Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

It was like a graduation party. So says the historian Philipp Ther, who joined the protests in Prague’s Wenceslas Square during those momentous days of November 1989. “We had passed the test,” Ther writes. “The old authorities had no more to say; the world was our oyster. It seemed as if anything was possible.” In their memories of communism’s collapse, the revolutionaries of 1989 often describe the joy and relief, the instant brotherhood, the feeling of riding the wave of history. 

Naturally, it didn’t last. In Berlin, where Ther travelled soon after, elation was followed by resentment, with West Germans muttering about the Easterners cramming the roads and emptying the supermarket shelves. Across Europe, meanwhile, the messiness of post-communist politics “engendered disenchantment and cynicism.” 

Disillusionment is the usual sequel to political victory, but 1989 especially seems like a revolution with a hole in it. The evil of communism is beyond words—the mass graves it filled, the lies it spread through the world—and we ought to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its defeat. It is more difficult to say what actually did the defeating. 

Was 1989, for instance, about democracy? In a narrow sense, yes: The ballot box was an effective instrument for getting rid of the old system. But the word hints at something more: fraternity, solidarity, the collective will of “the people” asserting itself. And the reality, both before and after the revolution, was different. For one thing, that collective will was divided. To quote Tony Judt, another historian who saw the 1989 revolutions up close: “The balance varied from place to place but typically ‘the people’ included a mixture of reform communists, social democrats, liberal intellectuals, free-market economists, Catholic activists, trade unionists, pacifists, some unreconstructed Trotskyists and others besides.” Only a shared horror at the communist system was able to unite such a diverse group. 

After the revolution those divisions became plain, as did the banal reality of democracy. In 1989 Czech crowds had chorused, “Havel, na Hrad!”, demanding that Václav Havel be made president. Within three years he had resigned after failing to prevent the country's breakup. In 1995, Poland elected a former Party apparatchik, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, in preference to the great resister of communism, Lech Wałęsa. Even in the country where the wall fell, the people are not sure 1989 was their moment of truth: Some polls have found that a majority of East Germans think well of the GDR. And most former Soviet states have struggled to put democracy into practice. 

Some say that 1989 was about freedom—which is true, if it means freedom from the secret police and the gruesome official ideology. But “freedom” is often used here to mean economic liberalism. “We should defend free markets,” Theresa May told last year’s Conservative Party Conference,

because it is ordinary working people who benefit. Closed markets and command economies were not overthrown by powerful elites, but by ordinary people. By the shipyard workers of Gdańsk, who led the resistance in Poland. By people of all backgrounds who took part in the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. By the people of East Berlin, who tore down that wall. These were the many, not the few.

This picture is already highly selective. Many things inspired the revolution; free markets were not high on the list. And although post-communist Europe is better off—in all senses—for economic reform, the last thirty years have shown that liberalization can cause its own crises. After 1989, post-communist countries rushed to shrink the state, privatize, and deregulate: The results were so mixed that the electorates started to vote for skeptics of capitalism and even well-known former communists. Today, following years of vast E.U. subsidies, the financial crisis, and the rise of populist parties, it is even harder to see 1989 as the moment Europe declared its undying love for free markets.

On yet another telling, 1989 was about history: if not exactly the end of history, then at least a clue to its general direction. But like democracy and free markets, history seems to have given less than it promised. “30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” a squadron of European intellectuals recently declared, “there is a new battle for civilisation.” They had not expected to fight it: “This, we told ourselves, was ‘the direction of history.’”

If anyone should be able to sum up the 1989 revolutions, it is artists and thinkers. But they, too, have sounded anguished rather than jubilant. Well before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn was railing against Western decadence—a decadence that he traced back to the false exaltation of Man during the last 500 years. Havel, though he passionately believed in Europe's spiritual identity, wondered if the E.U. was really able to express that identity, or whether it had become (in his memorable example) a forum for never-ending debates about the transportation and regulation of carrots. And the dissidents who, through the long years of communism, built beautiful theories of civil society and culture, found that when the Iron Curtain rose, those theories were largely ignored. 

The revolutionaries of 1989 deserve their thirtieth anniversary celebrations. But after the graduation party come the hard questions of adulthood—including the question of what it is all for. “Europe is not happy,” says the title character in Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred. “Amid its false excitement, its bustling invention, and its endless toil, a profound melancholy broods over its spirit and gnaws at its heart. In vain they baptise their tumult by the name of progress; the whisper of a demon is ever asking them, ‘Progress, from whence and to what?’”

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.

Photo by MD via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles