Impressions from a Journey in Central Europe
Casual tourists from the West, travelling in air-conditioned buses and staying in modern government-sponsored hotels, may be pleasantly surprised by their first sight of Central Europe.[*] In what used to be East Germany the countryside looks as prosperous and cultivated as anywhere in the West. City centres have been tidied up and carefully rebuilt, while the apartment blocks on the outskirts are no worse than one would find in the United Kingdom – in some places rather better. In Poland agriculture is picturesquely archaic, and in the bustling small towns the people look as well clothed and fed as they would at home. In Czechoslovakia Prague sparkles like a jewel, its streets thronged with happy holiday-makers. As for Hungary, it is hard to realise one is no longer in the West: the huge plains being efficiently (to all appearances) harvested by echelons of combines; the signs of prosperous well-being in industrial centres like Miskolc; the weekenders crowding the shores of Lake Balaton; above all, Budapest, a city in its elegance still more comparable to Paris than Vienna – is there anything seriously wrong here? The region is certainly ‘backward’ compared with Western Europe and the United States, but it always was. The cars and roads are smaller, the trains shabbier, the shops fewer and selling a more limited range of goods. But so it was with Spain or Southern Italy a few decades ago, a ‘backwardness’ almost attractive to the overfed, over-urbanised Westerner, and anyhow, surely remediable by a judicious infusion of capital, technology and expertise?
Appearances are not totally deceptive. The image of ‘Eastern Europe’ as a miserable gulag oppressed by Soviet power was always overdrawn. Even in gulags prisoners find ways to get by. The system worked, up to a point. The hard work of the Germans, the vitality of the Poles, the ingenuity of the Hungarians, the canniness of the Czechs, all made it work, or found ways round it if it did not. Life was admittedly hell for the intellectuals and the entrepreneurial classes, all the people that we in the West knew and liked; all the people on whom the ultimate progress and prosperity of their country depended. But the industrial workers in the cities and the poorer workers on the land enjoyed a degree of security, if not indeed prosperity undreamed of by their parents. No one was very badly-off. Things were very slowly beginning to get better, much as they had been getting better in France in the last years of the Ancien Régime. With continued suppression of the malcontents, continued isolation from the West, so reasoned the apparatchiks, they might go on getting better – if they were not already as good as anyone could reasonably expect.
It is important to bear this in mind, for once the present excitement is over, and unless the new rulers manage the transition to a market economy with unusual skill, nostalgia for the good old days when the currency was stable and jobs were secure may become a serious problem. There is something a little disquieting about the way in which the new political élites blame their difficulties on the people they have to govern: on the sluggish reluctance of bureaucrats to take responsibility, on the unwillingness of peasants to take back the land so freely offered to them, on reluctance to participate in elections, on the habits of black-market dealing and petty corruption which grew up under a command economy. The cynic may well recall Berthold Brecht’s advice to the East German regime after the Berlin rising of 1953: rather than elect a new government they had better elect a new people. For ‘the masses’, to use that inadequate term, had as little to do with the revolutions of 1989 as they had with those of 1848. The old order fell, not as the result of a great popular upheaval, but because it had lost self-confidence, was not prepared to defend itself, and crumbled at the first sign of urban insurrection. The exceptions of course were the Poles. There the Catholic Church had preserved across class barriers a stubborn and universal sense of national resistance which had gradually and peacefully found political expression in Solidarity: a body so clearly expressive of the national will that the regime prudently decided to admit it to a share of power. It is because the present Polish government enjoys so clear a national mandate (though not yet clear enough for the eyes of some) that its people is submitting so stoically to the hardships involved in its drastic economic reforms. But the Czechs had been too effectively cowed, and the Hungarians were too well fed, to make trouble on a major scale. The Jakes and Kadar regimes enjoyed the legitimacy of inertia, and that is not a force to be underrated. The passivity with which they allowed themselves to be swept away once it was clear that the Russians would not help them showed how little confidence they had in their own achievements. They did not even try, as Iliescu did in Romania, to recruit strong-arm squads from the factories or the collective farms to deal with the urban, largely bourgeois insurgents who overthrew them. ‘The masses’ stood by and watched their overthrow with indifference if not contempt.
Their successors in government are very conscious that they do not yet enjoy the support of those masses. They have been at pains to establish their democratic credentials by the institution of pluralistic politics, free elections and elaborate provision for ‘human rights’, but they are deeply worried, as we have seen, by the apparent indifference of ‘the people’ in whose name they have taken power. To blame this indifference on bad habits produced by forty years of Communist rule is, however, wishful thinking. More likely it results from the caution of the good soldier Schweik, who has seen them come and seen them go and will judge the new governments, not by their good intentions, but by their results. Democracy has always been a fragile plant in Central Europe, let alone further east. The survival of the new regimes, and perhaps of the ideals they incarnate, depends less on the democratic title deeds which appear so impressive in the West than on their capacity to make the economic system work more effectively than their predecessors did. The bottom line is not the ballot box but la poule au pot.
To survive, the new regimes have to solve two gigantic problems. The first is to modernise their economic infrastructure after forty years of stagnation and neglect. The second is to move from a command to a market economy: a task universally recognised to be urgent and necessary but which is bound to be, both politically and socially, deeply traumatic. The establishment of formal democratic structures will be relevant only in so far as it enables them to do this, whether through mobilising public opinion or by attracting essential support from the West.
[*] I use this term to cover East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary: the old lands of Western Christendom. Strictly speaking, it embraces Croatia and Slovenia as well. Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Serbia have a different historic and cultural heritage and present different political and economic problems. More important, I did not visit them.
Vol. 12 No. 23 · 6 December 1990
In the old days, Communist rule in Eastern Europe used to be condemned on the grounds that it barred the local populations from enjoying the benefits of Western-style democracy. Today we are increasingly told that Western-style democracy is not appropriate for them. This is the basic message of Michael Howard’s ‘Impressions from a Journey in Central Europe’ (LRB, 25 October). He tells us that ‘what Central Europe needs today is not so much formal democracy on the Western model as strong government commanding broad consensus, responsive to popular needs, and operating within the rule of law.’ The catch lies in the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘formal democracy on the Western model’.
Common sense might suggest that a government in command of a ‘broad consensus’ and ‘responsive to popular needs’ would not have to be any stronger than its counterparts in the West. However, the account the author gives us of the situation prevailing today in what he calls Central Europe – the lands of ‘Western Christendom’ lying east of the Nato countries – makes clear why he is ready to dispense in so cavalier a manner with the ‘formalities’ of a democratic order. It is because of his sympathy for governments currently planning or executing measures that precisely do not command any ‘broad consensus’. For the dismantling of the significant public welfare provisions left behind by the previous regimes, the generation of large-scale unemployment, and the reintroduction of sharp social polarisation – all in the name of free-market values – can hardly fail to reduce the popularity of the new post-Communist governments. They are, therefore, contemplating a ‘rule of law’ which will precisely do away with the imperative of maintaining a ‘broad consensus’.
Here lies the root of the problem. The populations seem most unwilling to give a mandate for this kind of social surgery. If governments proceed without one, they might indeed even rebel: ‘it would not be, therefore, surprising if quite bitter social conflicts develop in Central Europe.’ Consequently, according to Howard, to ‘contain that conflict and make it fruitful’ strong but not necessarily democratic governments are required.
This prospect, of course, plays havoc with the Cold War rhetoric of ‘struggle against totalitarianism’. To justify himself, the author is obliged to invert reality. Rather than ascribing future limitations of democracy to the new rulers, he places the burden of responsibility upon the peoples themselves: ‘the failure of the peoples of Central Europe instantly to adopt democratic ways’. The reasons for this alleged failure are, interestingly, not to be sought in the ‘numbing effect of living for generations under a totalitarian rule’: that would not wash, given the record of popular participation in the momentous changes of the past year. The explanation instead lies in the whole previous history of the countries in question. This history, abruptly brought out of the cupboard and dusted off for our benefit, turns out – not surprisingly – to be made up of an absence of ‘democratic traditions’. Even the poor Czechs are not absolved, since they allowed a strong Communist Party to develop before the Second World War. The verdict is clear: ‘the history of Central Europe has produced a political culture distinct from that of the West.’ In contrast to their combative Western neighbours (‘growth of self-governing institutions’, ‘drastic destruction of the feudal order’), these peoples are steeped in a culture of ‘acquiescence if not submission, tempered by scepticism and evasion’.
An obvious retort springs to mind: if the population does not aspire to Western-style democracy – being genetically, so to speak, predisposed to acquiescence tempered by evasion – then why should there be any need for ‘strong governments’ to rule over them? But the traveller is not concerned with logic. His job is to propel his Western readers gently along the path of submission to the idea that what Eastern Europe requires today is not more but less democracy. If ‘we cannot, from such roots, expect modern liberal democracy to emerge overnight,’ then we should accept the idea that backward, illiberal and anti-democratic regimes – the kind of regimes we would not tolerate here in the West – will and must emerge there.
Indeed, the problem of democracy in Central Europe, he argues, is not a function of economic difficulties (an alleged ‘forty years of stagnation and neglect’), and thus cannot be solved through Western economic aid and investment. Democracy in Central Europe will not only ‘take time’, but its end-product ‘is likely to be along lines rather different from our own’. ‘We must accept,’ Howard concludes, ‘that in our new European house, there are likely to be many mansions, and that in some of them we [of the West] may not find ourselves entirely comfortable.’
Under the guise of benign liberalism, this approach to the potent issue of democracy serves only one purpose: to legitimise in advance the emergence of authoritarian political structures in East Central Europe. The language of the Cold War – of what the author calls the ‘Manichaean division’ of the world into ‘totalitarian and democratic, slave or free’ – is no longer needed today. The Rights of Man can once again be safely defined as the Rights of Western Man. The worry remains, however, that ‘once the present excitement is over … nostalgia for the good old days, when currency was stable and jobs were secure, may become a serious problem.’ The spectre of Communism (albeit in a new guise) may well come back to haunt Europe. The discomfort of cohabiting with authoritarian regimes within the ‘new European house’ may be a price worth paying to avoid such a prospect. But what if the peoples of Central Europe decide differently? What would happen to Howard’s application to the issue of democracy of the old maxim of cuius regio, eius religio if Central Europe were once again to tilt strongly to the left?
Howard’s West, whose democratic credentials he takes for granted, includes countries that have given birth to fascism (Italy, Germany), that were not long ago run as dictatorships (Greece, the Iberian peninsula), that colonised much of the world (Britain, France. Holland) and that have supported as part of the ‘free world’ some of the most obnoxiously undemocratic regimes. His democratic ‘Anglo-Saxon world’ was not long ago engaged in carpet-bombing the villages and towns of Cambodia and Vietnam, mining the ports of Nicaragua, invading sovereign countries. By contrast, over the past year the peoples of East Central Europe have gone through peaceful and orderly elections, and since then maintained – despite the enormous problems they confront – a commitment to democracy that is in many ways unparalleled in the European West, where civil war (Northern Ireland, Spain), the rule of organised crime (Italy) and near-universal racist ferment form part of everyday life.
If the costs of the Cold War were higher in the East, that does not mean the West was spared them either: the progressive shift of power from legislative to executive branches of government, and bloated military budgets, are two obvious examples. The West also has its ecological ruins. If Europe is to be a truly new house rather than a refurbished old one, it must be constructed as a single mansion.