Four out of six said they disliked the book. It was "dry," "long," "boring," etc. Three of them did not finish reading it. Still, they joined in a very lively discussion of The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg at our monthly church book group.
Of course, I found the book fascinating and compelling. Having recently seen the movie Das Leden der Anderen (The Lives of Others), I wanted to learn more about the culture of distrust and betrayal prevalent in Soviet-block countries and how the end of communism had affected many lives. I was not disappointed, as The Haunted Land was filled with interesting stories about Czechoslovakia (before the split), Poland, and East Germany. I do admit, however, that the section on Poland focused too much on Wojciech Jaruzelski, the prime minister who declared martial law in 1981. It would have been more interesting to have read about Polish soldiers and intelligence agents under orders to suppress Solidarity. Like communist agents in the other countries, they must have had mixed feelings.
The section on Czechoslovakia discusses the lustrace laws, which were designed to keep communist collaborators out of public service in the post-communist government. The difficulty was that almost everyone other than youth had talked with intelligence officers at some point in their life. Many had provided sensitive information unwittingly. Because their names were on lists of informers, many talented people found themselves left out of the new government unfairly. Some lost their jobs, and there was no method to challenge the rulings.
My favorite section of the book deals with East Germany. According to Rosenberg's account, the Stasi records on individuals were opened to the public after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many people who went to read their own files discovered that their friends and family had informed on them. Others found that sympathetic Stasi had actually shielded them by writing false reports. Viewers of The Lives of Others will conclude that the actions of agent Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler were not unbelievable.
The Haunted Land is now a historical work, as much has changed in twelve years in the formerly communist countries. Though it will never be a popular book, this National Book Award winner is still worth reading for it captures a moment in time when it was difficult to judge guilt and innocence and to know when forgiveness should be offered. Retain your copy if you have one.
Rosenberg, Tina. The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism. Random House, 1995. ISBN 0679422153