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Ten Years After

Ten years after the Central European revolutions of 1989, what more do we know? Above all, we know more about the consequences. We can now say that these events had results that place 1989 beside 1789 as a date in world history. Not only was the peaceful revolution that leapt from Poland to Hungary to Germany to Czechoslovakia the beginning of a swift and fundamental change of system in the countries of Central Europe. 1989 also meant the end of the cold war, which had started in the 1940s over these same countries. As a result it directly affected many other regions of the world, such as Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, whose politics had been deformed by the global competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, cap-italism and communism, “East” and “West.” In fact, it is difficult to find a country in the world that was untouched by the end of the cold war.

Moreover, what happened in Central Europe in 1989 hastened the end of the Soviet Union. Just a few months later, the Baltic states declared their independence. In Central Europe, Gorbachev and his colleagues had been robbed of the precious illusion that ‘89 could be a happier replay of the Prague Spring of ‘68, with reformist leaderships building “socialism with a human face” in Prague, Berlin, Warsaw, and Budapest. Now they were swiftly deprived of another illusion. In relation to the Soviet Union’s external empire, in what was then usually called Eastern Europe, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov had wittily enunciated a replacement for the old Brezhnev Doctrine. He called it the Sinatra Doctrine, slightly misquoting the old crooner: “You do it your way,” he said. However, the Gorbachev leadership still thought the Sinatra Doctrine could be applied to the extended empire but denied to the internal empire—that is, to the constituent parts of the Soviet Union itself. Where the Baltic states led, the republics of the Transcaucasus, Ukraine, and, most important, Russia under Boris Yeltsin would follow.

The connection of the velvet revolutions to the collapse of Europe’s other communist multiethnic federation, Yugoslavia, is less direct. Here, Slobodan Milosevic was stripping Kosovo of its autonomy even as the Poles gathered at their round table. The destruction of Tito’s country had its own fearsome internal dynamic. Yet the end of communism in Central Europe certainly precipitated the end of the party that had held Yugoslavia together. The Yugoslav League of Communists was effectively dissolved at its Fourteenth Special Congress in January 1990. It is hard to imagine the subsequent bloody dismemberment of Yugoslavia unfolding in the same way if there had still been a global competition between East and West.

Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French Revolution of 1789 as “the left.” It prompted many to ask the question pithily formulated by the political philosopher Steven Lukes: “What’s left?” What’s left of the left, that is, if there is no more utopian project? There have been some interesting ironies in the ensuing debate.

Take the “third way,” for example. It was the illusions of Gorbachev and his team about the possibilities of a “third way” between old-style communism and capitalism that made the revolutions in Central Europe possible. If they had not believed that reform communists—new Alexander Dubceks—had a chance of building systems different from those in the West as well as the old East, they would not have encouraged the Polish, Hungarian, and subsequently East German and Czechoslovak leaders on the road that led so rapidly from reform to revolution—or at least to what I christened in these pages at the time as “refolution” (i.e., a new mixture of reform and revolution).1

The anticommunist leaders of those revolutions insisted, by contrast, that there was no such “third way.” Coming to power, they immediately reached for the existing Western models of a free market economy, democracy, and the rule of law. Yet in 1999, world leaders of the vaguely center-left, including the American president Bill Clinton, the British prime minister Tony Blair, the German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the Italian prime minister Massimo d’Alema (a former communist), came together at an extraordinary meeting in Washington to celebrate their new ideology. And what did they call it? “The third way”! By this they meant, however, only a more socially-minded version of reformed capitalism.

Another irony is the way the end of Marxist regimes in Europe has contributed to a revival of Marxist analysis. It is not just old Marxists who have pointed out that the raw, early capitalism of the postcommunist world re-calls that described by Karl Marx. In Poland’s new private firms, for example, there are virtually no trade unions. The new entrepreneurs like to negotiate individually with each employee. It’s each man for himself. As importantly, the relentless globalization of the world capitalist economy—to which the end of the cold war certainly contributed—has made some of Marx’s analytical insights (although not his solutions) seem more rather than less relevant. “In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Well, one hundred and fifty years later, we do; as the result of an anticommunist revolution.

If we know more about the consequences, we also know more about the causes. Ten years on we already have most of the internal documents for which, in the case of the Russian Revolution of 1917, we had to wait more than seventy years. These richly augment the eyewitness account of the Central European revolutions I gave in my book The Magic Lantern, and those of others present at the time. Thus Czech sources add many interesting facts about the beginning of the velvet revolution in Prague which were not available when I wrote about it. For example, we now know that the student who was at first reported to have been killed in the November 17 demonstration was actually a secret police agent called Ludvik Zifcak. Earlier this year, I interviewed him for a BBC television series on the experience of the ten years since the revolutions.2 Now a pawnbroker in the remote Moravian town of Bruntal, Zifcak confirmed that he had orders to “die” that day, while other secret police agents—also posing as students—spread the news of his death to Western media. The idea was to provoke a little local unrest, which would give more dynamic communist leaders a pretext to take power. This is one of relatively few cases where behind a conspiracy theory you find a real conspiracy—although one that went rapidly and gloriously wrong. They hoped, as he told me, to save communism; in fact, they precipitated its demise.

Meanwhile, the passage of time produces its own peculiar distortions. One thing that happened rather quickly in the early 1990s was that history was rewritten—not in the deliberate, Orwellian way of communist states, but through the much more subtle, spontaneous, and potent workings of human memory. Suddenly Western politicians “remembered” how they had all along predicted the end of communism. Suddenly almost everyone in the East had been some sort of dissident. The ranks of the opposition grew miraculously after the event. Former communist leaders also produced remarkable memories. Thus, in conversations after German unification, both the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Aleksander Yakovlev, a key Gorbachev adviser, told me that they had anticipated it as early as the mid-1980s. Was there a record of that? Well no, you see, they could not have said this out loud, not even to a small group of officials—because to do so might have shaken the whole fabric of Moscow’s relations with Eastern Europe. (And the difficulty for the historian is that this is also true.)

Meanwhile, newly opened archives disgorged more evidence of the hidden weaknesses of the communist states. This was immediately added to the rapidly growing pile of reasons for believing that the Soviet empire was bound to collapse when it did. A good example is the revelation about East Germany’s soaring hard currency debt, which had been treated as top secret, and which it was barely able to service from month to month. It emerged that there was a louche Stasi colonel called Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski who was selling to the West everything that would move—old paintings, jewelry, guns—in a desperate attempt to pay next week’s interest.

Aha!” politicians and journalists exclaimed. “East Germany was bound to collapse in 1989 because it was bankrupt.” Now these were interesting revelations. Knowing that they were up to their ears in debt to the capitalist West certainly would not have encouraged East German leaders to fight to defend their regime against the aspirations of its own people. But so secret was the information that most East German leaders didn’t know it either. They were victims of their own lies. In any case, states do not simply go bankrupt, like companies. In extremis, they default on their debts, as Latin American countries did. Yet so long as the Soviet Union was prepared to use force to hang on to its East European empire, and so long as West Germany was prepared to go on lending more money in order to keep East Germany “stable,” the bankrupt state could have continued.

You can always find more than sufficient causes for every great event—after the event. Certainly there were major structural causes of what happened in 1989. Not the least of these was the widening economic gap between East and West, a gap which détente policies did enable ordinary East Europeans to appreciate and resent. But we must beware of what Henri Bergson called “the illusions of retrospective determinism.” Interpretations that present the events and outcome of 1989 as inevitable are probably further from the truth than we were at the time, in our heady cloud of unknowing.

The truth is that 1989 could have turned bloody at any point, as China did on the very same day as the historic Polish elections, June 4. In Warsaw, we watched the first pictures from Tiananmen Square while waiting for the election results. “Tiananmen” was a word that I would hear muttered many times in Central and East European capitals over the next few months. What made the difference in Europe was two sets of political leaders: the opposition elites, and the Gorbachev group in Moscow. 1989 was further proof of the vital importance of individuals in history.

I doubt that there are many factual revelations about 1989 still lurking in the archives. What remains is the unending battle of interpretations. 1989 has had its share of this over the last decade. It has been called “the end of history” by Francis Fukuyama but the return of history by his critics. The Yale political scientist Bruce Ackerman sees it as a test case for “liberal revolution.” The famous German sociologist Jürgen Habermas has described it as a nachholende Revolution, a “catching-up revolution.” An American writer, George Weigel, has even celebrated it as “an embodiment of the final revolution,” which, in case you were wondering, is “the human turn to the good, to the truly human—and ultimately to God.” Others, including the distinguished historian of the French Revolution François Furet, have argued that it was not really a revolution at all. Furet maintained that the Central European events were merely side effects of what was happening in Russia, and, in ideological content and final effect, more like a restoration.

One claim I made in the last chapter of The Magic Lantern has been the subject of controversy. This is my assertion that the revolutionaries, or postrevolutionaries, brought to the new Europe of the 1990s “no fundamentally new ideas.” (That was, incidentally, another reason Furet gave for not considering it to be a proper revolution.) I have been challenged on this by old friends and participants in the revolutions, such as the Czech philosopher Martin Palous. However, they have not yet managed to reveal to me what major new idea about the arrangement of human society emerged from 1989.

Instead, some of those things that were pointed to in the immediate aftermath as possible candidates for the title—for example, a new style of “forum” or “civic movement” politics, as opposed to old-style Western party politics, with its sterile battles between left and right—soon disappeared, to be replaced by local versions of arrangements to be found already somewhere else in the world. These countries now all have conventional, Western-style party politics, although the composition and character of their political parties is, of course, unique. They often can be explained only by taking account of pre-1989 political constellations: for example, post-Solidarity parties versus the post-communist party in Poland. It is perhaps an irony that revolutions led by intellectuals should produce no new ideas—only new realities. I compared 1989 to 1848, but in this respect it was the opposite of 1848.

Yet perhaps this is to look in the wrong place. For the great new idea of this revolution was the revolution itself. It was not the “what” but the “how,” not the end but the means. The new idea of 1989 was nonrevolutionary revolution. In talking of these events, the word “revolution” has always to be qualified with an adjective—“peaceful,” or “evolutionary,” or “self-limiting,” or “velvet”—because the leaders of the popular movements deliberately set out to do something different from the classic revolutionary model, as it developed from 1789, through 1917, right up to the Hungarian revolution of 1956. As I remember people actually discussing at the time in the Magic Lantern theater in Prague, an essential part of earlier revolutions had been revolutionary violence. Here, there was a conscious effort to avoid it.

The motto of these revolutions might come from Lenin’s great critic, the reformist Eduard Bernstein: “The goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” The fundamental insight underlying the actions of the opposition elites, born of their own Central European learning process since 1945, but also of a deeper reflection on the history of revolution since 1789, was that you cannot separate ends from means. The methods you adopt determine the outcome you will achieve. You cannot lie your way through to the truth. As Adam Michnik memorably put it: those who start by storming Bastilles will end up building new Bastilles.

The 1989 model combines an absolute insistence on nonviolence with the active, highly inventive use of mass civil disobedience, skillful appeals to Western media, public opinion, and governments, and a readiness to negotiate and compromise with the power-holders, while refusing to be co-opted by them. It embraces occupation strikes and peaceful demonstrations, but also secret talks. The pressure of public protest is brought to bear, through an opposition elite, for the purpose of a peaceful transfer of power by dialogue and compromise. If the symbol of 1789 was the guillotine, that of 1989 is the round table.

This model may not have been imitated in its entirety elsewhere, but it has certainly had an impact. In South Africa, leaders from all sides told me that their own peaceful, negotiated transition was profoundly influenced by what happened in Europe in 1989. I know that the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has closely studied the velvet revolutions, although she still looks in vain for her partner among those in power. Is it too fanciful to see an indirect influence of 1989 even in Northern Ireland?

In Central Europe itself, there has proved to be one major problem with the 1989 model. Just because the change was peaceful and negotiated, people have missed a sense of revolutionary catharsis. Moreover, a negotiated transfer of power requires compromise. There has to be something in it for those who are surrendering power. For many members of the former ruling class, the nomenklatura, in 1989, that “something” was the prospect of setting themselves up in private business, with the start-up capital coming from hastily privatized or, frankly, misappropriated state property. In this “privatization of the nomenklatura” they appeared to be trading political for economic power. But then the postcommunist parties, with their nationwide activists and offices, and old and new funds, also proved remarkably successful in the democratic competition for political power. The result has been a widespread sense of frustration. If you travel through Central Europe today, you will be told again and again by ordinary men and women that “the same people are still on top,” that the communists have become the worst capitalists, that “more should have been done” to make a reckoning with the past.

Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have all wrestled with this problem of the past. The Germans tried a comprehensive reckoning: trials, purges after vetting, a parliamentary commission, the opening of the Stasi files. The Czechs tried a purge, politely called “lustration.” The Poles initially wanted to let bygones be bygones, like Spain after Franco. The country’s first noncommunist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, famously talked of drawing a “thick line” between the present and the past. But they found it didn’t work. Issues of lustration and the opening of secret police files plague Polish politics to this day.

I have written about this problem extensively in my two most recent books, The File and History of the Present. Here, I would say just two things. First, the problem is unavoidable. It is intrinsic to the path chosen. Second, I believe, with benefit of hindsight, that all the countries of Central Europe could and should have tried the expedient of a truth commission—although without involving it in the quasi-judicial business of granting or refusing amnesty, as happened in South Africa. A truth commission, before which the political leaders of the former regime and those accused of crime under it have to testify, brings both greater public knowledge of the misdeeds of the past and a formal, almost ceremonial acknowledgement to the victims. It symbolically draws a line between the new era and the old, without calling for forgetting or even, necessarily, forgiving. It is probably the closest a nonrevolutionary revolution can come to revolutionary catharsis.

So if I were to be asked to note on a postcard the ingredients of the new model revolution, I would say: peaceful mass civil disobedience, channeled by an opposition elite; attention and pressure from the outside world; a transition negotiated though compromises made at a round table; and then a truth commission.

Even without this last element, the revolutions in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague have, we can now say, succeeded. On the penultimate page of The Magic Lantern, written in early 1990, I speculated as follows:

You can, alas, paint with a rather high degree of analytical plausibility a quite dark picture of the prospect for the former Eastern Europe in the 1990s: a prospect in which the postcommunist future looks remarkably like the pre-communist past, less Central Europe than Zwischeneuropa, a dependent intermediate zone of weak states, national prejudice, inequality, poverty and Schlamassel. 1989 might then appear, to participants and historians, as just one brief shining moment between the sufferings of yesterday and those of tomorrow.

For all the popular frustration and widespread disappointment, those fears have definitely not become a reality in the heartlands of Central Europe. At the same time, things much, much worse than I imagined have happened elsewhere in postcommunist Europe—above all, in former Yugoslavia. What has characterized the postcommunist world has been this great divergence, so that the political distance between Prague and Pristina is now much greater than that between Paris and Prague.3

In the whole spectrum of postcommunist countries, those whose revolutions I wrote about in the early 1990s—Poland, Hungary, Germany, and what is now the Czech Republic—stand out as the only four that have clearly, beyond any reasonable doubt, already made the transition to something approaching the Western normality of freedom, market economy, democracy, and the rule of law. (I assume Havel’s velvet revolution to be primarily a phenomenon of the Czech lands. Slovakia had to pass through the dark valley of Vladimir Meciar’s semiauthoritarian regime before having its own belated “catching-up revolution” in 1998.)

Is it a coincidence that these were the only four to have what can properly be called velvet revolutions? Bulgaria had a transition so velvet that it left the postcommunists in power; Romania’s was violent, but also left postcommunists in power. Doesn’t this prove that the opposition leaders were right in their fundamental insight that the means would determine the end? But of course you could say that they only had these velvet revolutions because they had these elites. And you could say they had these elites because their countries had been, historically, closer to the West, with Western Christianity, a developed civil society, and so on. So you could attribute their subsequent success rather to these deeper historical factors: to their geographical proximity to the West, and, indeed, to the fact that the West favored them politically and economically—inasmuch as it favored anybody—in its post-1989 policy. Like all arguments about historical causation, this one can never be resolved with certainty. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that the great givens of geography and history predetermined the emergence of the extraordinary people I wrote about in 1989. Nor was it inevitable that they would adopt methods which, at least in this combination, had never been tried before. Nor, having adopted these methods, was it inevitable that they would succeed.

All revolutions are failures,” said Orwell. “But they are not all the same failure.” This one was the exception. But that is because it was unlike all earlier revolutions.

  1. 1

    Refolution in Hungary and Poland,” The New York Review, August 18, 1989.

  2. 2

    The three-part series is entitled Freedom’s Battle, broadcast on BBC 2 on October 31, November 7, and November 14.

  3. 3

    Readers who want to know more about this great divergence are referred to my book about Europe in the 1990s, History of the Present (London: Allen Lane, 1999; Random House, forthcoming).

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