Dirty little secrets

By January 8, 2007Article, Atlantic Eye

Jan. 8 (UPI) — The most despicable aspect about the resignation of Poland’s Archbishop-designate Stanislaw Wielgus is that he almost got away with it. Not only did he lie, he lied again and again. For 20 years he cooperated with the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, Poland’s communist secret police.

It has been 17 years since the fall of communism in Central Europe. New economies and democracies have been created. Constitutions have been passed. The rule of law has taken hold. But the system masks many of the old regime who are still in power. Few of the perpetrators have been brought to trial. The favorite mantra of the political classes is to look-the-other-way, fearing they might indict themselves. Meanwhile, common folk must watch and seethe as former communist apparatchiks walk free. Only a few former dissidents pursue their tormentors.

And still, the Vatican often feigns ignorance and indignation.

Archbishop Wielgus’s opponents were accused of being vindictive. Pope Benedict refused to withdraw his support of Wielgus until the very last hours when he realized he was in a public relations fiasco. The Vatican had a similarly selective memory in handling Pope Benedict’s involvement in the Hitler Youth.

And just weeks ago, Bratislava’s Archbishop Sokol praised Slovakia’s Nazi puppet-state — run by the fascist Monsignor Tiso — as being a place that was “a time of well-being.” This is a remarkably callous statement in a country where 20,000 Jewish-Slovaks and Gypsies were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Again, the Vatican handled its response abysmally.

Cardinal Glemp, Poland’s top church leader, called Wielgus “God’s servant” and warned of the dangers of passing judgment based on incomplete and flawed documents left behind by the communist authorities. “What kind of judgment was it, based on some documents and shreds of paper photocopied three times over? We do not want such judgments.”

Yes, well, except that a church historical commission, several newspapers, former secret police documents and other credible sources had confirmed the archbishop’s collaboration. Evidence suggests that 15 percent of the Polish church collaborated with the communist secret services.

This all reminds me of Sergeant Schultz’s famous line from the 70s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing,” mocked in a heavily German-accented English.

In Hungary, the former head of the Communist Youth League is the prime minister. In Poland, the reformed communists, now called the Social Democrats, have only recently lost power; but, even the new regime has serious ethical flaws. In the Czech Republic, the former head of the Communist-era StB is an adviser to a well-known and corrupt company, filled with the children of the former nomenklatura.

Last night, along with Dr. Barbara Day — one of the leaders of the underground university during the darkest days of communism — I attended the Czech premiere of the highly acclaimed German film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006).

The film tells the story of a celebrated playwright and his partner, an equally celebrated actress. Loyal to the socialist regime, they become targets of East Germany’s powerful Secret Police (the infamous Stasi) when the actress refuses the sexual attentions of the East German culture minister. For this, they both pay with the minister’s wrath.

The Lives of Others begins in East Berlin in 1984 — five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall; it ends in 1991 in a reunited Germany. The film traces the disillusionment of Capt. Gerd Wiesler, a skilled Stasi operative. His mission is to spy on the celebrated couple, whom he believes cannot be as loyal to the Party as they seem. Twenty-four hour surveillance is set up on the bugged apartment.

Like many former communist regimes, the East German government ensured its power with a ruthless system of control and surveillance. The Stasi — via a vast network of informers that at its peak numbered 200,000 out of a population of 17 million — was brutal in its suppression. Their goal: to know everything and anything about the lives of others.

Initially, the playwright shows no outward hostility towards the regime. His position changes when he discovers the minister’s sexual designs on his partner. At the same time his close friend, a theater director, is driven to suicide after years of blacklisting. The playwright can no longer remain silent. He conspires with friends to publish an article in West Germany’s Der Spiegel, exposing the GDR’s policy of covering up its high suicide rate.

When the anti-GDR article is published, the playwright is one of the prime suspects. Wiesler has the proof he needs to destroy his subject. But, through his surveillance, he has been drawn into a world which puts his own position as a tool of the regime into question. When the Stasi blackmail the actress into revealing the hiding place of the playwright’s illicit typewriter, Wiesler gets there first. The playwright is saved; one Stasi has lost his job, but found his soul.

The film is based on chilling reality. The only fiction maybe the character of a repentant Wiesler, who walks the streets of Berlin as a postman.

The Stasi, the SB and the StB are still with us — big in business, big in gambling, in real estate and in national and local government.

Oh, and of course, in the Vatican.

(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he sits on the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party.)