Present At The Recreation Of Mitteleuropa


By Andrew Nagorski

Simon & Schuster x 319pp x $23

On a hot summer day in the northern Polish town of Gdansk, apocalypse was in the air. More than a thousand Poles had gathered in the church of St. Byrgida, awaiting the arrival of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. It was August, 1989, and power was ebbing rapidly from the communist government.

Day and night, Solidarity leaders had been meeting secretly, debating how to take over without antagonizing the Soviet bear. When an ebullient Walesa arrived with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, his hand-picked candidate for Prime Minister, the crowd poured into the church and erupted in song. Many wept with joy. Precisely how things would work out wasn't clear, but no one doubted Poland was free. Within four months, the communist governments of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Romania had also collapsed.

For the people of Eastern Europe, it was the start of a long, strenuous journey back to their cultural-political roots as Europeans--and a cataclysmic leap forward into late-20th century capitalism. Andrew Nagorski, Newsweek's Warsaw bureau chief, has had a front-row seat as this history unfolded. The Birth of Freedom is his personal view of the transformation he has witnessed.

Nagorski shows how Western "East Europeans" are--and were, even when they lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain. As he notes, the east-west division of Europe some 40 years ago was wholly artificial. Indeed, the region then dubbed "Eastern Europe" is historically Mitteleuropa, or central Europe.

While not a new point, it's one Western leaders have been painfully slow to deal with since 1989. Throughout the cold war, the West wrote off the Soviet satellites and their peoples as lost territory, despite bloody uprisings against their Soviet rulers. In December, 1991, two years after the former satellites embraced democracy, Western Europe toiled in Maastricht on a treaty for European unity that made little effort to include Hungary, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia in Europe's future club.

In fact, the 1989 revolutions succeeded because Eastern Europeans had refused to become "Homo sovieticus," a term used to describe those whose drive and initiative have been wiped out by the Soviet system. Nagorski's talks with former opposition leaders such as Vaclav Havel and Solidarity's Zbigniew Bujak underscore their European-ness. Most saw communist domination as temporary, the author says, and they fought against more than Soviet dictatorship: "The deep meaning of their resistance is the struggle to preserve their Westernness," he writes, quoting exiled Czech author Milan Kundera.

Largely a series of anecdotes spliced with analysis, the book depicts politics and society in Hungary, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia during their first four years as free countries. One story the headlines haven't captured, but which Nagorski illustrates well, is the sudden conversion of hundreds of former Communist bosses. Equipped with the best education and language skills, most have landed on their feet as part of a new market-economy elite.

One year after a Solidarity landslide swept Polish apparatchik Ireneusz Sekula and his ilk from power, for example, Sekula was more comfortable than ever. In 1990, Nagorski found him "smoking a Cuban cigar in his new office as president of Polnippon, a Polish-Japanese joint venture...comfortably settled into his new role as capitalist entrepreneur." Seven hours before German unification in 1990, Sekula had arranged to buy two Ilyushin 18-D airliners for a mere $1.5 million from East Germany's bankrupt Interflug. Nine months later, Polnippon Cargo was shuttling goods on an international circuit, and orders outstripped capacity.

Nagorski also highlights the Czechs' Kafkaesque tango with "lustration," the purging of all individuals in government who were in any way connected as informers to the former secret police. Using unreliable police files as evidence, mediocre new officials who sat passively through the communist era suddenly have been able to wreck the parliamentary careers of former opposition leaders--whose stature they envy.

The most compelling chapter, however, explores Polish anti-Semitism past and present. It focuses on a man who fled Poland as a child during World War II and returned 56 years later to find out what had become of his father and brother. Traveling with the man and learning how his relatives died, Nagorski conveys the horror of the family's fate as vividly as a camera's eye.

The son of Polish refugees, Nagorski has a special feeling for that country, and life and society in post-communist Poland dominate his book. Indeed, his careful effort to balance his observations of Poland with examples from Czechoslovakia and Hungary at times becomes tedious, even though he points to real differences among the three. Also, focused as it is on a region changing at the speed of a bullet train, The Birth of Freedom seems backward-looking. The Polish Art B banking scandal of 1991, which Nagorski describes, seems less significant than when it occurred, and as a modern financial infrastructure is created, a recurrence is unlikely.

Still, Nagorski answers the biggest question hanging in the air on that hot afternoon in 1989: Can you create a democracy out of a communist dictatorship? His book, mirroring the psychological metamorphosis of three countries, shows how it was done.

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