1989 and All That

Everything comes around again, in the end; every debate needs to be held twice. For the past few years, the Russians have been conducting an extraordinary national argument about whether Stalin was bad, a question one would have thought was settled long ago. And now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1989, we have two books, both by eminent historians, both seeking to start an argument about whether there was an anti-Communist opposition in Central Europe. In Uncivil Society Stephen Kotkin, a Soviet historian at Princeton, makes an unusually strident version of the case that there was not. Konstantin Pleshakov, a Soviet historian at Mount Holyoke, presents a milder and more complicated version in There Is No Freedom Without Bread.

Both titles take aim at 1989 “clichés.” “Uncivil Society” is, of course, a twist on the term “civil society,” a phrase Kotkin dismisses as nothing but “catnip to scholars, pundits and foreign aid donors … .a vague, seemingly all-purpose collective social actor.” Pleshakov’s “No Freedom Without Bread” is an ironic inversion of the phrase “there is no bread without freedom,” which was used by the Solidarity movement in Poland. At the time, it was partly an answer to the Polish Communist Party’s attempt to pacify the population with imported consumer goods, paid for with borrowed dollars.

Pleshakov wants to make a more complex point: that the “correlation between prosperity and liberty is never simple,” and that people wanted bread just as much as they wanted freedom. Pleshakov’s broader revisionist argument is that it is wrong to imagine that everyone was an anti-Communist in Central Europe: There were Communists, and at times they were very popular. Indeed, he implies that with the exception of Poland, where there was a real civil war between Communists and anti-Communists, they were even accepted as legitimate by most people.

For the record, I remember the revolutions of 1989: I was living in Poland that year and traveled frequently around the region. Among other things, I was in Berlin when the wall was opened. So while reading these two books, I could not resist checking the authors’ claims against what I remember seeing and hearing at the time, annoying though that reflex may be. (Kotkin, for example, talks about demonstrators massing “at the Berlin Wall checkpoint, near the remains of Hitler’s bunker.” Well, actually there was more than one checkpoint, and actually Hitler’s bunker wasn’t especially near any of them.)

Much stranger than the occasional errors, though, is how often Kotkin’s account is accurate—and therefore at odds with his own thesis. In brief, Kotkin is trying to demonstrate that the fall of communism in 1989 was not a revolution, let alone a “people’s revolution.” With the possible exception of Poland, he says, the collapse was simply a function of Mikhail Gorbachev’s inexplicable decision to give up the ghost and of the financial insolvency of the Eastern bloc. He calls this thesis a new “narrative of global political economy and a bankrupt political class,” as though no one had ever heard of Gorbachev or global markets before he came along. Of course, he is at one level correct: Without Gorbachev’s decision to let the Berlin Wall fall, there would have been no 1989. Had Central European governments been able to borrow billions and fill the shops with Coca-Cola, as they did in the 1970s, they might well have sated some of the mass dissatisfaction, too. Nevertheless, Kotkin is utterly wrong in imagining that there were no other factors at all.

Whatever you want to call it, there was something else, in Communist Central Europe—something other than the government, the state-owned companies, the bankrupt political class. And there wasn’t supposed to be anything else: Along with the arrest of political opposition and the nationalization of industry, one of the first things Communist regimes did when they came to power in the late 1940s was destroy social institutions. As early as June 1946, the Hungarian Communist leadership outlawed dozens of independent youth, church, and other groups. Polish Communists hit hard at Catholic charities—as Kotkin points out—while the East Germans from the start absolutely forbade hiking organizations. Of course private publishers, art galleries, and independent schools were banned or heavily restricted as well. The idea was that ultimately there would be no organizations of any kind, except those sanctioned by the state.

What that meant, however, was that anybody who formed any kind of organization risked being treated as a political opponent of the regime. Kotkin himself acknowledges that “the regime’s stubborn denials of the existence of any social conflict made elementary conflicts into an existential threat.” Well, yes, precisely: That was why the Czechs formed jazz bands, the Hungarians created academic discussion clubs, and the Poles went to church. Kotkin sneeringly dismisses the various anti-Communist East German groups as too minor to matter. But he forgets that there were other, nonpolitical forms of opposition, even in conformist East Germany. I recently interviewed a man who spent his entire life struggling to keep open a private clothing shop in the town of Wittenberg. He was as proud of his bravery as any dissident would be.

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.

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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