Thursday, December 8, 2011

A history of volatile Central Europe where the political is the personal (Books - The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter)

Anna Porter's The Ghosts of Europe relates the history of a rapidly changing region - Central Europe - that is Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. She focuses on the twenty years since the 1989 revolution which concluded in the fall of the Soviet empire, but necessarily informs this discussion with a good deal of context, including how these countries and their people were impacted by World War II, as this was so much the making of the region, and sometimes reaching back further to include the influences of the Ottoman or Hapsburg Empires. Though informative, her approach makes no pretense at a broad or objective text bookish approach. Her question is focused and it motivation is personal.
In 2006, I set out to discover whether democracy had taken root behind the Iron Curtain. I chose Central Europe because this part of the world had been the dividing space between East and West, or, as Stalin and Churchill deemed, between spheres of conflicting influence. My second reason is that I am a Central European.
Porter suitably fashions her story out of a series of portraits, telling it through individual lives - apropos for cultures where the political is the personal. They range from an expat Polish cafe owner to the last Communist leader of Poland.
In Stas Pruszynski's smoke-filled Radio Cafe, everyone wants to discuss history. Perhaps they are encouraged by the framed, faded photographs of former Radio Free Europe celebrities that decorate the walls; perhaps it's the Old World atmosphere of the resaurant-bar, the bare wooden tables. Or maybe it's Stas himself (who used to be "Stash" when he lived in Montreal), drawing them deep into his own tales of a childhood irreparably damaged by war... As he talks, Stas leans across the polished mahogany table, his arms folded, his broad shoulders hunched, wishing to share confidences, but his voice carries over the others in the room.
I visited General Jaruzelski in September 2009. Once he had been among the most feared men in Europe; a general in the second-largest Communist army - second only to the Soviet Union's Red Army; a leader in the Warsaw Pact's invasion of Czechoslovaki ending in Dubcek's experiment of "socialism with a human face." He was Poland's defense minister during the 1967-68 Jewish purges...Once he would have been closely guarded. Now there is one desultory guard and a single blond secretary who confesses that her schedule is not overly busy.

He is tall, spare, erect in his immaculate grey suit. His hair is thinning, his face impassive, and he still wears his trademark dark glasses. They have lost some of their menace since I read that they hid a weakness caused by the intense Siberian light. His hand is outstretched when we meet. There is an Old World formality of an almost hand-kiss, his thin lips brushing my fingers for a fraction of an uncomfortable second...
These excerpts convey not only Porter's skill at creating atmosphere and character, the starting point of her stories, the first one is a particularly apt metaphor for what Porter does so successfully - playing the host amidst images of history and drawing the reader in to share confidences.

That is not to say that Porter's treatment amounts to history-lite. Not at all. She is a keen observer of shifts of power and their political and economic consequences and how they impact the quality of people's lives - particularly those of minority members of these cultures like the Roma and Jewish people. Porter's analysis suggests that the changes are in-progress and their final outcomes far from sealed and delivered.
The sense of unfairness and failed expectations has led to a toxic atmosphere in Central Europe at the end of the first decade of the new century. The 2009 Slovak presidential elections resounded with nationalist, anti-minority voices. In Hungary, anti- government, anti-minorities, anti-Semitic demonstrations grew in number and ferocity. Those who are disappointed with the results of cozying up to the West, of adopting its capitalist credo, are beginning to yearn for the security of the old order. As philosopher-politician Ralf Dahrendorf predicted, when economic conditions deteriorate, "The ancien regime begins to look to many like the good old days."
Czechoslovakia's interwar president, Tomas Masaryk, famously remarked, "We now have democracy. All we need are some democrats." When asked how long he thought it would take for his country to become a democratic state, he answered, fifty years. That was in 1918. It is now just twenty years since the advent of democracy in Central Europe.
This may seem to be a book on European history and the consequences of Communism, and of course it is. The discussion of the role intellectuals and dissidents play in society, whether the opening of the sealed files of the Secret Police is the ultimate truth-telling it is meant to be - its advantages as well as its costs, and the legacy of anti-Semitism in the countries of Central Europe, were captivatingly told and instructive. However, I also found Porter's book usefully provocative in considering the influences, positive and perilous, of American style consumer-driven Democracy. The Ghosts of Europe is fluidly written, opinionated, and very engaging - an informative read on an influential and still volatile region whose changes have not fully come home to roost.

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