Last year communism in Eastern Europe died. 1949–1989 RIP. And the epitaph might be:

Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

The thing that was comprehensively installed in the newly defined territories of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and in the newly created German Democratic Republic after 1949, the thing called, according to one’s point of view, “socialism,” “totalitarianism,” “Stalinism,” “politbureaucratic dictatorship,” “real existing socialism,” “state capitalism,” “dictatorship over needs,” or, most neutrally, “the Soviet-type system”—that thing will never walk again. And arguably, if we can no longer talk of communism we should no longer talk of Eastern Europe, at least with a capital “E” for Eastern. Instead, we shall have central Europe again, east central Europe, southeastern Europe, eastern Europe with a small “e,” and, above all, individual peoples, nations, and states.

To be sure, even without a political–military reversal inside the Soviet Union there will be many further conflicts, injustices, and miseries in these lands. But they will be different conflicts, injustices, and miseries—new and old, post-communist but also pre-communist. In the worst case, there might yet be new dictators; but they would be different dictators. We shall not see again that particular system, characterized by the concentration of political and economic power and the instruments of coercion in the hands of one Leninist party, manifested sociologically as a privileged new class, and initially aspiring to total control, in states with arbitrarily limited sovereignty.

Of course, if we walk the streets of any Eastern European city we can still find the gray, familiar traces: the flattened neoclassical Stalinist facades on all the Victory Squares, the Lenin Boulevards, Steelworks, Shipyards, the balding middle-aged officials with their prefabricated lies, the cheap paper forms for completion in quadruplicate, the queues, the attitude of “we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us.” Yet even the physical evidences are being removed at a speed that must cause some anxiety to conservationists. (In Poland there is a scheme for preserving all the old props in an entertainment park. The proposed name is Stalinland.)

If 1989 was the end, what was the beginning of the end? To read the press, or hear Mrs. Thatcher talk, you would think history began with Gorbachev. At the other extreme, some would say communism in Eastern Europe was doomed at birth. This thesis may, in turn, be advanced in several forms. One can say that communism was incompatible with the political culture of East Central Europe, although why that political culture should suddenly stop at the quite arbitrary Western frontier of the Soviet Union is not clear. Alternatively, one can say that communism was a wonderful idea that was doomed only because the people of Eastern Europe did not find their way to it themselves, but had it imposed on them by a foreign power, which itself did not understand it. Or one can say that communism is incompatible with human nature, period. Whether by congenital deformity or merely as the result of a ghastly forceps delivery, the death was preordained at birth. In between these two extreme positions, some people in the countries concerned would point to various supposed “missed opportunities” or turning points at which Eastern European history failed to turn. In this class, 1956 and 1968 are the leading candidates.

As usual, there is an element of truth in all these claims, though in some more than others. Churchill declared, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British empire,” and proceeded to do almost exactly that. Gorbachev came to power proposing to save the Soviet empire and presides over its disintegration. That Moscow has permitted the former “satellite” countries to determine how they want to govern themselves was clearly a sine qua non for what followed.1 But the nature and direction of the processes of domestic political self-determination cannot be understood by studying Soviet policy. The causes lie elsewhere, in the history of individual countries, in their interactions with their Eastern European neighbors, and with the more free and prosperous Europe that lies to the West, North, and South of them.

If I were to be forced to name a single date for the “beginning of the end” in this inner history of Eastern Europe, it would be June 1979. The judgment may be thought excessively Polonocentric, but I do believe that the Pope’s first great pilgrimage to Poland was that turning point. Here, for the first time, we saw that large-scale, sustained, yet supremely peaceful and self-disciplined manifestation of social unity, the gentle crowd against the Party–state, which was both the hallmark and the essential domestic catalyst of change in 1989, in every country except Romania (and even in Romania, the crowds did not start the violence). The Pope’s visit was followed, just over a year later, by the birth of Solidarity, and without the Pope’s visit it is doubtful that there would have been a Solidarity.


The example of Solidarity was seminal. It pioneered a new kind of politics in Eastern Europe (and new not only there): a politics of social self-organization aimed at negotiating the transition from communism. The actors, forms, and issues of 1980–1981 in Poland were fundamentally different from anything seen in Eastern Europe between 1949 and 1979: in many respects, they presaged those seen throughout Eastern Europe in 1989. If there is any truth in this judgment, then there was something especially fitting in the fact that it was in 1989 that the Russian leader and the Polish Pope finally met. In their very different ways, they both started it.

To find a year in European history comparable to 1989, however, we obviously have to reach back much farther than 1979, or 1949: 1789 in France? 1917 in Russia? Or, closer to home, 1918–1919 in Central Europe? But 1918–1919 was the aftermath of world war. The closer parallel is surely 1848, the Spring-time of Nations. In the space of a few paragraphs such comparisons are little better than parlor games. Yet, like parlor games, they can be amusing, and sometimes help to concentrate the mind.

According to A.J.P. Taylor 1848 erupted “after forty years of peace and stability,” while Lewis Namier describes it, with somewhat less cavalier arithmetic, as “the outcome of thirty-three creative years of European peace carefully preserved on a consciously counter-revolutionary basis.” The revolution, Namier writes, “was born at least as much of hopes as of discontents.” There was undoubtedly an economic and social background: lean harvests and the potato disease. But “the common denominator was ideological.” Namier quotes the exiled Louis-Philippe declaring that he had given way to une insurrection morale, and King Wilhelm of Württemberg excusing himself to the Russian minister at Stuttgart, one Gorchakov, with the words: “Je ne puis pas monter à cheval contre les idées.” Namier calls his magnificent essay “The Revolution of the Intellectuals.”2

The Revolution of 1989 also erupted out of celebrations of “forty years of peace and stability in Europe.” Remember NATO’s fortieth anniversary in May? With the “Yalta Europe,” as with the “Vienna Europe” in the previous century, the question was always: Peace and stability for whom? Ordinary men and women in Central and Eastern Europe felt the rough edge of both. Here too, a stricter arithmetic might reduce the forty years to thirty-three, for perhaps it was only after crushing the Hungarian revolution of 1956 that Soviet leaders could be quite sure that the West would not intervene militarily to disturb this “peace”—carefully preserved on a counterrevolutionary basis.

A revolution born as much of hopes as of discontents? Yes, again. To be sure, the economic “discontents” were there, acutely in Poland and Romania, increasingly, though less dramatically, elsewhere. In this connection, Fritz Stern has aptly recalled Mirabeau’s declaration on the eve of the French Revolution: “the nation’s deficit is the nation’s treasure.” Substitute “hard currency debt” for “deficit” and you have one of the main reasons why it was Poland and Hungary that led the field in the first half of 1989. But, unlike in Poland in August 1980, it was not a turn of the economic screw that precipitated mass popular protest in any Eastern European country in 1989. It was political hopes—and outrage at the repression with which the local regimes attempted to curb those hopes.

As with 1848 this, too, might be called a “revolution of the intellectuals.” To be sure, the renewed flexing of workers’ muscle in two strike waves in 1988 was what finally brought Poland’s Communists to the first Round Table of 1989. To be sure, it was the masses on the streets in demonstrations in all the other Eastern European countries that brought the old rulers down. But the politics of the revolution were not made by workers or peasants. They were made by intellectuals: the playwright Václav Havel, the medievalist Bronislaw Geremek, the Catholic editor Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the painter Bärbel Bohley in Berlin, the philosophers János Kis and Gáspár Miklós Tamás in Budapest, the engineering professor Petre Roman and the poet Mircea Dinescu in Bucharest. History has outdone Shelley, for poets were the acknowledged legislators of this world. The crowds on Wenceslas Square chanted “Long live the students! Long live the actors!” And the sociology of the opposition forums (New, Democratic, Civic), parties, and parliamentary candidates was distinctly comparable to that of the Frankfurt Parliament or the Slav Congress at Prague in 1848. Hundert zwanzig Professoren….

As in 1848, the common denominator was ideological. The inner history of these revolutions is that of a set of ideas whose time had come, and a set of ideas whose time had gone. At first glance this may seem a surprising statement. For had not the ideology ceased to be an active force many years before? Surely the rulers no longer believed a word of the guff they spouted, or expected their subjects to believe it, or even expected their subjects to believe that they, the rulers, believed it? This is probably true in most cases, although who knows what an old man like Erich Honecker, a Communist from his earliest youth, still genuinely believed? (One must never underestimate the human capacity for self-deception.)


Yet one of the things these revolutions showed, ex post facto, is just how important the residual veil of ideology still was. Few rulers are content to say simply, “We have the Gatling gun/ and you do not!” “We hold power because we hold power.” Ideology provided a residual legitimation, perhaps also enabling the rulers, and their politbureaucratic servants, at least partly to deceive themselves about the nature of their own rule. At the same time, it was vital for the semantic occupation of the public sphere. The combination of censorship and a nearly complete Party–state monopoly of the mass media provided the army of semantic occupation; ideology, in the debased, routinized form of newspeak, was its ammunition. However despised and un-credible these structures of organized lying were, they still performed a vital blocking function. They no longer mobilized, but they did continue to prevent the public articulation of shared aspirations and common truths.

What is more, by demanding from the ordinary citizen seemingly innocuous semantic signs of outward conformity, the system managed somehow to implicate them in it. It is easy now to forget that until almost the day before yesterday, almost everyone in East Germany and Czechoslovakia was living a double life: systematically saying one thing in public and another in private. This was a central theme of the writings of Václav Havel over the last decade and one he movingly returned to in his 1990 New Year’s address as president.3 The worst thing was, he said, the “contaminated moral environment”:

All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system, accepted it as an unalterable fact and therefore kept it running…. None of us is merely a victim of it, because all of us helped to create it together.

The crucial “line of conflict,” he wrote earlier, did not run between the people and the State, but rather through the middle of each person, “for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.” A banner I saw above the altar in an East Berlin church vividly expressed the same basic thought. It said: “I am Cain and Abel.”

In order to understand what it meant for ordinary people to stand in those vast crowds in the city squares of Central Europe, chanting their own, spontaneous slogans, you have first to make the imaginative effort to understand what it feels like to live a double life, to pay this daily toll of public hypocrisy. As they stood and shouted together, these ordinary men and women were not merely healing divisions in their society; they were healing divisions in themselves. Everything that had to do with the word, with the press, with television, was of the first importance to these crowds. The semantic occupation was as offensive to them as military occupation; cleaning up the linguistic environment was as vital as cleaning up the physical environment. The long queue every morning in Wenceslas Square, lining up patiently in the freezing fog for a newspaper called The Free Word, was, for me, one of the great symbolic pictures of 1989.

The motto of the year—and not just in Czechoslovakia—was Pravda Vítezí, the old Hussite slogan, adopted by Masaryk, “Truth shall prevail,” or, in the still more ancient Latin, Magna est veritas et praevalebit. As one speaks in English of a “moment of truth” for some undertaking, so this was a year of truth for communism. There is a real sense in which these regimes lived by the word and perished by the word.


For what, after all, happened? A few thousands, then tens, then hundreds of thousands went onto the streets. They spoke a few words. “Resign!” they said. “Free elections!” “Freedom!” And the Berlin Wall opened. And the walls of Jericho fell. And with the walls, the Communist parties simply crumbled. At astonishing speed. By the beginning of 1990 the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ party had split in two, with the majority of its members leaving for good. In Poland, the Polish United Workers’ party held its last Central Committee meeting in the first week of January, resolving thereafter to change its name, statutes, and character. Within two months, East Germany’s Socialist Unity party lost its leading role and almost half its members. The inner decay of these parties recalled the remark of a German poet in 1848: “Monarchy is dead, though monarchs still live.”

With the single, signal exception of Romania, these revolutions were also remarkable for their almost complete lack of violence. Like Solidarity in 1980–1981 they were that historical contradiction in terms, “peaceful revolution.” No bastilles were stormed, no guillotines erected. Lamp posts were used only for street lighting. Romania alone saw tanks and firing squads. Elsewhere the only violence was that used at the outset by police. The young demonstrators in East Berlin and Prague laid candles in front of the police, who responded with truncheons. The Marseillaise of 1989 said not “aux armes, citoyens” but “aux bougies, citoyens.” The rationale and tradition of nonviolence can be found in the history of all the democratic oppositions of East Central Europe throughout the 1980s. Partly it was pragmatic: the other side had all the weapons. But it was also ethical. It was a statement about how things should be. They wanted to start as they intended to go on. History, said Adam Michnik, had taught them that those who start by storming bastilles will end up building their own.

Yet almost as remarkable, historically speaking, was the lack (so far, and Romania plainly excepted) of major counterrevolutionary violence. The police behaved brutally in East Germany up to and notably on the state’s fortieth anniversary, October 7, and in Czechoslovakia up to, and notably on, November 17. In Poland the systematic deployment of counterrevolutionary force lasted over seven years, from the declaration of a “state of war” on December 13, 1981, to the spring of 1989. But once the revolutions (or, in Poland and Hungary, “refolutions”4 ) were under way, there was an amazing lack of coercive countermeasures. The Communist rulers said, like King Wilhelm of Württemberg, “I cannot mount on horseback against ideas.” But one is bound to ask: Why not? Much of the modern history of Central Europe consists precisely in rulers mounting on horseback against ideas. Much of the contemporary history of Central Europe, since World War II, consists in rulers mounting tanks against ideas. Until 1989 the most fitting motto for any history of this region was not “Pravda Vítezí” but some lines from the nineteenth-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid:

Colossal armies, valiant generals,
Police—secret, open, and of sexes two—
Against whom have they joined together?
Against a few ideas…nothing new!

So why was it different in 1989? Three reasons may be suggested. They might be labeled “Gorbachev,” “Helsinki,” and “Tocqueville.” The new line in Soviet policy, christened by Gennady Gerasimov the Sinatra doctrine—“You do it your way”—rather than the Brezhnev doctrine, was self-evidently essential in making the revolutions possible. In East Germany, Moscow not only made it plain to the leadership that Soviet troops were not available for the purposes of domestic repression, but also, it seems, went out of its way to let it be known—to the West, but also to the population concerned—that this was its position. In Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union helped the revolution along by a nicely timed retrospective condemnation of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.

Throughout East Central Europe, the people at last derived some benefit from their ruling elites’ chronic dependency on the Soviet Union, for, deprived of the Soviet Kalashnikov crutch, those elites did not have another leg to stand on. Romania was the exception that proves the rule. For it is no accident that it was precisely in the state for so long the most independent of Moscow that the resistance of the security arm of the powers-that-were was most fierce, bloody, and prolonged.

Nonetheless, the factor “Gorbachev” alone does not suffice to explain why these ruling elites did not more vigorously deploy their own, still-formidable police and security forces in a last-ditch defense of their own power and privilege. Is it too fanciful to suggest that the constant, persistent harping of the West on certain international norms of domestic conduct, the Eastern European leaders’ yearning for international respectability, and the sensed linkage between this and the hard-currency credits they so badly needed—in short, the factor “Helsinki”—played at least some part in staying the hands of those who might otherwise have given the order to shoot?

Yet none of this would have stopped them if they had still been convinced of their right to rule. The third, and perhaps the ultimately decisive factor, is that characteristic of revolutionary situations described by Tocqueville more than a century ago: the ruling elite’s loss of belief in its own right to rule. A few kids went into the streets and threw a few words. The police beat them. The kids said: You have no right to beat us! And the rulers, the high and mighty, replied, in effect: Yes, we have no right to beat you. We have no right to preserve our rule by force. The end no longer justifies the means!

In fact the ruling elites, and their armed servants, distinguished themselves by their comprehensive unreadiness to stand up in any way for the things in which they had so long claimed to believe, and their almost indecent haste to embrace democratic capitalism. All over Eastern Europe there was the quiet flap of turning coats: one day they denounced Walesa, the next they applauded him; one day they embraced Honecker, the next they imprisoned him; one day they vituperated Havel, the next they elected him President.

Eighteen-forty-eight was called the Springtime of Nations or the Springtime of Peoples: the Völkerfrühling, wiosna ludów. The revolutionaries, in all the lands, spoke in the name of “the people.” But the international solidarity of “the people” was broken by conflict between nations, old and new, while the domestic solidarity of “the people” was broken by conflict between social groups—what came to be known as “classes.” “Socialism and nationalism, as mass forces, were both the product of 1848,” writes A.J.P. Taylor. And for a century after 1848, until the communist deepfreeze, Central Europe was a battlefield of nations and classes.

Of what, or of whom, was 1989 the springtime? Of “the people?” But in what sense? “Wir sind das Volk” said the first great crowds in East Germany: the people against the self-styled people’s state. But within a few weeks many of them had changed the definite article. “Wir sind EIN Volk,” they now chanted: that is, we are one nation. In Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, the crowds were a sea of national flags, while the people raised their voice to sing old national hymns. In Hungary and Romania they cut the communist symbols out of the centers of their flags. In East Germany there were, at first, no flags, no hymns. But gradually the flags came out, plain stripes of red, black and gold without the GDR hammer and dividers in the middle: the flag of Western and before that of united Germany. And the chant taken up by a very large part of the crowds was “Deutschland, Einig Vaterland!“—the line on whose account the so-called “national” anthem of the GDR had not been sung officially since the early 1970s.5

In every Western newspaper commentary on Eastern Europe one now invariably reads that there is a grave danger of something called “nationalism” reviving in this region. But what on earth does this mean? Does it mean that people are again proud to be Czech, Polish, Hungarian, or, for that matter, German? That hearts lift at sight of the flag and throats tighten when they sing the national anthem? In that case I must warn the world against one of the most rabidly “nationalist” countries I know. It is called the United States of America.

Patriotism is not nationalism. Rediscovered pride in your own nation does not necessarily imply hostility to other nations. These movements were all, without exception, patriotic. They were not all nationalist. Indeed, in their first steps most of the successor regimes were markedly less nationalist than their Communist predecessors. The Mazowiecki government in Poland took a decisively more liberal and enlightened approach to both the Jewish and the German questions than any previous government, indeed drawing criticism, on the German issue, from the communist–nationalists. In his first public statement as president, Václav Havel emphasized that he would be the president of “all Czechs, Slovaks, and members of other nationalities.” His earlier remark on television that Czechoslovakia owes the Sudeten Germans an apology for the way they were expelled after World War II was fiercely criticized by—the Communists. 6 In Romania, the revolution began with the ethnic Romanian inhabitants of Timisoara making common cause with their ethnic Hungarian fellow citizens. It would require very notable exertions for the treatment of the German and Hungarian minorities in postrevolutionary Romania to be worse than it was under Nicolae Ceauescu.

Of course there are counter-examples. One of the nastier aspects of the German revolution was the excesses of genuine popular support for a Party-government compaign against Polish “smugglers and profiteers,” and abuse of visiting black students and Vietnamese Gastarbeiter. In Hungarian opposition politics, the fierce infighting between the Hungarian Democratic Forum and the Alliance of Free Democrats was not without an ethnic undertone, with some members of the former questioning the “Hungarianness” of some members of the latter. Thousands of Bulgarian oppositionists protested against the new government giving the Turkish Muslim minority its basic minority rights.

If one looks slightly further ahead, there are obviously potential conflicts over other remaining minorities: notably the Hungarian minority in Romania, the Romanian minority in the Soviet Union (Moldavia), the German minorities in Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union, and Gipsy minorities in several countries. There are the potential political uses of anti-Semitism. There is the difficulty of finding a combination of Czecho- and -Slovakia fully satisfactory to both Slovaks and Czechs.7 And there are the outstanding frontier questions, above all that of the post-1945 German–Polish frontier on the Oder-Neisse line.

Yet compared with Central Europe in 1848 or 1918–1919 this is a relatively short list. Most nations have states, and have got used to their new frontiers. Ethnically the map is far more homogeneous than it was in 1848 or 1918; as Ernest Gellner memorably observed, it is now a picture by Modigliani rather than Kokoschka. (The main artists were, of course, Hitler and Stalin: their brushes being war, deportation, and mass murder.) National and ethnic conflicts may grow again between and within these states, as they did in Eastern Europe before the last war, especially if their economic situation deteriorates. Or those national and ethnic conflicts may progressively be alleviated, as were those of Western Europe after the last war, especially if these countries’ economic situation improves in a process of integration into a larger European common market and community. We shall see. But the historical record must show that 1989 was not a year of acute national and ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe west of the Soviet frontier. Quite the reverse: it was a year of solidarity both within and between nations. At the end of the year, symbolic and humanitarian support for the people(s) of Romania came from all the self-liberated states of East Central Europe. A springtime of nations is not necessarily a springtime of “nationalism.”

In any case, what was most striking was not the language of nationhood. That was wholly predictable. What was striking was the other ideas and words that, so to speak, shared the top billing. One of these was “society.” In a country often stigmatized as “nationalist,” Poland, the word most often used to describe the people as opposed to the authorities was not “nation”; it was spoleczenstwo, society. In Czechoslovakia the word “society” was used in a similar way, though less frequently, and here it could not simply be a synonym or euphemism for “nation” because it covered two nations. In both cases, it was as meaningful to talk of social self-determination as it was to talk of national self-determination. Everywhere stress was laid on the self-conscious unity of intelligentsia, workers, and peasants.

Of course in part this unity was created by the common enemy. When communist power had been broken, and real parliamentary politics began, then conflicting social interests were robustly articulated. Thus probably the most distinctive and determined group in the new Polish parliament was not the Communists or Solidarity, left or right, but peasant-farmers from all parties, combining and conspiring to advance their sectional interests.

Nonetheless, the social divisions were nothing like as deep as in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and they did not undercut the revolutions. There is an historical irony here. For in large measure communism created the social unity that contributed decisively to the end of communism. The combination of deliberate leveling and unintended absurdities resulted in a distribution of wealth throughout most of society that was not so much egalitarian as higgledy-piggledy. A professor would earn less than a miner, an engineer less than a peasant-farmer. A plumber with a few dollars or Deutschemarks would be better off than a prince without hard currency. A worker lived in the same house as a doctor, an engineer, or a writer, and the ground plans of their apartments were almost certainly identical, even if the décor differed.

At the same time, they were all united by consciousness of the one great divide between the communist upper/ruling class, the nomenklatura, and all the rest. In all these countries the former were “them”: oni (a word made famous by Teresa Toranska’s book of interviews with Polish Stalinists), the Bonzen. “They” were identified by their clothes, their black-curtained cars, their special hospitals and shops, their language, and their behavior. When the dense crowds in Prague were asked to clear a path for an ambulance, they did so chanting, “We are not like them! We are not like them!”

At the same time, there was a remarkably high level of popular political awareness. Again, this was partly a result of the system. Everyone had at least a basic education, and from the earliest years that education was highly politicized. Many people reacted against this politicization with a determined retreat into private life, and an almost programmatic apoliticism. But because of the politicization of education, and the ubiquity of ideology, no one could be in any doubt that words and ideas mattered, having real consequences for everyday life.

A concept that was central in opposition thinking during the 1980s was that of “civil society.” The year 1989 was the springtime of societies aspiring to be civil. Ordinary men and women’s rudimentary notion of what it meant to build a civil society might not satisfy the political theorist. But some such notion was there, and it contained at least three basic demands. First, there should be forms of association, national, regional, local, professional, that would be voluntary, authentic, democratic, and, first and last, not controlled or manipulated by the Party or Party–state. Second, people should be “civil”: that is, polite, tolerant; and, above all, nonviolent. Civil and civilian. Third, the idea of citizenship had to be taken seriously.

Communism managed to poison many words from the mainstream of European history—not least, the word “socialism.” But somehow it did not manage to poison the words “citizen” and “civic,” even though it used them, too, in perverted ways: for example, appeals to “civic responsibility,” meaning “keep quiet and let us deal with these troublesome students.” Why it did not manage to poison those words is an interesting question—to which I have no ready answer—but the fact is that when Solidarity’s parliamentarians came to give their group a name, they called it the Citizens’ Parliamentary Club; the Czech movement called itself the Civic Forum; and the opposition groups in the GDR started by describing themselves as Bürgerinitiativen, that is, citizens’ or civic initiatives.8 And the language of citizenship was important in all these revolutions. People had had enough of being mere components in a deliberately atomized society: they wanted to be citizens, individual men and women with dignity and responsibility, with rights but also with duties, freely associating in civil society.

There is one last point about the self-description of the revolution which is perhaps worth a brief mention. As Ralf Dahrendorf has observed, Karl Marx played on the ambiguity of the German term bürgerliche Gesellschaft, which could be translated either as civil society or as bourgeois society. Marx, says Dahrendorf, deliberately conflated the two “cities” of modernity, the fruits of the Industrial and the French Revolutions, the bourgeois and the citoyen.9 I thought of this observation when a speaker in one of the mass rallies in Leipzig called for solidarity with the bürgerliche Bewegung in Czechoslovakia. The bourgeois movement! But on reflection there seems to me a deeper truth in that apparent malapropism. For what most of the opposition movements throughout East Central Europe, and a large part of “the people” supporting them were in effect saying was: Yes, Marx is right, the two things are intimately connected—and we want both! Civil rights and property rights, economic freedom and political freedom, financial independence and intellectual independence—each supports the other. So, yes, we want to be citizens, but we also want to be middle class, in the senses that most citizens in the more fortunate half of Europe are middle class. We want to be Bürger AND bürgerlich! Tom Paine, but also Thomas Mann.

So it was a springtime of nations, but not necessarily of nationalism; of societies, aspiring to be civil; and above all, of citizens.


The springtime of citizens has already changed the face of Europe. What seemed only possible at the beginning of 1989 seemed certain at the beginning of 1990. There would be a new Europe, for which the term “Yalta” would no longer be an appropriate shorthand. This Europe would have a different place for the countries formerly described as East European, and, at the very least, a less divided Germany.

The Revolution of 1848 ended badly because of the combination of internal and external forces of reaction; but in East Central Europe the external ones were decisive. No comparable external forces of reaction were visible at the beginning of 1990. The Prussians were making their own revolution, not crushing those of their neighbors. The Austrians were not repressing the Hungarian reform-revolution, but helping it along. And the Russians? Here the transformation was miraculous, to the point where senior American and British officials indicated that they might actually welcome a Soviet military intervention to smash the Securitate death squads in Romania. But no, for Romania, as for Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, Soviet leaders and commentators from Gorbachev down assumed a saintly expression and said they would never dream of interfering in the internal affairs of another country.

Yet the popular movement for national and social self-determination did not stop neatly at the western frontier of the Soviet Union. What happened in Eastern Europe directly encouraged the Baltic States, not to mention the Romanians of Soviet Moldavia. And what if the political earth began to move in the Ukraine? At the beginning of 1990 it was therefore all too possible to imagine some backlash or reversal inside the Soviet Union. But it seemed reasonable to doubt whether even a conservative–military leadership in Moscow would attempt to use armed force to restore Russian domination west of the Soviet frontiers of 1945. Would they not have more than enough on their hands trying to preserve the empire inside the postwar Soviet frontiers? Logically, if they invaded one Eastern European country they should now invade them all. And then, what would they “restore”? The shattered Humpty Dumpties that were yesterday’s Eastern European Communist parties? Obviously a reversal inside the Soviet Union would make life much less comfortable in the new Europe, and directly affect developments in a Germany still partly occupied by Soviet troops. But it would not in itself suffice to turn the map back to what it was before 1989.

About this new Europe there are countless questions to be asked, of which the most obviously pressing is: How can the West help the transformation of formerly communist states into liberal democracies? I ask myself a less obvious question: not “How can we help them?” but “How might they help us?” What, if anything, can these nearly one hundred million Europeans, with their forty years of hard experience, bring to the new Europe, and to us in the West? The Czechs were delighted to point out that 89 is 68 turned upside down. But one of the notable differences between 1968 and 1989 was a comparative lack of Western intellectuals discovering, in these exotic regions, new utopias, such as “socialism with a human face” and the fabled Third Way.10

Of course there is a kaleidoscope of new parties, programs, and trends, and it is little short of impudence to subsume them in one “message.” Yet if you look at what these diverse parties are really saying about the basic questions of politics, economics, law, and international relations, there is a remarkable underlying consensus. In politics they are all saying: There is no “socialist democracy,” there is only democracy. And by democracy they mean multi-party, parliamentary democracy as practiced in contemporary Western, Northern, and Southern Europe. They are all saying: There is no “socialist legality,” there is only legality. And by that they mean the rule of law, guaranteed by the constitutionally anchored independence of the judiciary.11

They are also saying—and for the left this is perhaps the most important statement—there is no “socialist economics,” there is only economics. And economics means not a socialist market economy but a social market economy. Not Ota Sik but Ludwig Erhard. Of course there are grave differences between, for example, Friedmanites and Hayekites. A good word might even be heard for Keynes. But the basic direction is absolutely plain: toward an economy whose basic engine of growth is the market, with extensive private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The transition to such a system poses unique problems, for which original solutions will have to be found. In most of these countries there is still widespread support for relatively egalitarian distribution of the wealth thus created, and for a strong welfare state. But the basic model, in the three essentials of politics, economics, and law, is something between the real existing Switzerland and the real existing Sweden.

Sweden—or, as one leading Soviet economist carefully stressed, southern Sweden—now seems to be the accepted ideal for virtually everyone who styles themself a socialist between Berlin and Vladivostok. But if Marx came back to earth, would he not describe the predominant mode of production in Sweden as capitalist? In other words, the fundamental argument from the left is no longer about the best way to produce wealth, only about the best way to distribute it. (The more fundamental critique of the successful forms of production comes from Greens rather than socialists.)

For purely practical and historical reasons, the State will clearly play a larger part in most Eastern European countries than in most Western European countries, for some years to come. But this does not necessarily mean that people will want it to. On the contrary, having had so much state interference for so long, they might decide they want as little of it as possible. Public opinion polls and sociological surveys are not much use here, since most people have only just begun to think about these issues, let alone to confront them in the hard reality of economic transition. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Among the intellectuals who have begun to confront these issues there is, it seems to me, an opposite danger: that of regarding the free market as a universal cure. Hence the popularity of Hayek. The free market, one might say, is the latest Central European utopia.

It is easy now to forget that communism claimed to have found not only new and better forms of politics, law, and economics, but also a new and better way of organizing relations between states. This new way was called “socialist internationalism,” and counterposed to “bourgeois nationalism.” What we have seen in practice is the rise of socialist nationalism and bourgeois internationalism. There are many examples of bourgeois internationalism—IMF, NATO, GATT, OECD—but in the perspective of European history the most dramatic is the European Community. Now there are proposals, too numerous even to list, for new forms of interstate relations in the former Eastern Europe. To give but one example, leading Polish politicians have revived the idea of a confederation of Poland and Czechoslovakia. But if you ask what is the basic, underlying model for the new relations between these states, and for the resolution of their outstanding national, ethnic, and economic conflicts, then the answer is clear. The basic model is the European Community—the one and only, real existing common European home.

This means not only that they would like to join the present EC, as fully as possible and as soon as possible. It also means that they hope their outstanding historic conflicts and enmities can be overcome in the same kinds of ways that, say, those between France and Germany have been overcome. This is true, it seems to me, even of those groups that would not explicitly acknowledge the EC as a model. Certainly, you have to go far in Western Europe to find such enthusiastic “Europeans”—that is, supporters of a supranational community called Europe—as you will find at every turn in Eastern Europe. Traveling to and fro between the two halves of the divided continent, I have sometimes thought that the real divide is between those (in the West) who have Europe and those (in the East) who believe in it. And everywhere, in all the lands, the phrase people use to sum up what is happening is “the return to Europe.”

Yet what, to repeat the original question, can these enthusiasts bring to the new Europe? If I am right in my basic analysis, they can offer no fundamentally new ideas on the big questions of politics, economics, law, or international relations. The new ideas are the ideas whose time has passed. The ideas whose time has come are old, familiar, well-tested ones. So is all they have to offer us their unique, theoretically intriguing but practically burdensome problems? Do they come, as it were, like mendicants to the door, bearing only chronicles of wasted time?12 Or might they have, under their threadbare cloaks, some hidden treasure?

Traveling through this region over the last decade, I have found treasures: examples of great moral courage and intellectual integrity; comradeship, deep friendship, family life; time and space for serious conversation, music, literature, not disturbed by the perpetual noise of our obsessively telecommunicative world; Christian witness in its original and purest form; more broadly, qualities of relations between men and women of very different backgrounds, and once bitterly opposed faiths: an ethos of solidarity. Here the danger of sentimental idealization is acute, for the privileged visitor enjoys these benefits without paying the costs. There is no doubt that, on any quantitative or utilitarian reckoning, the costs have been far higher than the benefits. Yet it would be even more wrong to pretend that these treasures were not real. They were. And for me the question of questions after 1989 is: What if any of these good things will survive liberation? Was the community only a community of fate, a Schicksalsgemeinschaft? Were these just the uses of adversity?

Even if there is no reversal in the Soviet Union, no violent backlash or undemocratic and illiberal turns in this or that Eastern European country, won’t these treasures simply be swept away in the rush—the all too understandable rush—for affluence? As a Hungarian friend wryly remarked: “I have survived forty years of communism, but I’m not sure that I’ll survive one year of capitalism.” And this will not just be the atomizing impact of developed consumerism, one of the most potent weapons known to man. It will be the still rougher and more traumatic impact of the attempted transition from a planned to a market economy, with all the associated blows of unemployment, dislocation, and injustice.

Wishful thinking helps no one. One 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 post-communist future looks remarkably like the pre-communist past, less Central Europe than Zwischeneuropa—as I wrote in these pages just over a year ago—a dependent intermediate zone “of weak states, national prejudice, inequality, poverty, and Schlamassel.”13 The year 1989 might then appear, to participants and historians, as just one brief shining moment between the sufferings of yesterday and those of tomorrow.

This fate is not inevitable. Whether it can be avoided depends to a very significant degree on the commitment and ingenuity of the West in general, Western Europe in particular, and above all on West Germany—or rather, to put it in terms more appropriate to the new Europe, on a Germany remaining Western.

Yet even if the darker prospect were to be realized, something would remain, at least in memory, in culture, in spirit. At the very least the Europeans from over there would have offered us, with a clarity and firmness born of bitter experience, a restatement of the value of what we already have, of old truths and tested models, of the three essentials of liberal democracy and of the European Community as the one and only, real existing common European home. Intellectually, dare I say spiritually, “1989” in Eastern Europe is a vital complement to “1992” in Western Europe.

Litwo! Ojczyno moja! ty jestes jak zdrowie,” begins the most famous of all Polish poems, Adam Mickiewicz’s “Pan Tadeusz“:

Lithuania, my fatherland, thou art like health;
How much we should value thee he alone learns,
Who has lost thee.

If we put in place of “Lithuania” the word “Europe,” we may have the deepest lesson of that year of wonders, 1989.

January 18, 1990

This Issue

February 15, 1990