These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
In medieval times, every village had to have its idiot. In totalitarian times, every village has its snitch.
Ours was a man in his fifties, whose common nickname was “Dědek bonzák” (Grampa Snitch). Of course nobody told this to his face, but everybody knew him and the nickname applies to him even now, twenty years after the regime changed.
I have only once seen him in “action” during one of our craft classes. For these we went out of school to a designated workshop where we would learn some basic knowledge about the use of tools – saws, files, drills etc. The room had a window that opened not in the street, but on a roof. And one day some of the more rowdy boys (the classes were gender segregated btw.) riled up each other until they dared to venture out on the roof when the teacher left the class for a moment to fetch some materials. They were seen from a nearby building by none other than Grampa Snitch, who a few minutes later barged in the class and screeched to the teacher about the miscreants. He actually pointed his finger on one of the boys, his own nephew, and screamed, “That is him, he is one of them, he was there on the roof!”.
After the class some of us expressed incredulity about how he so publicly ratted on his own nephew. We all could understand if the gave him a clip behind the ear later on and/or told his parents, but publicly accusing your own nephew? Unconscionable. His nephew summed it up in one simple phrase “He is just such an asshole.”.
I do not know whether it was malice that drove him, or overzealous adherence to rules. I do not think it was the latter though, because snitching has markedly some visible benefits to him.
There was in the country a longstanding tradition to burn old grass on the meadows and gardens in the spring. Stupid, damaging and dangerous tradition, which was therefore outlawed. Yet every spring Grampa Snitch could be seen burning the grass in his garden and on the meadow behind it. publicly, in broad daylight, and he was never fined. Yet had anyone else dared to break the law within his eyesight in even the minutest of minor ways, to this day his instinct is to call the police.
Everybody is guilty, we have already established that. Especially when the laws of the land are such, that they are impossible to not break, when even completely innocent remarks can be misconstrued as crimes against humanity. And in a system where everybody is guilty, there will be those who use the system to their advantage. Setting scores and disputes this way becomes second nature to some, and there will always be those who will not see it improper to let someone incarcerate for treason just because their dog barked all night.
There is also a flip side to this coin. With trivial or completely illegitimate grievances being commonly leveled amongst people, being a snitch was seen as the height of indecency. Which has of course made it difficult to officially address legitimate grievances as well. And there were people who used this to their advantage too. In the eyes of some it was seen as equally as bad to report someone who has a built a barbecue pit a few cm bigger than the law allows as it was to report that someone assaulted you. Literally.
As a sickly kid who had high marks I was of course bullied at school. The leader of the group of bullies eventually devised a type of torture that was life threatening – holding my nose and mouth tight shut until I started to turn blue in the face, and then watch the highly amusing confusion resulting from my oxygen deprivation. One day my mother managed to get this out of me, I do not know how she did it because I feared to tell anyone, but she did. She went berserk, told off the parents of the bullies and complained to school master. The bullies were held after school and they got some punishment at home too. But, you guessed it, the leader of the bullies felt that it was me who wronged him and when going home from the detention he shouted at me across the town square “You snitch!”. He did not dare to lay his hands on me again¹- and stick and stones can break your bones… and words can really hurt too..
It was only much later in life when I realised that all this is us (the populace) versus them (the officials) mentality that is common in prisons. And that is what it was – prison mentality. For we were in prison, really and truly – the Iron Curtain was just that, a barrier for keeping people in, not out.
1 – Bullying scars for life. He never realized that what he did to me was wrong, never had an epiphany and never apologized, yet when we grew up to be adults he thought we were “friends from school”. I never shook his hand when we met and when he died in a car crash a few years ago, I did not feel sorry in the least.