21st Jul 2019

EU 'naive' about power of ex-Communist spies, says Nobel prize-winner

  • Nobel prize winner Herta Mueller says literature can and should be political (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The EU has turned a blind eye to the way post-Communist countries are dealing with their totalitarian legacy, with former secret police officers still filling powerful positions, says Nobel literature prize-winner Herta Mueller.

Ms Mueller, a Romanian-born German, has focused most of her novels and essays on life under dictatorship, under constant fear and intimidation by Romania's secret police, the Securitate. Deportation and labour camps in the Soviet Union, as experienced by her own parents, are depicted in the latest novel, Atemschaukel (in English: Everything I Possess I Carry With Me), for which she won the Nobel prize last year.

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In Brussels on Tuesday (13 April) to promote the book, Ms Mueller however focussed on the present, expressing her dissatisfaction with the EU's lack of pressure on new member states to deal with their Communist past.

"I think the EU acted pretty naively by taking these countries on so quickly and was not able to foresee what kind of crafty and obstructionist barriers they would be faced with," she told journalists during a press conference at the Passa Porta literature house in Brussels.

"I know that in Romania, scores of people who used to work for the Securitate are now in high-level positions and this has virtually no consequences. It is not important for the society," she said.

"These people have gained so much influence that they have managed to almost re-create their old network of power, where they all know and serve each other. It is the second life of the dictatorship. Under different circumstances, organised in a different way. And without ideology. Without Socialism."

One example of how little lustration - the term used to refer to government policies of limiting the participation of former Communists in political positions - has worked in Romania is the case of Radu Tinu, a self-acknowledged former Securitate chief who was responsible for planting microphones in the author's appartment.

Mr Tinu – head of the Romanian branch of an Austrian insurance company – last year said that the new Nobel prize winner was suffering from a mental disease, that she was exaggerating her accounts and jokingly claimed the Securitate deserved the award.

"This irritated me a lot. Not that he exists, but that he holds this post, that Austria's biggest insurance company – Staedtische Versicherung – employs such people. Also, that someone like him has such a standing in Romania that he can express himself in all newspapers. This would not have been possible in Germany," Ms Mueller said.

Although she personally felt "nothing special" about being a Nobel prize winner, the 57-year old said there was some positive impact in the sense that it "pushed the topic of dictatorship into the spotlight."

"Maybe what I say is being listened to by more people and perceived differently. That's what I'm trying to use the prize for."

Literature is political

Ms Mueller finds nothing wrong with claims that the Nobel prize jury is making mainly political decisions when granting these awards. "Literature is not something apolitical. All literary prizes are now and then surrounded by scandals and mostly because of political reasons."

Asked if she felt any pressure for her future writing having won the award, Ms Mueller replied: "Pressure was during the dictatorship. When my house was being searched, when I was interrogated."

"If I am satisfied with anything concerning my life, it is not the books, but the fact that I somehow managed to keep my integrity during the Romanian dictatorship. That's the most important thing. For me, writing is a job like any other."

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