We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
The Year That Changed the World
Michael Meyer, Scribner, $26 (cloth)
The Romanian Revolution of December 1989
Peter Siani-Davies, Cornell University Press, $24.95 (paper)
Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong
Tom Gallagher, Manchester University Press, $84.95 (cloth)
The end of the Cold War produced so much ostensible consensus—on democracy, on free-market economics, on liberal values—that one is struck by how little consensus there is, even twenty years later, on how and why the Cold War actually met that abrupt end.
The explanations for communism’s spectacular collapse fall into three basic camps. First, there are the conservatives, such as U.S. Republicans and European Christian Democrats, who champion Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II as communism’s noble slayers. It was their unstinting anti-communism, and Reagan’s full-throttle arms race, that undermined and bankrupted the Soviet bloc. Another camp, which includes historians Tony Judt and Timothy Garton Ash, credits above all the defiant, opposition-minded dissidents who challenged communist regimes in the name of human rights. It was they who initiated the nonviolent movements that swept their jailers onto the dust heap of history. And then there are the Gorbachev fans, who argue that the father of glasnost and perestroika was the prime mover of the transformative events of 1989 and 1990.
With the twentieth anniversary of the peaceful revolutions of 1989 just passed, a deluge of new books attempts to shed light on the forces that ultimately uprooted the East bloc’s dictatorships. While this may appear to Americans as an academic exercise, in Central Europe today, the competing narratives of “how” and “why” and “who” starkly delineate political fronts and still supply powerful election-time fodder.
In The Year That Changed the World, U.S. journalist Michael Meyer offers a somewhat new take on the spark that ignited communism’s implosion. Meyer, Newsweek’s Central Europe correspondent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was on-the-spot at just about every twist and turn in this remarkable story: in East Berlin when the wall was breached, reporting from Bucharest as Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceauseşcu was executed, at Prague’s Wenceslas Square when Vaclav Havel delivered his famous 1990 New Year’s address. Meyer’s literary flourishes are eloquent, and his vivid, gripping account of these events, and many others he witnessed first-hand, is a pleasure to read. Meyer has also kept up with the enormous outpouring of scholarship since then and conducted more on his own. This book is not a simple recounting of journalistic glories.
Yet the most novel—and problematic—aspect of Meyer’s book is his thesis that the real heroes of 1989 (Meyer’s “untold story”) were a handful of mild-mannered Hungarian communists. According to Meyer, it was the likes of Hungary’s Harvard-educated prime minister Miklos Nemeth, and his sidekick, the reform-minded party activist Imre Pozsgay, who toppled communism in “one of the great subterfuges in the annals of diplomatic history.” This superlative is just one example of Meyer’s overstatements, which ultimately weaken his arguments even when they contain important kernels of truth.
Nemeth and Pozsgay, Meyer contends, were not real communists—though they had spent their entire lives rising through the party’s ranks—but rather dyed-in-the-wool democrats. Meyer walks into the office of one of their coterie in early 1989 to find him expounding on James Madison and the Federalist Papers, and “sounding every bit like a Hungarian Thomas Jefferson.” Anyway, it is supposedly their intention from day one to breach the Iron Curtain, fell the Berlin Wall, upend communist leaderships from the Baltic to the Balkans, and pave the way for liberal, free-market democracy. With a wink and a smile (and also “cunning and courage”) they go on to execute their intricate plan. Meyer shows that the West German government was in on it all along, coordinating from behind the scenes.
He interviews these dramatis personae two decades after their deeds and, lo and behold, they fess up to having plotted everything that came to be in 1989 and all that followed in its wake. Their story has been untold until now because these guys have neither the charisma nor egos of self-promoters such as Lech Walęsa—nor Meyer’s convincing prose. Indeed, this second-tier of Hungarian socialists that pushed its way to the front of the party in the late 1980s does deserve some of the credit for overturning the apple cart; more, certainly, than Hungary’s former dissidents will ever give them. But I see the intentions and modus operandi of Nemeth, Pozsgay, and their cohort very differently than does Meyer.
This younger Hungarian cadre inherited a system bankrupt both economically and in terms of popular legitimacy. The conditions and social consensus that had made Hungary “the cheeriest barracks in the east bloc” during the ’60s and ’70s had disintegrated completely. Hungary’s communist leadership was desperately in need of external financing to keep the country afloat and some kind of ploy to extend its lease on life. Nemeth and cabal saw a limited opening to pluralism and the West as the only means to achieve both aims. They did so in their own interests, to preserve their grip on power. And the West Germans paid cash: for every step in the right direction, the Hungarians received grants and loans. And, all along, the Hungarian comrades were being pushed vigorously by anti-communist circles that had growing support among ordinary Hungarians—a state of affairs that Meyer largely ignores.
The copious internal party minutes available in the Open Society Institute archives in Budapest confirm that the likes of Nemeth and Pozsgay were no Thomas Jeffersons, but rather nimble apparatchiks with their backs to the wall. Their ploy to maintain power by calling snap elections in late 1989 was foiled by the country’s true democrats, men such as the intellectual-dissidents Janos Kis, Miklos Tamas Gaspar, and Miklos Haraszti, who organized a popular referendum to postpone the election date so that newly formed parties could coordinate and campaign. When Hungarians voted in free and fair elections in March 1990, they bid an unceremonious farewell to Nemeth and Pozsgay. Perhaps the two deserved a little more gratitude than they got, but nothing like what Meyer accords them ex post facto.
The power of Romania’s new oligarchs may indicate that Ceauseşcu’s ouster was a putsch and nothing more, but there are good reasons to argue otherwise.
In Hungary today, this history is reflected in the country’s polarized political landscape, divided between the reformed socialist party, infused now with a younger generation, and an array of national populists whose anti-communism (in a country now without communists) is a first-order credential. The socialists cling to the mantle that Meyer and others, such as their own hagiographers in Hungary, accord them. This distances them from the worst of communism’s excesses while enabling them to profit from the nostalgia for a golden era that exists in the minds of some, mostly older, Hungarians. The nationalists, on the other hand, link communism (and thus today’s socialists) to a tradition of dictatorship that carried over seamlessly from wartime fascism to Soviet communism. As these two narratives loom larger, the voice of the liberal middle is squeezed out. In the upcoming national elections in April, the dissident-founded party, Alliance of Free Democrats, may be ejected from the parliament altogether for the first time since it entered in 1990. Sadly, this weak democratic stratum—the likes of Western-style social democrats, greens, left-liberals, and even genuine Christian democrats—is the reality across Central Europe, not just in Hungary.
• • •
Nowhere in post-communist East Central Europe is the narrative and nature of communism’s overthrow more closely bound with the political here-and-now than in Romania. This is the case, in part, because Romanians lag woefully behind their neighbors in coming to terms with the recent past, in particular that of Ceauseşcu’s notorious secret police, the Securitate.
Even among communist regimes, Ceauseşcu’s was uniquely dependent on its secret police. The absence of either a historical-truth commission or a thoroughgoing lustration process has obscured the Securitate’s role in communist Romania and enabled former agents and other former nomenclature to enter the media, the business world, academia, and democratic politics at the highest levels. Nothing in Romania, including EU integration, happens without the involvement of these powerful networks. These forces have been instrumental in blocking an effective vetting process that could begin to purge the government, civil service, and justice system of the communist-era cohort.
One prime example of their residual clout: only after ten years of obstruction were the Securitate files finally opened to the public, and since they were altered over the decade, a definitive exposure of misdeeds and outing of former agents in the public sphere has proved impossible. Leading independent intellectuals such as Alina Mungiu-Pippidi even contend that the country would be better off were the doctored archives simply destroyed. There is, in Romania, nothing like the extensive research teams in Hungary’s archives (or in the Stasi archives in Germany) that continue to illuminate the past and discredit revisionist claims, such as those of Hungary’s 1989-era socialists, that inevitably crop up.
The glaring deficiencies of Romania’s belated stab at processing the past have recently come under the spotlight with the high-profile case of Herta Mueller. Mueller, the 2009 Nobel laureate for literature, is a Romanian-born ethnic German who fled Romania in 1987. In a widely discussed 6,000-word exposé in the German weekly Die Zeit, Mueller reflected on the content of her personal Securitate files, which she received after a sixteen-year wait, and made the sensational claim that while in Romania she is still followed and monitored by either the new intelligence services or some privatized derivative of the Securitate. Stretches of as much as three years are missing from the emaciated file handed over to her. She asserts that her files were purged by the very elements that the opening of the archives was meant to expose and that the continuity of the Securitate is unbroken in Romania, an EU member since 2007. This is an exaggeration, since Romania is by no means the police state that it was in the 1980s. But her case illustrates how the ethos of the Ceauseşcu regime remains embedded in Romania’s power structures.
It is also thanks to lingering communist-era networks that a fog of misinformation still shrouds the events of the 1989 Christmas revolution itself. Wild rumors and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around Ceauseşcu’s execution, the street battles in which over a thousand people lost their lives, and the empowerment of a clique of second-tier communists. Was this a full-fledged revolution or just a palace coup? Romanians are still wondering. Had they been duped and then abused by Ceauseşcu’s aides posing as radical reformers? The legitimacy of the revolution and of Romania’s current democracy hinge on the answers to these questions. The power of the new oligarchs, and Herta Mueller’s experiences, seem to indicate that Ceauseşcu’s ouster was a putsch and nothing more.
But in The Romanian Revolution of December 1989, British historian Peter Siani-Davies argues otherwise, and I think rightly. Siani-Davies makes the case that the events of December 1989 do constitute a revolution, if one that contains the seeds of Romania’s reality today. He argues convincingly that there was mass mobilization across the country: a storming of the regime’s institutions at both the local and national levels and spontaneous takeovers of factories and other work places. The Romanian Communist Party (RCP) was deposed and banned, the highest authorities removed from office or shot. Even if second- and third-tier party members quickly filled those vacancies, the rise of this younger generation signified what Siani-Davies calls “a pronounced power shift.”
Such was the nature of Ceauseşcu’s stifling dictatorship that Romania had no Vaclav Havel or Lech Walęsa—nor a Nemeth or a Pozsgay, whatever their faults were. But this does not mean that the figures who emerged on television as the revolt’s leaders were mere “palace cronies,” as is often argued. Rather, men such as Ion Iliescu, the future president, were apparatchiks, many of whom had held high political office but were expelled from Ceauseşcu’s inner circle. (Iliescu was the director of a publishing house.) Siani-Davies argues:
From their unique insider-outsider position the new leaders were able to both place sufficient distance between themselves and the previous regime to permit their acceptance as legitimate political successors by most Romanians during the revolution, and to use their old roots within the Party to exert their authority over the remnants of the RCP regime once they took power.
The latter point is crucial: even though the Romanian government of the early 1990s left much of the old apparatus in place, it did not have those elements working against it.
Siani-Davies admits it is unclear whether the anti-Ceauseşcu protesters possessed an authentic revolutionary vision. Their common motive was to oust the tyrant from power. Beyond this, the coalition was divided between adherents of Romania’s interwar parties—basically national restorationists—and the communist reformers who envisioned a centralized democratic socialism. This dichotomy would define the political fronts—and Romania’s erratic democratic culture—for the next decade and beyond. But even so, according to Siani-Davies, there was a shared popular desire for moral renewal, for democratization, and Romania’s opening to the wider world.
Some political scientists argue that the deformities of Romania’s post-communist evolution make it unfit for EU membership.
With such strident competing viewpoints on the best path for the country’s future, there was little consensus on the redistribution of political power and economic resources. Post-communist Romania’s first elected governments (coalitions led by former communists until 1996) were pushed to undertake reforms they did not want. When land reform and privatization did happen, former regime loyalists were among the primary beneficiaries, expanding their power bases and bank accounts. In terms of democracy, Romania lagged behind its neighbors in Central Europe, but it avoided the fate of its southern neighbors in the Balkans, where war prevented the initiation of reforms for another decade.
Against this backdrop, political scientist Tom Gallagher, an acclaimed Romania expert at the University of Bradford, insists that the deformities of Romania’s post-communist evolution—that Siani-Davies traces back to the revolution and its aftermath—make Romania, for the time being, unfit for EU membership. His stark warnings went unheeded when Romania joined the European Union in 2007, and in Romania and the European Union he argues that the Union has paid a steep price, further empowering the cliental networks that control the country. In Romania, he argues, the Union’s illustrious soft power met its match: Romania has transformed the European Union for the worse, diluting its democratic consensus and mocking its norms. He maintains that “the EU’s legitimation of forces in Romania that only adopted the trappings of Western democracy could [lead to] the resurgence of soft forms of political authoritarianism.”
Many EU officials agreed at least partially with Gallagher that Romania had not met the Copenhagen criteria, required for membership. But Brussels’s strategy was to accept Romania together with Bulgaria, while continuing to monitor and mentor both countries in the rule of law. It was accepted that Romania still had progress to make in judicial reform, the elimination of corruption, and the struggle against organized crime. Romania, thought EU planners, could not be a tougher nut to crack than the likes of, say, Slovakia.
The result of this hubris, Gallagher argues, was superficial reforms—pseudo-Europeanization—that were reversed as soon as conditionality was lifted. The standards of the sacred acquis communautaire, the body of EU law, were unable to “make a dent on the problems of underdevelopment, maladministration, and post-communist misrule.” Gallagher claims the most serious gaffe on the part of the Union was to accept the mostly cosmetic changes to Romania’s judicial system. Satisfied with minimal reform, Europe gave Romania no incentive to continue vital work toward an independent judiciary. The Union’s emphasis on rapid privatization caused unemployment and emigration to soar, while enriching private fiefdoms that became more muscular than the public agencies designed to regulate them. This crony capitalism has opened a door to Russia’s oligarchs, who have drawn Romanian cartels into their orbit.
Gallagher’s argument is hard to refute, and he heaps on the evidence. But I wonder if it were really better to have Romania outside the Union, dwelling in that limbo between Russia and the West that has proved so treacherous for the likes of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Brussels does not lose all of its leverage when candidates become members. There are European funds and other sanctions that can be employed to bring stragglers into line. Furthermore, the examples of Romania and Bulgaria, and in the near future, Croatia, are inspiration to the countries of the southern Balkans whose people have begun to doubt whether there is a place for them among their fellow Europeans.
If Romania is to serve as inspiration, however, it must confront its past. As Gallagher and Siani-Davies show, Romania’s past is very much implicated in its present, and the influence of the communist era endures throughout the public sphere. The inability to furnish transparency undermines the credibility of public institutions and democracy in general. And Meyer’s book is a fine example of how the failure to scrutinize history accurately can lend legitimacy to those undeserving of it. The European Union requires no such historical scrutiny in order to gain admission to its privileged ranks, but if a genuine civic culture is to supplant the authoritarianism of the past, Romania and its neighbors to the southeast must take the task upon themselves.
Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer who has written about Germany and Central Europe since 1989. His work appears in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other media. He has held prize fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin, European Journalism College, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of four books, most recently Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.
Though a means of escaping and undermining racial injustice, the practice comes with own set of costs and sacrifices.