The 1946 Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders responsible for the Holocaust provided the foundation for international legal procedure, and an evolving human rights philosophy, to confront future governmental crimes of murder and oppression. Still, it seems this painfully constructed edifice of rights is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Especially since the Cold War’s end in 1989, the world community’s commitment to rights has been greatly tested. The fall of oppressive communist regimes in East Europe, the instances of horrific violence in the Balkans, Africa, and elsewhere, and now the revelations about torture and murder in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all raise questions about global commitment to human rights.
I would like to pose the question as one of justice, and peace. In dealing with past crimes, is it better for a nation, along with the international community, to work diligently to bring the perpetrators of terrible acts to justice? Or, is it preferable to focus on the need to heal wounds and build a new, peaceful society for the future? Is it possible to do both?
This speculation yields further crucial concerns. What actions took place during the regime’s rule; mass murder, political oppression, both, or other types of state imposed terrors? Who was involved, and who should be brought to justice? Would that apply to only those at the top who “gave the orders?” What about lesser officials who “only followed” the orders? Should everyone involved in any aspect of the regime’s criminal activities be punished?
The post World War II trials of German Nazis and Japanese war leaders at Nuremberg and Tokyo established a basic precedent for trying war criminals. Currently, those precedents are being applied, expanded, and built upon in very different ways. There are special war crimes tribunals trying those involved in massacres in Rwanda, Burundi, and the former Yugoslavia. Post-Apartheid South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confront Apartheid’s brutalities in a less formal, non-judicial fashion.
The various nations of the former Soviet block, as well as Russia, have dealt with former communist regime members in quite different ways. For example, Erich Honecker, the last East German leader, was put on trial in reunified Germany in 1992 for his orders to Berlin Wall border guards to kill anyone who attempted to escape over the wall. However, his ill health led to his release, and he escaped to Chile where he died in 1994. Some Germans felt that, poor health or not, the trial should have been continued, a verdict rendered, and justice served. Consequently, there are numerous debates between those who demand justice for the regime’s victims, those who desire to focus on building new societies, and those who come down somewhere in the middle.
In the wake of the recent war with Iraq, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, and the uncovering of torture chambers and mass graves, Iraq joins the list of troubled nations which must decide how to confront its horrific past. The question of how a nation emerges from past tribulations into a more peaceful future and seeks justice for the regime’s victims is fiendishly difficult. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime demonstrates that the post-Cold War world will continue to confront hard questions about the monstrous crimes that people inflict upon each other.
I, too, readily believed that justice must be served, perpetrators punished, and victim’s revenged. But over the past year, I have seen in Hungary and in my own classroom the reality and pain of victims of injustice and violated human rights. I’ll begin with Hungary.
It’s June 2002 and a blistering hot day in Budapest. The local political temperature is as hot as the weather. I am traveling with fellow professors who are interested in post-communist East European politics. Our study of current Hungarian politics is rudely interrupted by a political imbroglio centered upon Hungary’s communist past. From 1946 until 1989, communist Hungary’s government was controlled by the Soviet Union. In October ‘56 the Hungarians attempted to leave the Soviet orbit. But their revolution was brutally crushed by a Soviet military invasion. Many Hungarians fled. Others were executed, incarcerated, and oppressed.
I’ve visited Hungary once before, in 1988, before communism’s fall. At that time questions, especially from foreigners, about the 1956 revolution and its aftermath were frowned upon. It is true that during the ‘70s and ‘80s Hungary was more open and less oppressive than other communist nations such as East Germany or Romania. But in 2002 that was all ancient history, or at least it seemed to be. Now, democracy thrives. The most recent democratic elections in Hungary (May ‘02) put into office a left wing coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Alliance of Free Democrats. Peter Medgyessy was selected as the Prime Minister to head Hungary’s government.
But it is revealed, and the Prime Minister admits, that, as The Budapest Sun and other media report, he was “a secret intelligence officer working for the former communist regime.” The proverbial media “firestorm” engulfs the capitol. The key question is whether the Prime Minister should resign because of his complicity in the regime’s monitoring and oppression of its own people. My colleagues and I observe the swirling debate. How high up was he? Exactly what did he do? Why did he do it? Didn’t many others do it? Isn’t it time to let the past go and move on? We wait for a lecture on Hungarian history in a classroom of the University that has arranged our visit. A colleague notes wryly that this political scandal seems much more substantial than America’s recent brawl over its leader’s dalliance with an intern.
We are seated in room, awaiting a lecture. The door opens and in comes a stern faced professor, about forty, large and imposing, and formally attired in coat and tie. Before he even has a chance to put down his notes, we pepper him with questions about the Prime Minister’s problems. “Should the Prime Minister resign?” asks a colleague. The professor looks down. I get the sense he wants to discuss the controversy, but is hesitant to do so. He comes from behind the lectern, sits on an empty front row desk, and by way of an answer to our questions, tells us his father’s story.
Before 1956 his father was involved in politics, and was a dissident. He then supported the ‘56 revolutionary government, which replaced the Soviet supported communist government. He took part in the October 1956 Revolution, which tried to save that government. This revolution was, we know, crushed by the Soviet military force that entered Budapest in November of ‘56. His father was arrested, released and, fortunately able to flee the country. He was lucky, indeed, to be alive.
Eventually he was able to return, as the political atmosphere eased in the 1960s. But for his son, the professor, that doesn’t matter. His father, along with thousands of others, were harassed, intimidated, and sometimes jailed, immediately after the 1956 revolution. The professor concludes the story, then looks up his audience.
“You will hear over the next few days,” he tells us, “that it is time for Hungarians to move on, to put all this behind us . . . lots of people besides the current Prime Minister participated in some way in the communist system. So we shouldn’t single him out for punishment. That is not true. My father, and many like him, at great threat to themselves, in many ways, fought against the oppressive system, and suffered under it because they refused to go along. Mr. Medgyessy should resign. And beyond that, he and others like him should stand trial for what they did.”
This is the case for justice. The Hungarians who resisted deserve justice. They deserve to see those who destroyed their lives punished. Without this justice, for the dissident’s son the history professor, Hungary’s evolving democracy will rest upon a faulty foundation.
Yet shortly after this discussion, in a column in The Budapest Sun, Andrea Szabo of the political school Szazadveg, Politikai Iskola Alapitvany, wrote that since many Hungarians accepted the Prime Minister’s admission about his past, and also felt his “mea culpa” was sufficient, he should not resign. Szabo felt that the positive developments since communism’s end in 1989 should not be compromised by “a flood of 20-, 30- or 40-year-old information which would only rip open scars and injuries that have slowly healed over the years.” I read these words knowing that for the professor, without “ripping open those scars” Hungary’s so-called achieved democracy will be only ephemeral and illusionary for so many.
It’s now Spring 2002, and I am again confronted with this peace and justice debate. And again, I see it in terms of its actual impact upon a person who experienced terrible oppression and violence. An African student from Sierra Leone was in the States for a semester to visit friends and see about furthering his education in an American University. This brought him to my International relations class. He is in his early thirties, short, wiry, and quite bald. Speaking English very well, he did not hesitate to plunge immediately into our debates and discussions.
I know that my other students were intrigued by his arguments, and hoped to hear about his personal experiences. But he said very little about himself, until he visited me in my office towards the semester’s end. I follow and discuss developing world problems in my classes. Yet, I can still hear his quietly but earnestly told story, that makes all too vivid the horrific events in Sierra Leone and other African and developing world nations. His village suffered attacks during the country’s recent, violent upheavals. The conflict between the government and various rebel and criminal groups is impossible to disentangle. All that is clear is that during the fighting many helpless people were butchered be it for their ethnicity, political leanings, or, for no reason at all.
This young man, who talked with me so calmly, was set upon by machete wielding thugs. His arm was severely wounded and a knife was sunk into his head. It was truly a miracle that he survived. He leaned forward in his chair, the harsh office light shone on his head, and there was the deep, ugly scar. And it seemed to me that all the ugliness, hatred, and violence from all over the world during the last decade was visible in and personified by that jagged, purplish scar.
And yet this student, brutalized by the wanton violence, endangered by this terrible conflict, now helps to bring it to an end, or at least, to a hiatus. He became involved in Sierra Leone’s attempts to end the fighting and prevent it from re-igniting. As a result of his work and the work of many others, there is today a fragile “peace” in Sierra Leone.
But in my office, while I listened to this man tell his story, I couldn’t help but think back to last summer, and the Hungarian Professor’s feelings about justice for his father. “What,” I asked this victim of terrible violence,” should be done with those who attacked him, and who killed and terrorized so many others in his country. There was no hesitation in his response: he desired only peace for his country. There has been too much death, too much killing, too much hate, he said. “If it is possible, those who did kill should be, will be brought to justice. But the main focus must be on the future. It is time to move on,” he said.
The Hungarian professor and the Sierra Leonean student pull me in different ways. Their lives embody the seismic shifts of post-Cold War global politics, and the individual degradations that humans wreak on each other in the service of perverted politics. The former victim argues for justice, the latter, desires justice, but not at the expense of his nation’s future peace. Crabwalk, Gunter Grass’s new novel, further explores this very issue. Indeed, Germans posses as much experience as anyone in confronting the complexity of history and memory. The way in which Grass analyzes the pain of Germany’s past meshes with the experience of those with whom I spoke.
The novel’s central focus is the true story a Soviet Union submarine torpedoing a German ship in 1945. The ship carried mostly German war refugees 9,000 people on the ship died. This discussion of the average German’s suffering during wartime a topic for the longest time submerged in the need to confront the memories of Nazi atrocities is, as Richard Eder notes in his review of the book in The New York Times (24 April 2003), long overlooked. Eder considers the cost of this silence “. . . is the country, destroyed by aerial bombardment and invading armies . . . silenced from shame about its destruction of others? Has the silence further twisted a people’s already twisted confrontations with history?”
Grass centers this story on how two young German teenage boys reenact the conflict begun by their elders. One boy’s family and life is indelibly attached to the sunken boat. The other, so wracked by guilt over what Germans did to Jews in the Holocaust, rejects his German identity, and literally assumes a Jewish identity. This conflict’s tragic denouement leads the story’s narrator, the father of one of the boys, to conclude, “It doesn’t end. Never will it end.” Perhaps German history is more tangled than other nations. Yet, the Hungarian professor seems to feel that “it” will never end until all perpetrators are punished. The student from Sierra Leone believes “it” will never end until the future becomes the focus.
And now the Iraqis must deal with this issue, in a situation of political chaos and ongoing violence. Do they face an intractable task? What, if anything, can they take from the experiences of other nations? Can they draw from the oppression in East Europe, from the violence in Africa and elsewhere, or from the complex tapestry of recent German history? Whether weapons of mass destruction are found or not, Iraqis must confront the moral question. Like it or not, the war was fought, the Hussein regime fell, and now the international community faces this issue of what to do with those who tortured and killed for him.
Recent reports, such as in The New York Times(23 April ‘03), “Iraqis Tell of a Reign of Torture and Maiming”, demonstrate that the Hussein regime was among the most brutal in history. Currently, the U.S. and British forces, which led the invasion, have been working to round up regime members. The Bush administration’s highly publicized deck of playing cards picturing Iraqi leaders portrays the worst of the lot. But the deck’s implication is that it is now for the Americans and the British to control any judicial procedures.
This is an enormous mistake. Since the Nuremberg trials of 1946, the world has made much progress in dealing with horrific crimes. There are special United Nations Tribunals for the crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and one might be created for Iraq. The International Criminal Court (ICC), which came into official existence on 1 July 2002, may not prosecute crimes committed before that date. Still, it might be a place to begin examining recent Iraqi crimes, as it encourages internal judicial procedures before the ICC can be involved.
But the United States refuses to sign on the Treaty that created the court. (Actually, the Clinton administration did sign the treaty, although it was not submitted for Senate ratification. The Bush administration “unsigned” the treaty.) The Bush administration’s unilateralism, and desire to keep all aspects of post-Saddam Iraq under its control, only assures that there will be neither justice nor peace in Iraq.
As the New York Times reported (22 June 2003), “The United States isn’t perceived as a cultivator of democracy here. (Iraq) It is seen as a military occupier that supports democracy and free speech when they serve its interest. . .” The American administrator of Iraq cancelled a mayoral election in Najaf, Iraq, which would seem to be a crucial first step to building an indigenous structure, which eventually would try their own criminals. The war in Iraq may be “over”, but the “New Iraq” remains a violent, chaotic place. Combat raids and street fights have killed American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The pervasive violence, and the American focus on its control of any apprehended Hussein regime leaders, blocks Iraq’s opportunity to control its own future.
The lesson that I have learned from listening to victims of oppression and violence, is that each nation and its people, in tandem with the international community, must decide on its own how to confront its past. I would like to hope that it is possible to “use” past crimes to both achieve justice and to build a peaceful and stable future. I am not overly optimistic. The reality of human evil stands always in our way. After Nuremberg in 1946, many looked with hope to the future. Some hopes were realized. Too many were not. Yet the one thing we do know is that, within the context of international concern, each nation must confront its own past in its own way.
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