Impressions from a Journey in Central Europe

Michael Howard

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.

The need for the first requirement, economic modernisation, becomes obvious to the most blinkered tourists once they get out of their buses and stray off the beaten track. Even in East Germany, the most advanced and successful of the former socialist states, they will find drabness and deterioration on a horrifying scale. Between the bright new apartment blocks on the city outskirts and the prestige rebuilding in the centre, there stretch swathes of decaying 19th-century streets, their ornate plaster flaking, their brickwork crumbling, apparently untouched for fifty years. Yet compared with the towns of Poland and Czechoslovakia the German cities are almost elegant. Tourist resorts like Prague and Krakow look pretty enough, but the depressing awfulness of Pilsen and Katowice would defy the pen of Dickens to describe. Economically speaking, Eastern Europe, so far from being brought by socialism into a brave new world, seems stuck in a 19th-century time-warp, retaining, like some grisly theme park, the grimmest features of the past. The analogy with South Europe is misleading. Their economies are not just backward. They are poisoned.

Even when the tourist is spared the visual evidence of economic stagnation it is inescapable in the very air he breathes. Everywhere atmospheric pollution stings his throat and makes his eyes water. In Silesia and Saxony factory chimneys belch dense brown smoke into the still summer air. Articulated lorries, bumping over the badly made-up roads, choke pedestrians with their diesel fumes. Garages selling lead-free petrol are exceptional, and become more so the further east one goes. Paradoxically, it is in the most prosperous areas that pollution is worst. The more successfully the Communists dealt with their economic difficulties, the worse their environmental problems became. Given the mounting evidence of pollution and decay, it is hardly surprising if the old order lost heart, and that the new is appealing to the West to rescue them.

For the East Germans, rescue is coming from an obvious quarter – West Germany; and it is equally obvious why they could hardly wait to be rescued, however painful the process may be. They had no time for the excellently-intentioned but totally inexperienced political leaders who hoped to save something from the wreck of German socialism before it was overwhelmed by the capitalist tide from the West. For the huge majority, that tide, with its investment and its technology, and above all its great flood of consumer goods, cannot come a moment too soon. Within a week of the currency reforms, carpetbaggers from the Federal Republic were hawking their wares – usually clothing – in the marketplaces, and the shop windows were full of household goods attracting the longing looks of housewives who could not afford them yet – and of pale, hungry-looking Russian soldiers who, on pay of 24 marks a month, knew that they could never afford them.

But one day blood will flow through the atrophied veins of the East German economy and the DDR will once more be a healthy limb of a reunited Germany. One day. Meanwhile the West Germans contemplate with dismay the huge problems that confront them in cleansing out the poison from the system, making good fifty years of neglect, and absorbing into their body politic 17 million people who have over the past half century developed such very different habits and expectations. Germany’s neighbours and competitors may view her unification with alarm, but the DDR brings a dowry of problems – economic, social and political – so severe that there will be little appetite for extending external hegemony, either east or west, for many years to come.

The other peoples of Central Europe look to Germany with a mixture of hope and apprehension; apprehension dominating, of course, in Poland. In fact, given the huge scale of Poland’s economic problems, German attention is likely to be focused elsewhere: on Czechoslovakia, which is resigned to German economic penetration, or Hungary, which positively welcomes it. But political relations between Poland and Germany will still require very skilful management. On Polish memories of German occupation it is not necessary to dwell – or rather it is necessary to dwell, if the full horror of those years is to be properly understood. On the other hand, whatever treaties they may sign the Germans are unlikely to forget that about one-third of Poland had been German territory for over a century, and that some of it had never been part of Poland at all. More important, there still remains a tendency in Germany to regard the Poles as a kind of underclass, rather as the British regarded the Irish a hundred years ago: a source of cheap if unreliable labour in the cities and unwelcome itinerant pedlars in the countryside. Once the German capital has moved to Berlin, only some sixty kilometres from the Polish frontier, ‘the Polish problem’ is likely to bulk still larger in German eyes.

For many Poles, then, liberation from Soviet hegemony only means the re-emergence of ‘the German problem’, if not of any specific German threat. There is in consequence no hurry to see the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The ebbing of the Soviet tide and the disintegration of the Soviet empire has removed any anxiety arising from that quarter with quite astonishing speed. Indeed the disintegration of the Soviet economy and empire presents the Poles with a new set of problems. It is not simply that an independent Lithuania and Ukraine will call their own borders into question. More immediately important is the danger of refugees from the Soviet economic disaster moving westwards into Poland, as refugees from Romania are moving into Hungary. The maintenance of an effective Soviet government capable of solving its economic problems rather than exporting them to the West is thus a very distinct Polish interest.

Any suggestion, therefore, that Central Europe in general, and Poland in particular, need new guarantees for military security against the Soviet Union falls at present on very deaf ears. It is a contingency too remote to worry about when there is so much else to occupy popular and official minds. Even the most anxious Poles admit that their best security now lies in developing democratic institutions and making their own economy work. It is for this, and not for any military assistance, that Poland looks west for help. And given the effects of an inflation which at the beginning of this year was running at 80 per cent a month, she needs all the help she can get. Seldom can der Primat der Innen politik have been more absolute.

The same goes for Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Czechoslovakia is in an even worse state than the DDR: the passage from one to the other is almost as startling as that from East to West Germany. The happy bustle of tourists in Prague, where the exhilaration of the Velvet Revolution still lingers, is misleading. In the country towns there are long queues at the market stalls for fresh vegetables, and very little else to buy. Every factory seems rusty and derelict. The gloom of industrial towns like Pilsen makes Katowice or Chemnitz seem positively sparkling. And woe betide the traveller who tries to find a meal anywhere except in government-run hotels!

But the Czechs are great survivors. A black economy flourishes. The villages are drab and unpainted, but the houses are solid and in good repair. Schweik, one suspects, did not do too badly under the Communist regime. For the Czechs, the problem may not be so much the transition from a command economy to a market economy as from a black-market economy, with all the quasi-criminal habits and connections it encouraged, to a system that can survive the light of day. A very funny, very sad Schweik novel could be written about a confrontation between a well-intentioned new minister, probably a philosophy professor, aided by an equally enthusiastic American economic adviser, and the long-established practices of the bureaucrats and the businessmen in some small Bohemian town.

In Hungary things at least look better. The shops are well-stocked, food seems plentiful, the villages are well-painted and bright with flowers. Outside the towns there are housing estates as well as apartment blocks. The solid little village houses with their well-maintained fences and plentiful TV aerials indicate a prosperous, independently-minded people quite capable of running their own affairs. There is indeed a popular mystique about ‘back to the land’; and looking at the vast plains, thick from horizon to horizon with waving corn, it is easy to see why. It seemed a matter of course that the collective farms of the old regime should be broken up and distributed to the people who work on them. The people, on the other hand, do not seem in the least enthusiastic. The money equivalent, yes; the land itself, no. Why should they want it? They have neither the capital nor the equipment to run the farms, nor do they want the responsibility. Eventually a class of Kulaks may emerge who will buy out their neighbours, but the prospect is not very attractive – especially since those Kulaks would probably consist of exactly the same people who were in charge under the old regime.

Indeed throughout Central Europe there is a growing realisation that those likely to do well out of a market economy are not the civilised Western-oriented intellectuals who come to conferences and seminars and spend a term in American universities, but other elements not nearly so nice. They will be the former black-market operators and the former apparatchiks – in so far as these two categories are distinct. These are the people who have the contacts, the local influence, who know how to run things. These are, unfortunately, the kind of people without whom capitalism cannot get going in the first place or continue to function for very long; Balzacian creatures such as those who laid the foundations for the prosperity of Western Europe and the United States. They will be distinctly unpopular with those who lack their ambiguous talents, and their activities may lead people to wonder whether there was not something to be said for socialism after all.

It would, therefore, not be surprising if quite bitter social conflict were to develop in Central Europe. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. The problem is how to create political systems which can contain that conflict and make it fruitful. A certain amount of scepticism is in order towards the numerous Western initiatives to teach East and Central Europeans the ‘techniques’ of democracy – how to organise political parties, how to run elections and regulate parliamentary procedures. All these activities were already flourishing at a high level of sophistication in Vienna and Budapest a hundred years ago and a fat lot of use they were. Some Western models may be helpful and some techniques may be transferable, but only at a very superficial level. Fundamentally what Central Europe needs today is not so much formal democracy on the Western model as strong governments commanding broad consensus, responsive to popular needs, and operating within the rule of law.

If multi-party democracy can produce such governments well and good, but the going will be very tough. Even with Western support on an unimaginably lavish scale, the economic situation is likely to get worse before it can get better – and if events in the Middle East have their generally predicted effect on the world economy, they could get very much worse. The more the governments of Central Europe follow the advice of American Marketist economists – whose ruthless confidence in abstract theory makes them almost indistinguishable from Marxists – the stronger they will need to be to survive the political storms that will inevitably follow. And here the analogy with 1848 – 1848 in France, that is – does seem depressingly relevant. If the new political parties cannot produce political stability and economic prosperity, they will inherit the popular contempt that attached to the old order, and their destruction will be greeted with the same indifference. The collapse of the short-lived democratic structure in the DDR, special case though that is, is a highly uncomfortable portent.

Political confusion can be tolerable in states with strong economies and powerful, independent bureaucracies. The Third Republic in France is a case in point. For the new élites in Central Europe, the bureaucracies are part of the problem, rather than of the solution. As is the case after all revolutions, the new ministers find themselves surrounded by the officials who operated the old machinery of oppression; who censored, harassed and imprisoned them and who, however willingly they may have transferred their allegiance, have no experience of operating any system other than that under which they have prospered for nearly forty years. Helpful Western experts may be imported from Harvard or Whitehall, but again one may legitimately remain sceptical about the effectiveness of these transplants. Bureaucracies cannot be designed and operated like machines: they are part of a political culture. As with the techniques of parliamentary government, so it is with bureaucracy. The states of Central Europe are not backward Third World societies needing kindly Westerners to teach them how to run their own affairs. The lands of the Habsburg Empire were being administered by sophisticated and uncorrupt bureaucracies when Britain was being governed by parish vestries and Justices of the Peace.

All the new regimes in Central Europe are thus on the horns of the same dilemma. They can establish their legitimacy and acquire popular support only if they can solve their economic difficulties and provide, in place of the drab security their people enjoyed under the old regime, a rising standard of living and easy access to the resources of the Western world. But they cannot do this without inflicting on their peoples a transitional stage of insecurity and hardship such as can be made acceptable only by governments which already enjoy such popular support. The dilemma has to be resolved by men and women who have spent their lives in internal or external exile, working through conservative and sluggish bureaucracies on often unco-operative populations.

What is likely to happen? Pessimistic (or perhaps optimistic?) historians know that this is the cue for the Man on Horseback, the charismatic figure waiting in the wings, who will topple the existing order and take power by popular consent. Just such a figure exists in Poland in Lech Walesa, who seems only too ready to play the ambiguous role of Pilsudski. But, paradoxically, it is less necessary than anywhere else to resort to such drastic solutions: within the womb of Solidarity a real political system has been created that needs only time to operate. The shock treatment introduced into the economy by the present government has got runaway inflation under control and the situation is gradually beginning to improve. Objectively the economic situation is perhaps worse than anywhere else in Central Europe, but there is a degree of national cohesion and consensus that gives Poland an exceptional advantage in tackling it. There is no bitter dissension as to what should be done: indeed throughout Central Europe the general consensus over the need to introduce a market economy within a framework of social security seems almost unanimous. Political differences are ones primarily of nuance. Walesa cannot offer an alternative programme to that of his adversaries. The only real division, it has been well put, is between the party of the patient and the party of the impatient – to which might be added the personal rivalries of a remarkably talented generation of political leaders.

In Hungary and Czechoslovakia no Walesas are waiting in the wings, and there appears as yet to be no call for them. In Hungary the new government inherited fewer problems than did its neighbours, and its links with the West are older and closer. In Czechoslovakia the optimism of the Velvet Revolution persists, at least in Prague, and if there is tendency in the West to overrate the strength and importance of Czech democratic traditions, there is certainly no tradition of ‘the strong man’ in Czech political culture. In neither country does such a drastic solution seem likely, but in neither is there any tendency, as in Poland, to look for a short cut. The new political systems may not be particularly successful or particularly popular, but, like that of Italy, they will probably survive – if only because the Czechs and Hungarians have learned the Churchillian lesson that multi-party democracy is the worst of all political systems except for all the others.

What, finally, of nationalism? Much has been written in the Western press about the dangers inherent in this awakened beast, and of new crises developing out of revived ethnic tensions. Certainly they are there. The scars of the savage surgery of St Germain and Versailles are still sore. I have touched on German-Polish relations. There are also the problems of the Hungarian population in Transylvania, of the tensions between Czechs and Slovaks, of the continuing bitterness between Czechs and Poles over Tesehen and the traditional animosity between Slovaks and Hungarians. The greatest problems, those of Yugoslavia, lie beyond the compass of this article. But will these tensions really grow worse, making the area once more a source of European if not global war?

It seems unlikely: unlikely, that is, so long as outside powers do not try to exploit these tensions in their own interests. A lively imagination could dream up alarming and not impossible scenarios: a chauvinistic Polish government exploiting anti-German sentiment to create national unity; Poland supporting Ukrainian nationalism and becoming drawn into conflict with the Soviet Union; Romanian outrages against Hungarians in Transylvania sparking reactions in Budapest. None of this seems likely because no one wants that kind of trouble. There is no interest in redrawing the frontiers of 1919: ethnic problems are ones of internal order (like those in Northern Ireland) and therefore questions of internal rather than external security.

Further, the peoples of Central Europe have curiously little interest in one another’s affairs. This may be irritating for those who try to promote economic or military co-operation in the region, but it does, in a way, enhance stability. Tensions between Hungary and Romania, for example, will not concern the Poles, and if there are renewed problems between Poland and Germany, the Czechs will take care not to be drawn in. Schemes are afoot for regional co-operation of various kinds. The Poles look north to the Baltic and the Czechs and Hungarians south to the Danubian basin; re-creations of the Empire of the Vasas and the Habsburgs. But there is an academic smell to such schemes, and there seems little political weight behind them. If regional co-operation were made a condition of Western aid, as it was for Western Europe under the Marshall Plan, some progress might be made. But Western aid is at present too haphazard and comes from too many sources, American and European, private and public, for that kind of pressure to be applied effectively. At present the peoples of Central Europe seem determined to seek out their own paths to salvation, and that can only prolong the process of getting there.

In any event, salvation depends less on the activities of governments than on what happens at the grass roots: in the villages and small towns rather than in Prague, Warsaw and Budapest. Central Europe this summer has been crowded with well-intentioned experts from the West peddling their proposals for new styles of political architecture, security structures, guarantees for human rights – above all, economic reform. Listening to their confident expertise, based as it is on experience drawn from totally different kinds of society, I became increasingly unhappy. The fundamental problems of the region, as the new governments quickly discovered, are not political or economic. They are social. They have less to do with the mechanism of the states than with the habits of the community – with the nature, or the absence, of what Ralf Dahrendorf and others have called ‘civil society’ – Burgerlich Gesellschaft.

There has been an unspoken assumption in the West that the only obstacle to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe adopting Western values and structures has been the imposition by the Soviet Union of foreign ideology and foreign domination. It was assumed that once these political shackles were removed the peoples could, like released prisoners, resume a ‘normal’ political life. The failure of the peoples of Central Europe instantly to adopt democratic ways can to some extent be blamed on the numbing effect of living for a generation under a totalitarian regime; but it surely goes deeper than that. Industrialisation came late to the region. Until the First World War – in places, until the Second – much of the population still lived on latifundia, huge estates with absentee landlords who effectively monopolised both economic and political power. Their hegemony was backed by all the oppressive resources of the Habsburg and in places the Romanov Empires. Secret police and political prisoners were not peculiar to Communist regimes. The inter-war regimes of Horthy and Pilsudski were little improvement on their predecessors. Only the Czechs under Masaryk were able to build on foundations of self-government which had been gradually developing with the growth of a prosperous middle class in the 19th-century; but we must not forget that the Czechs had also developed the strongest Communist Party in Central Europe, which in 1948 was able to overthrow parliamentary democracy without the Red Army needing to fire a shot. It would be unwise to make too much of the strength even of Czech democratic traditions.

The history of Central Europe has thus produced a political culture distinct from that of the West. There has not been the growth of self-governing institutions from the bottom, such as occurred in Anglo-Saxon societies, nor the drastic destruction of the feudal order and the institution of a legal, administrative and political framework based on a concept of the Rights of Man which took place in Western Europe after 1789. In Central and Eastern Europe centuries of agrarian feudalism and authoritarian rule were bound to produce a political culture of acquiescence if not submission, tempered by scepticism and evasion. Vigorous individual enterprise was unlikely to flourish, and those most likely to promote it emigrated in large numbers to the United States. In particular, intellectuals unwilling to be assimilated into the mechanism of the state were forced into interior or actual emigration – a situation that won them sympathy from their colleagues abroad but tended to alienate them from their own peoples, of whom they too easily conceived an ideal image very different from the mundane reality. How can we, from such roots, expect model liberal democracies to emerge overnight?

It is important therefore not to expect too much too soon. Dramatic appeals have been made to the effect that ‘democracy’ is under threat in Central Europe and that it is the duty of the West to pour in money in order to shore it up. There are certainly good reasons why we should provide the new regimes with all the help we can in order to modernise their economies – good practical economic and ecological reasons – but such contributions will not necessarily safeguard ‘democracy’. A ‘democratic’ regime which depends on foreign support for its credibility is something of a contradiction in terms. Democracy is a matter of political habits, not of formal institutions, and the development of these habits takes time.

Above all, we must beware of the manichean tendency so prevalent in the United States of dividing the regimes into totalitarian or democratic, slave or free, and ignoring the gradations that lie between. In Central Europe Marxist-Leninism with all its cumbrous apparatus of political and intellectual oppression has been effectively and permanently destroyed. It did not work. But pluralistic democracy may not work either: at least not yet. When it does, it is likely to be along lines rather different from our own. We must accept that in the new European house, there are likely to be many mansions, and that in some of them we may not find ourselves entirely comfortable.

[*] 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.