F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
August 6, 2000
Crimes of Communism Must be Punished

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

The concentration camps of Eastern Europe are empty now, but the sadists who ran them go unpunished.

"Every society has a duty toward its past, guaranteeing that it not be erased or forgotten," observes Tzvetan Todorov of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. "Yet, in the name of civil peace, certain voices from the former Communist countries have called for a collective forgetting of the past," he reports. "They are guilty of perpetuating a politics of secrecy and defending a centralized control of information, both of which are characteristic of totalitarian regimes."

In the introduction to his new book, Voices from the Gulag, a collection of reminiscences from the victims of Bulgarian Communism, Todorov warns that "the repression of the past, laden as it is with explosive material, is as dangerous for the group as for the individual. If the past is ever to be overcome," he advises, "it must first be spelled out. No obstacle must stand in the way of truth. The open dissemination of information, which has always been the most effective weapon against concentration camps and totalitarianism in general, must now be allowed to shield us against any possible recurrence."

Todorov acknowledges that society must designate "a place where it imprisons those who have broken its laws. But," he stresses, "it is essential to know if such imprisonment is the result of a judicial or an administrative process, and if it leads to prison or to concentration camp. In Eastern Europe, as in Nazi Germany," Todorov recalls, "it was the administration (the police) that made use of the camps, while the courts had recourse to the prisons. This is a crucial difference," he insists. "Those who were sent to these camps were never charged or sentenced. Instead, the police decided who was to be imprisoned."

Todorov asserts that the purpose of the concentration camps was "not to punish those guilty of crimes . . . but to terrorize the population by their indiscriminate use. Prisons are built for those who are judged and found guilty," he explains, "while camps exist for the innocent."

Todorov concedes that "Communist justice was usually a mere parody of justice." He points out, however, that "individuals who experienced both prison and camp speak almost nostalgically of prison. . . . Judicial procedures in Communist regimes may well have been mere formalities, but they were better than nothing," Todorov affirms. "As wicked as the law might have been, a law it remained, engaging both the prosecuting authority and the defendant. And, as terrible as jail may have been, it nevertheless was governed by rules that one could respect, and therefore preserved some degree of basic human dignity."

Todorov describes "a far harsher regime, founded upon forced labor," in the concentration camp, where "the prisoners' torment was tied to the arbitrary character of their fate. Never having been formally judged, they never knew how long they would be in the camp," he emphasizes. "Not having been sentenced to any form of legal punishment, how could they know what was in store for them? They were simply put in the hands of torturers whose intentions were impenetrable. . . ."