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  • The Transformation of Central Europe
  • Bronislaw Geremek (bio)

Only ten years ago, the political world that we live in today would have been considered a bold, futuristic vision. The reality of those bygone years had been shaped by many decades of the Cold War, during which a huge part of Europe had been ruled by communist regimes. Central and Eastern Europe was separated from an integrating Western Europe by the “Iron Curtain,” and both the economic gap and the civilization gap between the two halves of Europe continually widened. Although the weaknesses of the so-called people’s democracies were clearly visible, almost no Western experts were predicting the rapid downfall of the entire Soviet system.

Against this backdrop, ten years ago representatives of Poland’s democratic opposition sat down at a negotiating table in Warsaw with the hierarchy of the country’s communist regime. Within that same year there followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Soon other societies awoke—and that was the end of communism in Europe.

Central European societies paid the price of their struggle for freedom on the streets of Budapest in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland in 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1981. In 1989, however, Poles chose dialogue instead of confrontation as a means to overcome a political deadlock. The “roundtable” talks, sometimes called the “negotiated [End Page 115] revolution,” marked the beginning of the end of the struggle against communism for Poles and other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe.

I would like to present some thoughts on our transition to democracy and a free market, but I also wish to call attention to some of the hazards of that process. I believe that today we are at a very particular moment in European history. Our perception of the successes and failures of the last 10 years is heavily influenced right now by pictures from Yugoslavia, pictures that call into question the view that Europe is becoming a single entity. This view has been advanced for the past few years by Central Europeans contending that the notion of a separate and distinct Central and Eastern Europe had lost its validity.

The term “Central Europe” has sometimes been considered as an expression of nostalgia for the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The term also implied a special intellectual atmosphere, which was often seen as a privilege for those born there. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the notion of Central Europe could also be associated with the dream of freedom and the aspiration to membership in a community of free nations.

Nowadays the notion of Central Europe is associated with rapid economic and social transformation, albeit not without high social costs. This transformation, firmly based on the premises of democracy and human rights, allowed many nations in our region to claim that we belong to a single European family. The crisis in Kosovo is a severe test for that family, and at the same time proof that the ghosts of nationalism are still alive in parts of Central and Eastern Europe.

The roots of the nationalism that has destroyed so many lives in the Balkans over the last eight years are not to be found only in remote history. Those roots grew very quickly during the decadent phase of communism. When I think about the success of Poland, I now can see very clearly that in Yugoslavia the postcommunist elites rejected democratic change, and the Central European model of transformation was not applied there. This is a painful lesson for those of us involved in democratic change in the region, as well as for the entire European family of nations.

Everyone now acknowledges that communism was economic nonsense. By wasting capital reserves and human resources, by overburdening society with arms production, and by suppressing the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation, it finally bankrupted itself. On a philosophical level, however, communism inflicted upon itself an even greater defeat. Unable to convince society to believe in their ideology, communist leaders restricted the rights of their citizens and built their empires on a foundation of violence, terror, and lies.

But these pillars of power proved inadequate to the task...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 115-120
Launched on MUSE
1999-07-01
Open Access
No
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