Behind the men who pull the triggers Fixing responsibility: There can be no bygones for history's villains.

September 02, 1997

WHOSE FAULT was it that 900 or more East Germans were killed trying to flee their homeland? Some border guards have been convicted of the killings, but they were small fry, acting upon orders, and they received small-fry sentences -- often suspended. Now a court in reunited Germany has ruled that responsibility belongs with East Germany's political leadership. It convicted the rump state's last leader, Egon Krenz, of manslaughter in six of the deaths, and sentenced him to a six-year prison sentence.

"Victor's justice," some in Germany have called it, arguing that the Cold War is over. Let bygones be bygones. Or, as Mr. Krenz put it: "The political persecution is revenge for the fact that East Germany existed."

Similar misgivings have complicated the Czech Republic's plans to try three old Communist leaders on treason charges for their encouragement and complicity in the Soviet invasion of their country in 1968. Some have even seen the charges as an awkward echo of the show trials Communists staged in the past.

History's page cannot be turned without an accounting. Those who commit or permit crimes in the name of war, ideology or civil authority should know they will face justice. More than 50 years after their crimes, cases remain open against the last Nazi war criminals. Argentina and Chile continue to probe and document horrors visited on them by past dictators.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission offers amnesty in exchange for truth. The monsters of apartheid may escape criminal penalty, but they must acknowledge their deeds. That, too, is controversial -- why shouldn't villains pay a penalty for their acts?

More important than punishing villains is that villainy be proclaimed. Without truth, there can be no reconciliation. Mr. Krenz was not the most odious figure of the Cold War; he came late to the leadership of a system formed in his childhood. But it was an evil system. Shooting refugees is murder. Mr. Krenz was responsible. It was not "victor's justice."

Pub Date: 9/02/97

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