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  • Making Amends After Communism
  • Vojtech Cepl and Mark Gillis (bio)

As breathtaking and inspiring as the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe since 1989 have been, they could not and did not sweep the slate clean as regards people’s way of life and basic attitudes. To believe that the fall of communism would mark a decisive turn, after which the countries of this region would be “out of the woods,” was false optimism of a high order. Now, more than five years down the road, we suffer from the danger of complacency, and face the possibility that the very significant transformation which is taking place could be slowed or even reversed. The revolutionary changes that we have witnessed, we submit, are in their nascent stage and quite vulnerable. Only if people at large change their attitudes, their ways of thinking, and their behavior can these welcome changes be made secure.

The complex transformation that has swept Eastern Europe over the past half-decade does not lend itself to brief treatment, so we will single out just one aspect of it. That aspect is the problem of coming to terms with the past or, more specifically, the problem of lustration (a screening whereby those whom secret-police files show to have been collaborators are barred from holding certain key governmental or societal posts), and the condemnation of the former regime’s crimes. Of all the transformation’s aspects, this one is the most elusive and the least amenable to concrete discussion. We will plunge ahead anyway because we think that it lies at the crux of the whole process. The case of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic is the case that we know best. It is also the most instructive, for the Czech Republic has taken certain routes to change [End Page 118] that other countries have either avoided completely or traveled only partially.

Obviously, each of the region’s countries faced its own unique set of historical conditions. In Hungary, for instance, the rejection of communist orthodoxy in favor of market models began 20 years earlier and took place more gradually. Poland, to cite another case, saw the greatest popular resistance to communist intrusions from the very beginning. Polish agriculture was never collectivized, and Poles never allowed the Roman Catholic Church to be entirely suppressed. Historical conditions continue to operate, of course, and so may still account for the differences in the transition processes that are now taking place.

Not long after the Berlin Wall fell, Ralf Dahrendorf observed that it would take six months to reform the political systems in Eastern Europe, six years to change the economic systems, and sixty years to effect a revolution in people’s hearts and minds. Dahrendorf probably borrowed his line about hearts and minds from Tomá s Masaryk; what is being cited is something close to what the American social critic Michael Novak means by “moral culture.”

Our view on this matter is simple: Without rehabilitation, lustration, and restitution, there will be no transformation.

The slowest, most complicated, most elusive—but also most crucial—part of any process of transition is the necessary metamorphosis of the norms of human conduct. These norms exist in the minds of the people, and form the basis of their day-to-day behavior and shared values. The norms inform their thought as to what is right or wrong, proper or improper, appropriate or inappropriate in particular situations, or even what they must do to get by in life. In this way, they know when they are bound to keep their promises, when it is proper or prudent to ignore a legally prescribed rule or to bribe an official, when a person’s conduct amounts to a provocation, and, most importantly, when they can object to improper actions by the state.

Knowledge of such norms comes not from formal study but rather from life experience within a given society. These norms are psychological phenomena, part of human consciousness. They are what is foremost in people’s minds—not some involved theoretical account of how an independent judiciary protects rights or how a second house of the legislature can act to check possible abuses of power by the...

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pp. 118-124
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