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Witness

The Uses of Adversity: Essays on the Fate of Central Europe

by Timothy Garton Ash
Random House, 335 pp., $19.95

In the course of the 1980s the small coterie of Anglo-American writers who had been addressing themselves to the movement of life in Eastern Europe in the years since 1948 found itself somewhat abruptly enhanced by the accession to its ranks of a remarkable young English scholar, Mr. Timothy Garton Ash. Issuing, in the late 1970s, from that formidable stronghold of interest and sympathy for all things “dissident” in the Communist world, St. Antony’s College at Oxford, Mr. Garton Ash traveled extensively in eastern Germany, lived for some months as a humble postgraduate scholar in East Berlin, and capped these experiences by writing, in the German language, a book about the German Democratic Republic, which he published in western Germany.1 This last seems to have deprived him, not surprisingly, of the privilege of access to eastern Germany for some time into the future. It did not, however, put an end to his intense interest in Eastern Europe, generally, and particularly in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In the first two of those countries, he evidently formed close personal connections; he learned enough of the respective languages to allow him to communicate effectively with those who particularly engaged his interest and attention; and he cultivated to good effect the attendant associations.

The literary results of this preoccupation have been considerable. First, there was a book of nearly four hundred pages, published in 1984, about the struggle of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the period immediately preceding the imposition of martial law upon that country in 1981—a book which, for a number of its qualities, deserved a much more prominent and enduring circulation than it received.2 Then, from 1983 down to the sensational events of late 1989 in all of Eastern Europe, there appeared a series of articles, written mostly for the London Spectator and The New York Review, fourteen of which were gathered together and republished in 1989, in the book here under review. And finally, it would not be fair to the author to omit, in this listing, the further articles written too recently to be included in the book but dealing with the crescendo of events that marked the final two months of 1989 in the region in question.3

The bulk of this output could be said to have lain in that small and rarely visited field of literary effort where journalism, history, and literature (in the sense of belles lettres) come together. Garton Ash is, in the most literal sense of that term, a contemporary historian. He writes primarily as a witness to the events he is treating, and not just as an outside witness but often as an inside one as well; for his own involvement in these events, intellectual and emotional, is of such intensity that he can speak, in a sense, from the inside as well as from the outside. Yet the sense of the historic dimension of the events in question is never lost. And the quality of the writing places it clearly in the category of good literature. If indeed there is any reason to mention journalism in connection with this work, it lies solely in the high contemporaneousness of the material.

That there are dangers as well as glories in this form of writing is obvious; and Garton Ash is well aware of them. One lies in the relative narrowness of perspective that inevitably attends the description of very recent events. Garton Ash cited, in his book about the Polish events of 1980–1981, the very apt warning of Sir Walter Raleigh that “who-so-euer in writing a modern Historie, shall follow truth too neare the heels, it may happily strike out his teeth.”

The other danger relates, of course, to what Garton Ash himself called the “crippling incompleteness of sources.” Here he excused himself, in the book just mentioned, by pointing to what then appeared the extreme improbability that the official records would become available in our time.

The works in question are not exclusively eyewitness accounts. Such passages are accompanied here and there by analytical and reflective material. But what lends vitality to the entire effort is the vividness and the high literary quality of the description of many of the scenes observed—small scenes, for the most part, but viewed with a keen eye to their significance for wider judgments, and with a literary touch that loses none of their color. There are so many examples of this, scattered throughout this literature, that it is hard to know how to select them. Sometimes the events described are momentous ones, sometimes ostensibly trivial ones. Here, for example, is the opening of the first tense discussions, in August 1980, between the Communist Polish government, represented by a deputy prime minister, Mieczyslaw Jagielski, and striking workers in Gdansk:

At eight o’clock Jagielski and his team arrive in a coach. As it nudges its way through the crowd before the gate, people drum furiously on the sides and windows. Then the Deputy Prime Minister, pale and tight-lipped, runs the gauntlet of two thousand hostile eyes. On the platform in the main hall he shakes hands punctiliously with all the Presidium, before walking back between the long tables and across a small lobby into the room which will be used for the talks. Here, the two sides will have to sit in low lounge chairs, facing each other across Formica tables. The whole wall between this room and the lobby is made of glass, and throughout the proceedings a succession of strikers, supporters and photographers will peer and leer and let off their flashbulbs through the glass wall, like a never-ending crowd of schoolchildren at an aquarium.

Or this, the description of a visit paid by Garton Ash in Prague, in the mid-1980s, to a one-time student of philosophy, an oppositionist, now reduced by the Husák regime to making his living by stoking the furnace boiler in the basement of the Ministry of Culture. The room in which Garton Ash was received, in the basement adjoining the boiler, contained, among the usual bric-a-brac consigned to such premises, a battered and discarded piano. The host, after a two hour discussion of the philosophy of Hayek, proceeded to play the piano for him. Garton Ash noted

how, against the white keys, his fingernails are broken and black from shoveling coal. He’s not really a good player—but…his playing, here, is somehow electric. It has a kind of defiant ferocity. I see the music leap out of the basement skylight, like an escaping genie, force its way up through the pouring rain, giving a two-finger salute to the ministry of culture as it passes, and then up, up, high above the sodden city, above the smoke from his boiler’s chimney, above the rain clouds, the two fingers turn the other way now, proclaiming V for Victory.

This is a kind of writing—it could be called the history of the present—for which it is not easy to find examples in earlier literature. The two most apt ones, in the memory of this reviewer, are Tocqueville’s brilliant account of the crucial revolutionary days of February 1848 in Paris,4 and N.N. Sukhanov’s classic volumes of day-to-day observations on the revolutionary events of the year 1917 in Petersburg.5 Whether such writing rates the term “history” is debatable; but it may be said without hesitation that serious historians will some day find themselves greatly indebted to Garton Ash, as they are to his predecessors in the other cases cited, for a species of evidence about historical events which they will not be apt to find preserved in many other places.

The focus of Garton Ash’s work over the years of the 1980s was on the leading members of what might be called the literary-philosophical opposition in the countries in question, such personalities as Adam Michnik in Poland, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, or Györgi Konrád in Hungary. He was obviously enthralled (and not without good reason) by the spectacle of the efforts of these people to come to terms, intellectually and emotionally, with the repression and frustration to which they, as independent-minded writers and thinkers, were all subjected under their respective Communist regimes. He clearly admired them, extended to them his understanding and sympathy, and made himself in a sense their spokesman and interpreter in the English-speaking world. They appreciated all this, respected the honesty of his accounts, gained confidence in him from his understanding of their situations, and apparently came in some instances even to regard him as one of their own.

That this, too, had its dangers, is again obvious. There are times when Garton Ash’s admiration for these people gives the impression of a modern version of “lives of the saints.” Yet his judgment was not uncritical; nor could one say that the admiration was unjustified. These were indeed, for the most part, sorely tried people: writers who were accustomed to living by that calling but found themselves pressed by the exactions of their respective regimes into either a helpless silence or a desperate recourse to samizdat or to “writing-for-the-drawer,” or both. Their moral indignation over the arbitrariness and the hypocrisies of their oppressors was understandable. They regarded themselves everywhere as being in the vanguard of the opposition. Many spent time in prison, or in undergoing other forms of repression; and most showed great courage in the face of this treatment.

Since they were given by temperament to thinking and writing rather than doing, condemned now in any case to a species of exclusion from active and overt participation in the life of their respective societies, it is not surprising that, having nothing else to do, they leaned heavily in the direction of philosophical-political speculation. Nor is it surprising to discover, in their pronouncements and reactions, heavy doses of that curious species of intellectual snobbery that seems to affect the victims of oppression everywhere: the belief that they are unique in their suffering, and that they derive from it a species of superior wisdom to which others could never hope to aspire.

Yet there is in these people, all their admirable qualities notwithstanding, an otherworldliness that strikes one with double force in this remarkable age when the structure of oppression, under the shadow of which they then lived, is now disintegrating, and when their views about human political affairs must soon face the test of responsibility for the creation and management of new and presumably democratic, political systems. Those who believe, as does this reviewer, that freedom is definable only in terms of the restraints that it accepts will bridle, occasionally, at the constant use of the term freedom without mention of responsibility, and will find themselves wondering, as they confront the reactions and statements of Garton Ash’s heroes, whether there is not, here, a certain naiveté about politics generally—a certain anarchic leaning—and an obliviousness to the fact that politics is by its very nature, everywhere, even in the democratic setting, a sordid and messy affair, replete with disturbing moral dilemmas, painful compromises, departures of every sort from the ideal—yet necessary. To say this, of course, is not to vindicate those against whom these cultural “dissidents” have been for so long rebelling. There is, after all, a point where relative distinctions become essential ones; and the Communist regimes, in their departures from truth and humanity, had passed that point. But the oppositionists will find, as they now come to meet the realities of political responsibility, that many of the idealistic moral standards they have been inclined to apply to their Communist tormentors will not be easy to meet in the everyday realm of democratic government.

Be that as it may, Garton Ash remains their outstanding interpreter and spokesman for the Western world. They deserved to have one. And none could say that he did not fulfill this function with talent, with imagination, and with scrupulous respect for the truth as he saw it.

It might be argued, I suppose, that the fourteen articles that form the book under review, all written before the dramatic events of the final weeks of 1989, became outdated—overtaken in their significance by the ultimate explosion in which so many of the tensions they described found their denouement. Actually, this is not the case. This final explosion did not arise out of nothing at all. It had a historical background, without which these final events could never have occurred. Some of this background is still mysterious, not fully clarified even by Garton Ash’s book. But for much of it the answers will be found, for whoever wishes to look for them, in his description of what was going on in the earlier years of the 1980s. Of particular significance in this respect is his striking depiction of the curious connivance, in this final period, of the ruled with the rulers in the maintenance of the fictions clung to and treasured by the Communist regimes. Garton Ash described this situation as

the split between the public and the private self, official and unofficial language, outward conformity and inward dissent—in short, the double life…a phenomenon common to all Soviet-bloc countries.

What is significant, here, is not the participation of the helpless peoples in the outward observation of these semantic rituals. The latter were the shield—the only one they had—behind which they led whatever real lives they were capable of living. What was significant was the complacency of the regimes in the face of what they knew perfectly well to be the underlying pretense. The pretense, after all, was universal. The officials of the regime, not believing a word of it themselves, said what they thought was necessary for them to say. The people, also not believing a word of it, said the things they thought the regime wanted to hear. And the regime, knowing that they were pretending, pretended to be satisfied. “We don’t ask you,” Garton Ash has the regime saying, by implication, to the people at one point,

to believe in us or our fatuous ideology. By all means listen to the Voice of America and watch Austrian television (sotto voce: So do we). All we ask is that you will outwardly and publicly conform: join in the ritual “elections,” vote the prescribed way in the “trade union” meetings, enroll your children in the “socialist” youth organization. Keep your mind to yourself.

Whether Garton Ash saw, in this complacency on the part of the regime, the definitive evidence that it had lost what the Chinese call the “mandate of Heaven,” that it was on the slippery and irresistible decline into final failure and disaster, seems unclear. But we are permitted to wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, whether this was not indeed the case. The regimes, after all, did not accept this situation by preference. They would surely have preferred to be able to say what they themselves believed, and to feel that the people believed it too. And one might well ask, on the strength of this book, whether it should not be considered a firm law of political life: that when a given regime is no longer able to carry on without accommodating itself to a wide-ranging pretense that it shares with its subject people, the artificiality of that pretense being perfectly evident to both sides, then its ultimate fall must be considered as inevitable and probably imminent, even if no one can tell when and how it will occur.

Whether Garton Ash, in these years of the curious agony of the mid-1980s, foresaw the imminence of what was to occur in late 1989 is, I repeat, uncertain. No one else did, and there is no reason why he should have done so. But that he had premonitions is clear; for he, writing in 1984, attributed to the Czechoslovak opposition group, the Chartists, the “knowledge” of

how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic, and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again.

And there could scarcely have been a better description of what was to happen in that very country in the final weeks of 1989.

There is, among the fourteen articles comprising this collection, one that differs considerably from most of the others. There is no eyewitnessing in it (from the absence of which it suffers a bit, for it is in the eyewitnessing that Garton Ash excels). It is entitled “Does Central Europe Exist?”; and it consists mostly of a rather critical examination of some of the published views of Michnik, Havel, and Kundera, with the tendency of the last two to attach a special significance to their Central European, as distinct from purely Eastern European, origin.

The article is inconclusive and not of great importance. But it is interesting insofar as it points to a dim spot in the conceptual world of Garton Ash himself and, one suspects, in that of the Eastern and Central European oppositionists about whom he writes. This dim spot relates to the frame of close international associations into which the peoples of this region might, once liberated, be accepted, to replace the Communist one in which they had so long been held against their will.

The problems of these peoples are examined here primarily within a frame of regional isolation. Their great neighbors—Russia and West Germany—scarcely figure in the vision that emerges. While there is, here and there, a grudging admission that Gorbachev might have had something to do with the trend of events in this region, one gains the impression that Gorbachev’s policies, to the extent that they were of positive effect, were extorted from him by the necessities of his position, and did not in any case reflect any particularly generous motives or convictions on his part. Western Germany, too, finds only dim mention: it is the seat of a distasteful materialistic Western civilization, philosophically shallow, uninteresting, devoid of ideals, superior only when measured against the Soviet alternative. Little attention is given to the manner in which the East Central peoples, their liberation once achieved, might relate to the remainder of the European family.

This dim spot was perhaps a natural one. Liberation, under the perspective of Garton Ash’s articles, was still far off. The main thing was to achieve it; and no one knew when that would come to pass. If and when it did come, there would be time enough to think about all these other things.

Reasonable enough. But one sees, in the views and preoccupations of Garton Ash’s heroes, little to suggest an interest in the future relationship of their countries to the European community as a whole. Nationalism is there in abundance, its significance heightened by the fact that it has been for so long the natural rallying point for resistance to foreign domination. But there is no suggestion of an appreciation that a total national independence might, in the liberated dream world of the future, not be enough, might not even be a feasible solution—that the day was at hand when the old romantic ideals of self-realization within the national system would have to yield to a wider sense of community—that in this rapidly emerging world of the future, where intra-European wars would make no sense at all, the danger would be not what nations might do to one another but rather what all of them together were doing to their environment and to themselves. These realities were ones in which the peoples of the poorly regarded, non-suffering, materialistic, and “capitalistic” West were perhaps better schooled than their cousins in the East, preoccupied as these latter had so long been with their own sufferings and problems.

Garton Ash was evidently intrigued by the views of those writers, particularly the Hungarian ones, who thought they saw in a common Central European heritage a form of unity, cultural and spiritual, in which some day, in that happier hoped-for future, they could find the wider sense of community of which they felt the need. Garton Ash himself, in the years following the writing of the article just referred to, began to use the term “East Central Europe” in place of the “Eastern Europe” that had previously engaged his attention. The idea is not wholly without historical justification; and one can understand its appeal to people searching for an orientation wider than the national one but anxious to avoid a relationship with the East that had given them such bitter unpleasantness, or with a Western Europe which, as many of them felt, had evinced so little understanding for all they had been through.

But “Central Europe,” for the purposes Garton Ash had in mind, is a vague and uncertain concept, particularly when one faces the question whether it is to be taken to include all of Germany (with relation to which, again, not all Eastern European memories were pleasant). And the logical conclusion of all such speculations is that the peoples of “East Central Europe,” whatever their relations with Central Europe itself, will eventually have to come to terms with the remainder of the continent as well, and perhaps, swallowing many unhappy memories, even with the “European house” that figured so recently in the imagination of Mikhail Gorbachev, and also had a place at an earlier date (if one reads the record correctly) in that of Charles de Gaulle.

  1. 1

    Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein? Die DDR Hente (Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1981). (This book has not, to my knowledge, appeared in English translation, and I do not, at this time, have access to the German original.)

  2. 2

    The Polish Revolution: Solidarity (Scribner’s, 1984).

  3. 3

    See “Refolution in Hungary and Poland,” in The New York Review (August 17, 1989); “The German Revolution” (December 21, 1989); “The Revolution of the Magic Lantern” (January 19, 1990); and “Eastern Europe: The Year of Truth” (February 15, 1990).

  4. 4

    Alexis de Tocqueville, Souvenirs, 1850.

  5. 5

    N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917 (Oxford University Press, 1955).

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