Over the course of a one-month (April) trip through five European countries, Eastern and Western, I collected notes of many conversations, particularly with young people, about their view of what is called over there “the situation.” A more concrete term should not be used since not even the leading quattuor, Gorbachev, Thatcher, Mitterrand, and Kohl, know exactly what tomorrow will bring. “The situation” is fluid, or at least half of it is: while Western Europe shifts between joy and anxiety, and follows the road of consumer societies. Eastern Europe makes history, for the first time since about A.D. 1500 when the Turkish occupation put an end to its independent existence. There followed other occupiers, Habsburg, Russian, and German up until 1918, and there were new occupations, German and Soviet, up to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. Add it up: close to five centuries.
The history now made in Eastern Europe may bring with it revolutions, civil wars, wars among nations, unexpected independence (the Ukraine?), the breakup of Russia, new hegemonies (Germany). Or it may bring a peaceful unity with Western Europe and the extension of consumer society’s wasteland from West to East. Everything is possible; history continues; Fukuyama was mistaken.
My contacts in Eastern Europe, France, Switzerland, and Austria were made easier by the fact that in several places I gave lectures and seminars, so that I was able to meet large groups of articulate people. The additional fact that I came from America bestowed on me a kind of extraterritoriality, while my European origin and the languages I speak brought me closer to them than would be the case of a journalist or interviewer. We talked after classes, at beer halls, on mountain paths, in cafes and homes. I think I can trust what my young friends told me.
Young people in the West regard “the situation” with unbelieving eyes. This is already the TV generation in Europe too, conditioned to register only what the screen deity reports, or else they formulate their views according to the opinion-group to which they belong: nationalist, Catholic, anti-German, socialist, liberal, radical, or Jewish. Almost everybody is enthusiastic, minus the chauvinists in France, dutybound to suspect the “Boche” whatever he does. (So much for the Franco-German love affair, the foundation stone of a “united Europe.”) The greatest sympathy is manifested for Rumania, a “Latin sister,” but as one travels eastward, sentiments palpably change, and Hungarians and Poles win hands down.
In the West I asked questions about eventual threats to the consumer society in case reforms in the East prove costly for Western budgets. At first, the answers indicate solidarity and generosity with the East; then people become slightly nervous, and strictly local problems leap into focus: unemployment and African immigration in France; joining or not joining the United Nations in Switzerland; and joy in Vienna about reassuming the central position of the city (and country) lost when Hitler annexed Austria as Germany’s easternmost thus-marginalized province. I concluded from all this that sacro egoismo is still uppermost in these people’s minds, and that people generally are only superficially interested in what happens next door. Sacrificing their prosperity for others is out of the question, solidarity and sacrifice are activated exclusively within the nation. Thus Hungarian students, upon hearing of Ceausescu’s fall and the needs of the Magyar population in Transylvania, collected truckfuls of foods within 24 hours and drove them to Rumania—where Securitate sharpshooters received them. There were quite a few casualties.
As my train or car traveled east, not only the landscape, but the mentalities and worries changed. My interlocutors became more alive to “the situation.” In, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland many of the people I talked with were Polish, Hungarian, and Czech students, and their first concern was the state of the economy and general morals at home. While the experts hatch projects and Western or Japanese investors buy up entire industries and media groups and install sex-shop chains, my young friends, almost without exception, are pessimistic about the years of transition, which may be as long as one or two decades. During that time and without the party’s crushing presence (but it crushed bad things, too, they acknowledge, such as openly offered pornography), people’s selfishness and indifference are likely to grow and corruption of all sorts to spread. “We are at our best when it comes to talking or writing, but where are the practical minds and the organizers?” Or: “Politicians are filled with good intentions, but there is not one statesman among them.” Or: “A unified view would be necessary, not the dispersal of party-politics, yet nobody wants another monolithic power structure.” Democracy, yes, but without the anarchy of pressure groups and demagogy; a strong national government, yes, but without one party in charge; etc., etc. A young Polish woman summed up the general preoccupation. She and her friends were fighting for years for political and cultural pluralism, but are beginning to have doubts as they are now face-to-face with Western anarchy and confusion. It suddenly becomes clear to me: if the one-party system had not been a totalitarian one (this is no contradiction), and had been able to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of the people, they would have hesitated to overthrow it. The multiparty system is not received with enthusiasm. Only a minority of the population votes—not because they are unused to democracy, but because they distrust Danaos et dona ferentes.
A group of students from Prague and Brno was, perhaps, the most evenminded. “What we have seen of your consumer society scares us,” one of the group said. “If it invades us too, there will be those who succumb to it, but also others who will try to block it with any means. A cultural civil war may be next on the agenda.” A Finnish girl showed equanimity; her nation can only be strengthened vis-à-vis the Russians when the Baltic states achieve independence. What did the two Russians I met say to that? We need a reducing cure, they said; Russia can stand alone without corrupt satrapies, colonies, and client-states.
It was remarkable to me, who can recall events of fifty years ago, that not one of these men and women referred to a “great man,” a hero-figure, a national savior. This was very different half a century ago when grandiose political and social programs were linked with larger-than-life-size leaders. Today, they call Gorbachev a lucky gambler, Walesa is suspected of excessive ambitions, Havel is well-liked but not adulated. In France, De Gaulle is forgotten, although still pulled out of his mausoleum to label this or that party’s policy with his name. The only praise I heard for one or two Hungarian politicians was for their virtue of pragmatism. It is evident that my friends are in a state best described as emotional convalescence. They are full of elan and hope yet trust nobody, despise and ridicule the nomenklatura, and withhold judgment about the actors who just stepped on the stage. To none of them do my young friends predict durability; they believe that the last cards have not yet been played. (Only in France did I hear students express radical ideas—no longer Marxist ones, but the eternally destructive ones of a Voltaire. The latter still has a progeny, while Sartre rests undisturbed as a mummy.)
In political matters my friends displayed mostly disbelief and doubt, and I am unable to say whether their “transitional” generation will turn into a usable material for their nation’s future. Seventy years ago, their grandfathers were enthusiastic militants for causes; their fathers, in 1945-50, were interested in peace and bourgeois comfort. Both expectations got bitterly cheated. They themselves, the sons and grandsons, are disillusioned decent fellows, but too shaken up by history, including the latest chapter, to accept commitments. Besides: to what and to whom?
In the present vortex these young people are aware that the individual cannot fight history but can order his mind along, the old road of study, reflection, observation, friendship. This has been so since the proverbial dawn of the human race, and will remain so. Its genuineness is again underlined now, despite the turmoil. The individual, freed, in his mind at least, of grandiose ideological patterns, freed also of promises never kept, learns to steady himself at a safe distance from the affairs of the community.
At the same time that I found a great deal of political skepticism, I was struck by how up-to-date these young people from Eastern Europe were in matters of culture, knowledge, and the best of scholarship. The osmosis between the two halves of Europe worked all along, barbed wire and KGB notwithstanding. For decades, in Prague, Budapest, Kiev, and Belgrade, people were reading and discussing, and writing, too, in the “Aesopian language” practiced under despotism. So my friends and I needed no circumlocutions, and my references to Western currents of thought were readily understood. This much has to be said for communist regimes: they stored the bourgeois society, vintage circa 1940, in a Frigidaire (for better or worse, it is now taken out to thaw), and they kept the school curriculum almost in the same state of solidity. They were too respectful of the old world they had overthrown to modify its cultural base. Even in the somber 50’s the curriculum was far better in European than in American schools. This resulted in the amazing phenomenon that bourgeois values were actually instilled in proletarian youth. No wonder that workers were the first, in Budapest and Gdansk, to start the national insurrection—against the International of the Proletariat! At any rate, the indoctrination courses added to the curriculum were never taken seriously. The mediocre students were unaffected by the recondite language of the Marxist forefathers, and the good minds vomited it up—and turned to serious studies, among which were the—uncensored—classics. They could also turn to old professors. Thus a cultural network developed in classes and outside, joined by young scholars and priests, poets and editors of samizdat.
All of this allowed me to pick up the thread of conversation as if it had not been interrupted for five decades. We slipped over generations, events, and cultures, and could exchange ideas and views as if geography and history had not intervened. It was the greatest gift with which I returned from the trip. At no point did I have the feeling, from France to Hungary, that I talked with semi-developed or culturally retarded boys and girls. If there was a difference between East and West, it was the former’s greater maturity, wider and more concrete frame of reference. Western youth is more worldly-wise and frivolous; its “problems” are mostly artificial, created by the self-contradictions of pluralistic, liberal society. On the other, Eastern, side there is more seriousness, the weight of things and issues are better evaluated.
At times, they seem to go overboard. The Russians I met were frankly nihilistic—they stepped out of a Dostoyevsky novel. They were also the freest, since Central-European bourgeois tradition did not discipline their imagination and attitudes. They were frank, with the questionable freedom of those who no longer care, who have no solid ground under their feet. Yet they also handled matters of culture, politics, and art with the astounding familiarity I did not find even among my students at Yale. The latter seemed more isolated from the world than their counterparts west or east of Warsaw.
It is tempting to make predictions on the basis of this short excursion, but I will resist it. We stand before an awakening volcano, and we cannot guess the future course of the lava. This much, however, is obvious. Somnolent since Yalta, Europe emerges from a state of paralysis, flexes its muscles, and throws off its tutors. It is also in a state of unstable equilibrium: material riches in the West, cultural riches in the East. Western Europe is likely to follow its four-decade routine, but the East promises to be recalcitrant, obstructive, or at least hesitant about the available models. It rejects socialism as degenerating into regimentation; it also rejects liberalism because of its shallowness, materialism, and confusion of values. Besides, the public and private decency Eastern Europe wants does not depend on the regime it chooses. The West believes in an expanding civil society, the East believes in the nation, its faith, and untried talent. These are not by necessity antagonistic beliefs, and the osmosis between East and West will undoubtedly continue. Europe will not be the same again.