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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 5-19

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History and Memory:
The Revolutions of 1989-91

Aleksander Smolar

During the years 1989-91, people had the impression that they were living through political events comparable in scope and importance to the French and American Revolutions. With the downfall of communism,decades of Cold War and the threat of global annihilation came to an end, and the bipolar world was consigned to the past. For some, this meant "the end of history" in a philosophical sense: the disappearance of a plausible alternative to a liberal democratic order. For others, by contrast, it meant that history was just opening its doors, enabling previously suppressed countries, nations, and continents to regain their ability to shape their own destiny. Still others feared that the political changes would lead to cataclysms: chaos, anarchy, civil war, ethnic conflict, and the threat that "rogue states" or terrorist gangs would use weapons of mass destruction. The bipolar world, it was noted, had at least brought a certain order and predictability. Articles appeared prophesying the return of the demons of the past. It was recalled that World War I, World War II, and the Cold War had all begun in that part of Europe that lies between East and West, the meeting point of great empires and great religions: Western Christianity, the Orthodox Church, and Islam.

The peaceful revolutions of a decade ago fascinated the entire world. Their heroes were "the people," "the nation," and "civil society," along with intellectuals who invoked the language of "truth," "morality," and "human rights." It seemed that an old dream was about to be realized-- [End Page 5] that of the "rule of philosophers," or of a democracy capable of creating and respecting true elites. Men such as Václav Havel, Jacek Kuron, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Adam Michnik, János Kis, Bronislaw Geremek, Gyorgy Konrad, Jiri Dienstbier, Andrei Sakharov, Vytautas Landsbergis, Vyacheslav Chornovil, Zhelyu Zhelev, Arpád Göncz, and Sergei Kovalev occupied the front ranks of public life and the front pages of the world press. As far back as the 1970s, Jean-François Revel, citing Karol Wojtyla's elevation to the papacy and the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, entitled one of his articles: "Ex Oriente Lux" ("Light Comes from the East").There were more and more reasons, it seemed, to think so.

The fall of communism also had a ricochet effect, unblocking politics in the democratic West. The reunification of Germany quickened the pace of European integration. The expansion of democracy around the world was accompanied by political upheavals in many of the older democratic countries. With the disappearance of their systemic rival, democratic countries had to fall back on internal sources of legitimacy and to meet internal criteria of success or failure. Today citizens evaluate much more strictly phenomena that they might have tolerated during the Cold War, such as corruption or lack of transparency. Alongside politics and the economy, ethical concerns seem to assume a continually growing importance in public life. The international community reacts ever more strongly against massive violations of human rights, and the "right of intervention" in the domestic affairs of other countries in response to mass crimes against civilian populations is challenging the traditional concept of national sovereignty. The results include the war in Kosovo, the creation of tribunals to prosecute crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and finally the decision to create the International Criminal Court itself. Directly or indirectly, all of these changes had their sources in, or were substantially accelerated by, the revolutions of 1989-91.

Yet on the tenth anniversary of 1989, even the most serious international newspapers and journals published relatively little about the events that had shaken the world, and it is unlikely that the tenth anniversary of the 1991 collapse of the "evil empire" will evoke greater interest. In the autumn of 1999, two Washington Post columnists wondered why the tenth anniversary of the great changes seemed to resonate so weakly in American public life. 1 Charles Krauthammer pointed to the...


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