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 full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] 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.