Thirty years after the end of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of European unification, three aspects ought to be kept in mind.

The Context

1989 began long before 1989. Social pluralism had been growing in both Eastern and Western Europe over decades. In the 1980s, the battle cry for freedom had led to the return of constitutional rule in Latin America and the beginning of a first wave of multi-party elections in several African countries. After years of stagnation, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher represented the revival of the West. The initiatives for a common European currency by Mitterrand, Kohl and Delors were the belated answer to the economic power of the US and of Japan framing a new magnetic force. China had embarked on the biggest economic transformation and re-birth of any nation over the course of a century. In Central and Eastern Europe, growing social pluralism did not yet correspond with political pluralism. Hence, it was time for the fall of bankrupt Communist regimes across Europe. The quest for the rule of law and a return of power to the people were the logical, almost inevitable expectations during the first stage of the peaceful revolutions. Those who resisted all political change – like in Romania, where the nomenclature placed all the blame on their old leader and preferred to kill him – could only postpone the rupture, not avoid it.

The peaceful revolutions gave back dignity and honour to societies that overcame Communist dictatorships and planned economies. They had experienced what social engineering entailed, namely, as Karl Popper had stressed, a promise that would end in hell. The peaceful revolutions in Europe were about the renewal of the social and political contract, they were about the quest for a new balance between freedom and authority, between the individual and the state. The peaceful revolutions in Europe were framed by big, unifying ideas: do not be afraid (Pope John Paul II), live in truth (Václav Havel), aim for solidarity (Lech Wałęsa).

But big ideas, like those of NGOs today, express visions. They do not encapsulate the diversity of views and approaches into which these visions must evolve with almost inevitable consequences. Inherently pluralistic, diverse and possibly conflictual societies will always debate and deconstruct visions into the multiple variants of thought patterns at hand to implement such big ideas.

The Success

The new realities generated by the peaceful revolutions in Europe were and remain impressive in many ways. Causalities and correlations are still subject to historical research. But the substance was evident at its very creation. One of the best eyewitnesses of the early process was Timothy Garton Ash, whom some regard as the Alexis de Tocqueville of our time.1 His account of structures and individuals during the peaceful revolutions in Europe remains unmatched. And yet, even he could not foresee the differentiation of things to come. Revolutionary times require contextualisation, I dared to add this already back in 1994.2

Ever since, analyses and standpoints have become subjective again, to say the least. Civil society has become a buzzword across Western Europe, although civil society has never been identical with society proper, with culture and tradition. In 1989–1990, it was entire societies that were rising to new levels of freedom, not civil societies which were advancing particular issues. The novel phenomenon of the NGO-isation of political activism, which is so widely spread today, might explain why Western Europeans and Americans often tend to look at Hungary and other Central European societies through the lens of today’s buzzword of civil society. This goes with applying a rather weak sense of sensitivity to traditional interpretations of society per se and its prevailing ligatures.

The Baltic rebirth stands out in the history of peaceful revolutions in 20th-century Europe. The nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia not only stood up to get rid of a false ideology. They not only overcame geopolitical divisions, which had, par la nature des forces, put them onto the wrong side of history. Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, who had been so bitterly betrayed by history and totalitarian powers, were veritably singing themselves in the course of their Singing Revolutions into the beginning of a unique revival, the rebirth of three dynamic and prospering, self-assured and proud nations.

In some other countries economic achievement, and at times outright economic miracles happened, i.e. in Poland and Slovakia. And yet, all together the economic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe has led to what Polish economist Ryszard Rapacki has diagnosed as “patchwork capitalism”.3

The roots of economic structures, the role of the state and the individual in Central Europe and South Eastern Europe still differ from the economic history of capital-based, technology-driven and export-oriented economies of Western Europe.

In political terms, it should therefore not come as a surprise that the peaceful revolutions in Europe also produced patchwork democracies. The political cultures in Central and South Eastern Europe differ from those in most of Western Europe. Strategically, the countries of Central Europe are today firmly anchored in NATO and in the EU. They do not search for third ways to guarantee their security beyond NATO and yet, even in the sphere of security the ligatures of the past are still present. Poland is afraid of Russia’s unpredictability, while Hungary chooses cooperation with Russia, at least sometimes, as the best way to ensure stability.

The intuitions of being “in-between” are even more alive in the context of debates on the future of the EU, although neither Poland nor Hungary, and not even the usually self-sceptical Czech Republic would choose departure from the EU as an option to even think about. But within these structures, the Central European societies still struggle with what and who they are. In its own way, united Germany is no different from its Eastern and South Eastern neighbours as it is also a post-Communist country with ligatures of a national tradition of being “in-between”.

In the period of late Communism, societies were more aware of openness, diversity and a sense of compromise than the sphere of politics. In the meantime, the opposite is true: political structures across the EU and NATO have been consolidated, while most societies have embarked, again, on identity controversies, which could potentially tear societies apart and alienate people from one another. The radicalisation of views is no surprise in the absence of a common frame of mind. Thirty years after the end of the Iron Curtain, identity across much of Europe has translated, again, into politics. As absolute majorities have become alien in Western European politics, the election results of Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland provoke almost natural scepticism elsewhere in the EU. By definition, so it seems, politics in the EU wants to be understood as being based on compromise and negotiated change through coalitions. Anything else is suspicious and speedily labelled “autocratic”.

The Consequences

Revolutions, to quote Victor Hugo, are the return of the artificial to the real. Thus, they have brought back differences, which go beyond the totalitarian experience (Karl Dietrich Bracher).4

One phenomenon stands out: the ample transformation of party structures and political loyalties. Most loyalties have become vulnerable. Those political parties who already existed during the peak years of the peaceful revolution are hardly recognisable, if they even still exist. Fidesz is an example. But also, similar phenomena have taken place in the West, the German CDU being an example. Since German unification, the CDU has gained an almost unrecognisable new profile. Societies have changed across Europe within a generation and so have political loyalties. The recognition of this phenomenon arrived rather late in Germany, as the AfD is still perceived as an extra-consensual reality although more indicators point to its longevity. The specific German psychology in dealing with and accepting social change as a driver of political change might explain a specific German neurosis with contemporary Hungary, symbolised by an all too often almost intuitive rejection of Hungarian realities in public and private conversations in the times of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Germany’s godchild had gone his own way, long before Germany’s children of 1989 realised, let alone acknowledged, that the same is happening to themselves.

The spectre of political loyalties in today’s Europe is broad and reflects societal changes. The core political ideas which defined the renaissance of Western Europe after the Second World War have lost most of their formative power, especially Christian Democracy and Social Democracy. Traditional conservatism has remained strong in countries as disparate as Sweden and Spain, but Christian Democracy, a genuine form of reconciling moral and politics, liberalism and confessional differences, has lost much of its profile and societal support. The same is true for social democratic thoughts, relevant in the time of industrialisation and in response to it. Both Christian Democracy and Social Democracy were ideational responses to totalitarian thinking in the 20th century. Christian Democracy rejected ethnic and racist conservatism, Social Democracy rejected Bolshevist class-struggle. With the peaceful revolutions and the return of realities, Christian Democracy and Social Democracy have come under existential pressure. The shift from MDF to Fidesz and its ideological conversion have anticipated what Germany is still struggling with. Unlike Hungary, Germany has acquired a new national secular religion: ecology. Environmental matters have become almost a secular religion also among those who do not vote for the Green Party in Germany. In parallel, the fragmentation of the liberal-conservative camp and the return of national reactions to the ongoing Europeanisation of German politics continue. And yet, the Europeanisation of Europe continues. We can see it wherever we look back to the changing nature of how we have experienced one another. Here is my diary of four decades of encountering Hungary, which I offer for this discovery.


1978: A land of in-between, thus was my first encounter with Hungary. I had been raised in Westphalia, West Germany, and had been to Poland and Czechoslovakia as an adolescent, before reaching the divided Berlin from the East. The Hungary I came to know was a land of in-between. I saw János Kádár amidst the other grey men of the Communist nomenclature during the official May Day parade saluting his people from a platform without any sense of emotion. Afterwards, with thousands of young Hungarians my age I attended a powerful pop concert of Lokomotív GT in the City Park. The young people around me seemed to lead the same life I did, however encircled by the grey and sterile world of Communist politics. I saw a grey Szentendre without mineral water, a grey Tokaj without wine-tasting, grey Communist slogans without meaning. US President Jimmy Carter had just returned the shining crown of St Stephen which I saw with awe and respect. Beside the rediscovery of the past, a youth culture not so different from us in the West was thriving in spite of the frozen sphere of politics. The societies in Europe, East and West, were closer to each other than the respective political systems, so it seemed to me. Only years later I learned that Lokomotív GT had given concerts in Japan and North America, long before I was able to go there. Was Hungary the East of the West or the West of the East, I was asking myself? Or rather both at the same time. The iconic record Mindig magasabbra of Lokomotív GT reflected an idea of continuous progress, highly contradictory to the grey politics, the frozen sterility of Kadarism. Mindig magasabbra, higher and higher, but in which direction was Hungary to go?

1988: Would goulash Communism soon be replaced by goulash democracy? Reform processes had started, far beyond Gorbachev’s policies in the Soviet Union. The end of the Iron Curtain was to begin in human heads. This end had long begun in Hungary. Now and during subsequent regular visits, I started to watch every moment of change, from renovated hotels in Pécs to the pride of cultural rediscoveries in Eger. I met leaders of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum and heard about their ambition to create a political culture closer to West Germany’s reality, at the time of Helmut Kohl, than to Hungary’s pre-Communist past. Would it work to reinvent the future by adapting the mechanisms of change from somewhere else? I felt that Hungarian society was rejecting a senile political structure while it was still struggling with the way it rediscovered itself as a society and culture.

1998: Negotiating change and the return of power over ideas. From where would societal innovation come from, I had been asking myself since the Wall had come down in Berlin and with it many artificial realities across Europe? I was looking constantly around in Hungary, from Central European University to Collegium Budapest, from Petőfi Museum to Eötvös Loránd University, from the Benedictines in Pannonhalma to the Reformed Protestants in Debrecen. Who would translate ideas into new sources of power and to which end? Realities were contradictory and mental eruptions emerged faster than political majorities could hold: I saw the fragmentation of the liberal-conservative camp and the renewal of its socialist mimesis, I saw booming luxury consumerism and growing poverty side by side. I had been introduced to Viktor Orbán a few years earlier, the promising godchild of West German liberal economic minister Count Lambsdorff. For some time, some of his strategists were contemplating a liberal-conservative Central European answer to Blair and Schröder’s “third way socialism”. Would yet another third way emerge, this time from the right? A few years later, I heard the first assessments of Orbán’s disillusionment with Western liberal-conservative ideas and his rediscovery of techniques of power that are closer to autocratic politics than to West German attitudes of liberal democracy. Amidst political uncertainties, the executive negotiated Hungary’s strategic future, no matter what: NATO and EU membership. Hungarian negotiators, exhausted from the burden of technocratic politics, not only studied Western strategy and the acquis communautaire. They also insisted that the EU should engage with Hungary’s neighbourhood, Ukraine and Serbia in particular, in order to export stability beyond future EU borders. The quest for national identity had become an all-pervasive issue in domestic politics. Mentalities became more ideological, especially among younger politicians. I was recommended to re-read István Bibó’s “The Miseries of East European Small States”. The Russians had left Hungary; the rule of law had been installed as well as market economy and parliamentary democracy. Contradictions, scandals and crises of corruption followed, and a new mantra emerged: decency and honour, and the quest for a new patriotism.

2008: Time of turmoil, grey again. Budapest had lost much of its past charm, the most urbane of my Hungarian friends stated with sadness. Others felt proven right with their long-time worry that the immaterial destructions of Communism would last longer than anticipated by even the most hard-core pessimists. An era of disorientation and confusion took its grip on Hungary. Nostalgia about pre-war identities had emerged, fear of new freedoms and the search for a stable centre of power. Liberalism had become a swearword. Paranoia had replaced hope, fear had replaced optimism. Mindig magasabbra seemed more than century before. A cultural revolution like 1968 had started, this time from the right, it seemed to me. New protests started, but also rebellious extremism, and the centre of power shifted again. A decade of turmoil and retrenchment had begun. Irony became Hungarians’ best friend, cynicism and despair the most prominent one. I began to hear political jokes again, a clear indication of discontent. More difficult to understand was the emerging talk about illiberal democracy and the new mental mapping of Europe into an old and a new one, a good and a bad one, right or wrong. The scandals of the Western banks had renewed the illusion of a third way in some heads, often not the most inexperienced and simple ones. Obsessions escalated, civil society, for example, became yet another swearword for some, while it turned into a self-mandated hope of redemption for others. It became worth studying the political landscape of the inter-war period and not only the politically correct jargon of today’s West, in order to get a better feeling for Hungary’s dilemmas. The star of the old East had become the loser of the new West, some said. Since 1989–90, per capita income across all transformation societics in Europe had increased from 49 per cent of EU avarage to 65 per cent, in Hungary it stagnated from 62 to 65 per cent.

2018: Again, a land of in-between. Several democratic changes have generated a consolidated democracy and yet “Hungary-bashing” had become the new sport in EU domestic affairs. The Black Eagle on Szabadság Square reminded me more of Oscar Wilde’s narcissistic Dorian Grey than of Archangel Gabriel. Inferiority complexes, dating back two centuries, were coupled with a new sense of pride and achievement. A feel good atmosphere and at the same time the re-emergence of a defensive self-assertion. Pride, rightly so, for having defended Europe’s borders in 2015, again like in 1526, and yet without any understanding of why Western countries were ostracising Hungary. A clash of truths: Western Europe was thinking of itself as the culmination of progress in Europe, Central Europe was thinking of itself as the protector of Europe’s past. The best minds were looking for a philosophical new beginning to bridge the political gaps and, more importantly, the mental maps in the EU.


The first step to bridge the gaps was to study the rifts without predefined judgement and prejudice. For Central Europeans, returning to Europe post-1989 had not meant to copy the Europe that had been voluntarily developed since the 1950s. It had meant to be themselves, and to be protected for being themselves. In the meantime, identity matters have returned to Europe and they affect politics. But this relationship is of a strange nature today. While Central Europe remains in an in-between era, so is the EU as a whole. European politics has become domestic politics among member states, while identity matters and societal developments remain by and large tied to the realm of the nation state. Coping with identity-based change translates almost everywhere into local politics, affecting domestic national policies within the wider EU. But the EU, although having advanced its structures with impressive speed and depth, has not yet developed proper instruments to deal with new and old societal changes and contradictions among and within its member states. Sanctions will certainly not help.

Migration is a case in point. While the root causes and intuitive discourses on migration matters are defined by domestic calculations, the politics of migration has become an EU-wide matter without recognising the divergent psychology of the matter. Domestic considerations have differed across the EU long before the issue of quotas for asylum seekers accelerated the divisions. The fact that Central European countries have been suffering from emigration to Western Europe for an entire generation has not yet entered the radar of Western European discourses on societal differences across the EU.

40 per cent of all EU internal migration originates in Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. Latvia has 27 per cent less citizens compared with in the 1990s. 15 per cent of the Romanian workforce works in Western EU countries. Out of the four million Croats, 400,000 live in Germany alone. Poland complains about the lack of 20,000 nurses who are working in Germany. Out of 280,000 Polish nurses, only 42,000 are younger than forty. 100,000 children in Poland are considered “Euro-orphans” as their parents left them at home while they migrated for work towards Western EU countries. Remittances are being sent to families, but the effect of labour emigration to Western Europe on welfare systems is felt across Central Europe. German media sometimes covers these issues, but the dominant perception focuses on the Central European refusal to accept EU defined quotas for refugee migrants from the Middle East. László Kövér has spoken of the “cannibalisation” of Central Europe by continuous migration from Central Europe to the Western half of the continent. At the Forum Mitteleuropa of the Diet of Saxony in May 2019, the President of the Hungarian Parliament cited a brain drain loss of 25 million people and spoke of aggregated costs of one thousand billion euros for the countries of origin.5

This perspective has not yet entered broader political discourses in Germany and wider EU circles.

The complaint that Western Europe is encouraging refugee integration while neglecting the fight against youth unemployment amongst its own population has been pronounced prominently. The usual reaction in Western Europe: one should not play out one challenge against the other. But the twenty billion euros which Germany is spending for refugee matters per year alone is, of course, no longer available for the EU wide struggle against youth unemployment. When German Chancellor Merkel argues for a British style rebate, not wanting to fill the gap left by the United Kingdom in the EU budget (a total plus of 12 billion euros over seven years, while the refugee bill is 20 billion per year) it becomes evident that the German debate on these matters is self-centred.6

Nobody should be surprised that it produces astonishment in Central and Eastern Europe. The Visegrád group is organising veto-power and capacity to act and shape the EU. Usually, this approach to bargaining within the EU is not considered helpful in Germany. Mostly, the German debate on the future of Europe shies away from solid discussions on the complexity of new equations emerging in a post-Brexit EU. The German partnership with France will be more complicated after Brexit. And yet: while the Franco-German partnership remains a necessary aspect, it is not the only sufficient answer to develop compromise and consensus in the EU.

1989–1990 was a secular event in the history of the cultural nations of Europe. It did not only generate a new discourse on a political contract, not so alien to Western state nations such as the United Kingdom or France. It also brought back a set of identity and cultural issues more relevant in the Centre than in the Western part of Europe. In the meantime, all regions of Europe are encountering local variants of this phenomenon, e.g. Catalonia, Italy, Germany. Brexit is an expression of the return of identity, too. Hence, singularising Poland and Hungary is not helpful in finding common answers to the Europe-wide variations of the challenge. The real issue is how to advance a genuine European society, a conversation of societal discourses which is shared by all.

1989 has not yet ended. Where is the freedom monument commemorating Europe’s best moment after 1848? It would have to be a monument recalling the different interpretations of freedom, which define freedom in Europe today. In line with the traditions of the French Revolution, most freedom discourses in Western Europe centre around the notion of individual self-realisation. Historically, Germans tended to be torn between this Western perspective and a cultural, and hence collective, at times even national, ethnic or racist interpretation of freedom, leading to a “seesaw policy” between East and West during the German empire. Only with the emergence of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, culturally accelerated in the 1960s, have Germans been fully anchored in the Western camp of constitutional pragmatism and the primacy for freedom of lifestyle when defining their notion of freedom today. Traditionally, freedom in Central Europe was primarily seen as collective freedom, as patriotism, freedom of family, church and one’s own people. Central Europe was oppressed by the destructive power of Communist ideology for decades. Only three decades ago, a new reflection on the meaning of a pluralistic debate on identity for the social and political contract of society began. A pan-European conversation on these and related issues is still to come. By now, only one insight is meaningful: blame-games do not lead anywhere.

The European Way – what will it entail if we take seriously the challenge the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has posed to all citizens of the EU? Up until now, Western and Central Europe primarily have talked about each other, but not to each other. This discovery of ourselves might be painful and tense, at times divisive. But it will be the most rewarding, creative and inspiring conversation we have had since the peaceful revolution started. In fact, it will open a new chapter of freedom and change in Europe. We should begin now. We owe it to 1989, and this conversation will show that 1989 is still alive and we can give it further meaning.


1 Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of 1989 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, London, 1990.

2 Ludger Kühnhardt, Revolutionszeiten. Das Umbruchjahr 1989 im historischen Zusammenhang, Munich, 1994.

3 Ryszard Rapacki (ed.), Diversity of Patchwork Capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe, London, Routledge, 2019.

4 Karl Dietrich Bracher, Die totalitäre Erfahrung, Munich, 1987.

5 On the Forum Mitteleuropa see:

6 “Merkel fordet Rabatt auf EU-Beiträge”, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 October 2019.

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