Revolution in Hungary and Poland

If someone had sat down on July 11, 1789, to write, for a fortnightly review, an analytical account of developments in France, he—and the review—would have had a problem. You can imagine the footnote, added at last proof stage: “As we go to press it appears that one of Paris’s most important prisons may have been stormed…”

Sitting down on July 11, 1989, to write an analytical account of developments in Poland and Hungary, I have a similar problem. The changes in those countries are, to be sure, not yet “revolutionary” in the sense of the storming of the Bastille. They continue to be what, in an earlier article, I called a “refolution”—half-reform, half-revolution.1 But they are sufficiently rapid and unpredictable for a genuinely analytical account to be impossible.

All the close observer can do is to describe what has happened so far, and in the process hold fast some impressions that might otherwise be lost to the historian reflecting with the benefit of hindsight. For hindsight is also a disadvantage. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the historian to recapture is the sense of what, at a given historical moment, people did not know about the future.


With hindsight it begins to seem obvious that Solidarity should have won a landslide victory on Sunday, June 4, in the first round of the closest thing to a free election that Poland has had for more than half a century.2 Of course they did. They must have known! But I know that they did not know. I sat with an exhausted and depressed Adam Michnik over lunch that Sunday, and he did not know. I drank with a nervously excited Jacek Kuron late that evening, but he did not know. Nobody knew.

Certainly the campaign had gone well. Despite all the starting handicaps, the lack of organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, fair coverage by the radio and television, the Solidarity-opposition campaign had become a kind of festival of national improvisation. Despite all the initial advantages, the organization, money, offices, staff, and, most of all, monopoly control of radio and television, the Party-coalition3 campaign had been extraordinarily feeble. Solidarity selected one candidate for each seat it was entitled to contest under the terms of the April Round Table agreement.4 The selection procedure was not democratic, but it was highly effective. The Party-coalition side wasted weeks in quasi-democratic feuding, and ended up with several candidates for most seats.

The streets were plastered with the names of the Solidarity candidates: each in a photograph with Lech Walesa, and with the simple message, “We must win.” To find out the names of the Party-government candidates often required a lengthy private investigation. Solidarity’s posters were red and white, with the unmistakeable jumbly lettering. In several places, the Party retreated into a faded conservative blue. A typical Party slogan was “With Us It’s Safer,” a slogan better suited to contraceptives than to parliamentary candidates, as one Italian…

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