This mess of troubled times

The processes set in motion by the disintegration of the socialist economy in eastern Europe eluded all analytical frameworks. It was a time of ‘wild thinking’, in which received ideas were reconsidered and values re-assessed. We are still living through this troubled era, writes the historian of the Soviet Union Karl Schlögel.

Strolling Berlin on the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall, one is reminded of what Guy Debord half a century ago called ‘the society of the spectacle’ – tourists in masses, son et lumière at every turn. But we have gathered here today not to celebrate 1989, but because we are concerned about the here and now. This is an opportunity to remember, to ask questions and to rethink what has happened since that annus mirabilis, to use the ancient European lingua franca.

I don’t intend to tell the story of 1989, of what it was supposed to be or what has become of it, three decades later – others are far better qualified to do that than I. Instead, my approach will be personal and biased, full of distrust for generalizations and the certainties that theoretical models and paradigms offer. I wish to brainstorm or – to use one of Hannah Arendt’s favourite terms – to ‘think without a bannister’.

Wild thinking: listen to Karl Schlögel’s keynote this essay is based on, in Gagarin, the Eurozine podcast.

I must confess that I feel deeply uneasy about trying to give an outline of the last thirty years, even in the most general terms. And yes, I even despair about what people like us – writers and analysts, participants in the public debate – have to contribute to an understanding of the societies that have emerged before our eyes. I feel helpless in finding a language to describe a world in the making – post-Cold War or pre-New-Cold-War, polycentric, post-liberal, authoritarian post-postmodern… I prefer phenomenological analysis to working with systems or models, and am well aware of the risks inherent in my approach and the disappointments it might cause.

‘Successes and failures of 1989’: Karl Schlögel gave the opening keynote at the 30th European Meeting of Cultural Journals on 2 November 2019 in Berlin. 30th European Meeting of Cultural Journals by Stephan Röhl via Eurozine, used under CC BY- NC 3.0

An ‘annus mirabilis’: In defence of kairos

Looking and listening around today, one sometimes gets the impression that the ‘historical moment’ of 1989, with all its excitement and happiness, never occurred – that the event witnessed by many of us has vanished under a mountain of interpretation and reflection; that ‘in fact’ all that happened on the streets of Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest and elsewhere was mere self-deception, an illusion, surreality. Despite all the documentaries, the newsreels and interviews, the experience of people appears to have largely been forgotten – people who first crossed the open border, striding enthusiastically or strolling, exploring a world that had been closed to them their entire lives, the thrill of liberty, of the freedom of movement, of reading newspapers they never had access to before, of visiting relatives in the West.

Can one speak of a new East–West split? How has our understanding of the two halves of Europe, shaped by the Iron Curtain, changed in the past three decades?

This article is published in our new anthology, The legacy of division: East and West after 1989. Pre-order the book here.

This ‘historical moment’ had its illusions, but it was not illusory. It cannot be ‘deconstructed’ or undone. It was part of a great movement of European liberation. Of course, ‘historical moments’ are prone to mythologization – and indeed, 1989 has since become an icon, a caesura between yesterday and tomorrow, a divide between past and future.

Everyone had his or her own experience of the ‘great break’ – experiences that do not necessarily coincide with a precise date or place. In my memory, the ‘break’ did not coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall, although the house I was living in back in 1989 was surrounded by the Wall on three sides, and I could witness the unfolding of events from my own window.

For me, the ‘break’ began several years earlier, in 1985 and 1986, when a previously unknown functionary of the Communist Party of the USSR declared that Soviet society needed glasnost and perestroika. Every evening, the news broadcasted things unheard up to this moment. We had no words and no explanations for what was happening and were suspicious – a bit like Helmut Kohl, who early on called Gorbachev ‘a new Goebbels’. We were simply not prepared for this ‘hero of withdrawal’, as Hans Magnus Enzensberger called him.

The new era dawned at a different moment for different people. For some, the caesura was the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s; for others it was the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia in 1991. The ‘big bang enlargement’ of the EU in 2004 was the watershed for many, for others it was 9/11 or the financial crash in 2008. There was a series of breaks; the focus on one moment and one place ignores the interrelationship of temps d’événements and the longue durée, the overlapping of different layers of time.

I do not share the view that the western response to what was happening in eastern Europe was enthusiastic or ‘triumphalist’. On the contrary: there was surprise and relief that ‘Armageddon had been averted’, as Stephen Kotkin put it. As usual, we claim in retrospect to know better what really happened, but all historical moments have their own weight and importance, independent of post festum interpretations. To cite Leopold von Ranke, they are ‘immediate to God’. They need to be told and retold.

Transformation, transition: Teleology in ‘troubled times’

The notions of transformation and transition only insufficiently grasp the processes taking place towards the end of socialism and after its collapse. The notions imply a hidden linearity. Transformation and transition were not only theories, but also an idiom. The terminology dates back beyond Karl Polányi’s famous book to the Soviet debate about ‘transition from capitalism to socialism’ (Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, Nikolai Bukharin and others). This was a highly ambitious theory and a tool for replacing anarchic modes of capitalist production with a planned economy.

But for transition in the opposite direction there was neither theory nor experience. How, then, to think through and steer the process? I do not believe that the concepts of any given thinker or school – whether Jeffrey Sachs in Harvard or Milton Friedman in Chicago – were responsible for the path taken in eastern Europe. The spontaneous disintegration of the planned economy, with its basis in collective property, was much more decisive. Different theories and concepts were applied in Poland (Leszek Balcerowicz), for example, than in Russia (Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar). These differences were due much more to the specifics of national economies than to lessons drawn from developments abroad. Factors such as the Soviet Union’s imperial character, countries’ varying size, or how long property had belonged to the state, all mattered acutely. The inherent teleology behind the notion of ‘transition’ was a barrier to finding more appropriate categories and a new matrix of analysis. As always with the cage of categories, it took time to escape the Weberian paradigm of ‘western capitalist society’, which did not correspond to the structures that emerged at the end of socialism, as analysed by Rudolf Bahro and others.

The processes that took place after 1989/1991 undermined, even exploded the standard analytical frameworks of western academia and think tanks. The post-Soviet era was a time of ‘wild thinking’ – fascinating, inspiring and frightening at the same time. The simultaneity of non-simultaneity (Ernst Bloch), the overlapping and interplay of different historical processes, created a degree of confusion that established disciplines could neither embrace nor integrate. The idea that there was a concept or group of people capable of top-down ‘reform’, of guiding the transformation, is naive. There were no masters able to ‘to ride the tiger’. To use Marx’s terminology, history happened wildly (naturwüchsig); it was elemental, out of control.

Just to name just some of these simultaneous and overlapping processes: the decolonization of the Soviet empire, nation-building and the reconstitution of sovereignty; the dismantling of state bureaucracies and the rebuilding of civic life; the disintegration of imperial, transnational infrastructures and the integration of new national economies into the global system; freedom of movement and brain drain; or addressing the past amidst the problems of the present. There were unexpected combinations in a huge and chaotic social fabric: former functionaries alongside newcomers, all acting in a grey zone, under poorly defined rules, in a capitalist game closer to Darwin’s survival of the fittest than a regulated free market. Modernization merged with corruption as a way of life; kleptocracy with professional expertise; religiosity with Hollywood-style aesthetics.

The 1990s were an ‘era of wild thinking’ liberating as it was frightening. All ideas were reconsidered, values re-assessed – not in philosophical seminars, but around kitchen tables, in public spaces, where monuments were being taken down and streets renamed, and in the media, both ‘old’ or ‘new’. Those who had the capacity to analyse and conceptualize – those who prepared the end of Soviet-style ‘totalitarianism’ – lacked the time to do so and were mostly outmanoeuvred. I think that we are still living through those times of trouble, those years of wild thinking, and I have no words to adequately describe them.

Spaces of experience and spaces of expectation: The generational challenge

Since the populist and rightwing backlashes in Europe and elsewhere, it has become common to pore scorn on the illusions – about East and West, about liberalism – cherished by the activists of 1989. But to merely denounce illusions – to ridicule the prognoses of Francis Fukuyama – would be too simple. The question is why people thought this way. These were not mere illusions, but thoughts and projections emerging from what Reinhart Koselleck called the spaces of experience and expectation of different generations living under different conditions at different periods of time.

Today, we have the chance to reflect on the lasting impact of these different spaces. We, that imagined community of post-post-war and post-Cold War Europeans, lived in different worlds at the same time, and at different times in the same space. Having been born, raised and educated in the western hemisphere, I can try to understand what happened ‘on the other side’, but it was not my world, and vice versa. It would be arbitrary, not to say artificial, to try to integrate or homogenize these different experiences. All we can do is to tell our stories and listen to those of others. This is Europe as a space of telling, remembering, commemorating and researching difficult stories.

Of course, there has always been a significant asymmetry. People in the West are generally unfamiliar with the histories of eastern Europeans. There has been some progress in the last thirty years, but the general deficit – the overall lack of knowledge and empathy – has largely remained. Every country, every society has its own rhythm of coming to terms with its past – there is no golden path. Germans are nowadays regarded as ‘world champions’ in ‘coming to terms with the past’, but they would be well-advised to avoid trying to teach lessons to others. Anyone involved in the politics of history in recent decades knows how delicate and sensitive these matters are. It remains a great challenge to tell the stories that at some time in the future might compose a European collection – and that collection would still be far from ‘the definitive history of Europe’.

Looking back at how Europe’s intelligentsia has addressed its times can be instructive. We had the generation of 1945 – Hannah Arendt, Franz Neumann, but also Viktor Kravchenko and the authors of The God That Failed – people who summarized the epoch of totalitarianism, the experience of war and revolution, of mass destruction, genocide, and exile. And we had the generation of postwar reconstruction, not only people like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who returned from exile and developed a new language for a devastated continent, but also a younger generation – people like Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Jürgen Habermas in the West, or Czesław Milosz, Jerzy Giedroyc and Leszek Kołakowski in the East (or in western exile).

Then we have the dissident generation, the rebels who undermined the Soviet Empire and the East–West divide: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, György Konrád, Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Adam Michnik. They were the pioneers of ‘telling the truth’, of understanding the historical epos, of connecting dissidents on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The avant-garde of ’89, they developed the language and the tone for the new times.

What has the post-1989 generation offered in comparison to these earlier generations? My generation – born shortly after the war – was blessed: we could live without the menaces and risks that our parents commonly experienced. Most of ‘us’ – again I am talking of an imagined and maybe illusory generational community – lived in orderly conditions, far from war, violence, atrocity, hardship, in a kind of comfort zone, in a world where welfare, security and foreign travel were taken for granted, along with the effective functioning of the state administration and democratic institutions. The darker side of our lives in the comfort zone was lack of experience, our illusion that this was the scale and way of life for everything and everybody. This partly accounts for the limits of our perception and engagement – for our insensitivity.

But it is not sufficient to say that after 1989 we misunderstood liberalism, or failed to understand the ‘national question’, as some now claim in retrospect. Instead, we need to analyse the intellectual environment in which these misunderstandings were generated. Today, ‘we’ are all the children of Schengen Europe, of the bubble that we live in.

Eastern Bloc Record Shop. Photo by Mikey from Flickr.

Europe beyond dreamland: thinking without a banister

The sense that history has not met our expectations is far from new. After the devastation of WWI and the collapse of empires, people expected eternal peace. Ernst Troeltsch, one of the acutest observers of post-WWI Germany, described the intellectual situation in the early 1920s as ‘dreamland’, where everything was thought possible: a Europe that would recover from its wounds. In ‘dreamland’ there was optimism about the future, projections, grand designs, visions.

Generations that have experienced disasters often believe they have become immune to xenophobia, hate, violence, aggression and all the other sins of the past. Then they are forced to learn that there are no clear recipes for solving the conflicts of the present. In order to possess the virtues of decency, courage and solidarity, every generation must learn continuously. And there is no guarantee that ‘we’ will be able to defend these virtues. Only the future will show how ‘our generation’ behaved in times of chaos, during waves of discrimination, persecution and violence. The contemporary world is sometimes harder to perceive and to react to than the cruelties of the past; to fight the fights of the present is sometimes harder than to resume or re-enact the fights of the past. Ideologies, words, slogans all matter, but attitudes and actual behaviour are much more decisive.

We, the late-born, know about the ends of history without having faced the dangers of being involved. We have the overview, at least so we like to imagine. But resistance is something quite different. The present is, in the words of Ernst Bloch, ‘the darkness of the lived moment’ (das Dunkel des gelebten Augenblicks). Today, we live amidst this mess of troubled times.

The challenges we face are well-known: the rise of China as a global player and the emergence of a multipolar world; the radical transformation of the economy under the impact of artificial intelligence; impending climate catastrophe. Under these conditions everything is in flux. There is a Left that fights imperialism, aggression and war crimes, while remaining silent on Russian aggression in Ukraine and Assad’s war crimes in Syria. A warmonger – Putin – is posing as a peace-broker, performing a ‘masterpiece of international diplomacy’. A US president betrays his most active and effective allies in bringing down the Islamic State. The European Union is unable to find a joint solution to the rush of mass migration. The welfare state is undergoing crisis and social inequality is increasing, without any sign of way to reverse the trend or at least to cope with its effects. Authoritarian strongmen across Europe are supported by a broad social stratum reaching deep into the middle classes.

Part of the blame obviously lies with the strongmen themselves, who are unscrupulous and cunning. But blame also lies with the ‘others’ – the opposition, the anti-authoritarians, the anti-nationalists, the liberals – who gave the wrong answers and may even not have listened to the questions. How to regain control over mass migration? How to integrate the hundreds of thousands of new arrivals? Rather than asking what citizenship in the 21st century should look like, they simply preferred to call the insistence on national sovereignty ‘nationalism’.

In the 1990s, Ralf Dahrendorf wrote about the emergence of ‘parallel worlds’, of societies divided into ‘ordinary’ citizens and globalized ‘cosmocrats’. We know the latter’s phenotype, since we ourselves belong to them, residing in Berlin today, in Helsinki or London tomorrow, commuting between conferences in L.A., Dubai and Paris, with children in international schools and kindergartens. I was shocked on the campuses of the East and the West Coasts of America to meet so many people who had been practically been everywhere around the globe, but not in Gary, Indiana or Akron, Ohio. The victory of Trump has to do with this kind of absence, neglect and ignorance. The same goes for the many German intellectuals who only discovered the East after the AfD landslide. It may also apply to parts of the Warsaw intelligentsia, who are more familiar with the timetables of Brussels Airport than with the train schedules in ‘Polska B’. Time to say farewell to dreamland. Welcome on the ground!

A new German ‘Sonderweg’ and the return of Russia

There is – or was – a long discussion, especially among German historians, about whether there was a German Sonderweg, or ‘special path’ of social and economic modernization. The discussion might be interesting, but history is made up entirely of ‘special paths’. Of course, some of the peculiarities of German history returned to the surface during the process of reunification: different cultural legacies, different ways of addressing the Nazi past, and so on. Dan Diner even wrote about the return of the ‘German question’, after the formation of an eighty-million strong nation at the centre of Europe.

Now that Russia has re-entered the international stage, there is discussion of the ‘comeback of the Russian Empire’. I do not believe in an eternal recurrence of the same, but I am concerned about the role that Germany might play in a European Union likely to erode further, or even disintegrate, under the stresses and strains of the new global situation. Germany is often taken as a pillar of stability but, even without taking into account the potential consequences of the looming recession, it might be much more vulnerable than it superficially appears.

A majority of Germans want reconciliation with Russia after the deterioration of relations in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis. The big companies want to return to ‘business as usual’ and demand the lifting of sanctions. The mainstream wants good relations, in the ‘tradition of Bismarck’, as is often said. When it comes to Russia, Germans feel guilty about the millions of victims of Nazi German aggression, forgetting that Germany’s war of annihilation affected all peoples and nationalities of the Soviet Union. Many Germans feel strongly positive about Russia because of Gorbachev’s contribution to Germany’s peaceful reunification but ignore the impact of the democratic movements in eastern central Europe. Many associate with stereotypes about the ‘Russian soul’. Pro-Russian forces cross party lines, from the AfD to Die Linke, and have prominent proponents – among them the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Putin’s man in Germany. Not to forget the large minority of Russian-speaking people in Germany whose loyalties are split between their first and second homelands, rather like the Turkish Germans who prefer Erdoğan over Merkel. There is a growing Ukraine fatigue, with many in favour of pressuring the Ukrainian government to make compromises with Russia. This would amount to a triumph of appeasement, paving the road to the further destabilization of Europe. All this is in the context of anti-Americanism, always present but now ubiquitous as a result of Trump’s disastrous politics.

In the troubled times ahead, we will need to keep an eye on the vulnerabilities of Europe, and especially of Germany.

Paradoxes of Europeanization

Wizzair, Easyjet and Ryanair have changed the mental maps of Europeans. These low budget airlines are symbols for the radical changes of the past thirty years: the explosion of mobility across borders, as millions of people learned by doing, exploring and creating new networks of knowledge and experience, connecting neighbours, accelerating time – which today is indeed money.

The rebirth of cities after decades of dilapidation and decay means that the ‘places to be’ have also changed: Lviv, thirty years ago the ‘metropolis of Europe’s province’ (the title of an essay I wrote in the mid-’80s), is now a central European hub. New destinations are everywhere: Riga, the city of art nouveau; Warsaw, with its downtown skyscrapers; the new Moscow with its five international airports; Kiev and Krakow, sites of the European football championship in 2012; Saint Petersburg’s European University and (until recently) Budapest’s CEU as centres of all-European academic excellence.

Of course, this radical change has brought ‘collateral damage’: mass emigration of the workforce to the West and a brain drain of the best qualified, leaving behind empty landscapes and orphans of globalization; rust belts everywhere, ruins next to supermalls. The massive outflow of knowledge and expertise has resulted in a loss of manpower and civic engagement. Not to forget the wars: the destruction of Yugoslavia, with its tens of thousands of victims and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced persons; the ongoing war in Ukraine, with more than 13,000 dead and two million displaced, the devastation of an industrial region, new nationalistic myths after a period of discovery and painful search for identity.

Is this the ‘new normal’ in Europe after half a century of stability in division? The West is certainly part of the same process of ‘normalization’, even though it has ceased to exist as a homogenous entity. Instead, we might say that the ‘former West’ has embarked on a search for a new equilibrium. There are fusions between East and West that we could never have expected back in 1989. Deutsche Bank and Skanska acting as money-laundering machines for trillions of dollars channelled out of Russia, London and Miami as the best places for oligarchic kleptocrats to invest in real estate. ‘Eastern corruption’ has moved westward, fusing with homemade corruption in harbours like New York – the ‘City of the yellow devil’, as Maxim Gorky called it a hundred years ago.

As we know, investigating the traces of this transnational corruption brings deadly risks. To recall just a few who risked and lost their lives in the struggle for truth and justice: Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estemirova, Ján Kuciak, Daphne Caruana Galizia. They are the heroes of our times.

Starting from scratch, again and again

We must leave our comfort zones – physical and intellectual – and explore what is happening on the ground. We must be aware of the intellectual challenges in dealing with an entirely new situation and try – in all modesty – to do what others before us have managed to do. We need to heed Marx’s famous words, only in reverse: ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’ Now the point is to interpret a world that is changing all too fast.

The pre-1989 years were a time of exploring, describing and analysing – the Polish school of reportage was just one example. A key slogan of the era was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s and Václav Havel’s ‘Tell the Truth’. This message is not outdated. But to insist on ‘the truth’ is to face many risks. To investigate, explore and redraw the mental map of Europeans beyond the old-new fault lines is a very difficult job. In order to succeed, it will be necessary to develop a consciousness of history not as a lesson to be drawn or sermon to be preached, but as a way to face the challenges – now and in the future.

This article is based on Karl Schlögel’s speech given at the 30th European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Berlin on 2 November 2019.

Published 19 November 2019
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Karl Schlögel / Eurozine



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