20 Years of Collapse

20 Years of Collapse
20 Years of Collapse

TODAY is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. During this time of reflection, it is common to emphasize the miraculous nature of the events that began that day: a dream seemed to come true, the Communist regimes collapsed like a house of cards, and the world suddenly changed in ways that had been inconceivable only a few months earlier. Who in Poland could ever have imagined free elections with Lech Walesa as president?

However, when the sublime mist of the velvet revolutions was dispelled by the new democratic-capitalist reality, people reacted with an unavoidable disappointment that manifested itself, in turn, as nostalgia for the “good old” Communist times; as rightist, nationalist populism; and as renewed, belated anti-Communist paranoia.

The first two reactions are easy to comprehend. The same rightists who decades ago were shouting, “Better dead than red!” are now often heard mumbling, “Better red than eating hamburgers.” But the Communist nostalgia should not be taken too seriously: far from expressing an actual wish to return to the gray Socialist reality, it is more a form of mourning, of gently getting rid of the past. As for the rise of the rightist populism, it is not an Eastern European specialty, but a common feature of all countries caught in the vortex of globalization.

Much more interesting is the recent resurgence of anti-Communism from Hungary to Slovenia. During the autumn of 2006, large protests against the ruling Socialist Party paralyzed Hungary for weeks. Protesters linked the country’s economic crisis to its rule by successors of the Communist party. They denied the very legitimacy of the government, although it came to power through democratic elections. When the police went in to restore civil order, comparisons were drawn with the Soviet Army crushing the 1956 anti-Communist rebellion.

This new anti-Communist scare even goes after symbols. In June 2008, Lithuania passed a law prohibiting the public display of Communist images like the hammer and sickle, as well as the playing of the Soviet anthem. In April 2009, the Polish government proposed expanding a ban on totalitarian propaganda to include Communist books, clothing and other items: one could even be arrested for wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

[Extract. Appeared in The New York Times on November 9th, 2009.]

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