1989 Project – Preliminary remarks

Robin Okey: The Demise of Communist East Europe: 1989 in Context  http://www.amazon.com/The-Demise-Communist-East-Europe/dp/0340740574/

Robin Okey: The Demise of Communist East Europe: 1989 in Context
http://www.amazon.com/The-Demise-Communist-East-Europe/dp/0340740574/

This book I got for my project after doing some online research. I got it as – hopefully – the best available analysis that puts the events of 1989 in a context. Context of time, reaching from the nationalist movements of the 19th century through the hopes and failures of the interwar period and the communist period, right into the present. Context of space, insofar that the story of 1989 can be told as “poor eastern Europeans against the communist beast”, but can also be seen as differing national societies with differing histories, differing structures and differing internal regime crisises.

This isn’t meant to deny that the external context of crisis of the “Warsaw pact”’s foundations played a decisive role. I believe however that, in order to understand the events of 1989, one has to look at them in their national context, as they were perceived by most of the actors at that time – rather than only analyzing them with hindsight as if they were meant to necessarily lead to the known end (of “communism”). An additional benefit of that approach will be to understand the present of eastern european countries not so much as a parallel “post-communist” evolution starting from the year 1989, but to stress the continuities of economical, social and ethnic matters that have shaped politics in that region long before 1945, and seemingly are there to stay.

Looking back at 1989 to assess the present situation in Eastern Europe: Victor Orbán was a Hungarian student leader 25 years ago.

Looking back at 1989 to assess the present situation in Eastern Europe: Victor Orbán was a Hungarian student leader 25 years ago.

A book and a game

I plan to read the book, play the historical simulation game named “1989: Dawn of Freedom” and get a feeling for the things that happened in those days. I will then write an account mixing game elements and historical account – something I did some years ago for the anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War (“Jouer les rouges”, 23.12.2011, in French). Clearly, a game cannot be as reliable a source as an academic study. However, it helps familiarizing with the events and the forces in play. Also, by raising questions about how the game designer translates (or leaves out) factors, circumstances and events found in the book and other sources, one gets a feeling for the possible divergencies in interpreting the events of 1989. Anniversaries are often an opportunity to celebrate the mainstream view of historical events – this will be no different. That alone would justify me spending time and energy on the subject.

An additional, although less important, incentive will be the ways the events of 1989 are related to China. Obviously, there are the protests of Tiananmen, brutally ended in June of that year. This was followed by a stabilization of the “Communist” regime that has lasted until now. The game is focussed on eastern Europe and includes a “Tiananmen track” only as a “gamey” feature, that is not part of the competitive reenactement that gives it a pedagocical value.

From Miss Liberty to the Tank Man: During the demise of European Communism, Tiananmen was only a sideshow. But comparing change and immobility here and there is instructive.

From Miss Liberty to the Tank Man: During the demise of European Communism, Tiananmen was only a sideshow. But comparing change and immobility here and there is instructive.

Anyway, the most interesting relationship is not the coincidence in time, but the fact that China started in a state that might be seen as less ripe for a reform than eastern Europe. Since Tiananmen however, Chinese “Communism” has walked on a path that might have been taken by eastern European and Soviet reform communists. Surprisingly, the combination of economical reforms and political immobility (see for example my review of the Deng Xiaoping biography by Felix Lee, in German) has evolved much beyond what had been done in Europe in the years preceding 1989. Comparing the challenges here and there, then and now, promises to be gratifying: Why did the economical reforms give consistent results in China but not in the Soviet area? What can be learnt from the events of 1989 – either from the perspective of those who want to preserve the dominance of the Communist party or the perspective of those who dream of its demise? In the book as well as in the minds of the game designers and, no doubt, in those of the Chinese leaders of today, there’s a recurring quote from Alexis de Tocqueville (relating to Ancien Régime France):

“… the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”

Finally there’s another personal reason to be attracted towards the subject of 1989: Being born in the 1960s, I have witnessed the era before and the one after that fateful year for an approximately equal amount of time. Unlike many younger friends, I remember clearly how it felt to be a progressive or even a Socialist and to have an assertive Communist movement as your competitor and partner. Those first 25 years of my life shape the way I look towards the actions of Western countries today, be it invading foreign countries, spying on and harassing their own citizens and building walls against people fleeing from their countries.

My generation – half cold, half free?

The walls, then and now - justified as a way to protect us!?

The walls, then and now – justified as a way to protect us!?

During the cold war, those who didn’t wanna choose between freedom and social justice opposed the cynism of the Communists arguing that Western freedom was just a fake. We felt that we were right to criticize the Soviet interventions from Hungary to Afghanistan, the suppression of opponents by the KGB and the Stasi and, as a symbol of the inhumanity of the eastern European Communism, the Berlin Wall and the people shot while passing the frontier.

We were right to criticize. We were wrong to hopes that the end of Communism and of the Cold War would bring along a better world. Clearly, I do not regret the presence of Communism, which in part can be seen as a perversion of socialist ideas. But I may have been over optimistic regarding the possibilities of a “free world”. Or maybe, there was a potential for a better world that has not – not yet? – been realized. The question then would be: What went wrong in 1989?

Working in the lobby of the Hotel Rosatsch, view on the garden with squirrels and redstarts.

Working in the lobby of the Hotel Rosatsch, view on the garden with squirrels and redstarts.