Though the annus mirabilis is most often associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, both of which happened in November 1989, in fact, revolution was in the air throughout Central and Eastern Europe the entire length of that tumultuous year.
During the first six months in Warsaw and in Budapest, the years-long push for democratic reform had reached a tipping point. In August, Hungary and Austria held snipping ceremonies to cut through the barbed wire fencing dividing their countries and held “Pan-European Picnics” at the breach, through which thousands of East bloc citizens, escaped to the West.
In August, 2 million democracy-hungry people held hands and created a 650 kilometer long “Baltic Chain” through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In October, many thousands of Leipzigers chanted, “Wirsind das Volk.” And in December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were brutally executed by “the people.”
Of course, we now know that the Berlin Wall didn’t actually fall on November 9 (the bulldozing began in earnest many months later), but that, instead, it was an accidental event that could have been a scene right out of Václav Havel’s absurdist comedy The Memorandum: East Berlin GDR party boss Günter Schabowski miscommunicated a note he’d been vouchsafed to deliver to the public, resulting in massive demands for exodus at various checkpoints, and when Politiburo officials could not be reached for clarification of the message, terrified checkpoint guards opened the gates to relieve the pressure.
Still, the Wall (and its demise) proved to be a useful structuralist symbol of communist totalitarianism, even though, with abject irony, such walls with their barbed wire, guard dogs, gum towers and searchlights, were more recently associated with communism’s arch-enemies, the Nazis and the Holocaust.
But then when the Allies refused to cede West Berlin to the Soviets at the end of World War II, creating a kind of mini Western island-state smack dab in the middle of communist East Germany, a wall must have seemed inevitable. Indeed, US president John F. Kennedy saw it as a necessary evil, remarking, “It’s better than World War III,” referring to the crisis that East bloc escapes to West Berlin were creating.
For me, and, I suspect, for many literate others, the more enduring symbol of the zeitgeist was the Velvet Revolution. Although the crumbling of the Wall was an appealing concrete epitaph for lost generations who’d suffered under the soul-crushing watchfulness of the communistic surveillance state, the Velvet Revolution represented the rise of a true idea out of the ashes of the inauthentic past. It was the mind-child of Václav Havel and his popular Civic Forum group.
And in fact, in keeping with Havel’s dramaturgical and philosophical background, and as a clear substitute for the notion of an intellectually impenetrable Iron Curtain, one thinks of the velvet curtain that rises on stage and opens on an unfolding human drama that binds the audience as emotional co-participants – enactors –of the passions, desires, and themes playing out before them and within them.
Of all things, the Velvet Revolution reminded me of the US Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s championing of Street Theater, his wild and humanistic notion of politics as play, imbued with natural levity and absurdity. Like Havel, Hoffman promoted the eminence of culture, and all the better if it were surreal andcounter.
The Velvet Revolution also seemed to be an attempt to deliver on the promise of the failed Prague Spring of 1968. The Third Way: socialism with a human face. Who among the many thousands of Czechoslovakians amassed in Wenceslas Square in late November did not glisten with nostalgia for the brief glory days of 1968 when an aged Alexander Dubcek emerged with Havel to give a speech, and an aging Marta Kubisová came out on a balcony and sang the redemptive “Modlitbapro Martu” (“Prayer for Marta”)?
These old ideas of the human condition and its myriad passions were not dead after all. And yet, looking at those faces in the crowd as Dubcek spoke and Kubisová sang, there seemed to be an abundance of tragic wistfulness that was almost as moving as the reprise of a generation prior.
In 1998, the Prague Post print edition ran a special 30th anniversary remembrance of the rise and fall of the Prague Spring and its legacy, including the events of 1989. I happened to be fortunate enough to be framed with Havel and the Prague-born French historian and political scientist, Jacques Rupnik, in a remembrance of those things past.
My own piece was a nostalgitation on the heady days of activism in America and how it compared to the student protest happenings in Paris and Prague during the spring and summer of 1968. Of course, many of the protests in America dating back to the Sixties have had to do with the inequities of manipulated capitalism and its violent enforcement, at home and abroad.
The violent days of ’68 in America, beginning with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, followed by brutal police bashings outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, were, incredibly, topped, just before the November presidential election, by the Henry Kissinger-facilitated subversion of the Paris Peace talks which helped assure Nixon’s victory and led to hundreds of thousands more deaths in the jungles of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.
The concerns have been rather somewhat different in Europe, where politics and culture have had real historical life: Europeans haven’t just made communism and socialism themes in some privileged (and ultimately meaningless) academic exercise in rhetoric – they’ve actually tried it, lived with it, understand its limits; culture has had a deeper, more common place of vision for Europeans.
It seems to me that Havel’s vision of 1968 has quite different concerns from America, as well, and even from the rest of Western Europe. Elsewhere in the West students and others may have been responding to crises affecting the integrity of their respective democracies, whereas, simply put, in the Czechoslovakia of 1968 the concern was with stoking and keeping alive a consciousness that would lead to a sustained democratic governance.
As Havel put it: “The interparty political struggle and political changes of that time provided the opportunity and suitable conditions for the pressure to blow the lid off. Fear was disappearing; various taboos fell; social differences could be labeled; the media began to carry out their original mission; civic consciousness was growing.”
This fresh spring of new consciousness was eventually suppressed by occupying Warsaw Pact troops, but the fantasy of freedom can be sustaining sometimes even in the diminished capacity of hope. Nevertheless, Havel closes his piece by warning about the fragility of democracy, of the need to nourish it with difference and variegation. “Without a diversely structured civil society – and today’s political parties tend to forget about that – our democracy will remain weak, unanchored and easily harmed.”
Jacques Rupnik picks up on this in his piece, arguing that beyond the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution whatever catalyst for bringing to fruition Havel’s 1990 vision of a terminated Cold War dividend pay-off of world peace and peaceful co-existence – a new age of humanitarianism – has been soundly rejected.
In Paris, Rupnik notes, the student leaders of the 1968 Paris May days have now become self-satisfied establishment figures controlling media.
“But in Prague,” he writes, “the term ’68er’ remains a defamatory label, an indication of a moderate kind of communist danger or a doubtful utopia closely linked to the exaggerated influence of intellectuals in politics.” Where then does this place the Third Way – the median between the wretched exploitations of unbridled capitalism and the soul-sucking blandness of leveled desires?
By 1998, may people, including Havel and Rupnik could see that a period of “global civilization” was not in the Tarot cards. Since those heady days of 1968 and 1989 that sparked perhaps the last great revolution of the old millennium, may of the macro issues that have plagued humanity in general, and Europe in particular, have returned again – collapsing nation-states, nationalism, conspicuous consumerism that leaves one lost in the opiated dream called ‘globalization’.
The sad paradox of the Wall’s collapse was that, in the end, democracy did not win the Cold War – capitalism did, the laissez-faire variety, with its trickle down oligarchic values and anti-government rhetoric.
Thus, at a time when Eastern Europeans especially were looking to build fresh, true democracies – modeled largely on America’s exceptionalist system – they looked on stunned to find model Western nations pushing government away, and co-opting Havel’s notion of humanitarian interventionism in order to exploit the market-valuable natural resources of distressed peoples.
Today, many years after the disappointments Havel was already expressing in 1998, Prague seems cheap and tawdry, over-visited and service-oriented, a place for weapons conventions and for prototyping new surveillance technologies, the proposed site for American nuclear weapons and occupying forces, a virtual totalitarian state ruled, ultimately, by the Almighty Dollar. One recent poll lists the Czech Republic as having the most corrupt government in the world. Even Havel, in the end, reclaimed the castle of his class heritage and doddered through his final years.
The curtain on the Velvet Revolution has come down. And there is no levity lighting up the joint. There may not even be any tears left.