'WHEN Americans say something is history it means it's irrelevant,'' says the Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert. ''When we say it, it means just the opposite.'' For the citizens of central and eastern Europe, the past does not recede but stays to permeate their everyday lives. That is particularly true now, in the wake of the revolutions of 1989, as the new democracies of eastern Europe struggle to deal with the legacy of their Communist past.
From Chad to Chile to the Czech Republic, democracies emerging from dictatorship share a double obligation. The victims of human rights abuses require justice, and the future demands that nations do all they can to change the ways of thinking that allowed dictatorship to exist. How they treat the past is not only crucial to setting the tone for a new democracy, but is an early test of whether a nation can put into practice the democratic ideals it espouses.
The first problem in Eastern Europe has been what to do with the old Communist leaders. Putting them on trial - what many victims demand - is harder than it seems. They can and should be tried for acts of murder and torture they committed, but after the 1950s, Eastern Europe was not characterized by much violence. Most people are angry at their leaders for humiliating them through slavish obedience to Moscow and running a police state: spying on citizens and punishing nonconformists by taking away jobs and passports.
The great conundrum is to find something legally indictable in all this. One example: For nearly three years, the Polish Parliament has been holding hearings on Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's martial law crackdown on Solidarity in 1981. General Jaruzelski may be brought before a State Tribunal, and could even be shot. His defense is that martial law was justified in order to prevent what he claims was an imminent Soviet invasion. All the evidence is not yet in, but whatever Jaruzelski's motives, martial law was no more illegal than anything the Communist government did. This is properly a question for historians, not judges.
Polish prosecutors should content themselves with trying Jaruzelski for having ordered soldiers in Gdansk to shoot at unarmed protesters in 1970, when he was defense minister. At least 45 people were killed. The trial, which will open soon, avoids violating democratic norms by politicizing justice.
One of the frustrating ways new democracies' obligations to past victims clash with their obligation to the future is that democratic legal principles bar trying people for actions that were not crimes when they were committed. The telephone-tappers and spies were following the law of the time, and trying them undermines the rule of law and discredits justice. Surprisingly, the worst offender has been the country with the strongest democratic and legal tradition: Germany. German prosecutors have seemed so desperate to find any charge against former leaders that they have seemed like the marksman who shoots first and draws his target later. In 1993, for example, a German court sentenced Markus Wolf, the head of the East German equivalent of the CIA, to six years in prison for treason for spying on West Germany. The charge was bizarre: Treason is committed against one's own country, and West Germany was not Wolf's. In addition, Wolf did exactly what the head of the CIA and other intelligence organizations do. The German Supreme Court correctly ruled last month that such convictions are unconstitutional.
Even thornier than the problem of what to do with the leaders is the question of how to treat ordinary citizens who collaborated with Communism. While almost every citizen of East bloc countries was a victim of Communism in some ways, so, too, were many citizens co-conspirators. Communism was a conspiracy of all of society. Even the most natural responses of self-preservation were also, in a sense, acts of collaboration. A journalist, for example, knew that critical articles would get her fired, so she wrote uncritical ones. The third-grade teacher fulfilled her duty to teach history as the inexorable march of the glorious proletariat. Such ''normal'' acts kept the regime alive. ''The question isn't what some 'they' did,'' says Jan Urban, a Czech dissident. ''It's what we did.''
Nations cannot put collaborators on trial - they broke no existing law, and there were literally millions of them. Some nations have come up with other ways to punish secret police informers, the most hated collaborators. Under the Czech law called lustrace, the Interior Ministry looks for people' s names in the old registries from the StB, the Communist secret police. Those listed as collaborators are given certificates stating they are StB-positive and cannot hold government jobs for five years.
Lustrace is deeply flawed. First, the registry is often wrong. Secret police agents were given quotas of agents to recruit, and often listed people who had not agreed to collaborate. In addition, many people who were blackmailed into collaborating - in order to keep their jobs, or keep a relative from arrest - gave the police nothing of value and harmed no one. The registry is so unreliable that it even gave President Vaclav Havel, Communist Czechoslovakia's most important dissident, an StB-positive rating. In 1965, a secret police official came to visit the young playwright, hoping to convince him to provide information. ''The interview with Havel was concluded with our suggestion that in case of need we will contact him again,'' the policeman wrote. ''He agreed and said that he himself was glad he had talked to us, as it was an inspiration for further literary endeavors.'' Missing Havel's heavy dose of irony, the policeman deemed him a suitable prospect for agenthood.
Citizens listed as StB positive are presumed guilty and have no right to see the evidence against them or even know what they were supposed to have done. The registry is controlled by the highly politicized Interior Ministry, and has already been used against journalists who are critical of the regime. Lustrace shows that the habits of Communism do not always fall when Communist governments do.
Germany has done better, placing the Stasi files in the custody of an office independent of politics. Employers receive not just a single mark on a slip of paper, but a chunk of the informer's file, so they can see if he did serious harm. More important, victims of the Stasi may read their files, which can run to thousands of pages. The effect has been profound. The dissident Vera Wollenberger realized that the only person who could possibly have given the Stasi such intimate details of her finances and health was her husband, Donald. The two are now divorced. Others are making the happy discovery that none of their friends informed - one German sat down and wrote all his friends thank-you letters. Still others are now finding meaning behind puzzling events in their lives; after reading his file, the Lutheran Pastor Heinz Eggert now knows that his sickness and depression were the result of poisoning by a Stasi doctor.
Because the files have been opened, hundreds of former Stasi spies are coming forward to talk with their victims. They do so only because they know they will be caught, but this has nevertheless produced a wrenching, tearful, and ultimately healthy national debate. Over kitchen tables and on TV, Germans are talking about what constituted collaboration and how the Stasi managed to draw hundreds of thousands of people into its embrace.
This debate is crucial not simply because it helps the victim to understand what happened. Just as important, it gives the collaborators the opportunity to face up to what they did and take responsibility for their acts. After World War II, East Germans blamed Hitler on those bad Germans in the West. East Germans' failure to take a hard look at their collaboration with the Nazi regime helped them to go along with a new Communist dictatorship only three years after the war. Acknowledging that they could have stood up to the regime is crucial to preventing eastern Europeans' acceptance of the next demagogue who comes along. Eastern Europeans can only be democrats once they stop listening to the voice coming through the loudspeaker and pay attention to the one in their heads. A nationwide examination of the participation of ordinary citizens in dictatorship is the best way to finally close the door and leave dictatorship behind.