Even though you couldn’t tell from media coverage in the region and internationally, 20 or so years ago communism collapsed in the former Yugoslavia, too.
The 20th anniversary of the momentous events of 1989 in Eastern Europe has been rightly framed mostly in celebratory terms. But there are very few things to celebrate in this regard in the former Yugoslavia.
The main action of 1989 was indeed elsewhere. The stumbling of the Yugoslav League of Communists in the late 1980s and its definitive end in January 1990 fade into near insignificance when looked upon against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or indeed the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime in Romania.
Yet it would be wrong to say that Yugoslavia was one of those countries that the collapse of communism just happened to. Continue reading …
Polish journalist, dissident, and politician, 1927–
When Poland needed a recipe for national reconciliation after five decades of totalitarian rule, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime ministerin Central and Eastern Europesince the late 1940s, came up with the gruba linia – the notorious“thick line” that was to be drawn over the past. Whether this was a better solution than the harsh lustration law proposed by the government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains a bone of contention in Poland.
The legacy of Mazowiecki’s 17-month tenure (August 1989-January 1991) includes more than the “thick line” formula – which, whether or not it was intended that way, has come to be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the outgoing totalitarian regime. He undertook radical steps aimed at moving Poland toward a free-market economy. The crash reforms were successful, but only at the cost of sharply rising unemployment and a fall in real wages – fallout that cost him a shot at the presidency in November 1990, when, in a shocking setback for his policies, Mazowiecki finished third behind his erstwhile ally, Solidarity titan Lech Walesa.
That year marked a split within the Solidarity camp, which Walesa and Mazowiecki had co-led for a decade. Mazowiecki, a former parliamentary deputy, was one of the principal legal advisers to the striking shipyard workers and helped mobilize intellectual support for the union. In 1981 Walesa entrusted the first Solidarity publication, Tygodnik Solidarnosc, to Mazowiecki, who was imprisoned when martial law was declared in December of that year. In early 1989 he was a key figure in the Round Table Talks that opened the door to political competition.
For the next decade and a half Mazowiecki remained in the thick of Polish political life, serving in the Sejm until 2001 and co-founding two parties, the Polish Democratic Union in 1991 and the Democratic Party in 2005. He also served as a special UN rapporteur in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, when he resigned to protest the big powers’ inaction over the bloodshed there, including the massacre at Srebrenica.
Mazowiecki left high politics in 2006, but he is still active on the public stage as a journalist and commentator. On 31 October, in Berlin, he joined other statesmen in office in 1989 – from conservatives George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl to reform Communists Mikhail Gorbachev and Miklos Nemeth of Hungary – for an informal commemoration of the events of 20 years ago.
By Natalia O’Hara On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: National Theater ballerina Adela Pollertova.
When it happened I was at home alone. The 17th of November began like a normal day, but when I got home from school no one was there. My mother was always at home in the evenings, and usually my father, too. I wondered what could have happened.
My parents and older brother returned late. They said that they had been to a demonstration in Narodni trida [National Street in Prague]. My parents were talking about what had happened but I didn’t understand, because I didn’t know the first thing about politics. Continue reading …
On 17 November 1989, police in Prague cracked down on a student demonstration, triggering 10 days of mass protest and political action that peacefully brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. To mark the anniversary, all this week TOL features prominent Czechs offering their recollections of the Velvet Revolution. Today: author, commentator, and Catholic priest Tomas Halik.
We started preparing for the canonization of St. Agnes of Prague in 1987, but there was a delay, and so the canonization was in November ’89. When we left Prague for Rome there was already something in the air.
One evening in Rome, I was out walking, although the weather was terrible. Down a little street I ran into [Archbishop of Paris] Cardinal Lustiger, whom I had met once before in Prague. He said, “Try to contact the Holy Father,” so I wrote a letter. I went to dinner with John Paul II on the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He had been on the news that day saying, “There will be an end to communism. You will be free.” I said, “Holy Father, I don’t believe it. I think that in five or 10 years, maybe it might happen.” But he insisted that it would come soon. Continue reading …
Nicole Wowesna-Trhlinova was 7 when Czechoslovakia’s communist regime was swept away by an onslaught of peaceful protest. Today she lives in the Prague suburb of Hostivice and works in the public-relations department for the state air-traffic-control service. In an interview with TOL contributor Sarah Kunkler, Nicole recalls seeing the revolution through a child’s eyes.
Hungarian politician and international banker, 1948-
On 11 September 1989, thousands of East Germans began pouring out of Hungary and across Austria, en route to new lives in West Germany. Opening the border was the latest in a series of bold moves that would define, and mark the end of, Hungary’s unique brand of “goulash communism.”
The man most responsible for that event, Miklos Nemeth, had become prime minister at age 40 in November 1988, six months after the doddering Communist Party chief Janos Kadar resigned amid a devastating debt crisis. Nemeth and other “radicals” (such as future prime minister Gyula Horn) were keen to take advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosening of the reins and accelerate Hungary’s gradual shift away from centralized political and economic control. After visiting Gorbachev to check that the Soviets would not crack down, the reformers began lifting border controls in May 1989.
That summer, many East Germans holidaying at Lake Balaton decided not to go home, and thousands more headed for Hungary. By 25 August, over the heads of the East German leadership, Nemeth had struck a deal with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to welcome any East Germans already in Hungary. The move effectively tore down the Iron Curtain, threw the East German communist chiefs into terminal confusion, and helped galvanize Czechs and Slovaks to launch mass protests of their own a week after the Berlin Wall fell. (As they flew home after the meeting with Kohl, Nemeth recalled in a 1993 interview, one of his advisers mused that the day’s events could lead to redrawing the map of Europe – in five or 10 years.)
Hailing from a small village, Nemeth was little known outside Hungary before being named prime minister. He served only 18 months before sliding back into relative obscurity, taking a job as a vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He made a final foray into politics after leaving the bank in 2000, campaigning for the leadership of the Socialist Party. He lost out to Peter Medgyessy, who had served in Nemeth’s cabinet as finance minister. The Socialists went on to win the 2002 elections and preside over Hungary’s EU entry.
Amid this year’s anniversary celebrations Nemeth has emerged again as an eminence grise of the Cold War’s end. At an event in September commemorating the Hungarian-German accord, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the nationalist-conservative Fidesz party – no friend to anyone on the left – praised Nemeth’s “chivalrousness and generosity,” noting in particular his refusal of Kohl’s 1989 offer of financial aid in exchange for opening the border. On 9 November, Nemeth and Lech Walesa toppled the first in a chain of giant dominoes marking the route of the vanished Berlin Wall as dozens of statesmen, many of whom likely didn’t recognize the former Hungarian PM, looked on.
But as Nemeth told the BBC recently, the approval he appreciated most came far from the spotlight of Budapest or Berlin. “After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990, I went back to my home village,” he said. “And my father clapped me on the back and said, ‘Son, well done, I’m still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.’”
From 1967 to 1992 Monica Lovinescu was the inimitable voice that kept millions of Romanians updated on the latest cultural and political trends in the West and the dissident movements in other Soviet bloc countries, at the same time offering critical analysis of the myths surrounding the totalitarian regime at home.
After completing her literary studies at the University of Bucharest, Lovinescu received a scholarship to study in Paris in September 1947. Three months later the communists took power in Romania and blacklisted the works of her late father, literary critic Eugen Lovinescu. This led her to request political asylum, which France granted in 1948.
Numerous articles in European and Romanian-language cultural journals established Lovinescu as a prominent voice among Romanian emigres. (It also made her mother, still in Bucharest, a prime blackmail target. In 1958 the 71-year-old Mrs. Lovinescu was jailed for “undermining state order”; she died in prison after refusing to press her daughter to inform on dissidents in France.) Lovinescu’s standing rose further in 1967, when she became the mind and the voice behind the Radio Free Europe programs Theses and Anti-Theses in Paris and Romanian Cultural Events. Following in the footsteps of her father, well-known as a promoter of modernist literature, she would read from new work and review both underground and mainstream Romanian authors.
Disturbed by her influence and the authority she wielded in Romanian cultural life, Nicolae Ceausescu in 1977 sent two assassins to Paris to have her silenced (according to onetime Securitate chief Ion Pacepa, who defected to the United States in 1978). Lovinescu recalled that two masked men savagely beat her in the courtyard of her house, leaving her unconscious. She returned to her listeners after five days in the hospital.
After the overthrow of Ceausescu, Lovinescu visited her home country several times and in 1999 was awarded Romania’s highest civil honor, the Order of the Star, but she continued to live in Paris, where she died on 20 April 2008at the age of 84. Her post-1990 published works include radio scripts, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, and six volumes of a diary, which raised a stir in Romania over her intransigent judgments of important cultural figures and her disenchantment with post-revolutionary times.
Lovinescu courted controversy again in a 2002 magazine interview in which she offered barbed criticism of former dissident intellectuals who she said should have gotten more involved in Romanian politics after 1989. She took aim what she considered a thriving “Homo Sovieticus” mentality in Romania and the pervasive nostalgia for a communist-era “golden age,” and decried the country’s failure to hold a Nuremberg-style trial of communist leaders. “The only solid base for change is one of mentalities,” she said. “Without that, even the few good things that have been done are built on quicksand.”
Czech singer and icon of anti-communist dissent, 1942
Popular music played a significant role in the Czech dissident movement, and it was the return of a beloved singer from the 1960s that gave musical affirmation to the events of November 1989. “Let peace continue with this land/ Let wrath, envy, hate, and fear vanish/ Now the lost reign over your affairs will return to you, people, it will return.” These lines from “Modlitba pro Martu” (“Prayer for Marta”), ringing out from a balcony on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, marked Marta Kubisova’sreturn to public life.
Two decades earlier those lyrics brought the communist government’s wrath down on the popular pop, rock, and chanson singer. In the ’60s Kubisova enjoyed great success in Czechoslovakia and neighboring countries as part of the pop trio Golden Kids, singing alongside Helena Vondrackova and Vaclav Neckar, and appeared in a handful of films. But “Prayer for Marta,” written by Petr Rada and Jindrich Brabec and recorded just days after the Soviet-led invasion of 21 August 1968, made her an icon. The song’s references to regaining lost freedoms evoked a deep emotional response, and it remained a symbol of defiance until the fall of communism.
But Kubisova’s triumph came at a high price. Her 1969 album Songs and Ballads was immediately banned. In 1970 she was falsely accused of producing pornographic photos and barred from performing. In 1977, she was one of the first signatories of Charter 77, but publicly little was heard of her until 1989. For several years she worked in a junior office position.
Kubisova and her anthem returned to the fore when, standing next to Vaclav Havel (a longtime friend and the godfather of Kubisova’s daughter), she sang “Prayer for Marta” to the Wenceslas Square crowd on 21 November 1989. “I felt like I was in a dream,” she has recalled in numerous interviews. She resumed recording and performing, establishing a residency at Prague’s Ungelt Theater and occasionally reuniting with her fellow Golden Kids. (The trio has recently returned to the media spotlight in a less happy light, with Vondrackova filing suit against Kubisova for pulling out of a planned tour.)
“The first seven years after the revolution were wild. I had to learn all about show business,” Kubisova says on her website. “But then I was invited to sing at the Ungelt Theater, and there I found my safe haven and have stayed since.”
In 1995 then-President Havel made her one of the initial recipients of the state Medal of Merit, and three years later the Czech Academy of Popular Music inducted her into its hall of fame. She also resumed acting, winning the prestigious Thalia award in 2002 for her role in the Czech adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Tell Me on a Sunday.
In the early 1990s Kubisova became associated with a new cause: animal rights. For 17 years she has hosted a television program that pairs abandoned animals with viewers for adoption.