FOR AS LONG as liberal democracy holds sway, we will always celebrate the Central European revolutions of 1989. Many factors triggered those glorious upheavals—the acceleration of the arms race, the internal rot in the governments in question, economic stagnation, glasnost and (less powerfully) perestroika. But what truly gave these revolutions their romantic patina was the outsized role played by the actors that we group together loosely as “civil society.”
The triumph of philosophers, labor organizers, playwrights, and clergymen in tumbling walls and snapping barbed wire was as global as it was local. In a year when China had crushed its own nascent democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, Central Europe’s activists demonstrated that intelligence and persistence and organized disobedience could still shake and crack the foundations of political power.
The aftermath of 1989 raised a different question: was the foundation of power in Central Europe truly overturned? The newly liberated region was quickly inundated by waves of tourists bearing curiosity and hard currency and a bevy of economic advisors and opportunistic investors offering investment capital, austerity bromides and privatization scams. In that tide, the political unity of 1989 quickly vanished. And if the leaders of the revolutions—the Czech playwright Václav Havel, the Polish labor organizer Lech Wałęsa—wrestled unhappily with the gears of power, a goodly portion of their fellow activists and intellectuals had their dissident cachet suddenly washed away. And the wicked bureaucrats who had jailed and harassed them? Many of them slipped quietly away into the onrushing tide of financial speculation and renewed nationalism, never answering for their deeds under communism.
This landscape of Central Europe’s economic transition and disruption has been so well traveled and picked over (particularly during the twentieth anniversary of the events two years ago) that it is a fair question to ask what a survey such as Anna Porter’s new book brings to the discussion. The short answer is, not much. Porter has consumed a great deal of knowledge about the region—and even interviewed many of the main players of revolution and transition—but she seems unable to raise compelling or interesting questions about where the region is headed, or why it developed the way that it has.
Porter was an émigré from Hungary after the bloody Soviet intervention in 1956. Her last book, Kasztner’s Train, argued for the rehabilitation of Hungarian lawyer Rudolf Kaztner, whose controversial efforts to save Jewish lives in World War II were entangled in vicious postwar controversy and libel proceedings. So it is little surprise that The Ghosts of Europe seems tightly circumscribed by the concerns of Porter’s generation: the disappearance of the cosmopolitan idea of “Central Europe” and the battle against communism. Few in the early twenty-first century, for instance, would bask in the dim twilight of nostalgia for the Hapsburgs, but Porter spends the book’s first chapter doing just that—even recycling the Weimar playwright Ödön von Horváth’s famous description of himself as “a very typical mix of old Austria-Hungary: at once Magyar, Croatian, German and Czech.” (Sadly, this is a passage quoted far more often than the best lines from Horvath’s lacerating and humane plays.) Two other chapters on the lost status of intellectuals and émigrés are of a similar piece. The mythical Central Europe of cafés and dissidents and cigarettes is a lost world, but Porter’s book clings ferociously to it. “Once we won, we lost whatever power we thought we had,” the great Hungarian novelist and intellectual György Konrád tells Porter. “There are still intellectuals here, but there is no longer an intelligentsia.”
How these nations coped with the demise of this lost world is Porter’s other major theme. Each nation in the region had a different approach to “lustration”, or the systematic extirpation of former communists from government. The Czechs and the Poles sought to expel former communists with a vengeance; the Slovaks dragged their heels for almost twelve years, and Hungary—as Porter points out—never did so. Porter’s approach is to juxtapose differing views on lustration, then to season the discussion heavily with the paprika of her own opinions. In her chapter on Poland, she sniffs warily at the desire of the Polish dissident and writer Adam Michnik to leave the Communist past behind—and also at the fact that Michnik regularly shares coffee (and, it seems, a friendship) with General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared martial law at the height of the communist government’s internal crisis over Polish labor union Solidarity in 1981. “While I admire Michnik’s argument,” Porter writes, “I am with those who wish to see justice done.” The gray areas of collaboration in communist societies are not explored with much subtlety here, and her suspicion of reconciliation is a vote in favor of Central Europe’s ghosts shaking their chains a bit louder and perhaps at the cost of social peace.
Porter is also angered by the local politics of the region, especially petty electoral nationalism in Hungary and in much-neglected Slovakia. But as often happens with recent history, events can overtake a narrator and reverse the verdict. Porter’s bleak discussion of Slovakia’s nationalism—championed by prime ministers past (Vladimír Mečiar and Robert Fico)—is undermined in the chapter’s last paragraph by the her report of the July 2010 installation of new prime minister Iveta Radičová, who heads a coalition determined to reverse the nationalist tide that she rightly bemoans.
It is hard not to conclude that The Ghosts of Europe is a missed opportunity. Porter manages to interview most of the major figures in the story of Central Europe’s revolution and transition (Václav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic and chief antagonist of Václav Havel, is one of the few significant people who elude her.) Yet she elicits very little that is new in her interviews. And although Porter has a keen eye for the monuments and burials which are the engines of remembrance, The Ghosts of Europe never seriously engages with some of the best recent scholarship on the phenomenon in Central Europe, including Katherine Verdery’s The Political Lives of Dead Bodies and Istvan Rev’s Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism. Indeed, Rev is reduced to a foil in an odd Budapest set piece in which Porter contrasts her own émigré upbringing with Rev’s family history as the son of a high-ranking communist functionary.
But the book’s major failing is that Porter’s passionate dive into history leaves the larger questions about Central Europe’s integration into the European Union and NATO dangling. Regardless of how intensive or lax their respective approach to lustration was, or how tumultuous their local politics have been, the transitions in the countries that Porter surveys have been largely successful. (Compare and contrast, for instance, the less successful transitions of Bulgaria, Romania, and the nations of the former Yugoslavia save Slovenia.)
More than two decades after the revolutions of 1989, it is the present, and not the past, that most frightens Central Europe. Having transitioned away from communism, these nations now share in a continent-wide suspicion that the grand European project they joined belatedly is not all it was cracked up to be. The cold truths of economic distress that these nations endured in communism and transition, and the rising xenophobia they tried to escape, are now alive and thriving in Western Europe, too. The importance of Central Europe’s past cannot be denied, but the present has its own life, its own dangers, and we should be wary of misunderstanding them.
Richard Byrne is a journalist and playwright. He blogs at Balkans via Bohemia.