Who would have thought it?

Neal Ascherson writes about the New Europe

  • The Uses of Adversity by Timothy Garton Ash
    Granta, 352 pp, £5.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 14 014018 2

This book went to press in the previous decade, in a different geological period of European history, in the almost forgotten circumstances of the late spring of 1989. When it was first sent to me, I read several sections but then put it on one side. Some obscure motive, which might have been prudence, warned me that the autumn of 1989 might not be the right moment to review a book about Eastern Europe. Now, not yet twelve months since the last of these essays was written, it becomes fascinating to read through The Uses of Adversity from cover to cover, and to measure it against the new Europe which is becoming visible beneath the torrents of change.

People say: ‘God, it’s all so totally unexpected, unbelievable – who would have thought it only last year?’ The answer is that a very few people did think it. My own award for prophecy would go to the London-based Czech journalist Karel Kyncl, who wrote an article for the Independent in February 1989 about Vaclav Havel’s ‘Letters to Olga’ – an article published a few days after Havel had yet again been thrown into jail. The review ended with these words:

No one ... is naive enough to believe that there will be an early and easy return in Czechoslovakia to common sense, dignity and democracy. Nevertheless, in systems which lack really binding rules, ‘even the impossible is possible.’ Should such an impossibility occur, there would be, I suspect, a substantial drive in the country to have, after more than fifty years, a personality of Masaryk’s calibre in the highest office again. Looking around, one can hardly see anybody in today’s Czechoslovakia whose moral integrity, perception, clarity of thinking and humane qualities would fulfil the required standards better than Vaclav Havel.

But how about this – Tim Garton Ash writing about the Czech Chartists in 1984?

If ever a real thaw comes – from above? after change in Moscow? – they will be ready with their busts of Tomas Masaryk, their editions of Franz Kafka and their memorials to Jan Palach. They know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-81, how suddenly a society that seems atomised, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again.

That seems to me about as good as most of us – writers and journalists concerned with that part of Europe – could get at the time.

There is the allowing for the possibility that the black night in which Czechoslovakia lived for twenty years might end (though also for the possibility – ‘if ever’ – that it might never end). There is the forecast of only two possible contexts for such change: a second ‘Dubcekian’ reform period, or change in Moscow. Both were safe guesses. But the suggestion of sudden transformation, the break-up of a political system apparently frozen hard, was prescient. Tim Garton Ash was using an image which he made famous: the dissenters and opposition groups compared to candles glimmering under the surface of ice. The image wasn’t just touching, though, but accurate about the political process. The counter-culture did indeed wear the crust thin from below and render its underside mushy until, to the astonishment of watchers on the river bank, it collapsed.

Elsewhere in this collection of essays and reports, he takes a rather different line about how events may move. Paradoxically, this is because the ‘Czechoslovakia under Ice’ article is among the earliest items in the book. In 1984, the events of Poland in 1980-81 were closer to mind, with their lesson of how a heavily-armed Communist state structure could be brought to its knees by one cleverly-aimed blow. Gdansk in August 1980 was about a mighty regime which had rotted away inside, a fragility which few even in Poland understood. But then came martial law and the suppression of Solidarity, and a frosty few years in East-West relations which included the deployment of Cruise and Pershing II in Western Europe. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. It was apparent that he meant to do something about the ‘stagnation’ of his country, economically and politically. But it was not at all clear that this would mean any fundamental change in the relationship between the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations – the raison d’état whose bottom line was a tank-track running across the page.

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