Viktor Orbán speaks at Imre Nagy’s reburial, June 16 1989
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period of liberalisation, was a cathartic moment, involving huge crowds and a fiery speech by the then leader of the young liberals, Viktor Orbán (above).
Stripping away decades of deceit and obfuscation was an intellectual liberation that complemented the political transformation. Central and east Europeans, and their friends in the West, felt vindicated. For decades, the Soviet Union had used its military and diplomatic might, plus ruthless intelligence means, to enforce a distorted version of history. That attempt had failed, and failed catastrophically.
Social revulsion at communist crimes and lies provided political energy for painful economic and other changes. The “Western” approach involved clarity about the crimes of communism, rectifying injustice, and taking a fact-based approach to history. The move to market economics and a multi-party system, the building of the institutions of a free society and integration with US-led international organisations all benefited from the same rejection of the past and admiration for the West’s stance during the Cold War.
The effect of this was intensified by the Russian Federation’s ambiguous approach to history. Hopes of a German-style Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past) were soon dashed. The Russian state showed some interest in exploring its own peoples’ suffering under totalitarianism, but little in rectifying injustices done to other countries. There was no restitution of confiscated property, nor compensation to foreign victims of slave labour and other repression. For the ex-captive nations, the “Russian” approach involved continuing concealment, without even the cloak of communist ideals..
Moreover, the lessons of history pointed firmly towards internal and external cohesion. Freed to examine the real history of the interwar period, historians and the public could see clearly how Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had exploited divisions and weakness. Czechoslovakia’s alienation of its German minority, for example, looked like a lethal mistake, which paved the way for Hitler’s irredentist politics. The diplomatic failures of the 1930s, such as the conflict between Poland and Lithuania, or Hungary’s tortured relations with its neighbours, also looked self-defeating and self-indulgent. The countries of central and eastern Europe might—had they only cooperated— have resisted the great-power politics being practised in both Moscow and Berlin. The future, it was clear, was integration. Historical issues with neighbouring states were to be downplayed in favour of cross-border cooperation, adherence to international standards on minority rights, and the overwhelmingly important goal of integration into the EU and Nato.
The tragic events in Yugoslavia in the early and mid-1990s underlined the importance of this approach. While the rest of Europe was trying to look towards the future, Serbian and Croatian nationalist leaders ruthlessly exploited long-standing historical grievances: in the case of Serbia, dating back to defeat at Turkish hands on June 15th, 1389. The result, after 130,000 dead, was a US-brokered deal in which no country could claim victory. During the same time period, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary had laid the ground for their accession to Nato in 1997, with scrupulous attention to maintaining friendly relations with their neighbours. Under Václav Havel, the Czechoslovak and then Czech president, agreement was reached with Germany on a common approach to the traumatic deportation of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945. Poland and Germany had reached agreement on the finality of their frontier (which included historic German territories awarded to Poland
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