Hangover

Peter Pulzer

  • The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey through the Baltic States by Clare Thomson
    Joseph, 273 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7181 3459 1
  • Berlin Journal 1989-90 by Robert Darnton
    Norton, 352 pp, £15.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 393 02970 0
  • An Estonian Childhood: A Memoir by Tania Alexander
    Heinemann, 168 pp, £6.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 434 01824 4

After the intoxication of liberation comes the hangover. East Germans are less happy than of the day the Berlin Wall was opened. The cost of basic needs – rent, fuel, food – has gone up, jobs are being decimated. Their Western brothers and sisters, who embraced them on 10 November 1989, seem intent on telling them how to run their lives and reluctant to share their affluence with them. Polish national unity, impressively symbolised by Solidarity, has disintegrated into apathy and multi-partism: fewer than half the Poles turned out to vote in the first free parliamentary election and no party got more than one-eighth of the votes cast. Czechs and Slovaks are close to breaking up the state that was the one working democracy in inter-war Central and Eastern Europe. Of the organised thuggery in Romania and the civil wars in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia the less said the better.

East European critics of Western admirers of Gorbachev (or Yeltsin) attribute this admiration to continuing naivety about these leaders’ democratic credentials, or – worse – residual softness on Communism. Neither of these is an adequate explanation. What Western politicians and opinion-leaders want is a tidy world and a tidy world is one in which empires keep rebellious tribes in order, much as the British Raj managed to contain communalism in the Indian sub-continent and the European powers strove to keep African chieftains at peace with each other. The sanctity of existing frontiers was a principle enshrined in post-colonial Africa. It was also one of the articles of the 1975 Helsinki accords. So why couldn’t the Lithuanians wait patiently until the process of détente and summitry had decided on an appropriate timetable and conditions for their independence?

The answer is that they could not because they did not want to, and they did not want to because they thought they were entitled there and then to what Western peoples take for granted. There is no doubt that this makes for an untidy world and, at worst, a bloody one. What is surprising is – Romania, Yugoslavia and the Caucasus apart – how un-bloody it has been. Eastern Europe has gained its liberty partly because the Soviet Empire had come to the end of its shelf-life, but also because the peoples staked their moral claim with non-violence. They had little choice, since they had no access to weapons. But one does not need weapons to erupt in riot, as the housing estates of England and Wales periodically demonstrate. East Europeans made a virtue of non-violence, whether in the candle-lit vigils of East Germany, the silent crowds in Wenceslas Square or the human chains in the Baltic republics. The Balts also revived folk-song festivals, a weapon already used against Tsarism – hence the title of Clare Thomson’s book. It was the rumour that the Prague police had clubbed a student to death that spelt the end of the Husak regime: Civic Forum’s twin in Slovakia is called Public Against Violence. It was the threat of the East German regime to crush the Leipzig demonstration on 9 October 1989 that signalled Honecker’s demise.

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