Cheney, Obama and History Lessons From Poland

History lives and breathes—it's never static. Debates about history always tell us as much about the present and the struggles for power as about the past, often more so. As George Orwell famously pointed out: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."

Poland is once again getting a reminder of that. Former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński is banking on history to revive his right-wing party's political fortunes in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament. By demanding a tougher stance against what he portrays as a push by German politicians to equate German suffering at the end of World War II with Polish suffering, he wants voters to see him as the defender of the country's interests. Polish voters will decide whether this is a defense of historical truths or just a campaign ploy, but it's already clear that this isn't the kind of epic struggle over history that took place during the communist era.

In fact, Poles would do better to look further afield for today's truly intense battles over history. Not surprisingly, one is taking place right next door—in Russia. Another is taking place across the Atlantic, in the United States. How these two countries are wrestling with their recent past is a revealing indicator of where they are politically right now—and where they may be going.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree recently ordering "the creation of a presidential commission to counter attempts to harm Russian interests by falsifying history." The commission is supposed to be stacked with government officials, including from the Defense Ministry and the Federal Security Service, and there will be only three historians among its members. Orwell's ears would perk right up at that news. For those who have been hoping that Medvedev would tolerate more dissent than Vladimir Putin has, all this is profoundly discouraging.

But there are a few signs that this doesn't have to mean a return to Soviet-style wholesale falsification of history. First, some historians are already raising their voices in protest. Alexei Miller, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the weekly Expert that he hopes the commission will be "stillborn." In the Soviet era, such heresy would not have been tolerated. While the subservient Russian media has rallied around the commission and talked about the attempts to "blacken" Russia's image, Mikhail Gorbachev—the father of glasnost—left little doubt that he sees the commission as a step backward. So long as such voices can be heard, the battle over history will continue.

And nowhere has that battle been more tortuous in Russia. When I was reporting from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s, I often quoted the Soviet adage: "How can you predict the future of a country with an unpredictable past?" While the official versions of history were decreed from above, they kept changing: Stalin was a great leader, then Khrushchev debunked him, then Brezhnev debunked Khrushchev … and so on.

In many ways, the glasnost era was the most confusing period of all. Traveling by train in 1989 in what was then still the Soviet Ukraine, I met a young history teacher. She commiserated with me about the lack of teaching materials. The previous textbooks had been jettisoned because of their blatant falsifications, but no new ones were available yet. "I don't know what to teach my students," she said. "I'd like to say glasnost and perestroika are wonderful and all this will work, but who knows if in 10 years I won't be condemned for propagating lies? "

But the virtue of glasnost under Gorbachev and the often chaotic situation under Boris Yeltsin was that it still allowed for vigorous, freewheeling historical debates. Those were also times when researchers dug into the Soviet archives and unearthed countless documents that underscored the magnitude of Stalin's crimes and failures as a leader, including during the "Great Patriotic War"—the holy of holies in Russia's recent history.

By contrast, Putin's reign—and now the proposed historical commission—has looked like an attempt to stuff the genie back into the bottle. A teacher's manual in 2007 called Stalin "the most successful Soviet leader ever." Such efforts can only succeed up to a point. Too much information, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, is already in the public domain to impose a completely falsified version of history. There are also the alternative sources of information provided via the Internet. But in today's Russia, real debate on the big issues is still rare: there are more or less official views, and then everything else is relegated to the margins. Russia can evolve into a more open society in the future only if it allows a serious clash of ideas.

That's exactly what the United States is experiencing in the early days of the Obama administration. The back-to-back appearances by Obama and former vice president Dick Cheney provided a textbook example of competing interpretations of recent history. Did it, and does it, make sense to imprison those accused of terrorism in Guantánamo? Did the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques" amount to torture? The two politicians' diametrically opposing answers to those questions led to diametrically different recommendations for where things should go from here.

This was no academic debate. The Europeans who have been vociferously critical of Guantánamo aren't eager to take the prisoners in (France, for example, has accepted just one of them so far) and are now pushing the Obama administration to take most of them into the United States. Most Democrats were equally critical of Guantánamo, but that didn't stop them from voting down Obama's request for funding to close down the Cuban facility, complaining that he hadn't presented them with a plan on how he would do this safely. Already, the debate about Bush's handling of terrorist suspects has been transformed into a heated exchange about what his successor can or should do, balancing the need for security with the concept of what constitutes fair treatment.

The most characteristic trait of an open society is a willingness to engage in precisely these kinds of serious, no-holds-barred debates about the history of your country—and what that means going forward. There always will be the debates about history between countries like Poland and Germany, often inflamed by electoral politics on both sides. When serious issues arise, they need to be addressed. But it's easy to point to inflammatory demands and rhetoric across a border to score points with voters. It's much harder to look inward. The real test for any society is how much debate it can tolerate about its own most sensitive disputes. Right now, Russia and the United States are offering dramatically different examples of how this is done.