NEW YORK — Next year will mark the 20th 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 postcommunist 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” that equate the Holocaust with the Soviet Gulag.

Friedrich Nietzsche said 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 Manichaean mind-set, with its oversimplifications and manipulations, was merely refashioned 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 4 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.

Residual traces of totalitarian thinking can also be found in the hostility to former dissidents like Adam Michnik or Vaclav Havel, both of whom argued that the new democracies should not exploit resentments or seek revenge, as the totalitarian state did, but instead build a new national consensus to structure and empower a genuine civil society. Former generals of the secret police and members of the Communist nomenklatura must derive great pleasure from watching today’s witch hunts and manipulation of old files for immediate political purposes.

But the case of Kundera appears different — though no less disturbing. In 1950, Kundera, then a 20-year-old Communist, reportedly denounced to the criminal police as a Western spy a man he had never met — a friend of his friend’s girlfriend. The man was later brutally interrogated in a former Gestapo torture facility and spent 14 years in prison. Kundera’s name was contained in the investigating officer’s report, which was authenticated after a respected historian discovered it in a dusty Prague archive.

The reclusive Kundera, who immigrated to Paris in 1975, has declared that “it never happened.” Moreover, Czechoslovakia’s fearsome secret police, who had every interest in silencing or compromising the famous dissident writer, never used the incident to blackmail or expose him. Until more information is forthcoming, the case will not be solved “beyond reasonable doubt.” But if it happened, the case calls for a deeper reflection.

As far as we know, Kundera never was an informer before or after this incident, and we cannot ignore that he later freed himself from the compulsory totalitarian happiness that communism propagated. Indeed, his case also serves as a reminder that the early 1950s was the most brutal period of “proletarian dictatorship” in Eastern Europe — a period of great enthusiasm and terrible fear that poisoned the minds and souls of devoted believers, fierce opponents, and apathetic bystanders alike.

Moreover, Kundera’s case is hardly unique. In 2006, the Nobel Prize-winning German author Gunter Grass’ disclosed that, 60 years earlier, he was, as a teenager, a member of the Waffen-SS. Similarly, a few years ago, the world was shocked to learn that famous Italian writer Ignazio Silone had, in his youth, collaborated with the fascist police.

Daily life under totalitarianism, be it communist or fascist, was routinely based on a deep duplicity whose effects are long-standing.

I don’t agree with those who say we should not be interested in the dark episodes in the life of a great writer. Why not? We should be interested not for prosecutorial purposes, but to gain a more profound understanding of a bloody, demagogical and tyrannical Utopia — and of human weakness and vulnerability.

We may even consider it a rewarding testament to an artist’s ability to overcome his past mistakes and still produce priceless work.

But can we justifiably defend morally compromised artists and intellectuals on the basis of their work’s merit, yet condemn ordinary people for often less grave offenses? An egregious example of this was the way followers of Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica defended his support for the fascist Iron Guard and his later collaboration with the Communists, while at the same time condemning even a generic cleaning woman for mopping the floors in the offices of the secret police. Shouldn’t that cleaner’s drudgery to support her family, children and her own survival be taken equally into account?

Life under totalitarianism was an extreme situation that requires us to apply special, nuanced rules to all the captives of that ordeal. To understand that epoch, we have to know and carefully judge often ambiguous and overwhelming circumstances, never simplifying a multilayered daily reality for the sake of current political goals. If nothing else, in order to forgive, we have to know what we are forgiving.

In Eastern Europe today, old and young alike stand to benefit from that lesson. Moses wandered with his people in the desert for 40 years — until they had rid themselves of the slave mentality.

Norman Manea’s most recent book is “The Hooligan’s Return.” He was awarded the Medicis Etranger in 2006. © 2008 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences (www.project-syndicate.org)

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