Resumption: The Gears of 1989

Editor’s Note: The print edition of this article incorrectly states that the author is currently the chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee of the Czech Senate. He is, in fact, currently the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. Our apologies to the ambassador.

One day in October 1989, in a Prague fish restaurant long since privatized, Vaclav Havel sat down to be interviewed by a British journalist. Asked about the ongoing events in the Communist bloc, he voiced—with my modest help as his translator—his pleasure at the direction things were taking in the round-table Poland, reformist Hungary, and even the once impregnable East Germany. The evidence of the crumbling of the system was everywhere around us, in the shape of hundreds of Trabant cars deserted unsentimentally on the streets of Prague, by East Germans voting with their feet for a future in the West. Yet, asked when the moment of truth might arrive in Czechoslovakia, Havel, in his—for a playwright—atypically undramatic manner, would not be drawn out. “I am not sure,” he said. “It might take a month, maybe a year, perhaps a long time. We might not live to see the day. One simply cannot tell.” Several weeks later the day arrived. Very few people had been able to predict it with any more precision than Havel.

One of the most striking things about the collapse of the Communist bloc and the end of the Cold War was its sheer unexpectedness. This is something historians and Kremlinologists—whose job it presumably was to analyze the dynamics of the system and draw appropriate conclusions—prefer to skirt. Yes, the ideology was pronounced dead, at the very latest, when Russian tanks rolled into Prague in August 1968. Yes, the mass appeal of Solidarnosc clearly showed how unpopular the regime was with the very working classes whose interests it claimed to represent. Yes, Gorbachev’s perestroika brought a measure of freedom of expression and plurality hitherto unimaginable in the Soviet Union itself. And, yes, the opposition and human rights movements in Czechoslovakia and in the whole of Central and Eastern Europe were becoming more assertive by the day. Yet the crystal-ball gazers should not reproach themselves too sternly, for until very late in the day the writing on the wall was equally undecipherable to the millions of ordinary people who were living inside the “camp of real socialism” and saw the signs of its monumental failure in their everyday lives.

The reasons for our inability to see what was coming may have been different from the reasons underlying the assessments of Western experts. Inside, we had been conditioned for too long by the mindless rigidity and intrinsic brutality of the system. We saw and welcomed the Gorbachev reforms and we sensed the loosening of the iron fist even in Czechoslovakia, but we also remembered all too well what the regime was capable of when it felt its essential interests, indeed its very survival, were at stake. The lessons of Berlin 1953, Budapest 1956, and Prague 1968 were the relevant points of reference. If we still needed a reminder, the Tiananmen Square massacre had occurred just five months earlier.

Whereas inside the world of “real socialism” the main reason for widespread skepticism concerning imminent change was the system’s resistance to change, what made dramatic upheavals unlikely in the telling of many Western experts was, on the contrary, the system’s apparent capacity to reform and adapt. In this belief, Westerners may have overestimated Gorbachev’s ability to reform some of the long-standing policies of socialism while underestimating the resistance of the nomenklatura and the fundamental incompatibility of a one-party system with democracy, and of a command economy with the free market. What an American scholar described as late as 1991 as the “Awakening of the Soviet Union” was, in fact, its agony.

Paradoxically, the man who came the closest to estimating both the timing of and the reason for the demise of the Soviet Union had been dead for some time. In his 1970 essay “Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?” Andrei Amalrik commented on one of the earlier signs of relaxation of totalitarian pressure during the Brezhnev era: “If . . . one views the present ‘liberalization’ as the growing decrepitude of the regime rather than its regeneration, then the logical result will be its death, which will be followed by anarchy.” This is more or less what happened at more or less the predicted time—no mean feat for a historian. But for most of us, an observation by Friedrich von Hayek may have been more appropriate: “The mind cannot foresee its own advance.”


To this day, those of us who were present at the events of November 1989, participants, supporters, and opponents alike, are not quite sure what to call them. The term Velvet Revolution, with so much sex appeal abroad, quickly went out of fashion back home. Its first part may have been too soft, suggesting elegance, comfort, even luxury, all of these traits quite distant from the mood of the day. (The term used by our Slovak compatriots at the time, Tender Revolution, with its reference to the emotional state of happy multitudes in the streets may have come closer.) Its second part was much too hard: “We’re not like them,” was one of the most popular chants of the day. The distaste for the paraphernalia of a revolution—with its bloodthirsty slogans, simplistic visions, and revolutionary justice summarily exacted on the vanquished—had been expressed by dissidents such as Jan Patocka, Havel, Petr Pithart, and others and fulfilled by demonstrators at the street level. Moreover, as an American observer once remarked, “in perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone . . . to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting . . . if either faction fails to attend, the whole enterprise is likely to come off badly.” As it happened, the rebels showed up en masse, but the other party, after the violent outburst of the first day, had no taste for a confrontation and barely made it to the negotiating table, thus leaving some doubts about the revolutionary nature of the events. Other terms were tried and discarded. The Velvet Collapse ignored the unmistakable assertion of popular, albeit peaceful, will. The term Velvet Overthrow sounded too much like a coup and for a time was actually frequented by conspiracy theorists who were searching for signs of collusion between the democratic opposition and the Communist government. The term Velvet Takeover supplied in precision what it lacked in emotional appeal. Some suggested “November 1989 Changes,” but the euphemism smacked too much of “August 1968 Events” (the term used by the Czechoslovak Communist government during the period of “normalization”) or the “Spring 1989 Incidents,” which is one of the official Chinese labels for Tiananmen.

There was, however, no mistaking the sudden eruption of history. For a long time, Czechoslovakia had seemed to be a bastion of inertia surrounded by a region in flux. Ever since the January 1989 demonstrations commemorating the self-immolation of Jan Palach in protest against the Soviet invasion twenty years earlier, the expectations of popular upheaval ran high. As often before, they focused on symbolic dates that recalled crucial turning points in the national history. But the relevant dates in May, August, and October came and went with only moderate expressions of public unrest. Meanwhile, the Poles were having a round table, the Hungarians were dismantling the Iron Curtain, and the Germans were breaking through the Berlin Wall. Many opponents of the regime in Czechoslovakia were already pinning their hopes on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights and the date of a peaceful opposition rally a year earlier. When the moment finally came on November 17—the anniversary of a student protest against the German Nazi occupation in 1939 and a date long exploited by the Communist regime—it arrived so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that Havel, the unofficial leader of the opposition, was not even in Prague but at his cottage in the country. Two days after the brutally suppressed demonstration, the Civic Forum was founded. One day later, 200,000 people demonstrated in the middle of Prague. A week later, there were three-quarters of a million. Six weeks later, Havel, who had been imprisoned until May 17 of that year, was the president of Czechoslovakia. Three years later, Czechoslovakia was no more.

Throughout the same period, the larger world around our little whirlwind of history kept spinning just as frantically. The “unbreakable Union,” in the first two words of the Soviet anthem, broke up practically overnight. The war in the former Yugoslavia erupted, killing tens of thousands, displacing hundreds of thousands, and bringing misery to millions. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait only to be pushed back by an international coalition heralded as a sign of the “new world order.” The hope for peace in the Middle East was rising. Somalia was disintegrating.


Just as we were all embarking on this wildest of roller coaster rides, news arrived from across the Atlantic that history had just ended. We had reached, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In the euphoria of the moment and the resulting mood of triumphalism, of which we may have been no less guilty than our friends in the West, the idea, buttressed by the all too evident collapse of the totalitarian form of socialism and the mushrooming of new democracies everywhere, combined with the allure of all chiliastic prophecies, and coming as it did at the end of a millennium, had an almost irresistible appeal.

The “end of history” thesis may have proclaimed the final victory for everything we had believed in for some time and yet it left us a little puzzled and more than a little frustrated. It was like arriving at the greatest of parties only to learn that the guests had just left. Moreover, given where we had come from, we could have been forgiven for being somewhat suspicious. After all, we had just survived, barely, another “end point” of mankind’s ideological evolution. We were understandably reluctant to admit that Marx had been right about the race all along, that he just bet on the wrong horse. The ordeals of the journey were still too fresh in our memories; we were in no mood to embark on another one. The whole idea of historical materialism, indeed of historical determinism itself, of the “logic” or “laws” of history inexorably progressing from one stage to another, seemed to have been falsified by the events of the last century.

But there was another, albeit related, reason to distrust the “end of history,” one more instinctive, experiential, and internalized than the immunity to Hegelian concepts we achieved courtesy of forty years of free Marxist indoctrination. We had just emerged from a most peculiar historical period of “normalization.” This was the official label for the policy of suppressing, eradicating, indeed erasing any sign of social activity—not just opposition political activity, but any spontaneous activity, be it the rehearsals of a garage rock band, the concerns of environmentalists, or the musings of a philosophy discussion group in a private apartment. This suppression of spontaneous social activity led—at least for a time, before the wall was breached by Charter 77 and other independent initiatives—to the suspension of history as a human narrative, as Geschichte, as a sequence of events produced by individual agents.

“The starting point of any story . . . is an event,” Havel wrote in “The Story and Totality,” a 1987 essay,

an event—as an intrusion of one “logic” into the world of another “logic”—is what a story is built upon and what sustains it: a situation, a relationship, a conflict. . . . The basic prerequisite of a story is a plurality of truths, of “logics” and of the subjects of decisions and action. . . . The logic of a story resembles the logic of a play: it is the logic of the tension between the known and the unknown, between the rule and the accident, between the necessity and the unpredictability. . . . We never know for certain what will emerge from the initial confrontation . . . what it will lead to or how it will end.

It is quite possible that the suppression of stories led to one of the few accomplishments of the Communist era—the production of an endless flow of original, absurd, and often hilarious jokes. The joke as a hyperbolic extension of reality largely replaced the missing story.
“With the suppression of the story any sense of history inevitably disappears as well,” Havel observed.

I remember the first part of the seventies in Czechoslovakia as the time of “suspension of history” . . . History was replaced by pseudohistory, whose rhythm was determined by a calendar of anniversaries, congresses, celebrations, and gymnastic festivals . . . a unidimensional, transparent, and predictable self-expression of the single central subject of truth and power. The totalitarian regime introduced “order” into the living “disorder” of history and in doing so brought it to a standstill.

We thus emerged from our “twenty years of boredom” with a very different perspective from that of Fukuyama: we were being told that history had ended just when it was, in fact, resuming. We felt like saying, “Hey, wait a minute . . . ”

Still, for a time it appeared Fukuyama was right. The number of democracies in the world proliferated, first in Europe, then in Latin America, and finally in Africa. Dictators were on the run. Admittedly, there were some disturbing outliers, but they were relatively easy to write off as exceptions to the rule, or better still, as the dark hours preceding the dawn. Tiananmen Square was all but forgotten, Rwanda deplored as a sin of omission, and the former Yugoslavia presented less as a history of several years of tragic inaction than as a model of what democracies can do when they are finally ready and willing to act. The new threats, whether they were computer viruses, various types of influenza, or climate change, appeared to be more ominous and, at the same time, more benign, as they threatened everyone but remained impersonal and, for the most part, bore no particular ill will. They threatened without being enemies. The problem was not with our adversaries but rather with ourselves. The market was booming and governments and citizens were enjoying the benefits of the peace dividend. Liberal capitalism was on the march.


In a matter of a few years, three things transformed the mood first from optimistic to skeptical, and then from skeptical to depressed. The new world order resembled the old chaos, and the end of history became the beginning of an uncertain future. The change came on September 11, 2001, a calendar date that proved there were forces bitterly opposed to the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” and far from resigned to its inexorable victory. More than the horrendous attacks themselves, their aftermath changed our newfound perception of the world. It was the celebrations in some capitals (unrestrained in rejoicing although limited in scope), the widespread schadenfreude in many other parts of the world, the blaming of the victim, and the conspiracy theories that showed the victory of democratic capitalism as partial at best.

The second turning point was the war in Iraq, which demonstrated to both its supporters and its opponents that there were no masses of oppressed democrats waiting in the Middle East for liberation from the authoritarian yoke. It is important to remember that there were and still are democratic activists in the region who deserve our sympathy and need our support, but also that they are few and far between. Far more numerous in Iraq were those who wanted freedom from religious oppression (only to use it to oppress their former oppressor), freedom to assert their clan, tribe, or nation, freedom to avenge old injustices, and freedom to improve their material lot (often by plundering). Even those who stood for democracy used it mainly to further their political, national, or religious aims rather than promote an open society. The war also showed that Western democracies were far from united on the feasibility of the promotion of democracy, if not on its desirability. And it also showed that in a single-minded pursuit of its goals the largest Western democracy was on occasion prone to ignore and sometimes abrogate its own standards of decency, human rights, and legitimacy.

The third calamity that befell us—the West—was more significant in what it implied than in what it revealed. In the end, the global economic crisis lasted—at least in its acute form—only a little over a year. Yet it showed up our economic well-being as disturbingly dependent upon instruments that are ill understood even by people whose job it is to operate them. It showed the alarming greed and recklessness, worlds apart from the Protestant origins of capitalism, which encourages citizens in the developed world to live beyond their means with little regard for the price to be paid by their children. Last but not least, it showed the somewhat disquieting readiness of both governments and voters to turn to easy solutions in times of crisis and a willingness to sacrifice individual autonomy to the requirements of a welfare state. All of a sudden, free markets looked like the problem and state intervention, even nationalization, like the solution.

Add to this the resurgence of velvet (or not-so-velvet) authoritarians in places where democracy once advanced unchallenged; the precarious struggle against militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere; the specter of nuclear Iran ruled by feuding ayatollahs; the wholesale—with a number of honorable exceptions—abdication of the human rights movement and of its support by major Western powers in many parts of the world; and the increasing allure of populism, both right and left, in Europe, and it would certainly seem that history has exacted its revenge.

More importantly, both the elation and the hangovers of the last two decades reveal something about how history really works, or—less proudly and more precisely—how it does not work. There have been many highs and lows in history but there does not seem to be any ultimate high (or, unfortunately, any ultimate low). The regularity with which every resolved crisis, every new achievement of humanity, every sign of “progress” is followed by another crisis, another atrocity, and another backslide would almost seem to suggest a Manichean view of history in which the forces of light struggle forever with the forces of darkness. But that, too, is in the end a rather mechanical model, ill suited to describe the complexities of living history.

Mankind may have not progressed much, but it certainly has evolved towards vastly greater complexity and prosperity. The all-important distinction between progress and evolution is recognizable to every evolutionary biologist. It is the distinction between the teleological models of living creatures—evolving to ever greater perfection in keeping with a grand design, provided by God, a living-force, or, if you will, the laws of historical materialism—and the Darwinian model, in which from a variety of random mutations of physical and behavioral traits those that exhibit greater “survival fitness” are selected. Perhaps the above distinction should be just as valid for social evolution. Communism did not disappear because it was beaten by a greater idea but because it did not work. Lenin, as a friend of mine used to say, invented failure.

Based on the known record, history is more likely a complex stochastic process in which each event is to a larger, smaller, or infinitesimal extent the result of everything that has happened before combined with a healthy dose of randomness. As such, it carries forward and perpetuates, at least for a time, not only human growth and human achievements but also our weaknesses, fallacies, inconsistencies, and failures. That is why it comes back to haunt us so often. One can only ask whether the post–Cold War world would be any different if Communism was smashed to dust and eradicated the way Nazism was. In the event, to the vast relief of people in the West and East alike, it imploded peacefully. But perhaps in doing so, it was also allowed to scatter tiny bits of its tyrannical self, its messianic arrogance, its ignorance of human nature, and its fundamental immorality to the ends of the earth. It is gone but not dead. In any case, democracies seem to have been much more aware of their fundamental values and the price of liberty when the totalitarian threat was still around.

The resumption of history—whether measured by the number of new democracies or emerging countries, by the health of economies, by discoveries and failures, or by conflicts and crises—is not a theoretical construct but an empirical fact. It has often been noted that the balance of forces between the two opposing superpowers during the Cold War worked against the resolution of local conflicts, injustices, and anomalies around the world. As often as not, when people and nations were ready for a change, their will was ignored or blunted in the name of the status quo. Even internationally, the prevailing ideologies, or rather their clash, combined with the nuclear balance of terror, thus worked not as a moving force of history but as a brake on it. With the demise of Communism, the story of history has become not more but less predictable, more complex and more interesting, more decent and occasionally more indecent.

Even so, the bad news has come with a sense of relief, at least to some. It has reconfirmed some basic truths about the world. There is no manifest destiny for mankind, no end point, no true ideology, and no salvation on this earth. Civilizations come and go, idols rise and fall, people are born and they die only to make room for later generations. Freedom, for which liberal democracy is a conduit rather than the other way round, can never be assured of its final victory, can never be taken for granted. Its enemies, among which the most insidious reside inside rather than outside us, will always threaten it. Ideologies are the props of history, not the moving forces behind it and certainly not the actors. These are the people. In fact, by trying to channel history into the boundaries of their dogmas and prejudices, ideologies more often hinder history than propel it forward. It is simply not the case, as Hegel thought, that “spirit . . . determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose.” History, to borrow a phrase from Adam Ferguson, is not a product of human design but of human action. The end of history is the death of the last man.

Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. He has previously served as the Czech ambassador to Israel and the United States, and as chairman of the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Security Committee of the Czech Senate. He was spokesman and political director for President Vaclav Havel in the years immediately following the liberation of Czechoslovakia.

OG Image: