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Between Past and Future

Sorin Antohi

V. Past, Present, Future

21. Conclusions

Timothy Garton Ash

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1The last time I did this job—concluding a conference—was, curiously enough, in Budapest in 1996. The subject then was the revolution of 1956, forty years on. That was clearly a revolution, and everyone recognized it as such: there was a strong element of popular and violent uprising. It was probably the last revolution in that classical sense in European history. And it had to be forty years on because for thirty years the history of the revolution was systematically traduced in Hungary itself and turned into a “counterrevolution”. Only after forty years could we find out what had really happened; we had the documents, and we also could see the consequences of what had happened. Now, ten years on from 1989, our case is quite different. For a start, we spent much of the last two days discussing in what sense this was a revolution. I remember this was often discussed during the events themselves. I remember discussing them in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague when, five minutes before a press conference to announce to the world what the Civic Forum was going to do, someone said: “But should we call this a revolution? After all, a revolution involves violence”. So instead of discussing the soundbite, we spent the last five minutes with Martin Palouš and others wondering if we should call it a revolution. In fact we always have to qualify it; we call it “velvet”, we call it “peaceful”, we call it “evolutionary”, someone in our conference calls it “rebirth” not revolution, I call it “refolution” —a mixture of revolution and reform. Curiously enough the moment when people in the West finally thought there was a revolution was when they saw television pictures of Romania: crowds, tanks, shooting, blood in the streets. They said: “That— we know that is a revolution”, and of course the joke is that it was the only one that wasn’t.

2Ten years on, what do we know? First of all, we know more about the consequences. We know that this “revolution” of 1989 not only changed systems throughout Eastern and Central Europe. It changed the whole political map of Europe, and it led directly to the end of the Soviet Union, of the cold war, of the short twentieth century, and to a total redefinition of the Left. There is not a corner of the world that has not in some sense been touched by the consequences of 1989—Central America, China, South Africa, Southeast Asia—so in its consequences it was certainly one of the great revolutions of modern history. Secondly, we know an awful lot about the causes, unlike the Hungarian revolution of 1956, for which we had to wait forty years to know what the Politburo discussed, thanks to the work of our friends in the Cold War International History Project, the admirable 1956 Institute in Budapest, and other contemporary historians, and thanks to the opening of the archives. Just ten years after 1989 we have a very good idea of what actually happened and the causes.

3I don’t myself think that there are many historiographical revelations and many great secrets waiting to be discovered about the causes of 1989. The trouble is that we have too many causes; the outcome of 1989 has come to be seen as almost overdetermined, as somehow an inevitable result. Thus, for example, we have figures about the hard currency indebtedness of East Germany, and then people say, “You see, East Germany was bankrupt, so it was bound to collapse”, but of course this is a fallacy. Countries don’t collapse like companies simply because they are bankrupt. Certainly countries don’t when they are part of an empire that is armed with nuclear weapons. What we have is what Henri Bergsan called “the illusions of retrospective determinism”. It seems to us that everything that happened had to happen. We gather neatly in our academic papers all the causes, and what we have lost and forgotten is what people did not know at the time. I remember sitting with Adam Michnik on the morning of the historic Polish elections on 4 June 1989. Adam was exhausted and profoundly depressed, not only because he had a hangover, but also because he was not sure; he did not think that Solidarity had won. We did not know. And again, even when Solidarity had won, we did not know it would be possible to form a government led by a noncommunist prime minister. Then I went to East Germany in July 1989. All the dissidents in East Berlin told me that what was happening in Poland and Hungary could never happen there, that it was impossible, and they gave very convincing reasons. We did not know.

4So throughout that year of wonders, 1989, we were like children at a birthday party sitting at the feet of a conjurer. We gasped at every new trick. I think that sense of wonder and that cloud of unknowing in which we moved was in some sense nearer to the historical truth than we may be today with our illusions of retrospective determinism. For, based on all the evidence we have, the outcome was by no means inevitable; it was perhaps not even highly probable, and there were many turning points at which history might have taken a different path—as it did in China on 4 June 1989. What made the crucial difference was something that perhaps we have talked too little about in the last two days: the role of individuals in history. The outcome, the almost miraculous outcome, was crucially determined by three groups of individuals. The first group is Gorbachev and his colleagues with their strange combination of realism about the depth of the crisis and illusions about the possibility of reforming socialism— illusions without which 1989 would not have been possible.

5The second group is the Central European opposition elite with their learning process through the events of 1953, 1956, 1968 and from 198081 to 1989, but also with a longer learning process, a learning process from the whole history of revolution and of radical philosophy, of utopias, summed up by Adam Michnik in the wonderful sentence: “We have learned that those who start by storming Bastille will end up building Bastille”. That fundamental lesson from the history of revolution was crucial to the way these revolutions were conducted.

6Finally, last but not least, I think we should mention those people inside the regimes, in Poland and Hungary—not so much elsewhere—who were what Hans Magnus Ensenberger has wonderfully called “the heroes of retreat” —the heroes of retreat who recognized the need and had the wisdom to sit down at round tables with the opposition elite and negotiate a transition. They were the F.W. de Klerks of Central Europe.

7One of the questions that was raised in this discussion by Martin Palouš was a question to me about the assertion that the revolutions of 1989 produced no big new ideas. I always have difficulty in discussions with Martin Palouš: one of the many things that I have failed to do in my life is to master phenomenology, and so the conversation between an Anglo-Saxon empiricist and a Central European phenomenologist is not always the easiest one. But nonetheless, I have yet to hear what big new ideas emerged from the revolution of 1989 to compare with “liberté, egalité, fraternité” of 1789 or to compare with “all power to the Soviets” and the idea of a heaven built upon earth, the communist utopia. There was no distinctively new project for the remaking of society in 1989. The project was in essence one that already existed elsewhere in Europe. It is, I think, an irony that a revolution that was in many ways, as Vladimir Tismaneanu mentioned, a revolution of intellectuals—and in that sense comparable with 1848—produced no new ideas. The one thing the revolution of intellectuals did not produce was any new ideas. It just produced a reality, and in that sense it was the opposite of 1848. All that 1848 left was ideas.

8The year 1989 left realities. Yet there was something new; there was a big new idea, and that was the revolution itself—the idea of the non-revolutionary revolution, the evolutionary revolution. The motto of 1989 could come from Lenin’s great critic Eduard Bernstein: “The goal is nothing, the movement is everything”. It was not just a lesson that Agnes Heller taught us—that no goal is so sublime that it justifies the sacrifice of political freedom—but also the lesson that the means you use themselves pervert the end. So this was a revolution that was not about the what but about the how. That particular model of peaceful, sustained, marvelously inventive, massive civil disobedience channeled into an oppositional elite that was itself prepared to negotiate and to compromise with the existing powers, the powers that were (in short, the round table)—that was the historical novelty of 1989. Where the guillotine is a symbol of 1789, the round table is a symbol of 1989. This is a model that has continuing significance. If you talk to people in South Africa about their transition, they tell you that what happened in Central Europe was vitally important to them, not just because it was the end of the cold war. Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Burma, has read all the works of Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik and others; she is studying the model of the velvet revolution. And let us not forget there were Kosovar Albanians who spent seven years organizing a massive movement of peaceful civil disobedience trying to implement that model with no Jaruzelski on the other side, but also with no help from the West.

9Of course this model of velvet revolution, of the round table, has to stand the test of time. There is one particular test that a self-limiting, nonrevolutionary revolution faces, and that is the sense of a missing revolutionary catharsis. The resentment is caused by the fact that people from the old elites are still in power, the cry that we should finish the revolution—in short, the cry for what in Central Europe has been called “decommunization”. This, it seems to me, is a test that is intrinsic to the nature of the nonrevolutionary, of the evolutionary, revolution. My own view on this is that to tackle this by means of trials in court, as István Rév has suggested to us, has been deeply unsatisfactory. The purges may be a necessary evil, but they are still an evil and should be highly limited, and certainly such vetting should be individual and strictly appealable. However, what is essential to this process is what I call “history lessons” —not just history lessons that are conducted by scholars and journalists but also the kind of public, ceremonial reckoning with the past that we identify with the truth commission. I wish we had had more time to talk here about that subject and why, in effect, we had no truth commissions in Central Europe. In my view, if we are taking the model of 1989 to a wider world, then that model has two vital components. One is the round table and everything that lies behind it, and the other is the truth commission. They are, in my view, twin brothers.

10We spent much of our time talking about the other part of our title: what has happened since the struggle for democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Here we had a problem that characterized a lot of the debate, which is: What are we talking about when we say 1989? Are we talking about the specific phenomenon that I’ve been discussing—the velvet revolutions in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland; are we talking just about what happened in 1989 in Central Europe; or are we talking about the whole phenomenon of the consequences of 1989 in Southeastern Europe, in the former Yugoslavia, in the former Soviet Union? Of course what we’ve seen in the 1990s—and this was another theme of this conference—is an extraordinary divergence in postcommunist Europe. What has happened in Central Europe is better than anything we dreamt of even at the end of 1989. What has happened in the former Yugoslavia is worse than our worst nightmare in late 1989. Then we have countries like Bulgaria and Romania that are somewhere in between. It seems to me that the thing we have to accept in this spectrum, and the thing we have to explain, is not the many places where things went wrong, because after forty or seventy years of communism, you would expect that things would go wrong. What we have to explain—the great exception—is that it went so extraordinarily well in Central Europe. This is a mystery, and here again, as several speakers reminded us, we did not know it was not inevitable; that it turned out so well was to a degree the product of individual leadership. Slovakia is a good illustration of this.

11One of the curious ideas that came up from this discussion was the idea that the thing that I’ve been talking about, “Central Europe”, was actually a western imperialist notion that was imposed on reluctant Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles. It was said that after 1990, people in Hungary were only talking about Hungary, they were talking about competition; and it was the West that insisted on Central Europe. Well I’m sorry, but we got it from you; we didn’t invent it. Admittedly Milan Kundera was living in Paris, Czesław Miłosz was in California, and György Konrád was not seldom in Berlin or Vienna, but nonetheless they are not Americans, Austrians, Frenchmen, or Germans, and there were many intellectuals in the Czech Republic, in Hungary, and in Poland who gave us this idea. It is indeed true that the West then, as it were, played the idea back to Central Europe at the beginning of 1990, encouraging people to live up to their promises of regional cooperation and respect for human and minority rights and all the other good things identified with being Central European. Indeed this institution in which we sit, the Central European University, is itself a rather vivid example of that “playing back” from the West to the region itself. But I would submit that that in itself was a good thing.

12It was also said that in fact in private you all say “Eastern Europe”. Well, in London, Paris, and Washington, people in private also say Eastern Europe. So we have this strange phenomenon of a notion of Central Europe that seems to exist only, as it were, at the public interface between East and West, while in private people on one side and the other still say Eastern Europe. Of course it is not entirely true. There are many people who even say it in private, and I am one of them, but nonetheless there is this very Central European, phantom mirror existence of the concept of Central Europe, in which Richard Holbrooke uses the term because he thinks Vaclav Havel would like him to, and then perhaps Gábor Demszky uses the term because he thinks Richard Holbrooke would like him to. Despite or perhaps because of this fact, it has become a geopolitical reality, perhaps for the first time in the twentieth century— a geopolitical reality and a very positive one, too. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are in Central Europe, and they are part of the West to which Central Europe now belongs, you may say in some senses since the eleventh century, but in a very specific sense since 12 March 1999.

13Let me say just a word about this complicated relationship between the old West and Central Europe. Several speakers have reminded us critically of the way in which, starting in January 1990, missionaries of democracy, of the free market, of normality descended upon the unconverted of Central Europe and preached—doubtless also from this platform—the true gospel. And like many true gospel preachers it was a very simplified gospel: the true gospel of a sort of two-dimensional democracy. I think myself that we may be talking too much about democracy on its own in isolation.

14The idea was that all you had to do was have a free election, and all will be well—and all manner of things will be well. As we have been reminded, they were not, and you can have what has been called “electocracy” or “demokratura” —that is to say, countries that have formally free elections but are in fact semi-authoritarian or even authoritarian regimes, like Slovakia under Mečiar or Serbia under Milosevic. We preached the true gospel of the free market, a market much more free and pure than anything we had in our own countries. We preached civil society, the great slogan of post-89, without really quite knowing about what we were talking. Often what it came down to, as many speakers reminded us, was nongovernmental organizations, but the question is whether nongovernmental organizations are like seeds to the beautiful turf of civil society or like that thing called astroturf—artificial grass that covers the ground so the real grass cannot grow. We talk a lot less about a quality that belongs fundamentally to civil society: the quality of civility. Then we weren’t clear in our own minds whether we were talking about the citizen or the bourgeois, a distinction that is perfectly framed in German, which uses two different words: Zivilgesellschaft and Bürgergesellschaft.

15I think the irony is that most intellectuals in Eastern and Central Europe and most missionaries from the West were rarely talking about the citizen but about what we have in Central Europe: the bourgeoisie. You have a new growing middle class that is building civil society to defend its own interests. So perhaps after all Karl Marx was right, and what we are looking for is “bourgeois democracy”. The irony of all this is that the missionaries of the West came ten years ago to preach lessons from the West to the unconverted, to the barbarians of Central Europe. What we’ve found at the end of ten years is lessons for the West. We came to preach the constitution of liberty, to tell you the ingredients of western normality, and what we found is that we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know ourselves what is that extraordinarily complex and subtle mixture of ingredients—political, social, economic, cultural, moral, legal—that do make up this elusive thing we call liberal democracy or normality. We don’t know ourselves, and that I think has been one of the great experiences of post-89.

16Of course, as I have suggested, the Central European story is an extraordinary success story, and if we lose that sense of wonder, we are losing something very vital. Nonetheless, the fact is that throughout Central Europe there is a huge amount of disillusionment. Partly this is still the hangover after the party, and partly it is because the achievement, the greatest achievement, is that Central Europe has become boring. No longer may you live in interesting times, a fantastic achievement that Central Europe has never achieved before, but nonetheless, let’s admit it—it is a little boring compared to Kosovo.

17Then, of course, there were the unreal expectations. In the French Third Republic there was a saying: “Comme elle était belle, la république, sous l’empire” („How beautiful the Republic was—under the empire”). And so: “How beautiful freedom was—under communism”. Of course the reality cannot live up to the dream. Then there are the real losers, and there are many real losers; we have discussed them at length. I haven’t the time to itemize them, but I will just say one thing. We say “the losers from the transition”, or “the losers in the transition;” of course in some sense that is true, but the question that we cannot yet answer at this ten-year point, for which we need another ten years or twenty, is whether these are really just losers in or from the transition, or if they are losers in the normality. That is, whether the new Central European normality is not what everyone dreamed of before 1989, namely Western Europe before 1989—the post-45 West European model of the social market economy—but perhaps something more like what we have in Britain and in the United States, where you have, as a permanent feature of a capitalist bourgeois democracy, an underclass of somewhere between fifteen and thirty percent of the population living in permanent misery. I think we should raise this question.

18And finally I think there is a sense of disillusionment because there is nothing new. And this is the one part of the disappointment that I might myself share, because Central Europe has been so extraordinary and so distinctive in the ideas it generated, the political models it developed, up to and including and culminating in 1989, that some of us at least hoped for something distinctive from the 1990s, something slightly different from what we had in the West. I am afraid my answer after ten years is: It isn’t there. Of course what you have in the Czech Republic, Hungary, or Poland is a unique mixture of elements; every country has that. But if you look at the political system, the constitution, sport, lifestyle, the press, breakfast television, game shows, wherever you look, you will find copies, and often rather bad copies, of something in the West. I don’t say it could have been otherwise, and there are many worse things than that. But what you have is a consumer society as we know it in the West; it is a consumer society characterized among other things by the artificial creation of needs. This is quite unlike the unfreedom of pre-89; but it is a subtle form of human bondage. So there is disappointment. Adam Michnik said that the story of Central Europe has been like a bad American film, because it has a happy ending. i like the happy ending, but I am not very keen on the bad American film.

19To conclude, there is one thing mentioned that I would like to raise as a question, although I don’t have an answer. Someone said in passing, “…and of course there is the generation of 89”. Well, maybe the sociologists have found them and can tell us something about them, but for me one of the great puzzles about the present in Central Europe is: Where exactly is the class of 89? There have been two great distinctive political generations in postwar Europe: the class of 45 and the class of 68. We know who they are, we know for what they stood. They stood for a certain set of ideals and a certain vision of society. They have distinguished representatives. I can’t yet find the class of 89—maybe they are sitting at the back of this room? I would say provocatively that while I have met many bright and lively young people eager to seize the chances of freedom, I find them remarkable above all in their appetite for normality—for the normality of travel, of money, of status and yes, of power, often power without principle. But I leave you with that question: Where and what is the class of 89?


Timothy Garton Ash is a fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

© Central European University Press, 2000

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