Thursday, November 2, 2017

The bad boys on the block

Demonstration at Warsaw University, May 1988. The dominoes began to fall a year before the collapse that most of us remember (Wikicommons: Rafał Werbanowski)

The sky outside was pitch-black, and the windows were reverberating with the wind blowing off the St. Lawrence. In my motel room the 6 o’clock news showed a scene of festivity—crowds of people milling about the Berlin Wall with some actually on top and chipping off pieces. It all seemed ironic. Here I was doing fieldwork to understand the past and meanwhile the present was changing before my very eyes.

Yet some people had foreseen that change. In 1982, a book had made this prediction:

We should ask ourselves whether, like us, the Russians will not be affected by our new morality. Perhaps this has already happened. In that case, the consequences will be far-reaching in their starkness, as in the West. The Soviet Empire will collapse. Russia will become a democracy. That appears, today, to be unimaginable. What has become of the British Empire, more populous and vaster than the U.S.S.R? It has become confined to a people on an island (Taccoen 1982, p. 71)

In the mid-1980s I ran into a biology professor who had just come back from his native Hungary. “Communism is finished! I felt freer there than I do here!” About the same time another professor, from my department, spoke about a conference in Poland. He was surprised by the dismissive attitude toward Marxism. “They wouldn’t hear anything of it! And these were anthropologists from a socialist country!”

Unlike today, I enjoyed reading newspapers and listening to the news, but before the events of 1989 there hadn’t been much about Eastern Europe. Even Poland’s Solidarity movement had faded from public view, having been quashed by martial law. The general thinking seemed to be that nothing would change there any time soon. All forms of organized opposition had been crushed, and the population cowed. This was especially so in East Germany, where everybody was being monitored in one way or another and where the Berlin Wall was to be upgraded with the latest high tech: electronic sensors, motion detectors, acoustic sensors, and remote surveillance cameras (Rottman 2012). As for Hungary, well, it had always been the bad boy on the block. Nothing new there.

Then in May 1988 Hungary’s leader, János Kádár, resigned after 32 years of power. That same year the Hungarian parliament voted for a “democracy package”: free trade unions, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, as well as a radical rewriting of the constitution. That event went largely unnoticed in the West, but in Eastern Europe it signaled that change was now possible. In August 1988 the Polish authorities agreed to talks with Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity. That, too, was a signal.

Everything else is history. In April 1989 Solidarity was legalized, not only as a union movement but also as a political party. In June, Solidarity candidates won almost all of the seats available to them. Then two “puppet” parties left the Communist-led coalition and teamed up with Solidarity, thus allowing a non-communist coalition to take power. Meanwhile, similar events were playing out in Hungary. In April, the electrified border fence with Austria was turned off, and border guards began removing sections the following month. In June, Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, was reburied at a public ceremony attended by over 100,000. Then, people in other countries began agitating for change, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia … 

One signal led to another. Ultimately, the first signal came in March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. From then on, people throughout the Eastern bloc began pushing the bounds of what was politically possible, and that process started in those countries that already had a history of pushing the bounds.

The speed of change was remarkable, perhaps because of the small social distance between the elites and the mass of the population, combined with a strong sense of common national identity. Despite the repression, the dissidents had got their message across to the people, including the elites. By the late 1980s many among the latter realized that the existing system was dysfunctional and had to change for the greater good. When General Jaruzelski began talks with Solidarity, he did so out of patriotic concern for Poland’s future, and not because circumstances had forced his hand. He could have let things slide indefinitely, had he wanted. Similarly, in Hungary it was the communist leadership that piloted the transition to a non-communist society. They were Hungarians first and communists second.

I have trouble imagining our elites thinking and acting that way. The process of change will likely begin elsewhere and then spread here, through a sort of domino effect, and the first dominos to fall seem to be once again those same two countries.


Rottman, G.L. (2012). The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961-89, Bloomsbury Publishing

Taccoen, L. (1982). L’Occident est nu, Paris: Flammarion.


Anonymous said...

God bless the Poles and Hungarians. The fact that Orban was educated by good liberals makes it all the more amazing.

Sean said...

An awful lot of Poles are now living abroad, and the ones in the UK will never go home even after Brexit (which their presence in Britain largely caused) so I think Hungary.