I chose the three words in my title because they summarize the situation in Eastern Europe, a situation simple yet complicated, tragic yet full of hope. I apologize for the cliches, but they become more profound as this article proceeds.

Notwithstanding those who advertise the “clear and present danger” of a communist comeback (and who would otherwise become intellectually unemployed—without compensation), there is no such danger, not even locally. This does not mean that no nostalgia for communism exists, for it does: among masses of people whom privatization reduces to an even deeper misery and among intellectuals who regret the passing of the good old times when books were inexpensive, the classics abounded, theater and concert tickets were lowpriced, and Marxism provided grit for engaging discussions and camouflaged, subtle arguments. Even reliably anticommunist bourgeois will openly tell you that “ten years ago it was better”: a steadier income, safety in public places, less crime, more expeditious methods of dealing with criminals, and a public philosophy ostensibly in favor of social issues and economic rescue for the underprivileged (retired people). This may sound strange to Westerners who think in black and white, but consider this: there are now close to three hundred thousand unemployed in Hungary, and the government coldly forecasts a halfmillion of them by the end of the year! And the iceberg of privatization, a nice word for savage capitalism, shows a growing stratum of brand-new multimillionaires whose dollars or marks are invested in massage parlors, drug deals, or luxury restaurants.

This explains the relatively flourishing status of the former Communist Party, now called “Socialist,” whose members, when told they will not be legally penalized but should at least show repentance, ask: “For what?” For the reintroduction of capitalism and the spreading misery in the coming cold winter?

Yet, I repeat, communism is dead and gone, and what we sec in Yugoslavia and Rumania can be explained by Balkan attitudes as old as the Turkish occupation. As far as the other countries are concerned, from the Baltic states to Croatia (minus the incredibly savage war), progress has begun with brilliant initiatives and a tenacious will, showing signs of hope that Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, etc., are heading in the right direction.

But what is the right direction? This is where two of the terms used in the title become clearer. Contrary to Mr. Bush’s excursion in Latin with the pax universalis (who whispered it in his cars?), no such thing is likely to emerge by a long shot. Improvement—and it may take several decades—must choose between two paths: either nationalism or liberalism. As a Budapest newspaper explained it the other day, there is no such thing as “national liberalism”; the two words, at least in Eastern Europe, are incompatible, regardless of what Western think-tanks conclude. Yet, since politics is also the playing with words, the governments now in power, as well as the opposition parties, aim at regimes and policies that would be both liberal and nationalistic, fully aware that this remains a pious wish. After all, throughout the l9th century this was the issue: in Russia the conflict was between populists and partisans of a Western orientation (Herzen and Turgenev vs. Bakunin and Dostoyevsky); in Hungary, between the nationalist Kossuth and the moderate Deak; and in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Rumania between similar frères ennemis. This is not due to split national personalities but to geopolitics and history: one nation’s circumstances and experiences determine its policies and choices.

But let me concentrate on the Magyar dilemma. By temperament, Hungary is inward-looking, its treasure is not the future but rather memories to which each great turn of events adds an indelible note and symbol. Prosperity on a collective level is looked upon as a stroke of fortune, almost distractedly, not something for which essential things and lifestyles should be sacrificed. Liberalism does exist in this sui generis milieu, but it is the liberalism of 150 years ago, when the Anglophile Count Szechenyi introduced horse races and modern banking, built the first permanent bridge over the Danube, and launched numerous enterprises. He was a liberal who died in despair (somewhat like Simon Bolivar a generation before him), disappointed by the obstacles, both foreign (Habsburg) and domestic (a certain inertia and ceaseless conflicts). Ever since, liberalism has chalked up notable victories but has remained the spirit of a relatively small minority, by no means a mass-mentality. Thus if it reappears, it cannot enjoy full independence; the nation would not as a whole trust it, finding in it a foreign factor. Not that nationalism would be liberalism’s exact and purposeful opponent; but it is something else, hardly articulable in any modern ideological or party language. “State liberalism,” if there is such a thing, would be what people would understand, but that, of course, is a language that is too locally circumscribed for foreign investors, the Common Market, United Europe, and Washington.

Nobody knows at this point what the future orientation of Eastern Europe will or can be. The government, the bureaucracy, the opposition, the public figures on television pay daily lip service to democracy, the parliament, liberalism, cooperation, a united Europe, Atlantic Spirit, a better world. In most private conversations these same slogans are also present. But they are not flesh-and-blood matters, they are fashionable toys, the games people play.

The reason is not only the local temperament, which is much more “Western” than that of the other nations in the area; it is the nature of regional reality. In the West, people and their representatives can afford the luxury of practically ignoring history, hence they utter mostly gratuitous arguments such as “history is the expression of man’s will,” “we shape our future,” “progress looms ahead,” etc. This is not possible here, except in salon conversations when foreigners are present, since the sheer weight of daily problems, of frontiers threatened, and of the uncertainties of such things as the stability of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet republics are constant reminders of harsh realities. In the Bucharest parliament, deputies demand the blood of their Magyar colleagues who are present as representatives of the two-million Transylvanian minority. To the north, Slovak nationalists demand secession from Prague and the right to decide alone how to suppress their own minorities. Since no Germans remain after the brutal deportation of 1945, the target is again the Magyar community.

All in all, the situation is worse than it was between the two wars when Hitlerism fanned the national hatreds—this did not take much effort—but calmed them at the same time, since the German war mobilization was based on regional cooperation and support. It is today pathetic to hear the mouse-like words of Lord Carrington, the Dutch foreign minister, and of the entire council of disunited Europe trying to make peace in Yugoslavia, with nobody listening. Or to listen to that faraway gentleman in the Oval Room, the Chamberlain of the Nineties, chirping slogans that are not more effective for being uttered in Latin.

Yet miracles happen, and they are called “daily life.” I have witnessed numerous times that, even with bombs falling, women cook the family meal, children go to school, people get married. Bombs are not (quite) falling on Hungary (although mines explode at the border), but Western nations would in similar circumstances be at least jittery. Here, not at all. Discussion groups gather, fans crowd at soccer games, bookshops prosper, people go to concerts, and the whole nation celebrates in remembrance of the 1956 uprising. Flags, smiles, tears, speeches, spectacles, and memories. Retired people can’t afford a dollar for a meal, yet restaurants are crowded; the controversy rages over school buildings reclaimed by the Catholic Church, but priest and minister fall into each other’s arms after blessing the Boy Scouts’ new flag; the Ministry of Education runs on a nonbudget, but my students ask for a separate meeting time to discuss the merits of Buddhism.

This, by the way, would deserve a separate article: the intellectual status of religion after four decades of (attempted) communist indoctrination. It was absolutely not successful, yet here again there is a “but.” Souls who could not investigate religion honestly and openly found exits through devious channels: interest in the occult and in oriental sects. (There is today a Tibetan monastery in Hungary, as also in France and Scotia.) About a fifth of my students, products of an extremely severe selection system, hence brilliant and well-read, is as aroused by a post-Christian, preferably oriental, credal doctrine as I found my students at Yale to be six or seven years ago. The latter expected me to teach them magical insights and nocturnal dances, while students in Budapest expect proof that man can live without (religious) institutions, on mere enthusiasm, forever renewed. I counter with arguments taken from philosophy, architecture, symbolization, history— and other fields brought together for them for the very first time, since such courses were banned by the Communists. Philosophy was Marxism and the ridiculing of the bourgeois; religion was the nail that received the “hammer blows” of the united working class.

The overarching question, which not even the three key words in the title can summarize but which must be asked, is about the role that Eastern Europe will play in the Western ensemble. All the actors claim they are “European,” Russia included ever since Gorbachev spoke of the “common European house.” The continent’s name has become what the name “America” used to be in the slogan “America First.” But the more often “Europe” is appropriated, the less it signifies. From Tallinn to Tirane, from Karlow Vary to Kiev, people claim that their integration into a “united Europe” took place more than a thousand years ago, that they need no new certificate of attestation. Budapest itself, having previously said “no” to a world expo, now plans one for 1996, the 1,100th anniversary of the settlement of the Carpatho-Danubian area.

Liberalism is presented to Eastern Europe as the only exit from its material misery, from its inferiority vis-á-vis the continent’s Western half. Since the latter has usurped the label “Europe,” it is told to join the concoction cooked up in Brussels, mostly by French Jacobins, in order to qualify as “Europeans.” In the expectation of moneys received (subsidies, loans, investments, favored exports, and its own say in all this whenever integration occurs) Eastern Europe signs on the dotted line and makes some political concessions. But to expect an unopposed “yes” on its part is political naiveté. For because of Western insistence the East has dressed up in drag, has put on a uniform not unlike a clown’s: ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and ridiculous because of the gestures it forces its wearers to make. While the West enjoys its own incantatory rhetoric like “peace-making in Yugoslavia,” the clown malgré lui executes the dances. But, then, Moscow also believed it could call the tune forever.