Will Year of Miracles Be Squandered? Cynicism Threatens to Destroy Gains of 1989

Poland and Central Europe have prospered since the fall of communism in 1989. Today, however, Europe is faced with a great test. A leading Polish journalist and ex-dissident argues that cynisism and the lure of authoritarianism are the new threats to a European freedom secured only two decades ago.

What are the reasons behind what happened 20 years ago? The most banal answer to this question is that communism proved economically ineffective. But there are still communist countries today, despite their systems' inefficiencies: Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and China. Therefore, we cannot be satisfied with a purely economic answer to this question.

The year 1989 was a year of miracles, an annus mirabilis. Yet the explanations for the fall of communism differ. Americans answer that it was the result of US policies. A Democrat would say it was the human rights policies put in place by Jimmy Carter, namely "detente with a human face." A Republican would credit Ronald Reagan's policies, which initiated an arms race that the Soviet economy could not match.

In the Vatican, meanwhile, one hears that the fall of communism was mainly due to John Paul II and his actions, which deprived the system of its legitimacy, especially in Poland. If you live in Kabul, you are told that communism collapsed because of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the resistance of the Afghans, which placed the Soviet empire in a hopeless situation. In Berlin, it is said that the fall of communism was the result of a prudent Ostpolitik, which led the Soviet Union to talk about things it never wanted to talk about. In Moscow, anyone will tell you that it was a result of Gorbachev's perestroika, and in Warsaw, that it was because of the independent trade union Solidarity and its leader Lech Walesa.

In short, there is more than one answer to this question. A complicated bundle of facts made the political elite in the Soviet Union aware that a degree of democratic modernization was unavoidable, and that socialism would not survive otherwise. I am convinced that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to modernize socialism but not destroy the USSR. Yet communism turned out to be like the joke about the Jewish shoemaker's trousers. When his wife tells him he should get his trousers cleaned, he energetically resists. His wife wants to know why, and complains that they are getting dirtier and dirtier. Finally Mordecai answers, "Yes, they are getting dirtier, but if I get them cleaned, they'll fall apart entirely!"

That is what happened with the Soviet Union. Communism fell, paradoxically, because the Soviet elite believed it could be reformed. In fact, those who did not want to change anything, the hardliners, were right. We do not know how long communism will continue in China, Cuba, or North Korea. Seen in historical perspective, it is condemned to death. But it could still last a few generations. Thus 1989 was a sign that something was ending, but no one had any idea how it would end or when.

Four Perspectives

When I look back, I have four perspectives: a Polish one, because I am a Pole; a Russian one, because the cards were really shuffled there; a Central European one, because the fall of communism was not a purely Polish phenomenon; and finally, the perspective of the West.

The West was not at all prepared for what happened. I do not mean only Western Europe, but also the United States. I remember my talks at the time with many important US politicians who came to Warsaw. They were absolutely unprepared for what happened. They did not assume that the communist dictatorship would shatter; they could not diagnose what was happening in the Soviet Union, and -- not unlike us in Poland, by the way -- they had no idea at all that the Soviet Union could collapse entirely. The decisive factor was Russia. The perestroika reforms set new forces free, and they triggered further processes that developed a new dynamic. For a long time, neither the ruling communist elite nor the opposition in Central Europe understood what was actually underway in Russia.

In 1989, it was not at all clear that Gorbachev would be in a position to accept the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and talks on the unification of Germany in order to save communism in the Soviet Union. That was all but clear at the time. It is no accident that in 1990, George Bush was still trying to convince the Ukrainians not to seek independence.

The year 1989 is an extraordinarily important one. At its start only two states, Poland and Hungary, were trying to take their own path. But this changed like a kaleidoscope. What was not possible in January became reality in February, and in March one could demand even more.

At the beginning of April 1989 I was in Italy. Catholic priest and newspaper editor Adam Boniecki was generous enough to take me with him to see the Pope. This was after the Soviet elections to the Congress of People's Deputies. The vote was not entirely democratic, but for the first time candidates ran who did not belong to the party. Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Sobchak, and Oleg Bogomolov became members of parliament. Among the losers, for the first time since 1917, were the apparatchiks. The Pope listened to me with enormous attention. For him it was a completely new situation. Poland had not yet had elections, but I explained that judging by events in the Soviet Union things really were changing and we had to think in a new direction.

Among the governing elites, Hungary's went the furthest. The change in the party began in Hungary. Imre Pozsgay, the leader of the liberal nationalist wing, was one of those responsible for the "thaw" in the public media. He also encouraged an accommodation with the "nationalist" wing of the opposition. He was the first to dispute Hungarian leader Janos Kadar's interpretation of the 1956 uprising as counterrevolution.

The Hungarian opposition was weaker than the Polish, and from the beginning it was divided into two currents, nationalist and liberal. The national current called for an agreement with Pozsgay in order to restore Hungary's national identity, which had been trodden upon by the communist dictatorship. The second current was based on liberal values, called for authentic democracy, and opposed a compromise with the nomenklatura. One might say that the "nationalists" intended to reconstruct historic currents, while Hungarian democrats like Janos Kis and Tamas Bauer wanted a European future for their country.

Poland went furthest, as the government's Round Table negotiations with Solidarity broke through the iron logic of the communist regime and opened it up to ideas that had not been heard since August 1980, when it was at its height. At the time, I thought: assuming the counterreformation is not a rejection of the reformation, but the adoption of some of its motives in order to modernize and adapt the church to new challenges, then Solidarity was a reformation within communism and Gorbachev is the counterreformation. Later, in our discussions it became clear that Gorbachev knew little about Solidarity, but it seems to me that this metaphor is historically justified.

When I think about Poland's Round Table and how it became a blueprint for other countries, several factors are striking. First of all, it was a major revolution without a revolution. No one took to the streets; there were no barricades, and no executions. Everyone remembered the barricades of 1980 and the martial law that followed all too well. None of us had a sense of what was happening. As Poland's future president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, would say many years later, it is unclear how things would have developed if both sides in Poland had realized that their decisions would lead to German unification.

Nevertheless, in the opposition we were aware that a united Germany was only natural. Maybe this was not openly discussed, but that is what we thought. For me it was obvious that under normal conditions of democratic competition, it would not be possible to maintain the division of Germany. East Germany was a barrack-state that would not exist without the Red Army. The East German opposition thought differently. It had the most left-leaning opposition of all the East bloc countries. It sought the democratization of East Germany. The autumn demonstrations in East Germany began with the slogan "We are the people" before the slogan "We are one people" emerged.

I want to reconstruct my thought processes of the time. In Poland, the idea behind the Round Table was to bring about a kind of Finlandization of Poland. We knew we could not win a war against Russia, which is why we had to work with what came to us from Russia. Thus perestroika was our natural ally. In 1988, I wrote an article called "The Fight Over Stalinism," which I sent to the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. The censor spiked it, although the quote that he liked least came from a Soviet newspaper. The Polish censor edited out the word "Stalinism." This shows the delay and the resistance with which perestroika came to us. At the end of the 1980s, the Soviet press was much more liberal and free than Polish newspapers. Ultimately the censor did let the article through. It was my first article since 1966 published officially under my own name. That, too, was a sign of change.

A second factor, paradoxically, was the intra-German dialogue that intensified at the end of the 1980s. In one text I asked Poland's leader General Jaruzelski why internal-Polish dialogue was not possible, if there was a dialogue between Erich Honecker and Helmut Kohl. After some ten years, it seemed that the project of modernization through martial law essentially meant the "Chinese model," except that our dictatorship was not as strong as China's. The rulers reached the conclusion that they had to try something new, since Poland with its heavy debt could not go on under its own power.

In the ruling faction in Poland there was a long quarrel over how to assess the Round Table. The strikes in May and August 1988 led to the government's replacement. The new prime minister was Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, the longtime chief editor of the weekly Polityka, a mouthpiece for the communist party -- but known for its openness.

Rakowski had been deputy prime minister under Wojciech Jaruzelski, but had to resign in the mid-1980s under pressure from the Kremlin. Rakowski was a reformer even though his personal ideas about reform differed from ours. He wanted to bring about a radical improvement in the standard of living through intelligent economic decisions, and thus achieve broad support for his policies. This would marginalize Solidarity's opposition, he surmised.

This idea was unsuccessful, and the ruling faction saw it was necessary to negotiate with the opposition. A crucial factor was a televised debate between Lech Walesa and the chairman of the pro-government union. That evening, all of Poland sat in front of the television. It was the moment of truth: Walesa knocked his opponent out and Poland boiled over with excitement. The road to the Round Table was clear.

Ambivalence of Freedom

Communism systematized the world -- even for those in the West. It conveyed to them that the essence of the world was the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism. The end of communism revealed some processes of which we had not been entirely aware. First of all, those struggling against communism were the ones deeply concerned with civil liberties. However, the end of communism revealed that the desire to live in a secure and predictable was the strongest human need. Despite its simplistic relationship to democratic values, communism constantly told the public that because there was no unemployment; the people were safe -- which produced the typical Stockholm syndrome effect. Anyone who has been in prison knows that freedom is a prisoner's only dream. Ultimately the prisoner is released, the world is beautiful, colorful, the birds are singing, the grass is green, people are sitting in cafes, the former prisoner walks the streets -- he has space.

But after a time he realizes that he is not secure. While he was in prison, he knew exactly when he could eat, when he would be taken to the bathroom, that the barber would come to trim his hair, and above all, that he had somewhere to sleep. And now he is suddenly wandering through the city and does not know what will happen. He begins to miss the regimented life of the prison. This is to some extent how we felt, a few years after the fall of communism. Though it seemed incomprehensible to the dissidents, that is how it was. In the prison everything had its place -- and then suddenly chaos prevailed.

It was similar for the whole world. The end of communism triggered unexpected and ambivalent processes. Communism undermined national and religious traditions. The end of communism therefore gave people the right to return to these traditions. But at the same time, these traditions are not necessarily synonymous with freedom. In today's Russia, the Orthodox Church is not a factor that strengthens democracy; it is subordinate to the state. In Poland, no responsible person can deny some anti-democratic forces in our church -- because they exist. They do not dominate, but their active presence is clear for all to see.

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