Dashed Hopes

A careful look at four ex-Soviet states shows little but disillusionment and greed.

Twenty years ago, the Cold War came to a sudden and unpredicted end. The Berlin Wall, symbol of the post-1945 fracture of Europe between Stalinist tyranny and liberal capitalism, dissolved into chunks of masonry, widely sold, although less as souvenirs of brutal oppression and more as proof of capitalism’s triumph over communism. Previous rebellions in Hungary in 1956, in Poland and East Germany had been crushed in blood. A decade earlier, Poland’s General Wojciech Jaruzelski boasted that he had forestalled a Soviet invasion by crushing his country’s Solidarity movement and slaughtering a hundred of its supporters. But in February 1989, Solidarity-selected intellectuals sat around a table with communist officials, planning a partially free election. That summer, Poland had its first non-communist premier since 1947. By 1990, Jaruzelski was on trial for his life. In Hungary, a communist government let East German refugees cross its border to the West. If a fellow-government ignored the Berlin Wall, should it be torn down? “Why not?” asked Mikhail Gorbachev, the last of Stalin’s heirs. By the end of the year, Stalin’s brutal legacy was gone, a victim of a scattering of valiant rebels and its own ideological contradictions.

Among the rapturous onlookers was a refugee from the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, a successful Canadian author and publisher named Anna Porter. Born a Jew in Budapest after the Nazis had fled, Anna Maria Szigethy’s parents were middle-class victims of the communist takeover, and she had sufficient experience of communist-era anti-Semitism to flee her homeland with the flood of refugees who sought sanctuary in the West. She grew up in New Zealand, came to Canada as a credentialled scholar and, in 1970, married Toronto’s leading libel lawyer, Julian Porter, an admirable and beneficial adjunct to the publishing industry.

Anticipating the 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolution, Anna Porter felt empowered to visit four of the liberated countries—Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and her native Hungary—to see and hear for herself what had happened. It turned out to be both a hectic and sometimes painful learning experience, and The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys Through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future will make any thoughtful reader a lot wiser in the world. She interviewed most of the leaders and intellectuals who have mattered in these countries over the past generation; those who had no time for her will find out their penalty if they ever read her book.

Porter is no neutral. In a book about the inheritors of the Hapsburg Empire, she spares no time for the hapless people of the Balkans, be they Romanians, Croats or Serbs. She has more time for the Slovaks, who escaped Hungarian imperialism only to find themselves in a forced marriage to the Czechs. Their fate will remind Canadian readers that linguistic and cultural manoeuvres are not limited to Quebec, although the local bully-boy politics may well be universal.

In novels, happy endings allow readers to finish a story with a smile; real experience usually leads to tragedy. Far from ending history, as Francis Fukuyama cheerfully predicted, the aftermath of 1989 has restored even some demons the communists tried to exorcise. Racist nationalism, a crime in the Stalinist era, has spread across the former Warsaw Pact states with a brutality that has even shaken Quebec separatists out of some of their gentler illusions.

Porter wants Central Europeans to accept and apologize for their direct involvement in the Holocaust. Instead, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks have experienced too many other horrors (largely forgotten in the West), from the Katyn massacre to the ethnic cleansing by forced migrations that drove millions of Germans from East Prussia and the Sudetenland and even more Poles from the Ukraine, regions where they had lived for centuries. The Holocaust may have been a Nazi atrocity but the others were made possible by the Allied powers when their Yalta Agreement handed Central Europe to Josef Stalin. Porter joins many historians in blaming the First World War as the ultimate disaster for a civilized Europe. The destruction of the Hapsburgs’ central European empire by Woodrow Wilson and his allies through the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 for the sake of “self-determination” ennobled and legitimized racial nationalism throughout the world, nowhere more than in the former Hapsburg domain.

Anna Porter began her tour of these four post-communist countries convinced that the Holocaust and the crimes of the communist era must not be relegated to mere history. As an intellectual, the idea that evil must prudently and pragmatically be consigned to oblivion was anathema to her. A central theme of The Ghosts of Europe is her struggle to understand and to help us realize why bringing notorious malefactors to justice has proved so difficult to achieve.

A major part of the problem is the astonishing bulk of the evidence accumulated by secret police in all of her four countries. Moreover, the months and years it took the rebels of 1989 to establish their authority left the evidence in the hands of the villains, to be manipulated, sold and destroyed. On those occasions when they could then be charged and tried, the courts were controlled by communist-era judges, reluctant to find guilt in officials who were carrying out the law of their time. Even when democrats laid hands on the levers of power, veterans of the old regime and their well-educated children were the chief beneficiaries of the rush to privatize industries and institutions they themselves had been managing. So if the torturers and operatives of Hungary’s AVO or the notorious Czech Státní bezpecnost (StB) were removed, their countless feet of security files made it clear that millions of fellow citizens were compromised, such as the highly acclaimed Czech novelist Milan Kundera, whose teenage friend went to prison as a foreign agent. Even the hero of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, had been a police informer.

Polish opinion was outraged when Walesa’s name was publicized by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). Its director, Dr. Antoni Dudek, confessed to Porter that he had voted against “outing” Walesa, but added “if nothing is done about the past, there can be no sense of justice.” One must note, though, as Porter does, the cost of defying the secret police when torture, prison and poverty were the alternative, not just for you but for your spouse and children, too.

Among the scores of leaders and officials in her four chosen republics, Porter understandably focused on the people currently in charge of the explosive police records. Understandably too, they share her demand for an unflinching view of a grim and sordid history: if truth is simply left for future generations to judge, how can the guilty be punished? However, Porter found that public opinion more generally in these countries seems content, along with Václav Havel and other intellectual heroes of the “end of communism,” to let aging communists die in peace. Adam Michnik, aPolish Jew, now editor of Warsaw’s largest daily, had guided Solidarity to its “semi-free” election of 1989, and so came to number himself among General Jaruzelski’s friends and confidants. This put him at odds with Dudek, as head of the IPN, who gleefully prosecuted the general for ordering the killing of Solidarity unionists.

In all her countries, Porter discovers that the intellectuals who inspired and guided the expulsion of the communists have lost public credibility. Perhaps the values of a liberal, democratic state are too materialistic, not to say selfish, to heed for very long the righteous moralizing of any self-proclaimed intelligentsia. This would hardly astonish anyone who studies American or Canadian politics, much less those of countries lacking any serious or enduring experience of electoral competition. One of the unwritten but essential rules of that game is that electoral defeat and exclusion from power are the only significant penalties for defeat. By quietly yielding power in 1989, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, not to mention Soviet and East German communists, earned the right, whatever their sins, to join private life.

If they profited from their political experience to join the super-rich, so have many democratic politicians dismissed by voters. “Me first and the devil take the hindmost” suited a communist-trained bureaucrat as much as any disciple of Chicago School economics. By the end of the book, even Porter seems sadly reconciled to setting aside her punitive dreams. Perhaps the best reason is that if she did not, she would have to keep company with the idealistic victims of the post-1989 greedfest. The intelligentsia, her class and, in her view, the architects of 1989, have largely vanished from influence or even life. Most had been men in their sixties and, like our war veterans of the same vintage, age is a fatal disease. Others, like Havel, ignored warnings and accepted political office. Havel’s indifference to touching base with the Slovaks in his political partnership helped make him responsible for the national break-up jointly promoted by his pro–European Union economics minister Václav Klaus and Slovak nationalist Vladimír Meciar.

The growth of social inequality left the poor of most formerly communist countries pining for benefits cast aside in the new winner-take-all style of capitalism. Corruption, endemic under communism, grew worse, not better, as the apparatchiks of the previous regime squeezed their way past the amateurs into a post-communist world of management.

In the countries Porter visited between 2006 and 2008 while researching The Ghosts of Europe, a surprising variety of top political leaders sat down with her, boasted a little and then wrestled with her questions about their failures and shortcomings. One dreams of the day when our own Stephen Harper might also unburden his mind to a charming, articulate but essentially uninfluential interviewer. Porter’s interviews do not add up to a happy story. Why should they?

Porter’s chosen countries proclaimed themselves democracies, and eager, naive and avaricious missionaries of free enterprise immediately began urging the proposition that unbridled capitalism was the ideal recipe for American-style freedom, happiness and personal wealth. A generation later, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are more solvent than some of their EU partners, but poverty and mismanagement are as evident as they were behind the Iron Curtain. What has persisted in all these countries is an ideology that easily outsells democracy and free market capitalism: 19th-century nationalism, with its arrogance, its hatreds and its menace of violence.

From Porter’s description, it appears that democracy, too easily defined as freedom for intellectuals to spread their opinions without constraint or challenge, has not worked very well in the four countries she concentrates on. Politicians of both left and right still preside over the bloated bureaucracies inherited from the communists (and the Hapsburgs before them), and over a paralyzing corruption that has more to do with democratic institutions than Porter cares to acknowledge.

How do democratic politicians anywhere acquire the funds to gain access to the media and to millions of voters? The answer, as obvious to John A. Macdonald or Wilfrid Laurier as to Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Barack Obama or any representative of the U.S. Congress, is that they depend on gratitude, formally expressed as bribes for government favours. There are better ways to fund democratic politics; but such reforms have a low priority in Washington, Ottawa and other democratic capitals, including Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest. Nor will such reforms gain much traction while low-income voters continue to mourn the disappearance of “goulash socialism” and the egalitarian poverty of communist times, or when public villainy can so easily be blamed on Roma, Jews, Hungarians and other unloved minorities.

Porter’s ultimate message may be more welcome to her fellow literary intellectuals than to the dominant voices in today’s central Europe. In her conclusion, she cites the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, inspiration for Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion:

No society … can function without a moral foundation, without conviction that has nothing to do with opportunism, circumstances and expected advantage. Man does not define morality according to the caprice of his needs, wishes, tendencies and cravings; it is morality that defines man.

Erratum: Anna Porter is not Jewish, as was originally stated in this review.