The Roads Not Taken

Mass Participation in Revolution

The great European revolutions have signposted the political landscape of the continent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: 1789, 1848, and 1917 were pivotal, symbolic years. Conservatives, liberals, and leftists all formed their political identities around their standpoint on the respective revolutions. But the changes of 1989–91 do not raise any such passions. All political camps generally approve of the toppling of communist regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall, except perhaps the unreformed communists who can still be found in the Czech Republic, Russia, and Ukraine. This shallow consensus about 1989 has caused the values behind the revolution to fade from memory, or to become reduced to the rallying cry of “freedom.” This last, possibly somewhat melancholic, chapter therefore explores why the revolutions of 1989 left the societies west of the Iron Curtain so unmoved. It inquires into the values the revolutionary actors fought for (focusing specifically on Prague and the former Czechoslovakia), and how these values were received by Western European observers. It also asks how Western societies responded to the changes and challenges in Central and Eastern Europe. This question has gained new relevance through the revolution in Kyiv in 2014. In many ways, this most recent revolution in European history resembled the events in 1989. But again it is doubtful whether the West has realized the implications and reacted adequately.

The public in Western Europe experienced the revolutions as a media event, filtered through their TVs. That is true even of West Berliners, who bided their time while the East Berliners stormed the Wall. Only a relatively small group of students, teenagers and residents neighboring the Wall actually celebrated the historic moment with the East Germans. The Viennese certainly stayed at home, although the borders with Hungary and Slovakia were only an hour’s drive away. Apart from a few journalists, foreign visitors were rare in Prague in November 1989. It was, then, literally a one-sided revolution, which took place on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.

There were reasonable explanations for the Western Europeans’ reserve. Travel restrictions on the Eastern Bloc countries were still in force; even visitors from the immediate vicinity of the Iron Curtain would have needed visas, and to go through border controls and other inconveniences, to reach the hotspots of the revolution. The uncertain outcome of the protests also deterred Western Europeans from making the trip to Leipzig, East Berlin, Prague, or Bratislava. But so did the wall in their minds. Despite the increasing contact that the policy of détente had facilitated, Western and Eastern European societies had grown apart. The older generations still recalled old animosities, bred by the traumatic experiences of the Second World War and the early postwar period. People on the west side of the border with the GDR, and of the various Bavarian and Austrian regions adjoining the ČSSR, lived with their backs to the Iron Curtain. As the prosperity gap grew in the 1970s and ’80s, they gained a sense of material distinction which reinforced the geographical separation. They now regarded the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries, including the relatively affluent East Germans, as poor neighbors. Sometimes this inspired solidarity. West Germans sent tens of thousands of food parcels to Poland when martial law was proclaimed in 1981. But on the whole, the saturated societies of Western Europe had accommodated to the Cold War constellation, perhaps even more so than the Americans, whose president ordered in 1987 in his famous Berlin speech, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and who flocked to Prague in their thousands in the early nineties.

Although there were valid reasons, then, for Western Europeans’ failure to participate in the revolutions of 1989, in retrospect it seems like a missed opportunity. This is especially true of those segments of society that were very much inclined to become mobilized for other causes. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands took part in demonstrations against nuclear power plants and the deployment of new NATO missiles in Western Europe. Yet in 1989, when Eastern Europeans took to the streets to end Soviet hegemony and communism, the peace protesters and environmental activists stayed at home. Today, a similar scenario is repeated with respect to the Russian intervention in Ukraine—in any case, no major demonstrations against it have yet been seen outside Russian embassies.

Perhaps revolutionary internationalism has always been a utopian ideal rather than a concrete practice. Yet there are examples of cross-border participation in contemporary history. Thousands of young Poles traveled to Ukraine in 2004 to take part in the Orange Revolution and join the protests in Ľviv and Kyiv. The Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza even published a special edition for its eastern neighbor. Polish empathy with Ukraine is rooted in the countries’ historical ties and common experiences of the years 1989–91. It is hard to gauge whether Poland’s solidarity influenced the course of events. But the knowledge that they were not alone in their struggle was certainly an important psychological support for the Ukrainian protesters. In view of this, Austria and Germany have shown shamefully scant solidarity with the democratic revolution in Ukraine. Their eastern neighbors were much more internationalist in the stormy fall and winter of 1989. In their revolutionary enthusiasm, Czechs and Slovaks even tried to mobilize their Western neighbors. In early December the Slovak civil forum (Verejnost’ proti násiliu, literally “public against violence”) organized a cross-border protest march from Bratislava to Hainburg in Austria, across the Danube.1 The destination of the march was no coincidence: in 1984 it had been the scene of demonstrations involving tens of thousands of Austrians protesting against plans to build a giant Austrian-Slovakian-Hungarian hydroelectric plant.

Czech environmentalists had also protested against the feared damage to the unique Danube flood plain, and risked reprisals to forge contacts with the Austrian and German environmental movements. At the demonstration in Hainburg, the spokesperson of the Slovak civil forum gave a euphoric speech that ended with the words “Hello Europe.” This was no mere greeting but a statement of intent, underlining the fact that Slovaks (and Czechs) belonged to this—normatively perceived—Europe, too.

To follow up, Czech civil rights activists organized various smaller actions along the Czechoslovak-Austrian border. Some sailed on large rafts along the Danube, singing and celebrating. The residents of the Moravian border town Břeclav organized a five-mile-long human chain to the nearest Austrian village. For a while, this spontaneous form of international understanding worked well. The Austrians welcomed their eastern neighbors with wine, sausages, coffee, and cakes. As in Berlin in 1989, there was a brief moment of unity.

But the internationalism of the Czech civil forum (Občanské Forum, or OH) and its Slovak equivalent did not last. It petered out as the cold weather set in and revolutionary activists became generally demobilized. When the last communist Czechoslovak government stepped down and Václav Havel was elected president (unanimously, by the federal parliament, as if the old communist ballot rules still applied), the opposition saw its primary goals achieved. By the time parliamentary elections were held in June 1990 (following those in March 1990 in the GDR), mass protests were no longer needed—insofar as one accepted the parameters of parliamentary democracy. In fact, the power play between parties and political organizations in the run-up to the elections had contributed to demobilizing the public. The situation confounded many Czechoslovaks, as it did the GDR citizens who had valued the sense of political and social unity that characterized the mass protests of fall 1989. The pluralization of political life may have been a sign of greater democracy, but its party political ramifications were not well received by the public.

This was evident in the low election turnouts. In Poland and Hungary, less than two-thirds of those eligible to vote took part in the first free elections; not even half participated in the Polish local elections of May 1990. The sudden redundancy of revolutionary activity went hand in hand with rapid transitions to parliamentary systems of government dominated by party politics. Their precipitate birth left the fledgling democracies decidedly anemic.

Societies and politics were further fragmented by nations reckoning up with their communist past.2 In winter 1989–90, tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks took to the streets in protest against the continuing presence of communist functionaries in local administrations, the media, and industry. But the disclosure of ever more information on citizens’ past activities as informers, including leading dissidents, soon diverted attention from other issues. An analogous situation arose in the former GDR. Here, even the first democratically elected premier, Lothar de Maizière, was suspected of Stasi collaboration. In the consequent atmosphere of general mistrust, demands were voiced for a renewed, more thorough “cleansing” of public life and administration. (There was less concern about the economy.) This created a rift in the former opposition, as one side called for the removal or punishment of all security service informers while the other warned against embarking on a witch-hunt. The social and economic cuts introduced in the spring and summer of 1990 swept away any remainder of the euphoria of fall and winter and finally replaced it with widespread disenchantment.

Left-wing West Germans and their intellectual mentors regarded the revolution with skepticism from the start. German sociologist Jürgen Habermas described it as “rectifying” (based on the slightly different German term nachholend).3 He thus implied that it marked a departure from the wrong track of communism and a return to the right path of development toward Western modernity. As if wishing to externalize the antiutopian aspect of this evaluation, in fall 1989, Habermas attacked the revolution’s “total lack of ideas that are either innovative or oriented towards the future.”4 He particularly disapproved of the fact that what had started as a political revolution had turned into a national movement in the GDR. The slogan “We are one people” (“Wir sind ein Volk”), which echoed with increasing intensity across Leipzig and East Berlin from November 1989 (and modified the earlier slogan of “We are the people”—“Wir sind das Volk”) conflicted with Habermas’s typically left-wing West German antinationalist sensibilities. So did the “return to old, national symbols” he observed in the other Eastern Bloc countries.5 Indeed, the GDR’s imminent unification with the FRG was set to conclude the political development of the first successful German revolution. Given the asymmetry of power between the two Germanies, it could only end in political alignment or, as Habermas would have it, rectification. It should be noted, however, that this was more in the interests of West German politics than of East German civil rights activists. All demands from East Germany to amend the constitution in the light of unification and introduce more elements of direct democracy or enshrine more basic social rights were quashed by the conservative government in Bonn.

Were the West German and Western European Left any more open-minded? Habermas at least took the revolutions of 1989 as an opportunity for a critical appraisal of his own political environment. He found the Left to be overly preoccupied with statism and smugly self-satisfied about the “welfare compromise.” The remedy he proposed was to consolidate the “autonomous public sphere,” a domain he conceived in sectoral terms, along the lines of a civil society falling between public and private life. The civil rights activists of East Central Europe held similar views, but Habermas acknowledged them in neither his German nor his English text on the revolution (at least not by name or in literature references). The only Eastern European he mentioned was Alexander Dubček, whose demand for a Third Way Habermas regarded as unrealistic. Despite being skeptical of statism, Habermas called for the state to rein in the market. Meanwhile, the reform programs introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz and Václav Klaus were establishing precisely the reverse conditions.

British contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash had witnessed the turmoil in Warsaw, Prague, and Berlin with his own eyes. Politically, he is harder to pin down than Habermas but it would surely be fair to describe him as a left-wing liberal. In his book We The People, published shortly after the revolution, he expressed sincere admiration for the Eastern European civil rights activists. But over the course of the year 1990, his tone changed. He began to develop a far more critical view of figures such as Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel—the former on account of his political vacillation and the latter because of his moralizing.6 He articulated his criticisms in publications, including an essay for the journal Transit. Europäische Revue. This periodical was founded in 1990, partly in response to the opening of Eastern Europe, at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, IWM), and will serve here as a rich source for a case study and spot checks on the West’s reception of the revolution. Its editor, the Polish philosopher-in-exile Krzysztof Michalski, invited a broad spectrum of authors to contribute to the first edition. From Left to Right, all political leanings were represented, and supplemented by articles by respected Eastern European dissidents.

Garton Ash was personally acquainted with prominent civil rights activists in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the GDR. But in his Transit essay he cited only a few press articles and an interview that Václav Havel had given The Times of London. He refrained from examining the ideals of 1989, concentrating instead on the birth pangs of the new democracies in East Central Europe. He issued an explicit warning against the “risk of over-democratization” and gave pragmatic advice on how to deal with the contemporary challenges. In his view, the most promising approach was to adopt the German model of parliamentary democracy, and he called on the government in Bonn to become actively involved in the former Eastern Bloc. Though this may have been good advice, and attests to his cosmopolitanism, Garton Ash’s adherence to Western conceptions for interpreting the changes in Eastern Europe is jarring. His essay makes no mention of the democratic groundwork performed by the Solidarność movement or the long tradition of Czech democratic thought, which was an important influence on Havel. Instead, Garton Ash warned against too much democracy.

The liberal, Oxford-based sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf also took the role of a political-realist advisor in an essay in the same edition of Transit. Dahrendorf praised the reformers’ courage but argued that social cuts and wage limitations, even a “deep valley of tears,” were inevitable.7Similarly to Garton Ash, he mentioned various dissidents and politicians from postcommunist countries, and was evidently most impressed by Leszek Balcerowicz. His deepest concern was the dilemma he feared the new democracies faced: predicting that a boom analogous to that in Western Europe after 1945 would not occur for several years, he warned that the unavoidable social cuts and resultant frustration could pose a threat to the young democracies. Alternatively, pursuing democracy could jeopardize the necessary reforms. Perhaps it was the latter scenario that prompted Dahrendorf to refer to the modernizing dictatorships of East Asia as external examples. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, he pointed out, generated wealth before introducing democracy in the first postwar decades. He rejected the use of the term “revolution” in the context of 1989. In his view of history, revolutions always caused more harm than good, especially on an economic level. To him, 1989 was, instead, a “transition” to a liberal democracy and market economy, which he hoped the West would assist, as actively and sympathetically as possible.

Dahrendorf echoed Habermas’s call for the consolidation of civil society, which he saw as a “great project”—“the best of the modern age.”8 But while Habermas argued for “reining in” the market and Garton Ash avoided questions of economic policy, Dahrendorf supported radical liberalization. To him, it was a sign of dissociation from “illiberal regimes.” He also referred admiringly to Friedrich von Hayek, one of the founding fathers of neoliberalism.

The essay by François Furet in the same issue of Transit stands for the conservative reception of the revolution. Furet started by tracing a long critical arc from “the fading star of October” (meaning the Russian Revolution of 1917), which, he proposed, had allowed “the star of 1789 to shine again.”9 At the same time, he relativized the significance of the French Revolution and criticized the way it was carried out. Furet condemned the Jacobins (thus continuing a long tradition of French conservative thought) and claimed that human rights were the only enduring achievement of 1789. Consequently, he argued that the revolutionary idea should be distinguished from the democratic idea. To Furet, the radical changes of 1989 confirmed the persistence of “capitalism and democracy” as the “key elements of modernity.” Hence the subtitle of his essay was “Return Ticket”. In principle, his line of argument echoed Francis Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history. But Furet was so preoccupied with France’s reception of the revolution that his essay reads over long stretches like a French soliloquy. Only one page of the entire text was devoted to Eastern Europe. Here, Furet declared democracy and capitalism to be an “inseparable couple” but simultaneously distanced himself from the Polish and Hungarian “cult of free enterprise.”10 Eastern Europeans, to summarize his point of view, should embrace capitalism, but not too much.

These articles by German, British, and French authors are some examples of the 1989 revolution’s reception among Western European intellectuals. Yet the essay by Habermas and the articles in Transit—founded by a Polish exile—can also be regarded as evidence of non-reception. Habermas and Furet repeated arguments they had previously advanced elsewhere (Furet in a text to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, Habermas in his writings as a pioneer of German social democracy), and were not prepared to explore the values behind the revolution in any depth. At least Dahrendorf and Garton Ash considered the changes in East Central Europe in some detail. But none of the authors analyzed the revolutionary demands and ideals of winter 1989–90. They did not even refer to the articles by Eastern European civil rights activists in the same edition of the journal. None of them raised the question of what the West might be able to learn or adopt from Eastern Europe. Instead, they offered paternalistic advice on how to develop the former Eastern Bloc countries. This is not really surprising; it reflected the contemporary asymmetry of power in Europe. In a sense, these Western European thinkers were continuing the tradition of Enlightenment thought. Since the late eighteenth century, most renowned men of letters have adhered to an occidentalist perspective, considering the East only in the case of ideational or military conflict. It remained thus in the years around 1989, despite the opportunity for more intensive intellectual exchange. But what values were the civil rights activists and millions of protesters actually going out in the streets for in 1989? In the GDR, national demands (for German unity) very quickly obscured other revolutionary goals. For this reason, the section below will focus on Czechoslovakia, which was effectively a laboratory for political and social values and utopias, at least until the local elections of fall 1990.

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