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.

In fact, there were people in the West who thought that Gorbachev might be bad news for the slow evolution towards open societies visible in Hungary and, lopsidedly, in Poland. He might well see discipline and order in his satellites as the precondition for risky experiments at home. His fanatical determination to make existing structures ‘work’ might actually reduce national independence in Eastern Europe if he tried to make a reality of Comecon. His determination to use the Party as his instrument of change ran quite counter to the drift of events in Poland especially, where the opposition and the ramshackle junta which was trying to govern agreed only on this: that the Party had become a rabble to be kept away from real power at all costs.

How pleasant it is – quam bonum et quam jucundum, because a psalm is the right language for the feeling – to remember all that rubbish which we took seriously then! None of it came true. By the end of 1988, it was becoming impossible to ignore the accumulation of signals from Moscow which said: let the East Europeans follow their own path of development. We hope that it will be socialist. But we have moved the line of what’s tolerable to us over the horizon. No more tanks ...

I don’t follow the view that ‘the liberation of Eastern Europe in 1989 was the result of perestroika in the Soviet Union.’ To prevent that becoming the schoolbook summary of events will be a hard struggle, all the same. What happened was much less direct a consequence. Those signals piled up, and were decrypted as avidly by the Communist regimes as by the opposition movements. There came a moment when, as Tim Garton Ash puts it, internal politics became truly internal, when it became apparent that if the Poles could defeat their own Zomo riot police, they would not have to face the Red Army coming to reinforce them. From then on, revolutionary situations evolved in which the rulers no longer knew how to rule and the peoples sensed their collapse of nerve. But, if Mikhail Gorbachev did not father this process, which he plainly regarded with great misgiving once it crawled beyond any territory which could be described as the reform of Marxist socialism, he none the less gave it a marvellous christening present.

He allowed the Czechs and Slovaks, the Hungarians and the Germans and the Poles, to make their own revolutions. He didn’t use tanks against the masses in the streets, but neither did he force liberation on them from above, like Tsar Alexander II emancipating the serfs. Instead, probably without coherent intention, he let the people overthrow their Communist governments and overcome a degree of resistance which was strong enough to be exhilarating but not dangerous. The exception was Romania: but had the Securitate counter-revolution lasted a few days longer, the world would have seen the incredible sight of a benevolent Soviet invasion supported by the United States. The Poles stormed their barricades at the ballot-boxes in June 1989; the Czechs in November by standing day after day in Wenceslas Square and mocking their rulers to pieces. Both, however, can now enter the new epoch with a proud revolutionary myth of origin: we, the people, went into the street and overthrew the tyrants. As President Havel said in his New Year broadcast to the Czech and Slovak peoples, ‘after hundreds of years, both our nations have raised their heads high on their own initiative, without relying on the help of stronger nations or powers. It seems to me that this constitutes the great moral asset of the present moment.’ The right to say that is Gorbachev’s real gift to democracy in Eastern Europe.

Tim Garton Ash was a partisan reporter in those years leading up to 1989, and I don’t think he will be either surprised or offended to be described so. Especially after his experience of Poland in 1980-1, he wrote and worked for the victory of liberty over the Communist regimes. Almost all of this book is concerned with opposition groups and their ideas and their leaders; almost none of it with the rulers and their associates, whom he tended to regard simply as the enemy. Their internal tensions and struggles were irrelevant to the future (he makes an exception for Jaruzelski, Rakowski and the other Polish leaders in the late Eighties, whose motives for committing political suicide must remain for ever fascinating). If this book were a work of history, such partiality would make it absurd – and I thought that Garton Ash’s The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, which is to some extent a historical study, suffered from his indifference to events on the regime side. The Uses of Adversity, however, is not a chronicle but an assemblage of marvellously well-written and clever individual studies, where his decision not to bother about Communist problems and agonisings is justified.

This book is meant to be read in order to understand what’s happening now, and in spite of the colossal events of the past twelve months, it still works. For that purpose, an account of how Charter 77 and Vaclav Havel worked and spoke a few years ago is invaluable. An account of what Karol Grosz thought he was doing in Hungary three years ago, by contrast, would be pretty marginal in interest.

Less interesting, in fact, than to recall what we in the West expected at that time. At the end of his long 1986 essay ‘Does Central Europe exist?’ Tim Garton Ash has a mild go at prophecy. He sees two alternatives. One is that there will be ‘a new Yalta ... a negotiated Finlandisation of Eastern Europe’. This he dismisses as ‘highly improbable’. The other, which thinks a better bet, he calls ‘Ottomanisation’. In a later chapter (‘Reform or Revolution?’, 1988), he expands these concepts. Ottomanisation means ‘a long, slow process of imperial decline ... unplanned, piecemeal and discontinuous’.

There are criticisms to be made of both these notions. Like most Westerners, he thinks Finland has been ‘perforce ... compliant to the Soviet Union in military and foreign affairs’, which it is not. And the Ottoman Empire, as he admits, ended with a volley of bangs rather than in a ‘piecemeal’ whimper. But the fundamental mistake in both prophecies was shared by almost everyone at the time: it was the assumption that the Soviet Union would stay in some kind of control of Europe east of the Elbe and west of the Bug. ‘A new Yalta ... a negotiated Finlandisation’ meant that the emancipation of Eastern Europe would be a matter of prior agreements, of formal Soviet consent at some Helsinki summit to the establishing of free internal politics for the states within its hegemony. But of course it has happened quite differently. There was no second Yalta: instead, the Soviet Union slouched off one night without telling anyone. Next morning, the little people found the guardhouse empty. At first, they tiptoed about in disbelief, unable to comprehend that everything had become possible. But then they began to sing forbidden songs, dance in forbidden places and challenge their own rulers to come out and fight.

None of us foresaw that. The Helsinki process of European peacemaking, set in motion some fifteen years before, had assumed a symmetrical reduction in tensions. Confirmation of the existing frontiers, ‘confidence-building measures’ between the alliances, and programmes for nuclear and conventional arms reduction, would be traded against improvements in human rights. But this process would be administered by the two superpowers, each retaining ultimate responsibility for its half of Europe but gradually changing from suspicious gendarme into peaceful referee. Nobody imagined that one super-power would in effect simply abdicate. And indeed the result of the Soviet abdication has been to make the Helsinki security system suddenly inadequate to keep the peace, now that one peacemaker has gone home. If Greece and Turkey try to go to war over Western Thrace, the United States will find ways to bang their heads together. But if Romania and Bulgaria were to collide over their mutual frontier, or if the frightful Macedonian fuse were to be relit, Europe could no longer rely on Soviet pressure to stop a tragedy.

Mr Garton Ash is a determined optimist about these unsolved disputes. ‘The stale food of pre-war Central European politics, the prejudices and petty nationalism, must be brought out of the totalitarian freezer and aired a little while, before being thrown into the dustbin.’ I’m not sure if it was he or I who invented the metaphor about Stalinism as a deep-freeze. But, of the two of us, I am the more worried. He thinks that the fresh air of democracy and reform will crumble these old quarrels to dust. I fear that they have kept their venom perfectly and lethally preserved through the decades of repression and that a strong cage of what used to be called ‘collective security’ will be required to contain them.

But if these essays could not predict the ‘how’ of the 1989 revolutions, they certainly pass the test of ‘who’. While others fancied that effective reforming leaderships could save a version of Soviet socialism, Tim Garton Ash saw that this option was vanishing – even in Hungary, where the Grosz and Pozsgay versions of how Communism could be transformed seemed dazzling only a year ago. He wrote in 1988, for example, that ‘when the change in Party leadership comes ... there will not simply be a populace eager to follow the Party’s new Gorbachevite line. Here too ... there will be non-Party intellectuals, the Churches, independent social groups, the oppositional rainbow coalition of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, ecology, peace and human rights activists and the other refuseniks in the GDR, all advancing their own programmes for change.’ In other words, it would be Havel rather than Dubcek, Mazowiecki or Geremek instead of Rakowski, and two as yet unknown names instead of Gregor Gysi or Imre Pozsgay.

Not everyone realised how dead and brittle most of these ruling Communist parties had become – not even the Polish United Workers’ Party, a mummified cadaver which finally fell into its grave earlier this month, ten years after its heart and brain had ceased to function. The West Germans, so respected for their know-how about Eastern Europe, failed particularly badly here. This book’s essay on ‘The German Question’, written almost five years ago, remains absolutely essential reading for anyone trying to comprehend the noisly coupling of the Germanies in these weeks. But it is also a biting exposure of the blindness and selfishness of a certain West German Ostpolitik in the early Eighties, which actually welcomed General Jaruzelski’s coup in December 1981 or tried to justify it in the miserable years that followed. Chancellor Schmidt declared that Erich Honecker was ‘as dismayed as I am that this was necessary.’ Klaus Boelling said directly that ‘after a bloodbath in Poland ... we Germans in both states might have to wait a whole decade before we could talk to each other again.’ Garton Ash observes that this approach to Poland was profoundly anti-democratic in the sense that Reagan’s approach to Nicaragua was anti-democratic (a very rare example of the sort of comparison which the author denounces in others as Leftist ‘equilateralism’).

He also writes, memorably, that ‘what we saw in the last years of the Schmidt Government’ was, ‘in a mild or muted form, what we have seen many times before in the history of Central Europe: the clash of Poland’s national aspirations and interests with those of Russia and Germany’. Those are words to be remembered this year. After all the treaty-building and pan-European conferences, the ‘New European Peace Order’ will rest on the relationship between whatever Russia is going to be and whatever Germany is going to be. If that relationship is – for the first time in history – not at the expense of the Poles, then we can be pretty sure that Europe will be not only orderly and peaceful but free as well.

There is a useful analysis here of what can be called ‘Forum politics’: the elements common to the groups and movements which are taking power now. Tim Garton Ash listed some of these: a belief in civil society – ‘social self-organisation’ – at the expense of the state, non-violence, the notion that peace without democratic freedoms is no peace. He might have added to this list: faith in the market economy, with the pious hope that the market will prove compatible with ‘self-management’ (workers’ control), the whole bundle of Green concerns, and a remarkably sophisticated attitude to sovereignty. These movements, as we can now see, instinctively separate the notion of national independence from that of total state-sovereignty. Nobody could be more patriotic or ‘nationalistic’ than the Poles or Hungarians, and yet the first instinct of their new governments is to find an association in which they can pool some of their sovereignty. This dissociation of the two concepts is unimaginable to President Mitterrand, and especially to Mrs Thatcher, whose definition of national independence is still fused with a Victorian view of absolute authority within national frontiers.

Looking back at the opposition movements in the middle Eighties also reveals the muzziness in parts of their own thinking. There is a lot here about ‘anti-politics’, the book by Gyorgy Konrad whose title was more popular than its contents. Anti-politics did not add up to much. Even Adam Michnik, the most professional of all those revolutionaries, was induced by anti-politics to abandon his usual rigour and announce that socialism and capitalism were outmoded categories. (If that were so, what exactly has just won the competition for an economic system that works?) The slogan allows Tim Garton Ash to remark, a bit weakly, that the oppositions were replacing the old division between right and left ‘with the even older division between right and wrong’. Anti-politics also induced Michnik to say that ‘Solidarity does not aspire to take power in the state.’ As a matter of history, Solidarity did aspire to state power, and quite right too, in the final months of 1981, when the nation seemed to be dying week by week and the Government refused to take responsibility for a recovery programme. And in the summer of 1989, after the elections, it was Adam Michnik himself who appalled and then fascinated Solidarity by declaring that it was time to lead a non-Communist coalition and form a government. Which duly took place.

All these nebulous notions which were also nebulae of creation are well recorded here. The Uses of Adversity described the last years of European Communism, without knowing how close the end really was, and in these short pieces are gathered not only the flavour of the times but the hopes, the fallacious or sound expectations, of those who were about to become liberators. It surprised me to find that the very best of these essays are those which concern Germany rather than Poland or Czechoslovakia. ‘Dr Faust at Schwerin’ or ‘Sketches from Another Germany’ bring together all Tim Garton Ash’s literary learning, his personal experience and his gift for creating almost fictional structures. The same intensity returns with his account of the film Heimat and his examination of why Reitz’s masterpiece loses conviction as it approaches the present. And if there is one sentence from the whole book which will stick in my mind – partly because of its boldness (coming from a man of the moderate Christian Democratic right), partly because it may be a key to what will happen in Germany this year, but mostly because it is profoundly true – it is this: ‘The Americanisation of the Federal Republic goes far deeper than the Sovietisation of the GDR.’ This collection may have been written on the other side of one of history’s crevasses. But it has gained, not lost, in importance.