A Lasting Poison

NEW YORK – Next year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of communism in Europe. Liberated from the complexity of knowing too much about the cruel past, the young people of Eastern Europe’s post-communist generation seem uninterested in what their parents and grandparents endured.

Yet the recent revelation of the Czech writer Milan Kundera’s presumed complicity in the face of Stalinism is but the latest of the long half-life of a toxic past. Other examples come to mind: the accusations of collaboration with the secret police raised against Lech Walesa, Romania’s public controversies surrounding Mircea Eliade’s fascist past, and the attacks on the alleged “Jewish monopoly of suffering” which equate the Holocaust with the Soviet Gulag.

Friedrich Nietzsche said that if you look in the eye of the Devil for too long, you risk becoming a devil yourself. A Bolshevik anticommunism, similar in its dogmatism to communism itself, has from time to time run riot in parts of Eastern Europe. In country after country, that Manichean mindset, with its oversimplifications and manipulations, was merely re-fashioned to serve the new people in power. 

Opportunism has had its share in this, of course. In 1945, when the Red Army occupied Romania, the Communist Party had no more than 1,000 members; in 1989, it had almost four million. One day after Nicolae Ceausescu’s execution, most of these people suddenly became fierce anticommunists and victims of the system they had served for decades.