Yowta

Peter Jenkins

  • Antipolitics: An Essay by George Konrad, translated by Richard Allen
    Quartet, 243 pp, £8.95, August 1984, ISBN 0 7043 2472 5

‘Yalta’ is not a word that often comes to mind. Ask someone on the bus or try it on the children. Yalta? For anyone living in the eastern part of Europe, the meeting of the Big Three at a small resort in the Crimea, in February 1945, is the seminal event of modern times, a calamity almost on a par with the Fall. Not that that part of Europe had lacked calamities, but they had hitherto seemed part of a European experience – the European experience: Yalta has, in effect, resulted in its expulsion from Europe. What is more, there was, and is today, an awful finality about it.

I am being careful not to refer to ‘Eastern Europe’ because I have learned from Milan Kundera that to do so is to rub salt into Yalta. ‘Eastern Europe’ implies that the countries there are not a part of the West, not properly, or are no longer to be regarded as part of Europe, and thus of civilisation. As Kundera finds it necessary to remind us, in his essay ‘The Central European Tragedy’, for a thousand years these ‘nations have belonged to the part of Europe rooted in Roman Christianity’. By dismissing them to the East, we may intend no more than a recognition of the fact of their predicament as captives within the Soviet Empire – although we in the West have some ambivalent feelings about empires – and we may not intend to imply that they fall naturally within some eastern sphere of influence. Again, Kundera reminds us that ‘on the eastern border of the West – more than anywhere else – Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilisation, an other civilisation.’ Central Europe, he insists – central geographically, central historically, and central culturally to all that is Europe – has a destiny that anticipates the destiny of Europe in general.

The Hungarian writer George Konrad makes a similar point although he makes it more politically than Kundera. The Czech novelist is telling us that our culture is at risk, in that its fate is bound up with that of Central Europe: Konrad’s point is that we cannot expect peace as long as the other half of Europe is denied liberty. Like Kundera, he contends that our fates are intertwined in a single European destiny: ‘I consider Western Europe’s good fortune as uncertain as our misfortune.’

Konrad begins, of course, with Yalta – and I was reminded of Timothy Garton Ash’s description, in The Polish Revolution, of how on his first arrival in Poland he kept hearing the strange word ‘Yowta’. ‘ “Yowta,” my new acquaintances sighed, “yowta”, and the conversation ebbed into melancholy silence. Did “yowta” mean fate, I wondered, was it an expression like “that’s life”?’ Here, Konrad advises: ‘To find the main reason for today’s threat of war, we must go back to the year 1945, to Yalta.’ His point, however, is not that the 1945 peace settlement is diplomatically or militarily unstable, as was the Europe prescribed by the Treaty of Versailles: the present partition of Europe is all too stable in that sense. Konrad’s complaint is that at Yalta the military status quo determined the political status quo. He is a revanchiste only in ideological terms: he would like to repossess his liberty.

His book, a splendid polemic, is easily misunderstood. The publisher blurbs it as an anti-nuclear tract, but Konrad’s warnings of war are not much more than an adjunct to his plea for liberty. He does not pretend to be a strategic analyst or foreign policy expert. He is a novelist. His warning of Armageddon is based on no more than the fact of Europe’s physical and ideological division and on his own profound lack of confidence in the capacity of politicians to place the good of humanity above the pursuit of power. He is an admirer of Machiavelli, and, in a spirited passage, discusses the career of Hitler as a paradigm of the politician’s trade. But each time he comes back to the idea that the ending of the ‘Yalta system’ is the precondition for peace – urging a mutual withdrawal of super-power forces from Europe, and in the process dismissing arms limitation talks as ‘landings on the spiral staircase’ of the arms race – he is returning to what he takes to be the precondition of political liberty in Central Europe. That is not to say he may not be correct about nuclear war (although I prefer to doubt it), or that his lack of confidence in politicians is not justified: but that is not what is original or important about Antipolitics.

The importance of Konrad’s book is that it reopens our minds to the project of a Europe reunited, while at the same time instructing us in the politics of limits. He is unwilling to settle for ‘semi-freedom’: he wants what the most advanced democracies now have – that is his starting-point and he is not interested in the apologia of the super powers about military balance and the like. At the same time, he is realistic about the prospects for the ‘historic compromise’ he proposes between West and East, not least because, living in the centre of Europe, he knows about the continuity of Russian imperialism, about ‘the Russian soul’ torn between Asiatic despotism and Western values, and about Communism too – ‘our not altogether reassuring experience has been that communism will break before it will bend.’ He urges a deal – a hard-nosed, practical deal – between the Manichean partners precisely because he knows that the Russian empire will neither collapse nor reform from within. But because he also knows that such a deal, containing the only hope for freedom, is improbable he is left with the question of what to do.

His answer he calls ‘anti-politics’. It comes down to the exercise of moral force: the politicians, the ‘professionals of power’, have to be put in their place, the ‘ethos of a civil society’ asserted against the military ethos. There is no hope of compromise between party government and government by the people – ‘the Polish democratic movement has demonstrated that it is impossible to want freedom a little’ – nor is there any prospect of change being brought about by mass movements or violence. The ‘Hungarian Road’ offers the possibility of ‘a certain limited pluralism within the confines of the Yalta system’. Konrad’s anti-politics is the political activity of those who are not politicians and who refuse to share power. In this the intellectual bears the greatest responsibility: ‘I know of no way for Eastern Europe to free itself from Russian military occupation except for us to occupy them with our ideas.’

Konrad in this way arrives at a Stoic conclusion, in the sense that the Stoics insisted that the life of wisdom was equally available to Greek and barbarian, freeman and slave. As a subject of the Soviet Empire, his practical acceptance of the reality of power is total, but it goes hand in hand with a commitment to liberty, and to the values of the European civilisation of which he is equally a citizen. His acceptance does not have to do with the supposed inevitabilities of the nuclear age: he is not prepared to bow to the status quo for fear of holocaust. What he proposes is a radical project for removing the status quo (Yalta) in order to make possible the re-creation of Europe.

What do we say to this? Montesquieu, about to put forward a justification for torture in despotic states and for slavery in Ancient Greece and Rome, stopped short when he ‘heard the voice of nature crying out against me’. It is precisely that voice we hear today from Solidarity in Poland, from the Charter 77 group in Czechoslovakia, and from a writer such as Konrad, and when we hear it we do not know what to do. ‘I know the West doesn’t want to redeem us,’ writes Konrad. ‘It prefers to shake its head over us and sometimes pays its regrets.’ Kundera is more bitter: ‘If to live means to exist in the eyes of those we love, then Central Europe no longer exists. More precisely: in the eyes of its beloved Europe, Central Europe is just a part of the Soviet Empire and nothing more, nothing more.’ It’s true – that is what we want and what we think.

When President Reagan declares that he does not accept the blocs we shudder at the thought. We associate the status quo with peace. Détente grew out of the status quo. The purpose of Helsinki in Russian eyes was to validate the partition of Europe. The West hoped that trade and other contacts would help to bring about a liberalisation within the framework of the Soviet Empire; that gradually the systems would converge. The policy was not one of cynical intent but contained a large element of prudence: revolts such as Hungary’s in 1956, Czechoslovakia’s in 1968 and Poland’s in 1981 could overspill and start a war which might quickly go nuclear. The Soviet sense of insecurity – historically well-founded, many experts wrote – and her morbid fear of internal change, of a contagion spreading from her empire, required delicate handling. Behind all that was said and done lurked the fear of nuclear war: everything could be justified in terms of the ‘realities’ of the age of nuclear parity.

The peace movements in the West, who declare a plague on both the houses and propose measures of unilateral nuclear disarmament as a step towards the dissolution of the blocs, cause different kinds of shudders in the East. In an exchange with END (the campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament), the Polish group KOS (Committee for Social Resistance) said recently: ‘We cannot accept your thesis that “guilt falls squarely on both parties” ... The USSR has already subjected half our continent to its domination and is actively menacing the other half.’ From Czechoslovakia, Charter 77 replied: ‘Unlike yourselves we have personal experience of the fact that there exist, apart from thermo-nuclear war, other less spectacular – but no less effective – ways of destroying civilisation.’ These dissident groups, although deprived of their freedom, show ore concern for ours than the Western peace groups show for theirs.

The nuclear condition in which we live cannot be shrugged off. The ‘realities’ of the nuclear age are real enough and there is no escaping them. Nevertheless, the great merit of George Konrad’s book is that it challenges us to question the assumptions of the European status quo. He would have us think about the nuclear question in the context of European politics instead of thinking as we do, unilateral and multilateral disarmers alike, about politics in the nuclear context. His excellent book is a prick to the European conscience. He is not inviting us to blow the world up in a holy, anti-Communist or anti-Russian crusade – far from it: he is urging us instead to assert the values we call European and to do so with some of the intellectual integrity and moral courage which brought the civilisation of Europe to the heights that it achieved. That is what he means by ‘anti-politics’.