Two books about the revolutions of 1989.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 9 2009 6:57 AM

1989 and All That

How much anti-Communist opposition really was there?

(Continued from Page 1)

I would call such people, together with the chains of friends and connections who sustained them, "civil society." They weren't necessarily organized into neat political parties—how could they be? But they existed, as even Kotkin obliquely acknowledges, for example when he talks about the regime's "lack of political capital" to carry out reforms. (Why would a regime without opposition need political capital?) Indeed, because he doesn't believe in civil society, he is forced to think up other names for the same phenomenon. At one point he uses the word niches to describe the tight-knit groups of opposition-minded friends whose links with one another accounted for the rapid emergence of mass crowds in 1989. I'm sorry, but a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

And whatever you want to call it, these alternate organizations mattered. They helped form the crowds and then helped the crowds create change (impelling Vaclav Havel to the presidency of the Czech Republic, for example). Maybe more importantly, they affected the midlevel bureaucrats, the people who had been following orders all along but, with the threat of a Soviet invasion withdrawn, no longer wanted to do so. People like the policeman who spontaneously opened the barrier at the Berlin Wall, just to take one famous example, were moved to switch sides by, yes, the civil society that had been growing around them.

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In contrast to Kotkin, Pleshakov isn't denying the existence of civil society. Instead, he challenges the notion that Central Europe was always a hotbed of anti-Communist activity, from the end of the war to the fall of the wall. He wants to show that there was indigenous support for the Left in 1945 and that at some level it persisted up until the present. He makes an exception for Poland, which, as I say, he accurately describes as a country locked in a kind of civil war from 1945 onward. But even there he shows that there were Poles who supported communism, or anyway socialism, from the very beginning, and that they fought hard against the church, the intelligentsia, and the "civil society."

Again, Pleshakov is absolutely right that there was indigenous support for communism, not only in Poland but in Hungary and Czechoslovakia—and, for that matter, in Italy and France. This was a region with wide gaps between rich and poor before the war, and social inequality led to demands for redistribution of wealth after the war. But Pleshakov goes too far in implying that the civil war over communism was somehow unique to Poland, or that no one else was much interested in freedom so long as they had enough bread.

In Hungary there was real opposition to the regime, and not only from former landowners: Hundreds of small demonstrations followed the nationalization of church schools in 1948, for example. Though crushed, civil society in Hungary kept secretly re-forming itself, culminating in the 1956 revolution. In Czechoslovakia anti-Communist opposition took its signature form in the Prague Spring of 1968. In East Germany, widespread opposition initially took the form of escape to the West but after the construction of the Berlin Wall took other forms, too. I know these are very obvious points. But just as we have to remember, from time to time, that Stalin was bad, it seems that we also have to remember that some people did want freedom as well as bread.

Which bring me to the puzzle of why these two historians, both of whom know most of their facts perfectly well, have succumbed to this sort of revisionism. Clues are found in their introductions. In his, Kotkin suddenly veers off the subject at hand and attacks the "spectacular incomprehension, lucrative recklessness, and not infrequent fraud" of American financial elites over the past two decades. Pleshakov, after explaining what sort of book he wants to write, also momentarily changes tacks and attacks Western leaders who were "profoundly misled by the post-1989 euphoria" and thus began "aggressively pursuing the free-market, free-elections solution in other 'nonfree' areas." This I take to be an allusion to the war in Iraq.

What both men really dislike is what they perceive as right-wing triumphalism in the wake of 1989—a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion but one unrelated to the history of that year itself. In fact, reading both books helped me understand why the events of 1989 are somehow still in play, in a way that is no longer true of the entire cold war. Most people don't think about the Berlin airlift or the Cuban missile crisis in the light of current events, which is why they can be described by historians with something approaching neutrality. By contrast, the events of 1989 are still part of contemporary politics. They cause angry debate in Central Europe itself, simply because the means by which power changed hands in that year—or failed to change hands sufficiently—remains controversial. But even on our side of the Berlin Wall, the debates are still ideologically polarized, charged by attitudes toward Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher—or toward George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. That makes history more difficult to write. Perhaps we need another 20 years to think about 1989 after all.

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