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Autumn of the Nations – 25 Years After

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The year 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Eastern and Central European Revolution in general. Even on a short look backward, 1989 appears to have been the year that was nothing short of a miracle.

(1) What was the “Autumn of the Nations” in 1989 about and how should the events of that time be understood?

There is something beautifully ambivalent in the concept of the autumn – a Spengleresque motive of the waning merges here with the metaphor of fertility and harvest. Something straight out of the world of Der Untergang des Abendlandes by Oswald Spengler and Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen by Johan Huizinga.

The year 2014 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of Eastern and Central European Revolution in general. Even on a short look backward, 1989 appears to have been the year that was nothing short of a miracle. The World War II with its sinister and seemingly insurmountable divisions within Europe was over nearly overnight leaving no trace of disbelief, despair and hopelessness that devastated Eastern and Central Europe for more than forty years. Instead, Europe was filled with joy and the sense of solidarity. As Adam Michnik, a hero of the Solidarity movement and a towering figure among public intellectuals and dissenters of Central Europe, recently noticed, it is quite tempting nowadays to assume the role of having been the then leading force and the major inspiration behind the historic fall of totalitarianism in Europe. Therefore, it was with sounds reason that Michnik called the year 1989 the annus mirabilis, the miraculous year.

In the United States, it is taken for granted that it was nothing other than the economic power of America that stripped the former Soviet Union of its potential inflicting on it a humiliating defeat in the Cold War. German politicians would proudly assert that their wise and patient Ostpolitik was a decisive factor in this historic struggle, rather than direct force and bellicose stance of America.

(2) Why had it place at the twilight of “short century” (1914–89)?

In Poland, nobody doubts that Pope John Paul II has come to delegitimize Communism both as a world system and a major rival ideology, whereas the Solidarity movement dealt a fatal blow to the mortally wounded Soviet system showing that the working class people can revolt against the Working Class State and deprive it of the remains of its legitimacy. In the Baltic states, it is widely assumed, and not without reason, that the living chain of the joined hands of Baltic people in 1989 that was followed by the exceptional role of Lithuania as the first rebellious and breakaway republic, also played a role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism in Europe, the role that was much too obvious to need emphasis. All these kinds of reasoning and arguments are more or less correct. If a unique combination of forces and inspirations had not been possible, 1989 would never have become the decisive year that changed history beyond recognition.

What looked for a Western European intellectual like the Grand March of History stretching from the Latin Quarter of Paris to the rest of the globe, as the character Franz from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being has it, was a tragedy and the jackboot trampling on the face of the human being, in the way another character of the novel, Franz’s mistress Sabina, a Czech artist in exile, describes it. Socialism and a promise of freedom as a theory in the West proved a horrible practice in the East in that same year 1968. Memory politics, as well as opposing memory regimes, still divides Europe. The short century of 1914–1989 and the autumn of the nations were tragically logical in its overture, all movements, and finale. Each time the world was changing beyond recognition, it was a strong feeling of fatalism – a revolution, a war, a downfall, a criminal regime accompanied by complacency and impotence of the so-called civilized politics and institutions.

Words, words, words, and no explanations of what and why was lost or what kind of human and institutional weakness was fatal.

(3) Are there any analogies between past and present situation?

Yes and no. Yes, as I can clearly see the analogies between 1917 and 1989, because in both cases the world witnessed the collapse of the Russian Empire, whether in its classical-monarchist incarnation as ancien régime or in its even more devilish hypostasis as the Soviet Union. Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States have all become facts of world politics and international relations, and their names have been engraved in the political map of the world.

And no, since we live in the time of obsession with a different sort of power. As Zygmunt Bauman wittily noticed, the old formula of politics as a carrots-and-sticks strategy still holds, yet we, having seen in the twentieth century, the worst nightmares of sticks, are likely to experience the domination of carrots nowadays. Power manifests itself as the financial and economic might and potential, rather than military force and the language of militarism. Yet the logic remains the same. This is the old good wille-zur-macht, or the will-to-power, whether it assumes the guise of Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx. The point is not if you have an identifiable Weltanschauung, a resilient identity or a major ideology; instead, the point is about how much power you have. I buy, therefore, I am.

We got accustomed to regarding a human being merely as a statistical unit. It does not come as a shock to us to view human individuals as workforce. The purchasing power of society or the ability to consume became crucial criteria to evaluate the degree of suitability of a country for the club of power to which we apply various sonorous titles of international organizations. The question whether you are a democracy becomes relevant only when you have no power and therefore have to be controlled through the means of rhetorical or political sticks. If you are oil-rich or if you can consume or invest really much, it absolves you from your failure to respect modern political and moral sensibilities or to stay committed to civil liberties and human rights. The crisis of the EU is quite different from all previous crises in the 20th century. Before and after WWII, Europeans were afraid to name things that existed already; for now, we are actively using words for things that have yet to come into existence. In fact, we live in a time of fundamental interregnum.

(4) Do events of 25 years ago can be an inspiration for contemporary Europeans?

I have a feeling that what is happening in present Europe is a silent technocratic revolution, rather than the rise of e-democracy and global civil society, as some of us choose to believe. A decade or two ago it was crucial to have proof that you are a democracy to qualify for the club. What mattered was a set of values and commitments. For now, we are likely to enter the new stage in world politics: what really matters is your financial discipline, the ability to be suitable for a fiscal union, and your economic conduct. There was a time when Eastern European nations sincerely believed that the rule of law, a strong commitment to democracy, and a decent human rights record served as a passport to the heaven of Western attention, respect, and even security.

I am afraid we are loosing this now, and the Eastern Partnership countries are getting awfully discouraging and disenchanting news from the West that nobody will fight their fights, or nobody is willing to risk their gas and oil relations with Russia out of sheer European solidarity or something like that. This may be the kiss of death to the Idea of Europe in Eastern Europe, especially keeping in mind that the Maidan in Kiev was not only an anti-criminal revolution against a mafia state but also a truly European revolution of people who were far less Euroskeptical and cynical about the EU than their Western European counterparts put together…

Recalling Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (the title of this anti-utopian novel is an anagram of Nowhere – hence, a clear allusion to Thomas More’s Utopia), here we have the political and moral logic of Europe turned upside down. In Erewhon, Butler pokes fun of a utopian community where illness becomes a liability and where a failure to remain healthy and fit is prosecuted. Something of this kind can be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where a failure to be happy is seen as a symptom of backwardness. A caricature of the pursuit of happiness in a distant technocratic and technological society should not console us as something beyond our reality, though.

What we have in Europe now is an emerging concept of the liability of economic impotence. No kind of political and economic impotence shall remain unpunished. This is to say that we no longer have a right to fail, which had long been an inescapable aspect of freedom. The right to be open to the possibility of bankruptcy or any other possibility of failure was part of the European saga of freedom as a fundamental choice we make every day facing its consequences.

Those days are gone. Now you are at risk of becoming a gravedigger of Europe or even of the entire world if you send a wrong message to the global market. You may cause a global domino effect, thus letting down your foes and allies who equally depend of that same single world power structure. This is a new language of power, hitherto unseen and unidentified by anybody in world history. Behave yourself, otherwise you will spoil the game and will let us down. In doing so, you will jeopardize the viability of a moral and social order within which no country or nation remains responsible for itself. Everything has its global repercussions and implications. And how about the nations? Up to now we were certain that the European nations embodied the Calvinist principle of predestination implying a possibility to be happy in this earthly life and in this-worldly reality; the Kantian principle of self-determination became more relevant in the 19th century. There was a world where the pursuit of happiness, like the possibility of salvation and self-fulfillment spoke the language of the republic and its values: hence, the emergence of postcolonial nations after two world wars and after the breakup of empires.

What we have today in our second modernity bears little, if any, resemblance to this logic of the first modernity, as Ulrich Beck would have it; we can no longer experience the passions and longings of the 20th century, not to mention the dramas of the 19th century, no matter how hard we try to relegitimize our historical and political narrative. To use the terms of Zygmunt Bauman, the liquid modernity transformed us into a global community of consumers. What was a nation in the era of solid modernity as a community of memory, collective sentiment and moral choice, now is a community of consumers who are obliged and expected to behave in order to qualify for the club.

In the epoch of facebook, the nations are becoming extraterritorial units of a shared language and culture. We knew in the era of solid modernity that the nation was made up by several factors, first and foremost by a common territory, language and culture as well as by the modern division of labor, social mobility and literacy. Nowadays, the picture is rather different: a nation appears as an ensemble of mobile individuals with their logic of life deeply embedded in withdrawal-and-return. It is a question of whether you are online or offline with regard to your country’s problems and the debates around them, instead of deciding once and for all whether you are going to stay in that same place or vote for those same political actors for the rest of your days. Either you are on or you are off. This is a daily plebiscite of a liquid-modern society.

(5) Was 1989 the end of geopolitics in this part of the world?

In fact, 1989 was the end of geopolitics in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet on a closer look now it appears to have been just a geopolitical interregnum caused by Russia’s political impotence and humiliation by the West, as they claim now under Vladimir Putin – instead, it seems to have been a failure to bring the worst legacy of the USSR and Stalinism to the end. What we have now is a comeback of history and geopolitics all in one and all at once.

By the time this opinion piece is published, we will know whether Russian ambitions in Ukraine went beyond Crimea, but here in Kaunas, Lithuania, there is a strong sense of how history repeats itself. A feeling of being back in time with such code names as Munich, the Sudetenland, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain is much stronger than it would have been any time earlier after the fall of the Berlin wall. We bid farewell to the holy naïveté of Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history, as if to say: “Welcome back to the twentieth century!” We are parting with Fukuyama just to be on the way to Putiyama, as Andrei Piontkovsky, a brilliant Russian political analyst and essayist, once put it with his wit and elegance.

It must have been five years ago when I came up, in a seminar with high-ranking EU and American officials, diplomats, politicians, and academics, with a comparison of Putin’s Russia and post-Weimar Germany. I insisted on the rise of a revisionist state in Russia with a strong sense of injustice seemingly done by the West to the USSR and with the resulting wave of chauvinism, neo-imperialism, and fascism. Some colleagues took this remark quite seriously, yet others (especially Germans) thought that it was overstretched and overblown. I leave it to my gracious readership to decide who was right and who was wrong at that time.

Arnold J. Toynbee, echoing a great many historians, once asked: Does history repeat itself? Karl Marx wittily and caustically answered this question in the nineteenth century reminding us that it does, and even twice: once as a tragedy and then as a farce. There are quite a few indications that what proved a Shakespearean tragedy in the twentieth century tends to repeat itself as a farce now. The Soviet Union and its new industrial faith, as Ernest Gellner described it, was nothing short of a civilizational alternative and rivalry to Europe or to the West, if you will. A deep disappointment with the supposed Jerusalem of the Left, along with the real collapse of modern belief (or disbelief) in a hidden alternative to capitalism and liberalism had a component of a universal tragedy.

Yet what appears as real present civilizational rival to Europe is Russia’s crony capitalism coupled with a gangster state, instead of a resistance ideology or a utopian dream. What was a tragic cul-de-sac of humanity turned into a grotesque of a rogue state with semi-criminal elite. Ideology without any ideology, or capitalism without liberty – no theory or ideological doctrine of the twentieth century can explain this phenomenon. Living in post-ideological and, in all likelihood, post-political era, creates quite a few predicaments when trying to apply mainstream views or conventional wisdom of the past.

History does repeat itself – we will know soon as to whether it is doing so this time as a tragedy or as a farce. We will learn whether the new Iron Curtain and the Old New Cold War is about impotence and forthcoming final disintegration of Russia or whether it is all about our own impotence along with the crushing of our hopes to achieve the final breakthrough. Up to now I was tempted to believe that Russia will fail inexorably due to its own fallacies and also due to a radically different situation in which Poland, the Baltic States, and other democracies find themselves.

Yet I do not have the answer about the fate of Ukraine, the nation that has already become the litmus test case of all of our strengths and weaknesses.




Dr. Leonidas Donskis is a Member of the European Parliament (2009–2014). He has written and edited over thirty books, fifteen of them in English. Donskis combines political theory, history of ideas, philosophy of culture, philosophy of literature, and essayistic style. Among other books, he is co-author (together with Zygmunt Bauman) of Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (2013), and the author of Fifty Letters from the Troubled Modern World: A Philosophical-Political Diary, 2009–2012 (2013), Modernity in Crisis: A Dialogue on the Culture of Belonging (2011), Troubled Identity and the Modern World (2009), Power and Imagination: Studies in Politics and Literature (2008), and Forms of Hatred: The Troubled Imagination in Modern Philosophy and Literature (2003). Donskis acts as a visiting professor of politics at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania. He holds an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Bradford, Great Britain.

Article written as part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.

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