Heartlessness

Neal Ascherson

  • Judge on Trial by Ivan Klima, translated by A.G. Brain
    Chatto, 547 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3349 X

The war was finished – and so was the regime of occupation. Its most hated representatives had either fled or wound up in prison while their victims had been proclaimed martyrs. But all that concerned just a tiny section of the population: most of the people had not died, fled or gone to gaol, but merely gone on with their lives. Overnight, they had entered a world which commended actions that yesterday’s laws had identified as crimes, a world whose laws declared yesterday’s crimes to be acts of heroism. They naturally regarded this change as a victory for historical truth and agreed that guilt must be assessed, wrongs put right and society purged.

But what was to be identified as guilt and what condoned, seeing that they had all lived under the former regime, however hated and imposed it was? Seeing that the existence and actions of the regimes had also depended on their own existence and behaviour. Who was to be the defendant, who the witness and who the judge? At the trials that were to take place, would not those who confronted each other in the courtroom be equally guilty and equally innocent? The very will to cleanse oneself of evil and to atone for guilt conceals within it the risk of new crimes and new wrongs.

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