared an apartment at the Hotel Intercontinental. It was a terrible hotel at that moment, but it was the best hotel in Bucharest. I remember vividly the chaos in Bucharest, but it was an exuberant chaos. It was clearly a revolutionary atmosphere. When people don’t cross the streets where they’re supposed to cross the streets – then you know that something very different is happening. The media were very free — not the television, which was completely controlled, and I don’t know about the radio — but the press was free: Romania Libera, 22.

I was also working with the section editor of a journal published in London of which Jan Kavan was the main editor. It was called East European Reporter. I was the country editor. We published the “Letter of the Six” by Silviu Brucan and the five other Party veterans. I also got a copy of the Proclamation of Timisoara to translate, and we published it also in East European Reporter. Kavan went one way. And his executive editor, Jonathan Sunley – who was not very conservative at that time, but he moved in that direction and I was told that he is now very close to Orban – had the opposite of Kavan’s views.

You’re familiar with the “Proclamation of Timisoara” and the famous point 8, which was, to the best of knowledge, the first formulation in Eastern Europe of the imperative of lustration. At that moment, my dear and good friend Adam Michnik was not such a strong opponent of lustration. Later, he became the most persuasive voice of the anti-lustration philosophy. We know what happened later with Kavan. I myself had to change the paperback edition of my book Reinventing Politics. Jan is a friend of mine. He came to this country and taught at Adelphi University. He said, “I want to use your book. But I don’t want to use a book in my class that presents me as a controversial ex-police informer.” I told him that I said “reportedly” and “allegedly,” but that I couldn’t ignore that there was a debate.

Romania at that moment struck me as clearly divided. The old bureaucracy was still intimidating. Dorin and I saw Iliescu for about 20 minutes in a totally perfunctory meeting. There was no indication that he had any idea to whom he was talking. He repeated the same record as all his speeches: “we are the spontaneous emanation of the revolution” and so on.

March 1990 is the key for understanding the whole evolution of Romania in the new years. There was the Timisoara proclamation, which appeared on March 9. There were the Targu Mures incidents and the formation of Vatra Romaneasca. And there was the reestablishment of the Romanian Intelligence Service, the new Securitate. All this happened in practically a week. Point 8 of the Proclamation became the major demand of the University Square protests, which began in mid-April. In the elections in May. Iliescu won overwhelmingly with 85 percent of the vote and probably with no fraud. Maybe there was semantic fraud because he pretended to be an anti-Communist, but there was no real technical fraud. Then the original initiators of the University Square protestors, like Marian Munteanu, withdrew. What remained were the more radical groups.

I was back in Romania with a third assignment from The New Republic and also Christian Science Monitor. I arrived in Romania on June 9 and was in Bucharest during the Mineriad (when the miners came to Bucharest to break up the University Square protest). The title of my New Republic article was a paraphrase of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia — it was called “Homage to Golania.” Iliescu had called the University Square protestors golani, which means “hoodlums” in Romanian. So, homage to Hoodlumia. That’s when I witnessed barbarism.

I was approached at the end of my trip by a former schoolmate. He’s three years younger than me and was very close to Iliescu, like his stepson. Iliescu doesn’t have children but he essentially adopted this fellow and his brother after their parents died in a plane crash. After the revolution, this guy became Iliescu’s chief of staff.

He called me and asked, “Would you like to see Iliescu?”

“To talk about what? The blood of the students on the sidewalks of Bucharest?”

He said, “Don’t give me this lecture.”

“Don’t give me this propaganda!”

That was the end of that. I did not see Iliescu until 1994, even though I went to Romania basically ever year. Neither of us had any interest in meeting. I wrote some very tough articles about the National Salvation Front, and it’s in all my books. I was very close to Democratic Convention circles, particularly close to the Civic Alliance party, and its head Nicolae Manolescu who is a personal friend. My main point was to support the development of something Romania didn’t have. It’s like the articles that come out these days about the Arab Spring and why there is no intellectual ferment like what we saw with Charter 77 in Eastern European countries. We know that dissent in Romania existed, but it was weak, isolated, and usually a solitary experience — Doina Cornea, Tudoran, Botez. Radu Filipescu distributed leaflets against the regime on his own on a motorcycle, leaving them in people’s mailboxes. It was individual. There was very little of the collective action that made Eastern Europe such an interesting case and that inspired people later on. Out of that experience there was a learning curve – for dictators and also for oppositions.

 

I want to jump ahead a bit to the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania that you chaired. I didn’t find that much information about it.

 

I’ll send you a good article, an interview that’s online, in a journal called Baltic Worlds, published in English in Sweden. They wanted an in-depth interview about the post-commission situation. It also has a good biography, written by a Swedish professor I’ve never met. There is also an Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, edited by Lavinia Stan. The author of the entry is the former coordinator of the commission, a very good historian, Cristian Vasile. He is a young historian and played a very important role as scientific secretary of the Commission..

First of all, why didn’t Emil Constantinescu, when he was president, create such a commission? Constantinescu was a staunch anti-Communist, an anti-totalitarian intellectual. Did he have a great foreign policy? Yes, no doubt. Did he lose popularity because of his pro-West policy when at a crucial juncture he supported the NATO military action in the former Yugoslavia? Yes, that decision dropped his popularity by 10-15 percent. When Iliescu was head of the opposition, he opposed the action because, as he said, “Romania historically has only two friendly neighbors: the Black Sea and Serbia.” Emil Constantinescu and his foreign minister Andrei Plesu took the risk. They did the moral and right thing. Some people might disagree, but interestingly once Iliescu became president again in 2001 he was very much in favor of the U.S. action in Iraq. I even asked him in my conversation with him, “It’s one thing to be head of opposition and another to be president. Why didn’t you understand Constantinescu’s choice?” Because without Romania playing that role in 1999, I don’t think it had a high chance of joining NATO in 2003. It mattered enormously in the changed perception of Romania as a reliable ally of ours, of the West.

Under Emil Constantinescu, there were two or three missing elements. The pressure from society for such a coming to terms with the past was not very strong in the mid-1990s in Romania or in East-Central Europe as a whole. Second, Emil Constantinescu made an unfortunate statement that his very election as president of Romania was the realization of point 8 of the Timisoara Proclamation, which was wrong. The proclamation was about the lustration of a whole class of people, not about Emil Constantinescu becoming president (or King Michael or whomever). His misunderstanding of this was, in my view, part of his psychological makeup. He thinks he’s a regional and global leader, and he’s very enamored with himself. In this respect, neither Iliescu nor Basescu has this problem. They are very realistic. There are a few things that the two have in common, not ideologically to be sure, but in terms of political style. I had a long dialogue with Iliescu that I did at the end of his second mandate. I wanted to keep my good name. I didn’t want to be accused like Michnik was after his conversation with Jaruzelski, but I thought that we could have a dialogue between a historian of Romanian communism and a major figure. Still, some people didn’t like it. Anyway, I know Iliescu pretty well, Basescu very well, Constantinescu quite well — so I can compare them. In 2013 I published a book of dialogues with Romanian political analyst Cristian Patrasconiu titled The Book of the Presidents (Cartea presedintilor).

Under Constantinescu, it was not the hour of decommunization. Sometimes distance in time can help. That’s one of the things I’ve learned. Only a month ago in Brazil did they create such a commission, three decades after the restoration of democracy. It’s never too late. The Dominican Republic only a year ago opened a museum about the Trujillo times. But the most important thing, which people sometimes forget, is that in 1996 there were very few, if any, young Romanian historians or political scientists with a Western background who could do what we did in 2006. That’s a ten-year difference. The average age of our experts was 30. Ten years earlier, under Constantinescu, the average age of these people was 20.

Have you ever seen the report? It’s 880 pages. Part of it was published in the Journal of Democracy: Basescu’s speech when he presented the report. Sometimes it’s called the Tismaneanu commission or the Tismaneanu report. On the one hand, it’s flattering but I’m also not so happy about that because I received too much of the blame. No, it was a collective work written by about 36 people: young historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists. One person wrote about the phenomenon of queuing for food. Professor Gail Kligman from UCLA wrote a chapter about the politics of abortion. Dragos Petrescu and myself worked on the chapter on the Communist Party. I wrote, together with one of the commission members, the introduction, which of course mattered strongly. My closest collaborator during those days was philosopher and public intellectual Horia-Roman Patapievici. As a member of the Commission and a dear friend he became also a major target for those who resented our work. There was truly an orgy of invectives and calumnies meant to shatter our will and de-legitimize the whole endeavor.

I talked to Traian Basescu the first time in my life after he became president. He came to Washington. I was very close friends with Andrei Plesu, who was at that time a presidential advisor on foreign policy and cultural affairs. We talked about setting up a meeting with Basescu, who had defeated Adrian Nastase in the elections of 2004, with intellectuals either of Romanian origin or with an interest in Romania. Charles King from Georgetown University came, Maria Bucur who teaches at Indiana University, Dragos Paul Aligica, Christina Zarifopol-Illias, Peter Gross, Gail Kligman, Dorin Tudoran, Mircea Munteanu: about 16 people participated.

At this meeting, some people asked about the fate of the archives. It was not something obviously very high on Basescu’s agenda. He said, very politely and very friendly, “What do you want us to do with the archives? Probably they have long since been falsified or destroyed.” He took a polite but distant and not very committed approach. At the end, I gave him a copy of my history of Romanian communism, Stalinism for all Seasons. Other people gave him other things. We said goodbye. And that was more or less it, and he went back to Bucharest.

In summer 2005, a key moment happened during an interview with Basescu conducted by the editor of 22, Rodica Palade, a very good journalist. She asked Basescu to what extent he was considering — as the new head of the Romanian state after he defeated the former Communist (or better, the klepto-Communist) Nastase — condemning what had happened during the Communist period.

He said, very politely, “Ms. Palade, when I ran for president of Romania in 2004, I did not have decommunization as a major point in my program. Second, in terms of my own feelings, my memory of Communism was not one of starvation. I was a sea captain, at the rank of general, captain of the most important ship in the Romanian fleet. I have to be very frank. If there was no milk in Romania, I would stop in Rotterdam and buy powdered milk. If there was no chocolate, we always had big bags of Toblerone. If there were no jeans in Romania, I would buy jeans in New York. Basically, I was spending between 8 and 9 months of the year on the sea. My father was also in the army. I didn’t know the penitentiaries.”

“There are books, Mr. President,” she said. “The Black Book of Communism. And there’s Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons.”

“I know both books. But these are the opinions of the authors. If we are going to do such a thing, we will need a scholarly commission. We have to produce a document that scholars consider valid.”

“Who are you going to ask?”

“I don’t know. Probably the Romanian Academy.”

Then he realized that going to the Romanian Academy was like going to Ceausescu personally. It was the most unreconstructed institution in Romania. Many of the people in the Academy had been publicly exposed as Securitate informers. It was the last place to go to. Keep in mind that Elena Ceausescu had been an “academician” (a member of the Academy). It absolutely would have been a conflict of interest. They couldn’t condemn something that they basically loved and served.

That was the end of the interview. But then it became an issue of civil society, with an appeal initiated by a filmmaker and signed by many people. I was among the first ones to sign. It was called the Unofficial Report toward the Condemnation of the Communist Regime in Romania, based on the documentation from the Sighet Memorial in the northern part of Romania. In a few weeks there were thousands of signatures, including the most prominent figures in Romania society. It was the equivalent of KOR in Poland. Clearly it was not something to be dismissed. By the end of February 2006, the major trade unions of Romania endorsed the appeal for a public condemnation.

Then out of the blue, when I was giving a lecture in Redmond to the Microsoft Corporation called the “Life, Death, and Afterlife of Romanian Communism,” I got a call from my wife. You might ask: what is the connection between Microsoft and Romania? The largest ethnic group working for Microsoft, other than Americans, are Romanians. They invited me to give a talk and in Romania they were organizing some things as well. I was not paid the way other people are paid, but it was still very nice.

So, my wife calls me and says, “Listen you have a call on the answering machine — one message in Romanian, one in English.”

“They can wait,” I said.

“I don’t know if you want to wait. It’s from the office of Traian Basescu.”

I used the hotel phone. I never look into the agreements you sign with the hotel. Do you know how much they charge per minute?

 

The amount you got from Microsoft went to pay for that phone call.

 

Yes. It was something like $48 a minute. When I saw the bill I said, “What are you talking about, it was only ten minutes!” Never will that happen again.

I had no idea why Basescu was calling. I’d also done an interview with the same Rodica Palade in which she asked me what I thought about the idea of a commission. I was very direct. I said, “When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago, they didn’t heed a special commission to condemn Communism. We know what communism was in Romania.” It’s important to note that this wasn’t a condemnation of Communism in general. We had good relations with China at that point. No, I worked very carefully on this. It was the commission for the analysis of the communist dictatorship in Romania. That’s it.

So, I talked with Basescu. He said, “Listen, are you following what’s going on here?”

“Yes,” I said, “a little bit.”

“I decided to put together a commission.” I thought he might want to ask me for some suggestions. “After serious reflection, I have the following proposition for you. I want you to chair this commission.”

“Let me sit down,” I said. ” First of all, Mr. President, it’s the greatest honor. As a social scientist who believes in the values that you promote, this is an important opportunity. Second, I don’t need to ask my wife — I’ll do it. I know she will say yes. Mary has always been on my side in all my intellectual and political commitments. Third, I need several things guaranteed. I need to have complete freedom in putting together the commission, complete autonomy in the writing of the report, and full access to the archive. Please don’t respond yet. Ask the minister of internal affairs and others. Emil Constantinescu tried very hard, and nothing happened. The archives remained closed. We’re talking about the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Securitate.

He said, “Oh, no, I’ll grant upon you all the authority of the chief executive of Romania…”

“Mr. President, you haven’t worked on this issue. I have. I don’t want to be the lightening rod for the discontent of the researchers when they discover that they can’t do anything and the whole thing is just a symbolic manipulation.”

After three days we had another conversation. I accepted the job. It became the most important assignment for me: intellectually, morally, scholarly, and so on.

Soon after, Rodica Palade, the editor of 22, called me (or maybe I called her). “Listen we’ve had a precedent with the commission on the Holocaust chaired by Elie Wiesel. Wiesel went to Bucharest, appeared publicly with Iliescu at a press conference, and explained what the commission was about. You have to come to Romania and appear publicly with Traian Basescu.”

That was the beginning of a nightmare. In 2006, I flew back and forth to Romania seven times, basically every month to put together the commission. In general, I had good responses. We had only two major cases of “convulsion.” I invited to be a member of the commission one of the founding members of the Group for Social Dialogue (GSD) who at that moment was the chair of the history department at the Central European University and a close friend of the man whose fellowship you have. I knew that he’d been a critical intellectual in Iasi before 1989. After 1989, he was a founder of GSD, a secretary of state at the ministry of education, and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He accepted the invitation, which remains the mystery of my life. He would still be what he was if he had not accepted.

 

Because you would not have dug up the information about him.

 

Right. Basically, in a matter of days, I heard from someone in the commission, the head of the political prisoners’ association. “We have a very serious problem with the commission,” he told me. “It’s your friend from Budapest.”

“What’s the problem? He has a lot of enemies. He’s a brilliant guy.”

“It has nothing to do with that.” Then this guy gave me everything, including code names.

“I don’t believe it,” I said.

He gave me a number of criteria of how to verify it. And all of it was confirmed. It was not only him. There was another guy, a journalist from a newspaper where I published a column. “Check tomorrow if he is still there,” this fellow told me.

Next day, the editor had resigned. I called friends of mine and asked why he resigned. They said that nobody knew. They’d been told that documents had come out.

So, I sent a note to my friend from CEU and I said, “Listen, either we talk or you know what we’re talking about.” He withdrew for “personal reasons.” Things didn’t stop there. He decided to act preemptively. He published a confession in June. His career went spiraling downward, which is a pity since he’s a brilliant guy. I had no role in this. On the contrary, I publicly defended him. I said that he remains my friend. I received lots of criticism. People said, “You say that you are very critical, but if it’s your friend you change your position. In other cases of informers, you are very tough.” Probably they had a point about this double standard. Of course if it’s a personal friend it’s very hard for me to feel the same way as an abstract story. This was a guy who played with my son when he was a kid. We’d put together workshops and conferences, and we’d also co-edited a volume. But still, it’s the principle. His answer was that he only reported good things about people. Excuse me? That’s always very debatable. And the best solution is not to sign any agreement with those jerks.

 

Did you see the book by James Mark, The Unfinished Revolution, about political justice in Eastern Europe?

 

It’s a very good book, but he gets some things wrong regarding our commission. He talked to some members, but it would have been good to talk to me as well. He wrote that the commission was formed as a result of pressures from the EU. How many times did we talk about the EU? Zero. It was civil society. That’s very important to understand. Second, he doesn’t understand the EU. If he thinks the EU is interested in decommunization, well, then he should find another profession. They couldn’t care less.

This was the summer and fall of 2006. I had a semester from my university to complete a different project, and they allowed me to do the work on the commission. In January I was starting a new semester. I realized that without my presence the research team would not work. Perhaps it would happen in other countries, but in Romania forget about it. Internal fights, laziness, you name it,. So that was the time limit that we had.

 

Did you encounter any barriers to access?

 

The president was very optimistic. But he discovered the challenges as well. We worked under very difficult circumstances. But without Traian Basescu, this commission would not have been created, would not have worked, and would not have produced a document. That’s my totally honest opinion.

I do appreciate certain things about Traian Basescu. At a certain moment, he really understood that this particular issue could become a defining feature of his presidency. Let me give you an example of this moral component. Andrei Plesu told me that he accompanied Basescu when he went to Washington in 2005. They went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. There is a little film there about Romanian soldiers killing Jewish kids. Basescu, when he saw that, started to cry. Remember: he comes from a military family. Andrei, who had resigned in the meantime and has no association with the Basescu, remains critically favorable. Basescu is very abrasive and can antagonize many people. But with me and around me, he was always very polite. But I don’t work with him. Plesu told me, “If you manage to convince Basescu to deal with this issue the way he internalized the Holocaust, then you win. Maybe not with the Romanian nation, but with him and that’s the important thing.”

I said to Basescu, “Mr. President, I know that you are a very busy person. But if as we advance through the chapters dealing with different issues, do you want to look at any of the materials?”

He said, “If you give me 10 pages, that’s already a lot for me. Look at all that I have on my desk. And this is your job, not mine. But if it’s 10-15 pages, I’ll read it.”

I gave him 80 pages, including a sociological profile of the informers and the chapter on the Pitesti experiment, which he obviously didn’t know anything about that. He wasn’t listening to Radio Free Europe in the 1970s. So, I was visiting a friend of mine in Timisoara and at 11 pm, the phone rings.

It was Basescu. “I read what you gave me and I have a question.” And this was the moment when Basescu decided he would go to the end of this thing, which led to his first impeachment in May 2007. “Was there any moment when this ‘diabolical’ institution called the Securitate acted on its own in pursuing its own crazy ideas?” You’re familiar with the case of the Pitesti experiment? There are only two cases — in Romania and in China – of the government trying to create a New Man via the most infernal methods. “Are you sure,” Basescu asked, “that this is true?”

“Yes, Mr. President, I am sure. This is a commission of experts and this was written by experts.” And the experts were paid, by the way, $100 a month. In other words, almost nothing. We the members weren’t paid.

“Do you think that Party leaders would give such an order to the Securitate?” Basescu asked.

“First of all, you are asking me a question that would be the topic of a dissertation, the relations between Party and Securitate in a Communist dictatorship. I don’t think I can give a full answer. The devil is in the details here. But if you ask me if the Politburo decided to transform students into monsters in Pitesti, probably not. Did the Politburo member in charge of the Securitate know about this experiment? Yes. Was it part of a policy of the Party to get rid of any form of opposition among the youth? Did they follow the idea of the New Man? This was the Party’s goal, not the Securitate’s. From day one, Dzerzhinsky put it clearly: “we are the sword and shield of the Party.” No general secretary of the Party was executed by the secret police, but many heads of the secret police were executed by the general secretary. Have you heard of Beria? Khrushchev liquidated Beria, not the other way around. Everywhere the Party is the key institution.”

Initially the Archives wouldn’t give us anything or hardly anything. Members of the commission were very angry. Then I went to Basescu. This was in June. “Mr. President I want to be very frank with you. Many of my friends — people that I admire, that you admire — believe that I have been caught in a trap. For you, it’s a great achievement. You are the president who created the commission to condemn Communism. The issue has been completely defused. For me, I put all my prestige, name, and authority on the line. The first thing I asked was for access to archives. What’s going on?”

There were 25 researchers doing this work, staying at Ceausescu’s villa because it belongs to the presidency. The archives are part of the ministry for internal affairs.

“Our people go there,” I continued. “They have no place to read. One of them told me that it took six hours to get half a file. No Xerox copies are allowed. There’s no permission to photograph the documents. They have to handwrite everything. They treat us with general hostility. The leadership of the archives is basically sabotaging what we are trying to do.”

Basescu goes to his secretary. “Call in Blaga.” Vasile Blaga was the interior minister. Currently he is the leader of the Democratic Liberal Party that broke with Basescu (or Basescu broke with them). Blaga came over from the ministry, which was the old building of the Central Committee, to Cotroceni Palace. Probably he had a special car. In 10 minutes, he was there, in a sweat.

“Yes, Mr. President?” Blaga said.

“Vasile, dear. You know Professor Tismaneanu.”

“Yes, of course.”

“You know that I appointed him.”

“Of course.”

“You know that I really take this very seriously. Professor, what do you need?”

“First of all,” I said, “the researchers should have a special room where they can read. Because this is a presidential commission, permits should be given to them to enter and not wait forever in line in the morning. There should be at least two Xerox machines, with a technician, from 8 am to 8 pm. The archives were closing at 3 pm. And we want complete access. There should be no document that they are denied access to.”

“Will you still be here tomorrow?” Blaga asked. “Can you come to my office at 10 a.m.?”

“Of course, Mr. Minister. I’d like to come with three members and three experts of the commission. Because this is not just my job.”

“Okay, just call my secretary and give her the names.”

The next morning, I was there at the Central Committee, and it was the only time I saw Ceausescu’s office — the interior minister is in Ceausescu’s ex-office. The whole leadership including the general director of the archives was there. They were angry. And the seven of us were smiling.

Blaga says, “This is an emergency meeting. The president of the country asked us to give full access and the complete cooperation of the ministry. I give this as an order as a minister. How long does it take to get them the Xerox machines?”

“Half an hour.”

And from that moment on, at the national archive, we got full cooperation. From that moment on, Romania democratized its archives. So, if nothing else, this was an achievement. With the interior minister, cooperation went up to 80 percent, which is pretty high. With the Romania Intelligence Service, cooperation was about 30 percent. They were polite. But they were forced to give things.

There was zero cooperation from the Foreign Intelligence Service. I met with the director at the time who was trained as a sociologist and was in the Social Democratic Party and friendly to Iliescu. I went to his office with a colleague of mine, an expert, but my colleague wasn’t allowed into the office. He had to wait outside. The director gave me some huge envelopes.

“Please look into these,” he said, “but for your eyes only.” I looked at the materials, and it wasn’t anything. There was a source, a code name, something about Helmut Kohl. “You understand,” he said.

“No, I don’t understand.”

“They are important state-to-state issues, and this goes beyond us.”

It’s true that our experts asked for information about the negotiations with Israel and Germany over the sale of Romanian Jews and Germans, and that involved important people. I could understand the confidentiality in that case because it involved other partners, and you can’t break certain agreements. But we had asked about the files of dissidents, including the files of Radio Free Europe. They said that those were still national security files. Why? RFE didn’t exist anymore, and most of those people were dead. Probably it was about infiltrations. In any case, there was basically no cooperation at the Foreign Intelligence Service.

We also received miserable treatment at the ministry of health, which we needed for the abortion issue. Remember: abortion was linked to the militia. All those officers who were arresting people for the illegal interruption of pregnancy: they had probably been lieutenants and captains and had since become colonels and generals. It was impossible. We didn’t have subpoena powers in the mandate, like in South Africa. We didn’t have the time, and I’m sure parliament wouldn’t have passed that. We tried to work with the president not the parliament.

There are 23 recommendations in the final report. Basescu mentioned in his speech only those he thought he could carry out. He didn’t mention lustration. “It’s not me,” he said. “This is the parliament of the country. I can propose it but I don’t have the right to issue laws.” After that he created an advisory commission to the president to implement the proposals. Then it became simply an issue of money. With the crisis, money became unavailable. There is still no museum of Communism in Bucharest. We proposed it, but there was no money. There is only Sziget, which is a private museum. I’m not necessarily against a private museum. But I don’t think history should be an official story. I have mixed feelings about such a “museumification” that creates accepted narratives.

 

On the commission, you discovered some things about your friends. Did you discover anything that fundamentally changed your understanding of the Party?

 

Yes. Of course we had a number of hypotheses. As it turned out, the nature and the strength of the Romanian resistance to Communism appeared much more clearly. The country had a real armed resistance. Contrary to the legend promoted both by the far Right and the far Left that the resistance was Iron Guard, the actual resistance was made up of former military officers, teachers, people belonging to democratic parties including some social democrats and even a few disenchanted Communists. These people belonged to the resistance brigades and units in the mountains. The successors to the fascist movement were not happy with our results. The far Left and far Right were totally united on that.

A second conclusion was that indeed there was a continuity between the first and second stages of Romanian communism, which shattered the historiographical consensus that the Ceausescu regime was fully nationalist compared to the first stage. That created a reaction from the “old historians” — ex-Communist historians – who were very upset and said that Ceausescu condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and so on. But our position was that there was a continuity with variations in terms of Stalinist regimes.

A third conclusion was about the level of individual dissent. We found quite a lot of evidence showing that there was indeed a significant amount of resistance. The protests in the Jiu Valley in 1977 and in Brasov in 1987, based on the documents, apparently created earthquakes among the top leadership. For the first time, we had documents from the Ceausescu era showing how Ceausescu gave orders to get rid of the leaders. It was like in the Soviet Union where the Politburo was obsessed with Sakharov.

For me, through the work of this commission, I began to question more this “totalitarian thesis” as it pertained to Romania. Hannah Arendt once said that the only perfect totalitarian universe is the concentration camp. Romania cannot be described as a concentration camp, definitely not after 1956. Maybe between 1949 and 1953 it could be described as such a camp, but even then there were coffee shops and restaurants. I thought there was much less resistance and opposition, and now it’s clear there was much more.

Why was the report so controversial? We clarified the values of the commission from the beginning. I said that our anti-Communism, which was unambiguous, was not an anti-Communism rooted in another extremism. Our position was civic liberal anti-Communism, which is equivalent to civil liberal anti-fascism. We were explicitly anti-Communist and anti-fascist. In a country that experienced both, it’s important to emphasize that. You can imagine the reactions. To his credit, in spite of all the criticisms, Basescu stood by it. In his view, he would have liked his speech in December 2006 to be a moment of closure. But Corneliu Vadim Tudor, the head of the Romania Mare Party, turned it into the opposite by clowning and booing and creating a circus in the parliament.

Iliescu also got very mad because he was mentioned in the report. Of course he was mentioned! He had been a secretary of the Central Committee. He wasn’t singled out. We wrote a book together, a series of interviews (published in 2004). Now, he called me a scribbler. I said, “I’m very flattered, you wrote a book with a scribbler!”

 

That’s not the worst insult!

 

He said “pathetic” scribbler. Iliescu is a political animal. He is a person with an understanding of how political games are played. Unfortunately, he came to power too little and too late. He would have been a blessing for Romania in 1985.

 

He could have been the Jaruzelski of Romania.

 

Or the Kadar of the best days. But he never fully abandoned his Leninist habits of the mind.

All the commissioners signed that they accepted the report in the letter and in the spirit. That didn’t mean that some members didn’t say later, “Oh i didn’t mean it.”

Did I have any major disappointments? No. Later on, I read more about commissions. There’s a book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop by Francisco Goldman, about Guatemala. Probably if I’d read that book before starting, I would have had some reservations about taking the job. I didn’t anticipate the level of hatred — including at my school. The type of letters that I received! But also you have to look at the other side — the tremendous letters that I received in support. Those were signed. The other ones were unsigned.

 

Washington, DC, April 19, 2013

 

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Them

In her book Oni (Them), the journalist Teresa Toranska profiled Poland’s hardcore Stalinists, what the Poles used to call beton or concrete. When the book came out in 1985, it became an underground classic. The world of the “true believers” was in its twilight years, and soon it would be extinguished altogether. But with her interviews, Toranska managed to convey how a small, Stalin-backed group could rule over Poland in those early, post-World War II years. This was a country that had a government in exile in London, that had a large army of resistance, that pushed back against collectivization, and that was eager to assert its independence. Poland was a deeply divided country during the Cold War. The success of “them” in installing a hated regime generated an equally persistent “us” that rose up at periodic intervals (1956, 1968, 1981) before finally shaking off the Soviet yoke.

Every country in Eastern Europe had “them” – the Communists who put the Soviet Union above any national priorities. But in East Germany, a more potent “them” eventually emerged: the Stasi. This was a much more numerous, much more organized force. The Stasi consisted of a vast bureaucracy of over 90,000 employees and 300,000 informants. It is precisely because they are so numerous that the Stasi has proven a much more enduring “them.” It’s not just a relatively small group of sad, old men who were once powerful. Germany is still dealing with “them.”

Stefan Roloff is an artist and filmmaker, best known perhaps for the video art known as Moving Painting. He has done a documentary about his father, an anti-Nazi resistance fighter and member of the Red Orchestra. More recently, he has been conducting a series of interviews with the victims of the Stasi in preparation to produce a feature film. In January, I talked with him in the Berlin neighborhood of Zehlendorf about “them.”

“When major papers like Der Spiegel or Focus publish the biographies of former Stasi collaborators, and people find out who they are, they are still not removed: because of some technicality, because they are employees at a certain governmental level, because they work in the police force, or in the tax authorities where they have a lot of power to screw around with people,” he told me. “They also are in real estate, where there’s a lot of money. They are in security firms. But these are the more obvious places where you would expect people like that. The thing to really point out is that they are part of very essential and powerful institutions that are funding political projects about the past. They are also writing books about the past, meaning that they present what it was from their perspective. This would be like if I focused on Hitler building the Autobahn instead of the concentration camps, just to make sure you remember what Nazism was really about.”

Because of the popularity of the film The Lives of Others, we think we know something about “them” – their motivations, their regrets. The Stasi agent at the heart of that movie proves, in the end, to be a “good man.” This portrait didn’t go over particularly well with people in former East Germany. Roloff explained, “Imagine we’re in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and a German person makes a movie about the good Gestapo man and shows it in Tel Aviv.”

We talked about the parts of the Stasi archives that have not been made public, the challenge of revisiting traumatic issues through interviews, and some of the stories he’s learned during this process.

 

Stefan Roloff

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?



On the day the Wall opened or fell or was pushed down — ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that it was pushed down from the East, that Regan and Kohl had nothing to do with it, and Gorbachev had a little bit to do with it – I woke up in my apartment in the East Village. I was walking across Astor Place to go to my studio on Broadway and Houston, and suddenly I saw The New York Times. There was this wide, black-and-white picture of people standing on the Berlin Wall, and I thought I was dreaming. I considered going home, going to bed once more and waking up so I could then start my real day. But I thought, “You know you’re dreaming, you could walk on and see what else happens.” So I went to my studio, and there was my answering machine blinking because everybody from Berlin had called me and left messages. So I found out that, yeah, it was true.

 

You grew up here in Germany, in Berlin?

 

I grew up in West Berlin.

 

And you came to the States when you were relatively young?



I came to the States in the 1970s. I always felt at home in New York, much more than Berlin. And so at some point, after visiting New York a lot, I decided, “Why shouldn’t I live there? If I feel more at home there, why not be in the place you are actually at home.”

 

You worked as a painter in New York, which is a great place of course to be a painter.

 

Yes, it was perfect. It was the early 1980s. It was a good time for a European painter, especially German painters in New York. For me it was kind of easy to work, to live for my work.

 

When did you start making films?

 

Very early. I started getting into filmmaking when I was still in art academy in West Berlin. But I think there is no difference between painting and filmmaking. I’ll give you an example. I said before I like to do portraits. If I invite you to come to my studio, and I paint your portrait, we are going to be working over a long period of time, for weeks, for months perhaps. As I apply all these layers of paint to my canvas over these different days that we have our sessions, you are going to be in different moods, as will I. Some days you will be talkative, in a good mood; some days you will have a problem, some unpaid bill whatever. It will be the same with me. And all these feelings enter the canvas layer by layer.

When I moved to New York I was able to realize that when you stand in front of a really good portrait, it’s going to be alive. It’s really going to look at you. Not that it follows you with its eyes. No, I mean its soul is there, because of the layers underneath. So, for me that was kind of like early filmmaking, because you have a piece that is created over time. And even though you think you only perceive the surface of it, you actually perceive the layers underneath. I started to paint and film and paint and film, and show the metamorphosis that a painting goes through until it evolves to its final stage. I could tell you for three hours what else I’ve done, how that evolved ultimately into actual filmmaking if you will. But that’s not the subject of your interview.

 

And when did you start inserting issues here in Germany or in the region into your filmmaking?

 

It started with those moving paintings that I did. In 1989 I was invited to a show in a museum in Washington DC, and I had reached a very high level with the work I had done. I thought, “I have to change now.” When I came back to New York, I decided to do something totally different that had nothing to do with layers. I went horseback riding in West Virginia, and I accidently discovered a beautiful building that was a hotel but had once been a women’s prison. Suddenly I was before a 3D representation of my concept. This was a very long, complex project. After I was done with it, it entailed a prison suicide, government corruption, all sorts of things.

When I was finished with the project, I went back to my childhood home in my parent’s house. I saw that my parents had grown old. They were very relaxed. And that’s when I realized that, because my life had been very busy (I’d not only lived in New York but in Mexico and various other places), I had never asked my father about his resistance against the Nazis. I suddenly realized my father’s life also had been a discrepancy between surface and interior. Living as a resistance fighter after the war in Germany was not an easy thing because people didn’t really appreciate it. They didn’t really appreciate resistors unless they were dead, and then they were cool. If they weren’t dead, they posed the automatic question: “So, what did you do?” For that reason, it was a major subject. To keep it short, I finished his portrait before he died. I wanted to get to know him before he died and that was the thing that most interested me: how did he get into prison and how did he get out. And I uncovered an amazing story. When I was done with that I also wrote a book about it. It was a multi-media package.

When I was finished with it, people from former East Germany approached me, people who had been in the resistance there and had had very similar experiences after the war. Of course, in East Germany they couldn’t just kill people. They couldn’t send them to camps, but instead they could psychologically destroy them. And the structure of the resistance network in the so-called Communist east was very similar to what would have been under the Nazis or what we can see today in Iran and other countries, where people have to fight against totalitarianism. So, that film project about my father evolved into a very broad but thematically focused project. To date I have interviewed about 65 people who have had experiences with resistance.

For instance, zersetzung (decomposition) was a secret Stasi technique that they applied to dissidents. They would enter your home or place of work, and they would change things around so you would start doubting yourself, start asking yourself, “Did I put this here?”

 

We have an old expression for that …

 

Gaslight.

 

Exactly.

 

So, they did that and I interviewed people who experienced that. I interviewed people who were imprisoned for their political beliefs as well as those on the fringe of the politically imprisoned. By “on the fringe,” I mean people who applied for emigration and would be imprisoned for that. It was an arbitrary system. And some of these people just lived in niches, not partaking in society, not being for or against anything. I am now preparing a feature film.

 

From one of the 65 interviews?

 

Yes and no. Yes, it is one of the stories. But it also at the same time contains elements of the others. Once you deal with a feature film, it is a very different project. It’s not about history anymore. It’s not necessarily about the exact facts anymore, although you don’t want to enhance or lessen what has taken place. But I could, for example, make a person out of a kaleidoscope of three people. I am not bound to the exact portrait of one person any longer. I can put the experiences of others into the life of this person because they would fit. And the ultimate thing with the movie is the dramaturgical aspect: how can you move it forward? Can you keep the viewer on the edge of his seat while he watches it? As cynical as that may sound, once you make a film about it, it isn’t about human rights violations anymore. Of course, that’s still the subject, but when you work on it, it becomes something else. It becomes: how can I package this so than an audience gets it.

 

You have to do that in the theatre too. You can’t lose the audience for any period of time, not even a minute, or you are dead on stage.

 

The moment you lose them is when they walk out, and that’s bad.

 

So that’s what you are working on now. But you said you have another film that’s going to be premiering later this month?

 

No, that’s an art installation. I knew that when I went to West Virginia, when I walked into that hotel, I was opening a Pandora’s box where a lot of stuff would come out, and it did. It was a long line of things that related to my life, that related to me, though I wouldn’t have thought that I would find in West Virginia something that related to my life coming from West Berlin. I was also lucky, because the commissioner of corrections in West Virginia once warned me that I should be very careful. People wanted to get rid of me, and you can do that easily in West Virginia in a hunting accident — it’s not a big deal. And he explained to me the reason why it hadn’t happened yet. He said that nobody could fathom that a foreign artist from New York City would come down there to investigate a story like that, meaning I must be an FBI agent investigating them.

Anyway, this whole process evolved into my father’s story and then something else related to the moment when life takes you in an arbitrary fashion and transports you elsewhere, be it a prison or the world of gas-lighting. Recently I’ve been thematically confronted with the stories of two people. One is a woman from Sudan who had to escape or she would have been killed in that country, and the other is a man from Iran who would have faced the same fate. They came as refugees to Germany. Again I have to tell you that, as an artist and filmmaker, the subject doesn’t interest me on a human rights level. It interests me on a conceptual level: how we are propagandistically influenced by the press and how the press portrays these countries and their people whereas, in reality, they are like us. Because I like these people personally, I’ve created a portrait of each of them, which may also result in documentary movies, or some sort of movies. But I will show it next month in my gallery in Berlin.

It will be an installation: a tent. Because a tent is a symbol of Occupy, and they occupied the plaza in front of the Brandenburg Gate to make people aware that the Germans put them into camps. They were put into camps that were not quite as bad as they used to be, but still they had to do forced labor for very little money in these camps, and they were not allowed to leave. They were basically forced to deal with the question of whether they should go back to where they would be killed or kill themselves in the camp – which some people did – or just fall into a depression. And these are the best people that come, otherwise they wouldn’t be persecuted in their countries. For me, this was a very interesting subject about standing up and recognizing something, which we all have to do every day. Nobody lives in a perfect world. But can I make it better or make it more livable?

 

Resistance seems to be an important theme in your work.

 

It became that because of my father’s background, though I never really felt connected so much to the history or mentality of my family. My family was a very conservative bunch. I like them, but I don’t agree with them on lots of issues.

 

I want to come back to your current work, but first I want to go back to 1989/1990. The Wall falls, you’re in New York City, and 1989 was also when you went to West Virginia. So even though you were in West Virginia and somewhat removed at least geographically from this place, did you follow what was going on?

 

I don’t read papers very much. I hate to say this, but I think they’re superficial work. They’re kind of boring, and in a political world things repeat like a hamster in a wheel until it finally breaks. Rarely do you see something happen, like the revolutions in North Africa. Normally it’s bureaucracy and arms sales and things like that. I didn’t go back to Germany until about a year later, that’s how much it interested me. What I saw in the media and the papers and also in other places about the subsequent developments in Germany was something I would call kitsch. People who didn’t know each other were suddenly hugging in the streets like long-lost brothers and sisters. I thought, “I don’t want anything to do with that. And this is going to end badly.” You meet somebody and hug them, and suddenly a year later this person is a mortal enemy. But it’s too late: he’s already in your house.

 

It’s the inevitable conclusion of all kitsch.

 

Right, exactly.

 

So when you did come back the kitsch — the hugging — was over?

 

No, when I came back honestly, I saw that the Wall was down, and I saw a couple of rather sad-looking places in the east. But I visited my friends in West Berlin and I must tell you, nobody from my generation has lived in the east. They all live in former West Berlin. It’s like West Berlin still exists. This place here, where we are in Zellendorf, is part of it: the more boring part. But there are beautiful parts of west Berlin where friends of mine live and that’s where they stayed. Through the generations, the people from the east and even their kids mostly still stay split between East and West.

One of the reasons is that, whether we are atheists or not, in the west we have a religious tradition based on Christianity, so there is a potential of an afterlife, of some spiritual other world. Communism, although it ultimately resembles Christianity in my eyes, had a different materialistic thought, that there is no other life and there is nothing after death, which gives your life a very different meaning. And even though the Church played a large role in the revolution in the east, the true education that the majority of these people had in schools was materialistic. They were told in school that there is no god, there is no afterlife, it is all hocus-pocus. So you come to Berlin and you see a city that is made out of two parts, but they speak the same dialect, look the same, having the same passport, have their great grandparents living on the same block. And yet they are so different from each other. And people don’t deal with those differences, because it’s so important politically that we all have to be together instead of recognizing that it’s beautiful when people are different.

 

When I talked to the eastern Germans in 1990, but also subsequently, I think they were the most surprised by the reaction of the western Germans. And this was after the moment of all this hugging. They were surprised that the West Germans were not interested in their experiences or even, in some cases, pretended knowledge they didn’t have. To give you a very quick anecdote, we brought a group of eastern Germans and western Germans to Korea to talk about post-unification issues. On the panel western Germans would say “well this is the way it is in east Germany,” and eastern Germans on the panel would say, “no it really wasn’t like that,” and the western Germans would say “well I have friends over there who told me that.” Where did that come from? And why has it persisted for so long?

 

There are again a couple of reasons for that. A good example of the phenomenon that you just described was the film The Lives of Others, which was hated by people in the east and for a variety of reasons. But the main reason you could give is: imagine we’re in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, and a German person makes a movie about the good Gestapo man and shows it in Tel Aviv. There is a lot of that in there: to pick out a subject that is really so terrifying that the people themselves can’t often face it, because they are traumatized and would not necessarily revisit those issues. With my interviews, of course, it’s part of my job to revisit these issues with them, but it’s tough and it costs a lot of energy and it also gives me a certain responsibility once I’ve broached the topic to continue with the work. I can’t just say, “Give me a story” and then “goodbye, it was nice to meet you!”

So, that is one of the reasons. But it’s also quite a phenomenal thing that Germany, after its one experiment with a republic, became one of the worst dictatorships that ever existed. So much for that first attempt at democracy: these thugs just came by during the elections and sprayed everything, and everybody was a coward and everybody shut up for whatever reasons. I’m not talking only German Protestants, but Jewish people too. Everybody went along with it and imagined it couldn’t be that bad. They all created this thing together, and after it was over, how can you face something like that? You can’t.

That’s when the Cold War started. And during those many years of the Cold War, West Germans became very cool, very environmental, very human-rights-observing good people. They became so “good” that these people in East Berlin reminded them of exactly what they would have been too had the Wall been built on the other side. When you can’t face something, you come up with a lot of theories about what’s going on so that you can explain it to yourself. I’ve seen people judging these people from the east, looking down at them, dealing with them like second-class citizens. It’s kind of racist and kind of similar to what happens between Blacks and Whites in the States.

 

We have Obama, so that we can say that there is discrimination against African Americans. And Germany has Angela Merkel, so that Germans can say that there is no discrimination against people from the East.

 

There you are, exactly.

 

You mentioned where people live is in some sense being passed down to the next generation. Are these sentiments also passed down to the next generation?

 

Of course they are. I think it takes more than one or two generations: it takes ages for those things to disappear. It could be good for people to exercise some brainpower and deal with the hard questions. It could broaden horizons. People are always so shocked about what happened here in the 1930s. They say that Germany has always been a very advanced country of literature, music, culture, especially during the Weimar Republic. What went on in theatre and movies is unmatched until today. “How could that happen?” they ask. They think that it’s bizarre that a country of potato-eating, mediocre boors can also have this other extreme. But it makes sense to me. It’s like a pressure cooker, and inside there’s a big potato stew, and if you open it just a little bit: bam, and it all comes out!

 

To go back to the subject of phone-tapping and people’s experiences under the Stasi, I am curious whether you think the Stasi issue could have been handled differently after 1989? Should the files have been published in their entirety? Should there have been more discussion? Should there have been different institutions created?

 

There was a hotel in the east called “Neptune.” It’s by the Baltic Sea. There were many Western politicians and powerful West German people who went there for conferences. They were middle-aged or older, fat. And yet these beautiful young girls were really attracted to them. And they could never face the fact that personal attraction might not have been the motivation behind the behavior of these girls. And of course the hotel rooms they went to with the girls were bugged. If you truly opened the Stasi archives, all that stuff would have come out.

And that would not only have been a disaster for western German politics but for the Western world period: for the economic structure, for everything. It would have meant people being kicked out of their jobs or forced to resign. It would have caused mayhem, and that is why Kohl put the lid on it. That’s why Kohl made sure to emphasize that the most important issue was the reunification of Germany, not dealing with the terror of that system. We had the same problem after the Nazi era too. And we know how many people the CIA alone imported to the United States, people who did atrocious acts but had special abilities. I say that without any emotions or whatever you want to attach to the sentiment that “it’s never going to be like that, not in this world, not on this planet, that’s the way business is done.”

 

Was that awareness present among eastern Germans you interviewed?

 

The people that I interviewed were, with a couple of exceptions, sort of an elite because of their experiences, so of course they have a broader sense of what went on. If their trauma allowed them to look beyond it, they would know that.

 

You began to talk earlier about why you thought the first East German elections ended up the way they did.

 

There were different reasons. One of them was, of course, that Helmut Kohl had basically run his course. He was a big, fat, tired person, he was corrupt, and he didn’t do much. Had the Wall not come down, Kohl would have never been reelected. But when the Wall came down, it was a big political point for him to use. He had to make his deals with the Stasi. There were a couple of political parties in the east, a block of parties in addition to the Communist Party, including the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the East. This was, of course, an absurdity. The CDU existed in the East and you could vote for it, but it wasn’t Christian democratic. Like many of the churches, it was completely soaked with Stasi people. It had to make compromises with them. For Kohl, the best way of making sure that he would be reelected was to use the eastern CDU as a party that was supposedly part of the western CDU, even though they had in reality been mortal enemies during the Cold War. By pretending that they were all together in the CDU, Kohl brought into his ranks another big army of Stasi and people who worked for the regime.

What was very interesting is how Kohl and the CDU managed to manipulate German reunification. Because in the beginning, the revolutionaries and the people around Neues Forum, once they caught their momentum, had hundreds of thousands of regular people walking in the streets. They had a chant, “wir sind das Volk” – “we are the people.” If you think about Communism always saying, “we are the people,” this was an ironic thing, but it was also a beautiful thing. It meant we are truly the ones. But then it became “we are one people” – “wir sind ein Volk” — and that happened through the infiltration of the CDU. Someone I interviewed in Leipzig saw an expensive car with the M for Munich sign pull up with a whole trunkful of German flags. Munich is basically a stronghold of the CDU as well as the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is the even more conservative wing (like the Republicans and the Tea Partiers in the United States). They handed these flags out to the demonstrators and said “wir sind ein Volk.” And so these people started walking with these flags, the same as always, but now they are marching for democracy. It was like in Cabaret. They started singing a song, with a certain text and a certain rhythm, and all of a sudden they are all walking and talking this bullshit and they don’t even know what it means anymore, but it basically says the opposite of what they said before and they think it’s great. And the funny thing is how cheap these CDU people were: the demonstrators had to return the flags afterwards!

 

Do you think that those civic movements like Neues Forum have had any lasting impact on any part of German life, whether we are talking about Zehlendorf or Prenzlauer Berg?

 

I don’t think so, and that’s also why it’s important to portray it. People who were powerful were pushed out of their positions. People still have a hard time facing the fact that the Stasi killed people, that they were a murderous bunch. They didn’t kill people with guns or gas. They used different methods. They would put up X-ray machines, and people would die of cancer 10 years later. They took away the power from all the people who had been influential at the beginning of the protest, before the Wall fell. Plus these people were seriously tired when the Wall came down because they’d fought for 10-15 years against a terrible bureaucratic wall. So when these young people came and said, “This is great what you’re doing, can we help you?” they said “yes” without realizing that these people were Stasi. In a way it was more than a human being could take. In a way their power was neutralized by the boorish mass, as usual.

Today we live in a different time. We have cell phones. We face different issues. And everybody thinks more about how they can make a career rather than what the historical context is or any bullshit like that. It doesn’t interest them. I can relate, but still there is great beauty and human dignity in the existence of something like those movements. I would rather portray an event or a person who either has dignity or is really cheap. I would go to the extremes. Since the dignified came my way, instead of the really campy, I’ve done that.

 

But you reserve the right to go back to the campy.

 

Totally.  How can I help myself? I am an artist.

 

If Neues Forum has not had an enduring impact, unfortunately it seems that the Stasi has. It keeps coming up with politicians, like Gregor Gysi. This is the obvious way the Stasi comes up, but are there other ways the Stasi has an impact?

 

Oh big time! They have spread their people in foundations that are funding projects about the former GDR. They are so smart because they welcome this auseinandersetzung, the dealing with the past. Let’s put it this way. Imagine I am a murderer and I come to you and say, “Murder is a terrible thing, and I know it’s been done, but I will do everything to talk about it, so let’s talk about it.” Meanwhile I distract you from the fact that I’ve killed a couple of people. It seems like I’m talking about some killers, but I am not one of them. Also, I am trying to say it wasn’t that bad, that not everybody was a murderer. So you get into very murky waters.

When major papers like Der Spiegel or Focus publish the biographies of former Stasi collaborators, and people find out who they are, they are still not removed: because of some technicality, because they are employees at a certain governmental level, because they work in the police force, or in the tax authorities where they have a lot of power to screw around with people. They also are in real estate, where there’s a lot of money. They are in security firms. But these are the more obvious places where you would expect people like that. The thing to really point out is that they are part of very essential and powerful institutions that are funding political projects about the past. They are also writing books about the past, meaning that they present what it was from their perspective. This would be like if I focused on Hitler building the Autobahn instead of the concentration camps, just to make sure you remember what Nazism was really about.

 

Are they are operating according to a sense of mission circa 1988/1989? Do they still believe they have a collective goal?

 

Oh yes, they do. I know a couple of people like that. I even have friendships with some of them. And you may wonder why, after all I’ve told you. Part of the reason is that the families of resistors under the Nazi time were split up into two camps. Half of them were instrumentalized by the east as great anti-fascist fighters and the other were instrumentalized by the west as traitors. Both were wrong. So I know people who have had their connections with the Stasi, and we have interesting relations because they know what I am doing and they suppress that as much as possible because otherwise they couldn’t hang out with me.

There is one difference between the Nazis and the Communists that I see. Communism originally had an idealistic base to it. Don’t forget the fighters in the Spanish Civil War: people who went to fight against fascism and for something really good. Little did they know that a fascist-like Stalin was arising as the representation of the bloc they were supporting, and reporting to, and they became collaborators without even knowing it. They became part of a system of spies, originally because they were fighting the evil aristocracy and capital and exploitation. They were thinking they were doing something good and then they slipped into something else.

So, yes, I think these people are very present as a group. Because for them, it is very easy to switch back to the Spanish Civil War moment, the revolutionary romanticism that is at the beginning of a system like that. And then they dream that they are not bad, that they are part of freedom, and they don’t face the fact that all they’ve been doing is support fascism in a different color.

 

I want to ask you about looking ahead at the relationship between Germany east and west. Do you think anything can be done at this point to deal with the issues of the past in a constructive way that can then lead to a different Germany?

That is the question: how much can you do to better the world? And we know that we can’t better the world. You can analyze it. You can add your own thing. I am not Christian, but there is one great thing Martin Luther said: “Even if the world came to an end tomorrow I’d still plant a seed today.” It makes sense in an atheist way. Because if the world comes to an end and there is no god, it still makes sense to do something.

People are going to stay the way they are. During the 1970s and 1980s, I had conversations with Jewish friends in New York who thought that Hitler could have only happened in Germany. We had seriously heated arguments about that. I always said, “No, a guy like that could have happened wherever history made it possible for him to appear and do his shit.” And then suddenly, when the younger Bush started making his big mess, these very same people said, “he’s like Hitler, it’s the same thing.” Of course the United States didn’t commit a Holocaust with millions of dead, but if we had taken some close-up pictures of some of the atrocities that happened during that time, we would have had some more images that fall into that category.

So, can you do anything about it? No. I think you can raise awareness. You can try and maintain some sort of freedom-thinking in people. You can live well. We can sit in this restaurant and talk openly about issues, and I don’t have to watch if those two ladies over there are working for the secret police and they’d report me and then I’d be picked up. That is a big difference. But I don’t think people really know what it means, because they haven’t seen this other side in western democracies. They think democracy goes on and on and on, and they don’t know how quickly it can tilt. So it’s really important to talk about what individuals can do, not the masses as in “the masses will become revolutionary or law-abiding or Left or Right or believers of god or the devil, depending on what you teach them and how you lead them.” You know, they’ll never be really smart for they are basically a pathetic bunch.

 

When you look back to what you were thinking in 1989/1990, have you had any profound second thoughts since that period?

 

Oh definitely. When I heard about East before, I thought that everybody kneels before the Stasi. I’ve come to realize it’s not that way, that there was a certain group of people among them that seriously fought back. You can always say that all Persians are communists or all Americans are imperialist or all Muslims are religious freaks, but we forget that within their countries there’s a large group of people that really have no inner connection to that and this group is larger then we think. But there are also many swing voters, so you have to keep them fed with good information. There is always, in every country, a small elite of people who think differently and take risks because they see more. They basically have no choice. It’s not that they are better people, they just see more. If you see somebody killing somebody you can’t just walk by. But if somebody one block over kills another person and I don’t know it, what’s it going to be to me?

 

You mentioned that one of the reasons why people like your father were often ignored was because their experience raised the question, “Why didn’t I resist?” Did you get similar reactions toward resistors when you were working on the project with the Stasi?

 

Definitely. People would try to edge me out of this thing, saying that I wouldn’t be able to judge because I’m not only from the West but I’m also American. You may not know it, but that’s my nationality, and so to them I am sort of an enemy already. But if you truly want to find out something, you enter a jungle and a lot of snakes and cats are coming at you from the air or from the ground, and if they don’t kill you, you will eventually find what it is that you are looking for. Eventually the jungle will look like a regular landscape, and you will know how to deal with it. Before and during the 1990s, I had problems with historians who didn’t appreciate my taking on this big subject that they themselves should have tackled. They were all Ph.Ds, and I was just an artist doing it out of my own sense of portraiture. So I already knew what it means when people try to take a swing at you for their own personal reasons. It doesn’t matter.    

 

When you are looking for stories, are you looking for stories that are representative, or are you looking for stories that are just interesting?

 

Let me give you an example. Roman Polanski’s subject was the locking up of people, which probably had to do with his first couple of years under the Nazis in the Polish ghetto and things he learned in order to survive. Every one of his movies deals with somebody who was locked in by some force. The worst thing that happened to him was the Manson murders, which he was lucky not to be there for, but his wife and his unborn child were. And then you have this story about the girl that he statutory raped, so he was locked up in Switzerland in a bizarre way, not being allowed to leave his home. If you have a subject, it will come at you in different forms and shades, and it’s not because it’s interesting. Of course you have to make it interesting for people, but also to you yourself.

I’ve always thought the word “interesting” is really suspicious. “Oh that is really interesting.” What does that really mean? It means bullshit. What exactly piques your interest? Really, it’s whether we have a subject, or we don’t. The reasons we have a subject are different. My reason, if I look back, may have come from growing up in a dualistic world in Cold War West Berlin, seeing both sides without seeing them, seeing them clearly without fathoming what was going on. From that, through paintings that were done in the 1700s in my studies, this phenomenon of surface and interior, or what meets the eye and what’s beyond, came to me and I worked on it and it will always be my subject. It will be the red thread that goes through my work: authoritarian systems, human rights violations, all that stuff. But it’s not that I’m a human rights activist. I would always fight for my friends. I believe in friendship. I don’t believe in societies or the good of societies or even the potential of societies. Society is basically a corrupt bunch that helps each other, and I am part of it.

 

You mentioned that you are thinking of doing something theatrical with your material.

 

I’ve done 65 interviews to date that I’ve done (and when I am finished with this project it will be at least double that). It will be sort of an archive of the people that suffered in East Germany under that system. Within these many interviews there are some that stand out more than others, of course, and one was particular amazing because it was the story of a gay guy. East Germany legalized homosexuality before West Germany did. But in reality the Communists didn’t treat homosexuals well at all. This guy’s story was really amazing. He was imprisoned and had terrible experiences until, finally, he left for the West. In 1989, he got a call from his dad who told him that the Berlin Wall fell. And this guy said to his father, “Come on, don’t tell me this. It’s a horrible thing!” And he hung up. But his dad called back and told him it was really true. This guy was probably the only person who was not happy about the fall of the Wall because he thought that his previous persecutors were going to flood the West and he would have to live among them again. He thought he’d put an entire world between himself and then, but he hadn’t.

So he moved to San Francisco and lived there for six years. He had an unhappy love affair, and he was homesick, so he came back to Berlin. He worked at KaDeWe, which is a huge supermarket in west Berlin. New York doesn’t have anything like it: a fancy department store with an awesome food court. He worked there in the Davidoff Cigar department as a manager and salesperson. And one day this man came in who was good looking, who smelled good, and who asked him what cigars Fidel Castro was smoking. He provided the answer, and the customer bought these cigars for 1600 Marks. And suddenly he realized that this guy was his former interrogator from the Stasi prison. The Stasi had selected this interrogator because they had profiled him to look like the type of guy that he liked.

So he says to the customer, “Excuse me, we know each other from such and such prison and you were my interrogator.” All he’d hoped for was something like, “Yes, I am sorry” or “yes but it was the times we were living in.” Instead, this former interrogator yelled at him, “How dare you talk to me! You were a criminal in our system and and you were locked up for good reasons.” He had a serious breakdown. Afterwards, though, he overcame that and was very active in going to schools and telling people the truth about what actually went on in the DDR while everybody else was hiding. This is a very powerful story and has all these elements in it. And because he is charismatic, he would even be a good person to play himself.

 

So you were thinking after the interview you would work with him and turn it into a play.

 

Yes, but I didn’t do that. I have a partner in this project, and she is more of a writer than I am. She already wrote part of the monologue of the play, which involves one other person who comes in with different disguises or different personalities, playing boyfriends, interrogators, friends, parents, nurses, all of whom enter and leave his life, triggering things at certain moments.

 

That would be powerful, but also extraordinarily painful, and painful for him to play it as well.

 

Yes, but liberating. For him his liberation came through talking about it in schools. And I’ve seen that in a lot of people. For example, I did an interview with a woman whose parents were Stasi. Her parents were friends with the neighbors they were spying on. She was a little kid when the neighbors died, and she walked over because she wanted to ask her father something and she knew that he was in the neighbor’s house. He was in the house while the neighbor who had killed himself was still sitting in his kitchen where he had turned up the gas. Her father was already busy going though the cupboards and everything for the Stasi. It was very heavy. Very, very heavy. After the interview was done, I had to sit for virtually four hours with her until she was back to normal again. That’s what I have to offer them — that I am there. I become like a shrink in a way, temporarily. And I have to take that seriously.

 

They call it the talking cure, after all.

 

And ultimately it is.

 

I’m planning to turn these interviews into a one-man show. I would be playing the different people, probably a dozen different characters. Fortunately I don’t have to think about it until September, when I will start writing it.

 

In some ways you are realizing what has been put inside of you by doing all these interviews. And, of course, we have these techniques for dealing with people who were traumatized. I feel like I am like a lightening rod. Bang – it goes through the rod and the energy is diverted into the earth. But still something stays with us, and we have to let it out. And if we can’t let it out, we would get sick from doing work like that.

When I am done with an interview, I usually have no idea what these people talked about. I focus during the interview, and I know what they are talking about and I want to hear more about this or that. But at the moment that I am done, it’s like I never asked them anything. If I have to travel somewhere to do an interview, I may do two. But I try to do one a day. Because there’s all the intensity and afterwards there can be a break. That’s also why I am empty afterwards.

 

Berlin, January 29, 2013

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Confronting History

Germany, it seems, is in a constant process of debating its own history. In fact, there’s a word in German, historikerstreit, that means “the historians’ dispute.” It refers specifically to a debate at the end of the 1980s about the crimes of Nazi Germany, often in comparison to those of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the word could just as easily refer to a number of other debates that have taken place among German historians – often with the interventions of historians from other countries — over the role played by average Germans during the Nazi period, the treatment of the Holocaust in popular culture, the activities of the Stasi, and so on. Although historians might naturally disagree, Germany would appear to be cursed with too much history.

There wasn’t as much visible dispute over history in East Germany. There was a Party line, and for the most part everyone followed that line publically. According to the Party’s interpretation of history, for instance, the Nazi period was a late stage of imperialist capitalism. The East German government emphasized the struggles of anti-fascist fighters and tended to de-emphasize anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and anything else that didn’t fit smoothly into the narrative of the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.

Historian Kurt Paetzold was an exception to this sanitized version of history. In the early 1980s, he published a collection of materials related to Jews in the Third Reich and then a subsequent volume on Kristallnacht. “The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in,” he told me in an interview in February. “My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this.”

Nor did Kurt Paetzold shy away from addressing these difficult questions after 1989. In spring 1990, he was offering a course at Humboldt University entitled “Historical Thinking and History Teaching in the Crises of Our Time.”

But by that time, he was already anticipating the backlash within the university system and the end of his own teaching career. “It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged,” he told me. “There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves ‘the independent historians,’ and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.”

He remains philosophical about these changes: “A historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues.” He wasn’t immediately laid off. The dismissal didn’t come until the end of 1992. “There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi,” he explained. “As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.”

We also talked about the controversy surrounding Daniel Goldhagen’s work, the aspects of the GDR system that should have been preserved, and what he called the “hour of the minorities” in the changes that took place in 1989.

 

The Interview
Do you remember where you where and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Of course. I was living in Berlin. I was aware beforehand that this state would collapse. The clearest sign was the utter cluelessness and helplessness of the leadership. On October 7, I was at a conference in West Germany in Bremen and was staying as a guest at a friend who was a pastor. From there, I went to Austria to do research in archives and returned to Berlin on October 18, 1989. Upon entering the apartment I told my wife the famous quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” To make a long story short, the end was no surprise to me, and it was clear to me that this end would bring about far-reaching changes for society and for my personal life. It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged.

 

Was there a particular moment when you were thinking that “this regime would not last”?

 

No, it wasn’t a moment. It was a process. And it really only became apparent in connection with the conflict with the Soviet Union, and this conflict only became noticeable in 1989. It had a backstory in the sense that Gorbachev was someone at the head of the Soviet leadership who had no concept of the crucial questions. You can tell in the speeches of Gorbachev that he was conjuring up many things but without any economic or social concepts. At the same time, it was clear that under him the Soviet Union would leave all its allies – not only the GDR – more or less to their own devises.

 

Did you communicate any of your doubts about the fragility of the GDR state to anybody else?
Of course with friends. I have a friend from my school days, a professor of economics, and it was clear to us since Gorbachev assumed power in 1985.

 

Did you observe among your students an increasing skepticism or a certain questioning of the system?

 

In individual cases. There had been a showing of a movie in 1989 about the crimes of Stalin, and there were discussions surrounding this. Overall, among the historians, there was no crisis situation – no crisis of thought. It just wasn’t the case. As far as I know, the students weren’t involved in any protest actions in Berlin. No, there wasn’t a new condition among the students. There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves “the independent historians,” and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.

 

It must have been a difficult personal experience for you to go through this change at the university…

 

Well firstly, a historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues. Socially my future path was unemployment and then retirement, so materially I had no problems. That also came about because of the connections with West Germany and the rest of the world. To give an example, for tactical reasons we started a trial before the Labor Court against our dismissal. In the morning we had the trial before the Labor Court in Berlin and on the same day I had to be at the Bodensee in the south of Germany to give a lecture before the Catholic Academy there. This is a concrete example showing that I did not have a problem of “what to do now.” The drawback for my academic work was that there wasn’t enough financial means to visit archives or libraries abroad. And today publishers require a contribution fee to publish books. For this our pensions weren’t enough. It was enough to live on but nothing extra.

 

In one of his books Milan Kundera says that regimes like the one in Czechoslovakia talked about controlling the future but they were really more interested in controlling the past. I was wondering if you observed that phenomenon here in your particular field of history, where the government tried to interpret that period of history in a particular way.
The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in. My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this. For my colleagues dealing with the history of the workers movement in the 20th century, however, this was very different.

 

The book by Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, was very controversial on the role of public opinion during the Nazi period.

 

I have written some articles arguing against Goldhagen. The core of the problem is that he declares anti-Semitism to be a German attribute. That is something he thought up, but it’s not researched. The unsettling thing is more that the murderers of the Jews weren’t all anti-Semites. The Führer was, and the ones giving orders were. But the masses, not all of course but many of them, were just following orders. Part of the success of Goldhagen’s lectures in Germany can be explained by the fact that the people sitting across from him in the discussions were old people of my age. The audience could then say that the old guard was merely defending its claims. If one had seated researchers there of the same age as Goldhagen, the debate would have gone a lot differently.

 

I have one last question about that history, and then I would like to return to the period of 1989. Have you read the diaries of Victor Klemperer?

 

Yes.

 

Klemperer of course wrote a book about the language of the Third Reich and then in his diaries he talked in code about the language of the “Fourth Reich.” What he meant was that many of the manipulations at the level of language by the Nazis he also observed under the GDR as well. He didn’t write about it except in his diary. I was wondering if you agreed with his comments on that issue?

 

In short, no. As a student, I read LTI: The Language of the Third Reich, the book that Klemperer wrote in an admirably short time after 1945. It was an extremely enlightening book. It was a sensation. What we had in the political language of the GDR was not in the literature, not in Becher or Brecht or Wolf. These were people with an extremely rich language.

In the political language, of course, there were certain fabricated, cookie-cutter wordings, but they had nothing to do with the terminology of the Nazis. It was a different kind of fabricated terminology that was also poor — in the sense of being without imagination. And there was a certain obligation within political circles to use this language. But the schools in the GDR really emphasized learning language and literature. I had a look at the schoolbooks of my grandchildren who are now going to school and it is horrible. Our students were still able to write their own work. Nowadays there are people who earn their money by bringing the work of students, even Ph.d. students, to a presentable minimum in written form. Simple things render me speechless. For example, the students in schools today don’t even learn poems anymore. I asked my granddaughter when the last time was that she had to read a poem, and she answered: “two years ago.”

 

Has anything of value in your opinion been preserved that was worth preserving from the time of the GDR?

 

I would ask how much time you have.

 

As much time as you would like to have.

 

It depends on what areas we are talking about. Let’s take, for example, the entire area of workers’ rights and labor laws, or the entire area of marriage laws. I think many people would have been happy if these laws had carried over. Or take the costs of tertiary education. The dispute happening in Munich at the moment about tuition fees wasn’t even a subject for us. There were no waiting lists at daycare centers and kindergartens. So there’s this entire social field including the unemployed and the homeless. When someone was released from prison, he would get a place to work and a small place to live. So, if you look at the lower echelons of society, then one would have to say that the GDR lived above its means, that it was morally in the positive.

 

You talked about what should have been preserved. Was there anything that was preserved?

 

I’d already told your colleague that I am too far removed to talk much about the present. This question puts me into a quandary, because I only look into pieces of the picture. There is some discussion at the moment about certain aspects about the GDR that should have been kept. But the process is not completed yet, for instance, in relation to the school system where there is some discussion among educators about continuing certain teaching practices. Otherwise I don’t see too much.

It’s a different question to ask what survived. In the relationships between the middle-aged and aged generations, there is a certain association between people, a certain closeness and day-to-day helpfulness. I can compare it to life in the south, because I sometimes spend time in Stuttgart. There is something in the day-to-day behaviors of people to each other, but I don’t think it will last. If you ask older people, you will probably get the answer that there was a certain warmth. It has nothing to do with politics, although it was of course the result of the situation. There also weren’t as many partitions or barriers between families. For example in predominantly female workplaces, women would talk about their families, the behavior of their husbands. People were open and exchanged experiences. That was part of a past that won’t last, that cannot last.

 

I would like for a moment to go back to that period after the Wall fell in 1989. You said that you expected they would replace the historians and you were involved in the labor court on this case. Were there other ways you became involved in what was happening in East Germany at the time between November 1989 and the end of the GDR in October 1990?

 

I wasn’t immediately laid off. My dismissal was signed on December 31,1992. There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi. As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.

 

What did you think about the results of the elections in March 1990 here in the GDR?

 

That will be a difficult analysis for the historians one day to study. There are some puzzles, though, related to the elections. Take, for example, the results of the elections in Saxony. Saxony is a state with a long tradition of social democracy and Communism, but since then it has been voting for the Christian Democrats. How can you explain that? This is a meager answer to your question, but I have no better analysis.

One has to imagine that millions stood before a situation that they could have never dreamed of. And even though they hadn’t been promised the land of milk and honey, they were told they would very quickly reach the material standard of living of the West.

Later this situation was a bit different. One can estimate that around 30% of the older generation made material gains in this time. They built houses, had nicer cars, and were able to travel more. About one-third of the population would say that they have a better life than before. This is of course connected to the very tricky question of how people’s needs and wants come about.

 

In the period 1989-1990, did you think about getting involved in the new politics of the GDR and a united Germany? Also, have you had any second thoughts about the positions you held in 1989-1990, your philosophy or ideas about politics or economics or society?

 

Firstly, I come from a social democratic family. My parents were left-leaning social democrats. My grandfather was a miller, my father a locksmith. They were both involved in the workers’ movement. My mother and father made no concessions to the fascists, other than the fact that they had to work and make money. I knew a Jewish family from the inside, something unusual for my generation: my family had contact with them until they were deported. So, in short, the question of whether socialism is a desirable form of society was not something I asked myself in 1990. The imagination of something different was part of my family’s political tradition.

The question was, then, why did we fail with our social project? This was a project I had helped sustain with my work and activities. When today people discuss if one should even talk about Communism, I find that silly. We can’t just ignore thousands of years of history and say that “we might have talked about it in the past but not anymore.” This idea that we have arrived at the end of history is ridiculous. If there is a future in which we can give a society the name “socialist,” I don’t know. In this respect I adhere to the well-known principle: as long as it hasn’t been proved to be impossible, one can try it with modest means and without making any predictions.

As a historian, my role is to provide an analysis of the past and teach a younger generation what happened. Like a dairy farmer, I make a product: what people do with it is up to them to decide.

In terms of the second question, of course this period was a test of whether I had the right thoughts and opinions. The fundamental error was: we thought we were in a historical era and we weren’t in such an era. You know the saying “socialism always wins.” It was agreed that this was the future. Nobody thought it was remotely possible that the civil order (“bürgerliche Ordung”) — I prefer this to the term “capitalist order” — would spread across Europe and Asia. That is the overall situation. Behind it are an unlimited number of questions, for example, what influences the behavior of the public masses and what is the role of ideology in the behavior of public masses? We totally overestimated that. The role of ideology as a crucial element in the lives of people was extensively overestimated.

The Left has always been reluctant to look at the way the public at large reacted or behaved in certain ways in history. Those are some of the questions I think about differently. It will take some time until a comprehensive history of the GDR is written. The interesting question is: why couldn’t the social system and governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union persuade people that this was a desirable way of life. In history overall, the results of a historical process is never what was expected at the outset.

For 1989/1990, it is claimed that the majority of people wanted to liquidate the GDR. But in such a crisis as we had then, the majority of the people were clueless and it was the hour of the minorities. There were masses on the streets claiming “we are the people,” but this wasn’t the majority. This minority then took things into their hands. These demonstrating masses had no social idea. This was given to them later. Over the course of the movement, the idea of wanting one’s own state was given to them. For the historian, the question is: when do these movements begin and who decides in what direction they should go? You can tell that the year 1989 has left more questions for me than answers.

Berlin, February 1, 2013

 

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Blog Eastern Europe Featured

The Politics of Memory

America is the land of “move on.” That’s the name of the organization whose original mission was to persuade the U.S. electorate to move on from the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. But it could also be the name of President Barack Obama’s approach to the crimes and misdemeanors of the preceding Bush administration: America needs to turn its back on the problems of the past and face forward to the future.

Western Europe, meanwhile, has often presented itself as the land that has solved the history problem. The different factions in Northern Ireland submitted to protracted negotiations. France and West Germany settled their differences through economic and geopolitical cooperation. West Germany offered apologies and reparations to the victims of the Holocaust. History, in other words, has been tamed. It has been relegated to the safe confines of the textbook and the museum.

Only in the eastern stretches of Europe, according to this presumptuous interpretation, does history remain a problem. The countries to the East, accordingly, show an unhealthy fixation on the past, whether Serbia and the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 or Hungary and the resentments of the Trianon Treaty of 1920. Moreover, East-Central Europe faces the twin challenges of totalitarianism by failing to come to terms with either fascism or Communism.

There are plenty of people in East-Central Europe who would prefer the idealized American or the West European approach to the history of the last 100 years. They’d like to face forward and move on. Or they’d like to presume that their countries, too, have solved the history problem by drawing a thick line between themselves and the past by way of the ruptures of 1989.

But that’s not how Vasil Kadrinov feels. A former political prisoner in Bulgaria, he has worked tirelessly to engage the horrors of the past – in his own country as well as other countries in the region. He has worked to open the files of the Bulgarian secret service and to prevent former officers from participating in politics. He has lobbied to reduce the state pensions of Communist-era functionaries and intelligence officers. He is a founding member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience.

What motivates him, in part, is not only his own experience as a political prisoner but the experiences of those who served much longer terms. When he was imprisoned in the 1980s, he met Lazar, an old man who was in his 17th year as a political prisoner. Lazar formed a choir and kept up the spirits of his fellow inmates through music and humor.

“I keep coming back to these stories, especially with the memorial project that I’ve been doing over the last three or four years,” Vasil Kadrinov told me as we sat in an outdoor café in Bulgaria’s second largest city, Plovdiv, last September. “The problem is that such people like Lazar are dying. Our duty is to preserve the memory of them. But every year I grow more disappointed because so few people are active on this topic.”

Vasil Kadrinov is not selective in his approach to history. He doesn’t focus exclusively on the crimes of the Communist era. “One big problem we have with the past is the time before the Communists came to power,” he said. “What kind of society was there in Bulgaria? There is a myth that before the bad Communists came along with the bad Soviet army, it was the very good kingdom of Bulgaria.” For Kadrinov, in other words, the confrontation with Bulgarian history doesn’t just start in 1945.

In our conversation, which continued from an earlier interview about minority issues from five years earlier (reproduced below), we discussed the “history problems” that have plagued Bulgaria for the last century, problems that are not unique to East-Central Europe. Accountability with the past is a challenge for all of Europe and the United States as well.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were when you heard the news about the fall of the Berlin Wall and what were you thinking? And did you think about the impact and influence it would have on Bulgaria?

 

I remember very well. My mother died in 1984. My father, in 1989, was a doctor in a village about 20 kilometers away from Plovdiv. On that day in 1989, I went to visit him. We were listening to the radio. That was what I did in those days: listen to Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle. And that’s how we heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a very emotional moment for us. I felt that this would be the beginning of important changes in Europe. I’d been following the situation in Poland, the developments in the Soviet Union. This was possible because of these radio stations. It was clear that all these developments would have an impact on Bulgaria. And soon came the replacement of Todor Zhivkov at the top of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

After that I was very deep engaged in the establishing of the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) here in Plovdiv. With my wife I participated in the great meeting of November 18 in Sofia. And the next two years I was very engaged in establishing the UDF, the organization of the first elections, demonstrations, and so on.

 

You were obviously very hopeful after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was there a point when your hopes decreased and you became disappointed in what was happening?

 

Yes, I remember. There were two moments. One was during my participation as a representative of the Club for Democracy in Plovdiv, at the Coordination Council of the UDF. Our club was part of the UDF in Plovdiv, and this moment of disappointment came in the autumn of 1990, after the first elections. Until the elections I was very optimistic. So many people came to our UDF meetings and demonstrations. And we clearly won the first elections in Plovdiv with more than 60% of the votes.

But in the autumn a decision was made at the national level, in the parliament, that local elections would not be happening soon and instead there would be provisional local authorities. The composition of these local authorities would be proportional to the results of the parliamentary elections. That meant the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the former Communist Party), the UDF, and the other parties here that received significant results in the parliamentary elections. Because the UDF won more than 60%, we could have five or so members of this local provisional council. In the UDF, there was a discussion in the Coordination Council about how to elect people to run.

At that moment, I saw that some of the members of this Coordination Council are just careerists. They were not well educated. They were only thinking about the future and the possibilities of corruption. So, this was the first moment of disappointment. I followed their careers over the years and I see that I’d been quite realistic in my disappointment, because those people became more and more corrupt.

The second moment was around the discussion concerning what to do next. There was too much focus on replacing the bad communists and no serious plan for what kind of reforms had to be done. This was the problem at the national level with the UDF, and this was the reason why I left the UDF the following summer. The UDF split. One part was led by the former Social Democrats and Petar Dertliev. Another was the UDF liberals. My political orientation until now was centrist, and I decided to go with the UDF liberals. They included our democratic clubs, supported by the Bulgarian president at that time, Zheliu Zhelev. There was also the Green Party. With this small coalition we ran in the elections, and during the elections I was a candidate. My duty was to manage the election office of our coalition in Plovdiv.

That’s when my next moment of disappointment came. In the middle of the election campaign, I saw that the internal selection process for candidates was not democratic. It was all decided in Sofia by the heads of this coalition. At that time the election law was such that the government provided money for each party participating in election. It was a standard sum provided by the government for every candidate list. At the top of the list in Plovdiv was a woman candidate. The decision for this was taken in Sofia. She came here with her husband to participate in the election. As manager of the election office, I organized some people to work on the campaign. There were some expenses for cars, for gas. At one moment I asked for reimbursement. But she said to me, “You will not receive this money. This money is for us.” She meant her and her husband. I knew, and this was officially declared later, that her husband, as a journalist with the national radio station, was an officer of the Communist State Security. She, too, was a journalist with the national radio. I went to Sofia, to the central office of this coalition and I showed them the receipts for the expenses and said, “Please pay this, this, and this.” They paid everything. And I said goodbye. I left them totally.

 

Those are two important moments: your anticipation of corruption and the actual corruption itself.

 

Yes. And the role of the former state security.

 

I want to go back to the early 1980s. You’ve told me that you were quite young when you went to political prison: only 26 years old. How long were you in prison?

 

The sentence was prison for 18 months. And I was in prison for 13 months. For every day of work you did in prison, they took a day off your stay. This was for everybody, not special for me. So I spent 13 months in Stara Zagora prison.

 

What did they accuse you of doing?

 

It was in a court in Plovdiv. I was accused of disseminating “false” information about society — books critical of society — and providing “difficulties for the people’s republic”. For that people were sentenced to five years in prison. I’d been giving out the book of Aleksandar Solzhenitsen, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, to my college students.

 

A Bulgarian translation of it, or in Russian?

 

This translation was made at the beginning of the 1960s, and a friend of mine gave it to me. At this time the book was not in the library, but it had been printed in Bulgaria during the rule of Khrushchev in the Soviet Union.

 

It won an award in the Soviet Union when it was published. It was also published in a journal …

 

Novy Mir.

 

Right. But then of course Solzhenitsen fell out of favor.

 

Another problem was that I talked against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and I supported the Solidarnosc movement in Poland. The judges decided that I provided difficulties to another country of the workers, namely the Soviet Union.

 

So you provided difficulties to a lot of people.

 

Yes!

 

Do you remember a point when you were young when you began thinking of yourself as a dissident?

 

My parents didn’t speak with me about the Communist system. They were not Communists. They were not in favor of this system. My father had many difficulties, because his father was declared a kulak in the 1950s. But my parents decided not to talk about this until I went to the army. In the army, I was sent to the border guard military units. I was not exactly on the border, but I was in this unit. My duty was radio telegraphing. Hundreds of young men were brought there to maintain the border with Turkey. Our main aim was to prevent the escape of people from the country, whether Bulgarians or Germans or Poles. We were near the Black Sea coast and the mountain town of Malko Tarnovo. I stayed there two years. None of the political officers could explain why we were there, who were the enemies, who were these deserters who wanted to cross the border. The political education at that time consisted of only one question: who are the members of the Politburo of the Communist Party. This was, for me, quite profound.

Before going into the army, I was a candidate in sociology at the University of Sofia. I did my exams in Bulgarian literature and history, and I won a place at university. This was 1978. Returning to Sofia from the army in 1980, I remember that the Komsomol at the university made an appeal for donations to the people of Poland to send them food and so on. My father at that time was a doctor in Libya. It was very difficult for him to get approval to go there to earn more money, because doctors received poor salaries here in Bulgaria. He sent us money and we bought two good radios, one for me and one for my mother in Plovdiv. For the first time, I began to listen to Radio BBC, Radio Free Europe, Deutsche Welle, and so on. And I started to follow the developments in Poland. In the border guard forces I didn’t receive any information. But the moment I got back to Sofia, I began to understand that everything they were telling us was false. During those two or three months, I realized that everything was a great lie.

 

When was that?

 

In the late autumn of 1980.

 

Just after Solidarity began in August 1980.

 

Yes, in August. I came from the army in September and went to Sofia in October. The Komsomol was collecting these donations for Christmas or the new year. Around the same time, my mother, who was working in an agricultural high school near Plovdiv, brought home some students from Afghanistan. About 20 people from Afghanistan had come to Bulgaria to study agriculture. They were not that young, maybe from 20 to 30 years old. They were brought here as some kind of support to the “Communist revolution” in Afghanistan. But really, only a very small number of them believed in Communist ideology. They came to us very often, because my mother was appointed by the director to work with them. They became friends. They came to us and discussed what was happening in Afghanistan, with Nur Muhammed Taraki and so on. These stories brought our home much closer to the developments around the world, in the Soviet Union, in Poland.

 

Later, when you gave the copy of Solzenitsen’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to other students, did it occur to you that what you were doing was a political risk?

 

It was not so clear. I was not alone. We were a group of friends, one from Plovdiv, one from Varna, and it wasn’t only this book. The next book that we disseminated was Fascism by Zhelyu Zhelev. I bought Fascism at the bookshop. And my mother borrowed this book from the library of her school. I didn’t think about the risks. We were young. We didn’t think about it up until the day when the state security came to my home and arrested me. Later we supposed that there had been informants. But we were just doing this among friends. We hadn’t gone to the next stage, of organizing demonstrations and so on.

 

Did any of your other friends get arrested?

 

Yes, two others were arrested, and three were charged. In 1984, my mother died of cancer. One month before my mother’s death, I got married to my wife. And three months after that, I was arrested. So the state security investigated my wife too. She was very young, only 21 years old. They investigated the wives of my other two friends. But they decided only to charge the men since we formed one group of friends.

 

At the time, did you know very much about the political camp system?

 

No. I didn’t have relatives in my family who had been in prison or the camp system. Only my grandfather had been repressed as kulak. He was not so rich, but he had not supported the Communists. I didn’t have anyone from my family to tell me about the prison camps.

The first place I was taken after my arrest by the state security in Sofia was Razvigor 1. This was the name of the street where the main investigation unit of the Communist state security was located, and I was there for two months. After that I was in the Sofia central prison for two months. After I was sentenced, I was sent to Stara Zagora prison. There were many Turks there at that time, because our arrests coincided with a big repression campaign against the Bulgarian Turks. So I have many friends from this group until today who were together in Razvigor 1, the central prison, and the Stara Zagora prison. In Stara Zagora, there were other political prisoners, but there were many Turks.

 

Were there also common criminals there as well?

 

Yes. In Stara Zagora, they were mixed. And a great number of them were informants for the prison administration. Also at Stara Zagora was one of my friends from our original group. And another friend was in a different section of the prison. We developed a coded language to talk with one another. At that time the other big issue was the death of Konstantin Chernenko and the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. And that began to influence the situation in Bulgaria. The repression at this time was not so hard. I also believe that some people in the regime were beginning to prepare to become the first capitalists, especially those in the state security. They were sending money to foreign bank accounts and preparing for the privatization process.

 

Before you went to prison, did you know anything about the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria?

 

No. I never had contact with Turks, because I was living in Plovdiv. I never visited the Turkish areas. The Turks who were in the prison, especially in Sofia and in Stara Zagora, were from areas where there had been resistance. For example, I have many friends from Momchilgrad, where seven people were killed. The Turks who organized the demonstration against forced assimilation received nine, ten, twelve-year sentences. They were in prison until 1989. They spent four years there.

 

Before you met with ethnic Turks for the first time, did you have certain preconceptions of ethnic Turks?

 

I don’t think so. For example, my mother was a pedagogue, and at this school she was responsible for 90 young girls living in a building on campus. Some of them were Turks. And my father was a doctor mostly in villages, so he helped very different peoples: Gypsies, Turks. So there was a lot of tolerance in my family and no stereotypes. In my first contacts with Turks in the prison, I found them to be very friendly, intelligent, honest, and courageous. I was impressed at that time, and it really helped me in my own situation of being imprisoned. I became more courageous because of these people.

 

What did they tell you about the name-change campaign, and were you shocked?

 

It was difficult for Western radio stations to collect information about what actually happened in 1984. In August 1984, there was a bombing attempt at the railway station in Plovdiv, close to where we were living. At that time my mother was very ill from cancer, and my father had come home, and we all were at home. My father took a leave from the hospital to be with my mother. He told us one day that the central railway station was surrounded by the militia. So something had happened. But what had happened? This was the first information for me that something was happening with the Turks. Until now, it’s not clear who organized this attempt. Later, they charged three Turks and executed them. Interestingly, they’ve been identified as collaborationists with the state security. This remains a murky story until now. It’s not clear if the Communist state security organized this attempt in order to begin their campaign against the Turks or whether it was really organized by the Turks. I was not in contact with the organizers when I was in prison. They were charged later, in 1986 or 1987.

My Turkish friends told me different stories about their villages, about what happened in Momchilgrad, for instance. There was an elderly man from the village of Yablanovo. We were together in a cell in the Razvigor prison. He was very ill. He had high blood pressure and didn’t have his medicine, so he was not in good condition. He told me the story of the tanks that came to the Yablanovo. After that, I heard that they organized resistance in Yablanovo. It is near Sliven, in the Balkan Mountains. The Turks told us that everything happened very quickly. The Red Berets, the internal forces of the Ministry of Interior, arrived. The Turks were beaten. Some were killed. There were spontaneous demonstrations, and everything happened in two or three days: the arrival of state security, the counter-demonstration, the killings, the arrests. The machinery of the state was brought to bear on their village.

 

What was the actual condition of your life in Stara Zagora? How many people were in the cell?

 

We were four people in the cell. It was a small cell, the beds stacked on top of each other. Between the beds was about 70 centimeters so that we could stand. Every evening the guards came to check on us, and we stood in a line, four men one behind the other. The conditions in the central prison were very bad because it was an old prison. There was very little food. On the other side of the corridor were people who were sentenced to death. They were executing people, so some of them were crying. It was a very bad atmosphere.

Last year I went back for the first time, with a documentary film crew from the German television station RTL. I was researching stories of young people from the GDR who escaped to Turkey and Greece through Bulgaria. There were two editors on this documentary, and one of them, Freya Klier, had been a young girl who tried to escape the GDR to Sweden. We researched different stories about young people from the GDR who escaped, some of whom had been killed. In the documentary, we talked about two boys who were killed on the Greek border. Another one, Thomas Müller, had his foot amputated in the Burgas hospital. Other deserters such as a brother and sister from Dresden were brought to the central prison in Sofia.

We went with the film crew to the section I’d been in and took pictures. I didn’t find many changes. There was only a new primitive toilet in the cell. I looked into my neighbor’s cell, because at that time nobody was being held there. I said to the guard, “I was here about 25 years ago, and there aren’t many changes.” He said to me, “You were here for only a short time and you have forgotten what it was like here. And you are not doing enough to change these conditions.” And there was nothing I could say to this man in reply. In 2006, a delegation of members from the Green group of the European Parliament came to Bulgaria. I was an assistant to this group. This was before the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union in 2006. We had a meeting in the Ministry of Justice with the deputy minister responsible for prisons. He asked the Greens to lobby for money from the EU for new prisons in Bulgaria. Until now, there have been no new prisons.

 

In Stara Zagora, you said you did work to take time off your sentence. What kind of work was it?

 

In the prison was a factory for furniture. We made beds for small children, bureaus for writings, and so on. About 100 prisoners worked in this factory.

 

How was the work?

 

It wasn’t such hard work. I think it was similar to what workers were doing in regular factories. It was the prison that was the problem, not the work in this factory. Maybe it even helped make the time go more quickly. Because if you stay in a cell all day…

 

You go crazy.

 

Yes.

 

Did you have access to reading material?

 

There was a library with some books and newspapers like Rabotnichesko Delo and Narodna Mladej. On Sundays, we could watch Bulgarian national television in the afternoon. There was a show Vsiaka Nedelia (Every Sunday). On this show was a Pink Panther cartoon that I liked very much because it was humorous.

 

Did anything change very much for you, from the first day you were at Stara Zagora to the last day you were in prison? Or did you come into Stara Zagora the same person that you left Stara Zagora?

 

I think not. In our cells was an elderly man, Lazar, who was in this prison for the third time. It was his 17th year. He’d been in the Belene camp for six or seven years. He’d been charged under the same statute as me – creating difficulties for the People’s Republic. When I was in Stara Zagora, he was arrested for the third time. And there had been no sentence this time. He’d been let out in 1962 under an amnesty. But he continued to speak out against the Party, so they arrested him again and told him he had to finish his sentence from the 1950s. What I learned from Lazar was to have a sense of humor. He had a good sense of humor. He also organized a choir. He taught us to sing, and we all sang songs together. He kept up his spirit. I also learned from him that these Communists are small people, careerists, corrupt. They are liars. They were strong at that time, stronger than us, but we never lost our courage and spirit and humor.

Another moment was when I was in the central prison of Sofia. One of the prisoners had some magazines and newspapers. One of these magazines was a literary magazine with a short story by Heinrich Böll. In this story Böll wrote that he was a soldier in the Wehrmacht up to the end of the Second World War. He described a central order from the Nazi military that if one German soldier met another German soldier who was obviously deserting, the first soldier had to kill the second soldier. But if they were both in an area away from the battle, they were both deserting and they therefore had to kill each other! I remember this story because it showed how stupid the totalitarian societies are. And it gave me courage, this story.

I have such great respect for those people who spent more time in prison than I did.

 

Did Lazar ever make it out of prison?

 

Yes, he was released. I didn’t see him after that. I asked my friend from Varna some years later, and he told me, “Yes, Lazar is alive.” But later I heard that he died. I keep coming back to these stories, especially with the memorial project that I’ve been doing over the last three or four years. The problem is that such people like Lazar are dying. Our duty is to preserve the memory of them. But every year I grow more disappointed because so few people are active on this topic.

I am a founding member of the Platform of European Memory and Conscience. In the other countries, for example in the Czech Republic, there is an institute for the study of totalitarian regimes. There’s full access to the archives, and there are memorial places, such as former camps and prisons. In the former GDR, there are many such Gedenkstätten (memorial places, in German). I was just in Bucharest where there was a conference on the teaching of the history of communism as an opportunity to teach human rights. There were people from 13 countries. The situation today in Bulgaria is better than in Albania, but everywhere else is better than here. So it’s no wonder that in Bulgaria the communist oligarchy could again take power in recent years. Yesterday, Sergei Stanishev was elected to the chair of the party of the European Socialists. This man was Bulgaria’s prime minister in 2009. He has said, “What normal man could be interested in the archives?” So, obviously we are not normal!

In 2006, I organized with the Greens an effort to put pressure on the European Parliament to open the archives here. They’d been closed by the government of Tsar Simeon. The tsar, you see, was brought here by the Communists in 2001 to manage the country through him as prime minister. He became corrupt. He was interested again in acquiring the ownership of some forests, and they doubled his holdings. The Communists have in fact controlled the entire political spectrum. For example, there are seven social democratic parties and four Green parties. Three of the Green parties are managed by the former Communists, and there are no real Social Democratic parties in the country.

 

Even the one founded by Petar Dertliev?

 

We are in need of such a party. But the party of Dertliev is declining. It has no representation in parliament.

 

Is it still the case that you have no access to the archives?

 

We have access, but it will be last many years before full access will be possible. In other countries, like the Czech Republic, the archives were not moved to another building. It’s the same with the GDR. I was in Berlin last July when I worked for 20 days in the archives of the Stasi. It’s in the same building where it was. In Bulgaria, however, the law is to establish a new archive and construct a new building for this archive. But they haven’t organized the proper registration.

If you go to the archives today, there are only five places in the reading room, and the head of this archive is a former officer of the militia. In 2006, he was a member of the parliament representing the former Communist Party, and he proposed at that time that the archives should be closed for 120 years. So now he says, “We are following the law.” Until now they have published, I think, 7,000 names of people in public positions. And they usually publish the names of collaborators. But they haven’t published all the names of the officers, because usually the officers are not now in public positions. And, according to the propaganda slogan, these officers worked on behalf of national state security, just like in all other countries, and therefore they are patriots.

With a small group of people, we’ve undertaken a few actions including a campaign for a clean parliament in 2007. A “clean parliament” means that former agents cannot become members of parliament. We received some small funding from Romania of about $4,000 that I think originally came from the National Endowment for Democracy. With this $4,000, we made and disseminated posters. On these posters were pictures of candidates that had been agents, and we urged voters not to vote for these candidates.

In 2009, I worked with some former prisoners, the Anna Politkovskaya Association, and another center for the support of victims of torture, which is a group of psychologists. We organized a public pledge for parties entering the elections that they would not field any former agents on their lists. Thirteen parties signed. But GERB did not. Nor did BSP or the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, the Turkish party. Only the small parties signed.

In 2010, I went with GERB representatives to the European parliament. One member of this European parliament, Andrei Kovachev representing GERB, invited about 30 former prisoners, very elderly people. After that there was meeting with others from Stara Zagora. I heard that the goal was to get them to support GERB for the presidential and local elections. They got the support of a 90-year-old man, Dyanko Markov, who had been a pilot during World War II who fought against U.S. bombers over Sofia. After that, he spent many years in prison. He was this nationalistic officer. Now he made a speech saying, “GERB is our hope! They will dismiss every Communist!” I do not believe this. GERB is mostly former Communists and militiamen. The problem in Bulgaria is that there are no real democratic parties. The mainstream parties are created by the former Communists or security agents. To establish a new, real, democratic party is difficult because of the monopoly the former Communists have over the media and because of the four-percent barrier in the election law.

I spoke about three times at hearings in the European parliament, organized by mainly this EPP (European People’s Party) group. There’s also a group of members of the European parliament coming from the Baltics who are really anti-totalitarianism-oriented: Sandra Kalniete from Latvia (who was born in a concentration camp in Siberia), Vytautas Landsbergis (the former head of state of Lithuania), Tunne Kelam from Estonia, Laszlo Tokes from Romania, and a younger member from Slovenia, Milan Zver. They are lobbying in the European parliament for to memorialize the Communist crimes. But aside from them, there are not so many people who are against Communism in the West, who understand that this was the same as Nazism, that this legacy is a big problem for Europe.

What do I see now in Bulgaria? I see that one million active people have left Bulgaria, and many of the people who are still here voted for GERB. They continue to hope for a leader, a tsar, a cowboy, a sheriff who will solve anything. This is very close to totalitarian mass thinking. So, this totalitarianism not only comes from evil leaders—Hitler, Stalin, or Lenin—it also comes from the masses.

In 2010, I organized a petition to the parliament to reduce the pensions of the former communist functionaries and state security officers. But the problem was that it’s difficult to organize people to collect signatures on the street or organize demonstrations. Some of the former political prisoners are disappointed. Some have become apathetic. This petition on the pensions was discussed in the petition committee of the national parliament. The chairperson of this committee was from the UDF—Yordan Bakalov—and he said it is too late for this. Why too late? They are now receiving these pensions. And other people receive very low pensions. I collected 1100 signatures, mostly through the Internet. It was hard to ask our political prisoners, who are really ill people and quite old, to stand on the street. In the end, the petition was sent to the committee for social policy. After two years: nothing.

We’ve had some victories. We make protests at the embassies where the Bulgarian ambassadors are former state security: Netherlands, Greece, Serbia. And the government replaced these people – 35 in all – so that is some reform. Last year, the granddaughter of Todor Zhivkov decided to officially celebrate the 100th birthday of her grandfather in Pravets. The government of GERB decided to send the orchestra of the national Bulgarian army. With the Anna Politkovskaya Association along with three other groups, we quickly decided to send an open letter to Angela Merkel because she had met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. And this is funny but after only three or four hours, they decided not to send the orchestra. So this too was actually a victory.

In the autumn of 2009, we protested the choice of Rumiana Zheleva as Bulgaria’s nominee to the European Commission. The interesting thing is that she was an owner of one of the firms of the former state security, and her husband is engaged in this business group from Varna that includes former officers of the military intelligence. He is one of the richest people in Bulgaria. Zheleva was forced to step down, and Kristalina Georgieva was appointed in her place. So this is some progress.

In Prague last year, we were discussing the statutes of our platform, the Platform of European Memory and Conscience (PEMC). Vytautas Landsbergis and I proposed that nobody involved with this platform should be an organization that have been headed by former members of the repressive forces. And in December 2012, a member of this panel seeking reelection, Ekaterina Boncheva, proposed the Bulgarian panel handling the secret service archive for membership in the PEMC. Evtim Konstantinov signed the statute and declared that nobody in this Bulgarian panel was a member of the repressive forces. Someone in Prague called me and asked, “Do you know that he was militiaman? How was it that he signed this?” And I said to them, “Please send a letter to the prime minister, to the Ministry of Interior, to Foreign Affairs, and to the chairwoman of the parliament.” This Boncheva and this Konstantinov started a propaganda campaign against me: that I wanted to be on this panel, that I was making difficulties for our country in Prague.

In 2007, the former Communists refused to elect to this panel Georgi Konstantinov, who was the nominee of the former president Petar Stoyanov. When Georgi was a young man, only 20 years old, he was an anarchist. He blew up the monument of Joseph Stalin in Sofia. This was about a week before the death of Stalin, so he was not sentenced to death. The sentence was 12 years in prison, so at the beginning of the 1960s he was released. He escaped to France, but now he’s living in Sofia. He was one of those who wanted at the beginning of the 1990s to take the state security to court. In 1992, the court declared him not guilty. But he is the only one who made such an appeal to the court.

All others, like me and other prisoners, we were rehabilitated in 1990 by a decision of the last Communist “parliament.” But now, according to the law, members of this panel must be never charged with a crime whether rehabilitated or not. So for all of us, this was forbidden.

We started a quick campaign, about 10-15 people, making a protest at the Ministry of Justice and in front of this panel building. But GERB decided to propose the former militiaman Evtim Konstantinov again and Boncheva again.

The president of our platform in Prague is Goran Lindbladt, from Sweden. He was rapporteur at the political committee of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. He is no longer a member of the Swedish parliament. He’s a dentist, and I find he’s an honest man. I invited him that to come to Sofia during our campaign against the reelection of the former militiaman Evtim Konstantinov to this panel and to participate in our campaign for the change of the rule that former prisoners could not be part of the commission. He participated in the press conference with former political prisoners.

We had a meeting with the Union of Democratic Forces and the co-chair at the that time of the Blue Coalition, Martin Dimitrov, and with him was Latchezar Toshev, a former Bulgarian representative at the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly, so a colleague of Lindbladt. And at that meeting, Toshev and Dimitrov said, “Okay, we will support everything. We will soon propose a lustration law.” For us, this was very important.

This lustration law was discussed in the first week of September 2012 in the plenary of the Bulgarian parliament. The vote was interesting. The Blue Coalition has 14 members, and only two voted for this proposal. And about eight so-called “independent” members supported the law, plus maybe two from the GERB and two from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. So, overall, it received about 13 or 14 votes. But from the Blue Coalition, only two. So, the law failed.

I work with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Sofia along with a group of young historians. We are now preparing about 18 brochures, each one focused on some topic of the communist totalitarian regime: the economy, culture, everyday life, the Party, the propaganda related to minorities. Our circle of former prisoners also adopted here in Plovdiv a declaration on the 9th of June. One of the demands has been the transfer of the security archives to the national archive so that everybody has access and it would no longer be controlled by a panel appointed by the governing oligarchy. Another demand is to establish an Institute of National Memory.

But I’m pessimistic about the feasibility of such an institution in a country like Bulgaria, given the current political leadership. The director of the agency for the National Archives intends to make a museum, because the central office of the national archives is in the same building that the state security occupied in the 1950s. It’s very close to the Communist Party headquarters, the same building that was set on fire in the summer of 1990. He asked the Konrad Adenauer Foundation to finance this project. He didn’t ask the government. It is so stupid to ask someone from abroad. And the director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Sofia said that he can’t support the complete project. People could go to Germany to look at the experience of these institutions of memory. But the Foundation couldn’t invest all that money for this project.

In Latvia, in Riga, there is a memorial museum devoted to the occupation of Latvia – by both the Nazis and the Soviets. It’s an educational center, and they’re working with young people. It is not financed by the government but by Latvian émigrés. The government only provided the building, which is in the center of Riga, a former propaganda institution for the Pioneers and the Komsomol.

I think that here too an Institute for National Memory has to be established by civil society. I will try to convince the former prisoners to maintain our independence. But this is difficult, because I myself have to spend time organizing people, making phone calls, writing letters. When I was an assistant at the European parliament, I had some stability. I had an office and money for travel and for making phone calls. It’s more difficult now. Also, Bulgarian émigrés are divided: one’s a social democrat, another’s an agrarian, a third is a nationalist.

One big problem we have with the past is the time before the Communists came to power. What kind of society was there in Bulgaria? There is a myth that before the bad Communists came along with the bad Soviet army, it was the very good kingdom of Bulgaria. The Communists destroyed everything. But after the First World War, the big problem in Bulgaria was extreme nationalism. These nationalists said: the people in Macedonia are really Bulgarian, and so are the people in Eastern Thrace, and so are the people in Kavala in northern Greece. But there were not only Bulgarians living in these places. There were very mixed populations: Turks, Pomaks, Greeks, Serbians, Albanians. This dream of a “Great Bulgaria” was the biggest problem for Bulgaria in the 20th century, because it brought genocide and other crimes. When Bulgaria entered the First World War with Germany, the result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and Bulgaria ended up ceding eastern Thrace. And in the Second World War, Bulgaria entered a pact with Hitler, occupied Greece and Macedonia, and sent the Jews of Macedonia and Greece to their deaths in the concentration camps. Until now, our history textbooks said that it was not possible for Bulgaria to save the Jews. But then why was Bulgaria in this pact with Hitler?

After the Soviet army arrived in Bulgaria after the Second World War, the Communists started to kill many people. But there was terror before this. And this is not discussed in Bulgaria until now. In Hungary, there is a museum of terror. But it deals not only with the terror of the Communists but of the previous regime.

 

The “white terror” of Admiral Horthy.

 

Yes. So, such a museum about totalitarian terror must include the resistance to the previous terror as well.

But how can we achieve this? It’s difficult because a million people have left the country. There is apathy. It’s difficult to engage young people. The former prisoners are very old people. I’m trying to collaborate with international friends, like this group in the European parliament and so on.

 

What do you think about the level of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria today on the one hand and level of pro-environmentalism on the other hand? Is there any relationship between the two?

 

First about the nationalism. It seems that nationalism is cultivated by forces that want to control Bulgaria. This Ataka Party, the main spokesperson of Bulgarian nationalism, is financed probably by Russia. It was established in Burgas as a powerful TV program and station. Their first members in parliament was a group of former state security officers, and they never said anything against Russia. They prefer to speak against the U.S. ambassador, against U.S. imperialism. They like to speak against Turkey, against the Roma population, against the Jews. But if you do a content analysis, they never speak about the human rights situation in Russia, or about Russian politics in the Balkans, in Europe, in the rest of the world. I think that Bulgarian nationalism is an ideological tool of the oligarchy to maintain influence over society. By having enemies like the Turks, the Jews, the Roma, it’s easier to control society through hate speech.

In terms of environmentalism, I know some very good environmental protection groups. Some of them are branches of international organizations, like the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, Bank Watch. But this kind of NGO is financed by the European Commission, so I don’t believe that they can really be called NGOs. Other NGOs receive funding from the present Bulgarian government, so I would say that they are paid by and depend on the government. The Bulgarian government is engaged in several corruption cases concerning environmental issues, like the designation of Nature 2000 areas in the Rila Mountains. I am very engaged in this. For six years, there has been no decision about the buffer zone in the Rila Mountains. There is strong interest in constructing ski runs and ski resorts there, similar to the construction interests along the Black Sea coast. Some small environmental groups not financed by the European Commission or by the government defended these areas. To protect the Rila Mountains, Citizens for Rila gathered 140,000 signatures. I am also a member of this group.

There are also some cases related to underground resources. In Bulgaria, there are several underground resources like gold and copper. But the policy of the governments since the middle of the 1990s has been to provide these resources as concessions at a low tax rate. There’s a Canadian-based company connected with former Communist state security agents exploring the gold mine in Chelopech and polluting the Topolnitsa River with arsenic. The government tolerates this. They have a plan for a second mine in Krumovgrad. They brought a smelter from Namibia, and it’s forbidden to operate such a smelter that is polluting with arsenic here in the European Union. Yet the government approves this and the taxes are very low, and this means the government is corrupt. And not only this government but every government from Ivan Kostov to Tsar Simeon to Sergei Stanishev. A small group of environmental activists are saying that this ore and these underground resources are our national resources, and we should not give them to mafias. We have to use them for our country in a way that protects the environment and the public health.

But I would not call this extreme nationalism. Ataka has exploited this topic. Also, a former member of Ataka who is now in the European parliament – Slavi Binev – has said, “They are now our national resources.” But I cannot say that the environmentalists have anything to do with Slavi Binev or with Ataka. Sometimes they are saying similar things about the preservation of national resources, that it’s not in the national interest to give away resources to international mafia companies.

 

I’d like to end with three brief quantitative questions. The first is, when you think about all that has changed here in Bulgaria from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that change on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being most satisfied?

 

Three.

 

The same spectrum, 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied: how do you feel about what has changed in your own personal life, between 1989 until today?

 

So, I like everything in my life, and I think it’s 10.

 

And then when you look into the near future, the next 1 or 2 years here in Bulgaria, how do you feel about what will happen here on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 bing most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

 

Again, 3.

 

Plovdiv, September 30, 2012

 

The Interview (2007)

 

On the Roma

The Roma first came to Europe in the 9th century and not much later to Bulgaria. This place is a crossroads of cultures and peoples.

There’s not been serious historical research on the Roma during Turkish rule. But after liberation from 500 years of Turkish occupation at end of 19th century, Bulgaria was a capitalist state with a king and a democratic constitution. For 60 years, Roma were able to say that they were Roma – there was no problem with their identity. The majority, the Bulgarians, perceived them as the people with whom they’d been living for centuries. This was the perception of the majority of Turks, too. There were no conflicts between Bulgarians and Turks. Then came the Russian soldiers. They came to liberate, according to Stalin, but it’s not true: they came to occupy. They promoted a communist totalitarian regime. At first, during this period, there was Roma theater, Turkish newspapers. After that, for the next 40 years, the Roma minority disappeared from the totalitarian public media, from TV, from newspapers. The communist government focused on heavy industry, and they needed people to work in those factories. Some of the Roma worked in agriculture, which was collectivized under communism. Some of the Roma worked in the factories. At that time, instead of putting Roma into the army, the communists put young Roma men into a kind of labor army that made some of the biggest things in Bulgaria at that time – plants, railways, etc.

So that was the position of the Roma minority under communism. They had to work, they had to stay silent. They could not move around as they did before. They had to have some basic education. And they had to remain absent from public life. The communist policy on housing in the bigger cities was to construct blocks where Roma had to live like Bulgarians. But the Roma have a lot of children. They want more space. In the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, the communists decided to stimulate the growth of the population because they needed cheap labor. The Roma community, too, received pretty good per-child payments. Some Roma families became quite big.

There is no police presence in the ghetto – only when there was a big problem. In this ghetto, during the dictatorship, there was some order. And, at that time, more in the Roma community had some work. It might not have been good work, but at least it was work. But after 1990 and the start of the changes, more of these plants were closed. At the beginning of the 1990s, many of the Roma became jobless. They started to travel to Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey to do some small trading, import-export. They did some work in illegal construction. At this peak of unemployment, they started to travel. With the father and mother gone, the children stopped going to school. This new generation of Roma grew up on the streets. This new generation is now 18 and 19 years old. In the middle of the 1990s, social protection payments began. So even if you don’t work, you can still get some money. It was chaotic. The money often did not go to jobless people. Also, in some Roma quarters, they stopped electricity. Some political parties, for instance the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) the party of the mayor in my city), told the Roma that they didn’t have to pay electricity bills. This became the tradition, and other parties started to pay for votes. Many Bulgarians say, “The Roma don’t pay for electricity, why do we have to pay? They get social payments, why do we have to pay taxes to support them?”

Right now, unemployment is not so high. The economy is better. There is a lot of construction in Sofia and along the Black Sea. Some of the money is recycled from communist times, from state security. Some of it is from drugs. But there are more jobs now. Still, many Roma go to other countries to work – to Spain, to Greece. They send home money. Many times, the European Union insisted that Bulgaria improve education and the overall situation of the Roma. During the negotiation process on accession to the EU, they made recommendations every three months. But there were no results. Another factor was George Soros. He came at the beginning of the 1990s. He established the Roma Rights Center. For more than 15 years, he has spent money on this issue. But really, he just picked out nomenklatura, Roma apparatchiks who like to represent the community. They go to conferences, endless seminars. There are books and studies, But there is no political struggle. These representatives are not elected. Where is the democracy in the Roma community?

The president of Finland proposed to the Council of Europe to construct something like a European Roma parliament. Finally, elections were going to take place in the Roma community. The parliament consists of 150 members, who are Roma from different countries. But the Bulgarian Roma did not hold elections. They wrote protocols. They chose the ones who were ‘elected’ and gave the protocols to the Council of Europe.

There are six or seven Roma parties. One of these is in the coalition of Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). There is one parliamentary member from the Roma community. Other parties were formed in the middle of the 1990s. There are educated Roma who are not so dependent on Soros money or the BSP or the Roma or non-Roma mafias. One of them, Vasil Choprasov, publishes a newspaper every two weeks – with money from Soros and others.

There is a new player that arrived on the scene at the beginning of the century. This is the old oligarchy, mostly from former state security. They supported the king when his party took power. But then they produced a new party, the Ataka Party. In spring 2005, this party owned a television network. Party members participated in elections with strong anti-Roma and anti-Turkish slogans. They are anti-Semitic. Their leader, Volen Siderov, likes Hitler. In addition to their TV station, they also own a newspaper. In their media, you hear that there are Roma criminals and nothing is done. You hear that the Turks are bad because they have been in government. The next enemy is America, who is seen as the aggressor. They received 7% of the vote in 2005 and formed a parliamentary faction. They have three members in the European Parliament.

On Ethnic Turks

Numbering 800,000, the ethnic Turks are the largest minority. Before the Word War II, there were no conflicts with the Turks in Bulgaria. At the beginning of communist rule, the government closed the borders. The Turkish minority could emigrate to Turkey. Most did not leave. Next, the government prohibited the Turkish newspaper. The Turks didn’t have a party before World War II. It wasn’t forbidden but the Turks didn’t feel any pressure to create a party. During the communist period, Turks remained in their villages working. They could practice Islam. But at the beginning of the 1980s, because of the new policies of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, and because of the opposition movements in Russia, Poland, and Hungary, the Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov decided that this Turkish minority was a danger because it was independent and because it was connected to a different mother state. The Bulgarian government began to force ethnic Turks to change their names. If they spoke Turkish on the street, they were fined. It was a campaign of terror. The government used tanks and state security forces to operate this terror. They killed people. They opened a concentration camp on an island in the Danube and filled it with Turks. They received sentences of 10-15 years. Many stayed in prison for six years. This government policy started in 1984 and peaked in 1985.

After the death of Andropov and the coming of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian government decided in 1989 to launch a different campaign. It opened the border with Turkey. About 300,000 Turks left the country. Some of them stayed in Turkey. Many of them decided to return to Bulgaria. The state security people were interested in constructing a party that could speak in the name of the Turkish minority. This party, The Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF), is led by Ahmed Dogan. It has consistently won seats in the parliament. There is no other Turkish party. And the other Bulgarian parties generally don’t have Turks as members. So the MRF has achieved monopoly position. If you are Turkish, you vote for the Turkish party. Now, some of the Roma are Muslims. The MRF does not want these Roma to have their own party and take away votes. This is one barrier for the development of a Roma party. But there remains the question: what will be better for the Roma – to have a strong Roma party or to promote polices aimed to improve the situation of the Roma through the other, non-ethnically-based parties?