Douglas & McIntyre
The Ghosts of Europe

Book details:

September 2010
ISBN 978-1-55365-515-2
6" x 9"
272 pages
Current Affairs
$34.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre

The Ghosts of Europe

Journeys through Central Europe's Troubled Past and Uncertain Future

Excerpt / Additional Content


The Other Europe

In 1989, the Soviet Empire began to crumble and Central Europe, as local pundits and Western journalists were fond of saying, returned to history. Between 1946 and 1989, historians, journalists and politicians tended to dismiss these lands from discussion of Europe, as if they had somehow absented themselves from their own geography. Now the great cities of Warsaw and Budapest, Krakow and Prague, Bratislava and Vilnius would no longer be viewed as sitting stolidly on the far side of the Iron Curtain’s unfathomable chasm, a divide between “us” and “them.”

Poland was the first Soviet satellite to rebel against the hegemony of the Soviet Union, whose red czars, from Stalin to Chernenko, had provided their acolytes with the means to suppress opposition. In February 1989, the leaders of the formerly banned Solidarity trade union and the Communist Party leaders of Poland settled around a table to discuss how the country would recover from the human and economic disasters that the Party’s rule had wrought. On June 4, 1989, Poland held the first semi-free elections in a Soviet satellite country.

On June 16, 1989, Hungary’s former prime minister Imre Nagy, executed for his role during the ill-fated 1956 eevolution, was reburied with the pomp and circumstance due a national leader. On July 6, he was formally rehabilitated by the Supreme Court. Thirteen days later, the last Communist prime minister of Hungary allowed several hundred East Germans free passage to the West. It was the first time since 1946 that East Europeans had been able to freely cross the Iron Curtain. When a reporter asked Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev whether he would like the Berlin Wall to be taken down, Gorbachev replied, “Why not?” Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister since 1947, took his seat in the Sejm (parliament) on August 24.

On October 18, Erich Honecker, the strongman of the East German Communist Party, stepped down.

On October 25, President Gorbachev’s foreign ministry spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, voiced the end of Soviet hegemony over its satellites. When asked whether the Soviet Union would still follow the Brezhnev Doctrine of military intervention if needed, Gerasimov replied, in the spirit of the Frank Sinatra song “My Way,” “So every country will decide in its own way which road to take.” The implication was obvious: the Soviet Union would not come to the rescue of other Communist leaders. They were, as of now, on their own.

On November 9, the Berlin Wall was breached, peacefully. Amid breathless, televised jubilation, East and West Germans met and embraced over the divide that had, for twenty-eight years, seemed impenetrable. East German guards who only weeks before would have shot their fellow East Germans for attempting to escape to the other side were now dancing with West German girls and giggling with delight.

On December 10, when the new national unity government was announced, the Czechoslovak Communist Party—one of the most repressive regimes of the Soviet Bloc—gave up power.

During a mass meeting in Bucharest on December 21, 1989, the usually submissive Romanian crowd booed the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and no one was arrested. When Ceauşescu’s shocked face appeared on national television, everyone knew that his reign was over. A few days later, he and his wife were arrested, tried by a military court and, on December 25, executed.

On New Year’s Day 1990, Vaclav Havel, the new president of Czechoslovakia, stepped out on a balcony in Wenceslas Square and promised a government based on fairness and morality. He ended his speech with a quote from Tomaš Masaryk, the Czech politician and national hero who had successfully carved a country out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918: “People, your government has returned to you.”

In a move that would have been unthinkable a few months earlier, Havel welcomed world leaders to Prague. The list of dignitaries included President George H.W. Bush, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Gorbachev, who said he grasped the opportunity for his own country to “open up” to democracy and for the world to escape from the threat of nuclear war. But, as Gorbachev saw it, the USA was not ready to deal with Russia as a partner, only as a defeated enemy.

At the end of 1989, there were 300,000 nuclear weapons–equipped Soviet troops in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Four years later, they had all gone home.

When it was all over, and credit was claimed or assigned, there were many contenders: Ronald Reagan, who had challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to take down the Wall; Solidarity, the Polish trade union that refused to be intimidated; Pope John Paul ii, the Polish pope, who defied the system and told people who opposed it not to be afraid; Germany’s successful Ostpolitik, the effort to open the door between East and West; and Gorbachev’s perestroika, or “restructuring” of the Soviet economy, and glasnost, or openness. Whether Gorbachev had a premonition about the future of his country and the rest of Europe or he was trying to reform Communism (as the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Alexander Dubček, had done some twenty years previously) is still uncertain. Looking back, what is sure is that few in 1989 foresaw the events that ended the Communist era in Europe.

One might form the mistaken impression that the West was unified in its delight at the sight of all the walls collapsing. It was not. British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for one, aggressively opposed the unification of Germany. French president Francois Mitterrand worried about integrating the rebellious East into the orderly West. Americans, however, forgetting that some democratic elections have contributed to the world’s insecurity, imagined that the West’s export of democracy to the newly opened East would give them more security. The notion that democracy, like a commodity, is exportable is still prevalent among many Western politicians and continues to provide them with ample opportunities for disappointment. Unlike exotic fruit or fancy cars, democracy is best if it is grown locally. It may take root in the common desire of the people who choose to adopt it, but it cannot be imposed from the outside. While it has found fertile ground in most of the former Iron Curtain countries, it has not taken root in Iraq, and its Russian version excludes criticism of the government, as has been proven by the bodies of dead journalists.