- The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey through the Baltic States by Clare Thomson
Joseph, 273 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7181 3459 1
- Berlin Journal 1989-90 by Robert Darnton
Norton, 352 pp, £15.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 393 02970 0
- An Estonian Childhood: A Memoir by Tania Alexander
Heinemann, 168 pp, £6.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 434 01824 4
After the intoxication of liberation comes the hangover. East Germans are less happy than of the day the Berlin Wall was opened. The cost of basic needs – rent, fuel, food – has gone up, jobs are being decimated. Their Western brothers and sisters, who embraced them on 10 November 1989, seem intent on telling them how to run their lives and reluctant to share their affluence with them. Polish national unity, impressively symbolised by Solidarity, has disintegrated into apathy and multi-partism: fewer than half the Poles turned out to vote in the first free parliamentary election and no party got more than one-eighth of the votes cast. Czechs and Slovaks are close to breaking up the state that was the one working democracy in inter-war Central and Eastern Europe. Of the organised thuggery in Romania and the civil wars in the Caucasus and Yugoslavia the less said the better.
East European critics of Western admirers of Gorbachev (or Yeltsin) attribute this admiration to continuing naivety about these leaders’ democratic credentials, or – worse – residual softness on Communism. Neither of these is an adequate explanation. What Western politicians and opinion-leaders want is a tidy world and a tidy world is one in which empires keep rebellious tribes in order, much as the British Raj managed to contain communalism in the Indian sub-continent and the European powers strove to keep African chieftains at peace with each other. The sanctity of existing frontiers was a principle enshrined in post-colonial Africa. It was also one of the articles of the 1975 Helsinki accords. So why couldn’t the Lithuanians wait patiently until the process of détente and summitry had decided on an appropriate timetable and conditions for their independence?
The answer is that they could not because they did not want to, and they did not want to because they thought they were entitled there and then to what Western peoples take for granted. There is no doubt that this makes for an untidy world and, at worst, a bloody one. What is surprising is – Romania, Yugoslavia and the Caucasus apart – how un-bloody it has been. Eastern Europe has gained its liberty partly because the Soviet Empire had come to the end of its shelf-life, but also because the peoples staked their moral claim with non-violence. They had little choice, since they had no access to weapons. But one does not need weapons to erupt in riot, as the housing estates of England and Wales periodically demonstrate. East Europeans made a virtue of non-violence, whether in the candle-lit vigils of East Germany, the silent crowds in Wenceslas Square or the human chains in the Baltic republics. The Balts also revived folk-song festivals, a weapon already used against Tsarism – hence the title of Clare Thomson’s book. It was the rumour that the Prague police had clubbed a student to death that spelt the end of the Husak regime: Civic Forum’s twin in Slovakia is called Public Against Violence. It was the threat of the East German regime to crush the Leipzig demonstration on 9 October 1989 that signalled Honecker’s demise.
Why, then, has universal happiness not followed? There are a number of reasons. The first is that it is easier to overthrow a tyranny than to replace it with functioning government by consent. The second is that many, though not all, parts of Eastern Europe have had little experience of pluralistic self-government. But the most important is the deeply corrupting effect that Communist rule has had on the individuals and societies it governed. Where the distribution of all benefits depended on favouritism, patronage, conformity and careerism, it became more and more difficult to envisage a society in which personal integrity could triumph. One might have an abstract notion of what real democracy consisted of: it did not follow that one could think or act democratically oneself – i.e. combine mature personal autonomy with a readiness to compromise. What Communist rule all but killed was public-spiritedness. ‘They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work’ is how Poles summed it up. ‘People here are not used to work. They’re simply used to going to work, and to always getting paid and never being fired,’ Clare Thomson was told in Estonia. ‘How can you live honestly in this system? Everyone’s guilty!’ Similar questions of ‘guilt’ apply to the problem of collaborators with the Soviet regime. At least some of the leading advocates of Baltic independence came from the ranks of the former Communist Party. Were they always closet nationalists? Or are they merely opportunists, saving their political skins? And if the latter, does it matter? Should one not welcome any convert to the cause, however late in coming, especially if he knows how to operate the machinery of government? Or are these the people one needs to beware of most? The dilemma is common to all the newly independent states. To purge or not to purge is a major issue in Czechoslovakia and one that featured prominently in the polish presidential election. The role of writers under the East German regime is a question that is now tearing the German literary establishment apart. Many of the entrepreneurs of privatization are old apparatchiks writ large. They know how to get to the front of the queue, and they have the dishonest gains from their previous incarnation as investment capital. I even met people in the Baltic states who advocated the retention of the KGB in some form. They fear that Estonia and Latvia will become the main conduits for the drug trade from Central Asia, and that the local police will simply not be able to cope. Whatever the pragmatic arguments for retaining the pre-independence élite, continuity of office causes resentment at best and cynicism at worst. ‘Britain really is an island,’ Clare Thomson remarks. ‘Unlike many European nations we do not really understand the complexities, ambiguities and horrors of occupation.’
One of the ambiguities concerns Baltic relations with the Germans in the Second World War. The Baltic states lost their independence thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939. They were a present from Hitler to Stalin. The public line of present-day Balts is that of a plague on both their houses. In any case, historically, no love was lost between the Baltic peoples and the German ‘Baltic barons’ who were their social and economic masters from the 14th century to 1918. The German upper class and patriciate did much for the culture of the region, in the architecture of Tallinn and Riga, the schools, universities, music and religion. Wagner composed most of Rienzi while director of the Riga opera. But this was a culture that excluded the Estonian and Latvian peasant population. The churches contain scarcely a single memorial in the language of the native population.
But by 1940 such memories had faded. The reality that Balts faced then was Soviet annexation, confiscation and mass deportation. Under these circumstances there was a temptation to greet the Nazi invaders of 1941 as liberators, as also happened in the Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. What was rather more sinister was the willingness of some Balts to help their new masters in the ‘Final Solution’, indeed on more that one occasion to anticipate their wishes. Members of pre-war ultra-right movements, such as the Latvian perkonkrusts and Aizsargi had no compunction in participating in massacres. The German occupiers looked on approvingly at the Riga pogrom of 1-2 July 1941, but they did not instigate it. The 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Batallion was responsible for fifteen thousand deaths.
Clare Thomson does not ignore these painful episodes, but treats them in a curious way. ‘Just as Stalin was able to rely on a certain amount of local Jewish collaboration in the arrest of Baltic Gentiles, so Hitler was able to rely on the hatred of all things Soviet to enlist help from certain Balts,’ she concludes. She writes of the Kalevi-Livve camp in Estonia, ‘where some of the executioners were Estonian Nazis engaged by the SS (or where some of those killed were Jews who had collaborated with Stalin)’. There is a whiff of apologia about these remarks which contrasts strangely with the honesty of the rest of her book. There were Communists who collaborated with the Soviets and some of them were Jews. But no Balt was deported because he was a Gentile and the massacre of Jews at Klooga and Kalevi was politically quite indiscriminate.
Why bring all this up now? None of these facts undermines the Baltics peoples’ claim to self-determination. It is not necessary to be virtuous in order not to be a victim. We all know of the atrocities committed by the Croat Ustasha regime during the war, and that some at least of the Croat militia of today are inspired by an ideology not far removed from that of the Ustasha. In President Franjo Tudjman’s ‘history’ of this period, Wastelands, we read that the victims of the war-time Jasenovac concentration camp – estimated at thirty thousand – really owed their fate to their fellow inmates, not to their Croat jailers. But this hardly excuses the flattening of Vukovar or the destruction of Dubrovnik by Serbian chauvinists in 1991.
No, the purpose of setting the record straight is not to redistribute collective guilt, but to promote self-knowledge. The way to an honest future is to be honest about one’s own past, as Vaclav Havel pointed out at last year’s Salzburg Festival, while trying hard not to look at president Waldheim. An example of what not to do is the Lithunainan Government’s blanket amnesty – since rescinded – of all war criminals sentenced by the Soviets.
While Clare Thomson’s naivety on these matters is embarrassing, she turns it into an asset elsewhere. Indeed, she is sophisticated enough to know that she was entering a world whose complexities she had not suspected. This makes her a good observer, free from the temptation to show her cleverness by deconstructing everything her interlocutors told her. Half-Estonian herself, her only means of communication was the universal second language of Europe, English, which an amazing number of Balts speak fluently and idiomatically.
‘We are like aborigines who have suddenly discovered that we are not the only tribe in the world,’ one Estonian told me. This is a slight exaggeration. In recent years Estonians have been able to receive Finnish television, correspond with their relatives abroad and even travel, thanks to the generosity of their Nordic neighbours. Nevertheless East Europeans are apt to marvel, Miranda-like, at their brave new world. Robert Darnton interviewed, among others, Reinhard Becker, the local councillor responsible for the environment in Bitterfeld, East Germany – surely the most thankless municipal job in Europe. When Becker visited his West German twin town he was awe-struck:
Spotless. The sidewalks are clean, the steps are clean, the roofs are clean. The stucco is all in place, and it’s painted in bright colours ... Local services are paid for by local taxes. The man in charge of parks has fifty people working under him. If a tree blows over, he pushes a button, and in ten minutes the tree is gone.
In case you were wondering, the twin town is not Munich or Stuttgart, but Marl, a rather depressed place in the northern Ruhr valley.
When the East German writer Stefan Heym said that the German Democratic Republic would become a mere footnote in history, many thought he was exaggerating. True, the backwardness and the spoliation of town and countryside remain. So do at least some of the mentalities, including ‘an easy-going sociability that is unknown in the West,’ as Darnton puts it. Time, as I can confirm, is not yet an object in those parts. But, for better or worse, East Europeans are trying to pick up where they left off before Communism intervened. For better in Leningrad, where at least the name has been changed. For worse in the Yugoslav civil war. But where did East Europeans leave off? Can that world be reconstructed, or is it irrevocably shrouded in myth?
Tania Alexander is old enough to be Clare Thomson’s mother. Her book begins in 1915 and ends in 1939. She is, on her grandfather’s side, a Benckendorff, a scion of one of the oldest German-Baltic noble families. Through her pages wander Rennenkampfs, Dellingshausens and Stackelbergs, without whom the diplomatic and military history of 19th-century Eastern Europe would be unthinkable. Her mother was Moura Budberg, a famous beauty and no mean intellectual who was at various times the lover of Robert Bruce Lockhart, Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells. While Moura was in revolutionary Petrograd or Sorrento or London, Tania was brought up by ‘Margaret Wilson’, whose secret daughter was Maud Gonne’ half-sister. She could not have been less typical of her class. Unlike most of the Baltic aristocracy she was half-Russian, multilingual and, in so far as she had any religion, orthodox rather than Lutheran. Her mother was in broad sympathy with the Russian Revolution, to the extent of being rumoured to be a Soviet agent; she herself was prepared to give the Bolsheviks credit for their intentions, if not their actions. And yet, as a witness to the suspended animation of the last twenty years of her class, she has no rival.
‘It is difficult today to imagine the simple mode of life of those days in that little corner of Europe,’ she writes. The sentimentality of a Marie Antoinette? Not at all. The Benckendorffs had lost their estate after Estonian independence and her father had been murdered by marauding peasants. Their remaining house, pleasant and civilised though it was, had no electricity and their only vehicle was a horse-drawn cart. Though dispossessed, they were not persecuted and minority rights were on the whole respected in the inter-war Baltic republics. Sheltered though her life was, she did not lack political antennae. She noted with alarm the other noble families’ growing sympathy with National Socialism; and the fears of those who stayed aloof from Nazism that Hitler would bring about a Russo-German war in which they would be crushed – an anticipation all too justified by events. An Estonian Childhood was written before the collapse of Communism as recollection of the past, not as a guide to the present. Yet anyone who wants to understand what is going on now could do worse than start here, where many of the roots of the 1990s are laid bare.
At the start of 1992, as much of Eastern Europe is hungry, sad and disillusioned, it is easy to lose sight of what has been achieved. Darnton recalls the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint in Berlin before the Wende: ‘In Kafkaesque fashion you felt you must be guilty, even though you did not know your crime.’ I asked the elderly lady in the coffee house of the Paris Hotel in Prague what had got better and what had got worse since the velvet revolution.
‘Everything has got worse and will get worse still,’ she replied, ‘except for one thing. For the first time in fifty years I do not have to fear the police.’ Since she was Kafka’s niece, I assumed she knew what she was talking about.