Eric Brahm

June 2004

The term "lustration" derives from the Latin for "purification." In the transitional justice literature, it refers to a means by which some countries deal with a legacy of human rights abuses: through the mass disqualification of those associated with the abuses under the prior regime. The practice acquired notoriety in post-Soviet Eastern Europe where most countries have adopted some form of lustration to exclude from public office for varying periods of time former communist party functionaries and those who collaborated with secret police forces. However, the practice described as lustration has occurred in other contexts from post-World War II purges in Europe to American-led de-Baathification after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Transitional circumstances often pose challenges of achieving some form of justice for past abuses. Because the human rights abuses under communism were often more systemic, rather than individual acts of brutality, undertaken by the vast state bureaucracies, significant portions of the population may be implicated. Through their association with the communist government, many individuals have been banned from public positions, whether elected or bureaucratic, for varying lengths of time depending on the country. The experience of the Czech Republic has been the most extreme, as its lustration laws were the most sweeping. Scholars have argued that different forms that lustration has taken in each country has been influenced by each state's history with communism and the nature of the transition[1], as well as the dynamics of post-communist politics.[2]


Legitimacy is a key requirement for effective governance, and an important factor to consider when setting up new regimes and governmental structures. If the earlier regime was discredited, and especially if this was due, in part, to significant abuses of human rights, it is important that the new government not behave---or even appear to behave---in the same way as the old regime. Preventing members of the old, abusive regime from holding office in the new government is one way to at least appear to be changing policies. Removing those who operated the repressive state apparatus also provides a psychological break with the past and marks a new chapter in the nation's history.


Lustration is, however, a very blunt instrument of transitional justice. Some observe that while there is nothing wrong with this practice in principle, it has often been implemented in a sub-par fashion by entangling the innocent.[3] As a number of the Eastern Europeans cases illustrate, such a sweeping response has been prone to error, particularly as identification is usually done via records of the communist government, which may not be entirely accurate. Poland, for example, has experienced much mud-slinging and exploitation of secret police files for political gain. The contents of the secret police files were leaked before they were properly evaluated. Then, in the run-up to Poland's 2000 presidential election, Lech Walesa and Aleksander Kwasniewski, both candidates, were accused of collaboration before being cleared by Poland's Vetting Court. In all countries, many records have been found to have been falsified or embellished by individual agents to advance their careers under communism. Some were listed as informants when they had no idea that those they were speaking with were agents of the government.

The moral dilemma that enters the picture is that many people implicated were essentially following the laws or orders from the communist regimes. They were told it was their duty to support the regime by informing on 'subversives.' Police arrests made under communism were often consistent with the criminal laws of the communist regimes. Teachers taught approved curriculum. Many professionals were required to be party members in order to practice. In some ways, then, the application of lustration for these acts is akin to ex post facto application of law. Another cost has been in terms of the loss of expertise. Bureaucratic expertise, scientific knowledge, and teaching skills have been lost at a time when they are sorely needed.

[1] Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).; Luc Huyse. 1995. "Justice after Transition: On the Choices Successor Elites Make in Dealing with the Past." Law & social inquiry 20(1).; John P. Morgan, "The Communist Torturers of Eastern Europe: Prosecute and Punish or Forgive and Forget?", Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 27 (1994), 95-109.; Helga A. Welsh, "Dealing with the Communist Past: Central and East European Experiences after 1990," Europe-Asia Studies, 48 (1996), 419-28.

[2] Kieran Williams, Aleks Szczerbiak, and Brigid Fowler. 2003. Explaining Lustration in Eastern Europe: 'A Post-communist politics approach' Sussex Europe Institute Working Paper No 62. ; Helga A. Welsh, "Dealing with the Communist Past: Central and East European Experiences after 1990," Europe-Asia Studies, 48 (1996), 419-28.

[3] Stanley Cohen 1995. "State Crimes of Previous Regimes: Knowledge, Accountability, and the Policing of the Past." Law & Social Inquiry 20(1): 7-50.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Lustration." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2004 <>.

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