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Passing the Torch, despite Bananas. The Twentieth‑Anniversary Commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe

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The 2009 commemorations of the revolutionary events of 1989 provided an excellent opportunity to observe where central European political cultures stood a generation after the annus mirabilis. This article interprets the twentieth anniversary commemorations in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania, based primarily on the author’s firsthand observations. It argues that patterns of observance fell along a spectrum from relatively “democratic,” foregrounding citizens in public space, to “aristocratic,” privileging elites and barring access to citizens. The more “democratic” societies were nonetheless divided over the question of whether democracy or consumption was the central aim of civic engagement in 1989.

Fedor Gál, one-time chairman of the Slovak civic initiative Public against Violence, expressed surprise in late November 2009 at the “tremendous explosion” of public discourse set off by the twentieth anniversary of the revolution of 1989.1 The For the entire year preceding the anniversary, Czech students had conducted an “Inventory of Democracy,” calling on elected officials to prove by 17 November 2009 that they were responsive to their electorate. Newspapers, radio, and television, throughout 2009, reprinted or rebroadcast the news of “twenty years ago today.” Museums, theatres, and other cultural institutions across the Czech and Slovak Republics put on exhibits relating to 1989. The anniversary was the theme of film festivals, conferences, and a greater number of moderated discussions than any individual could hope to attend; even Česko Slovenská SuperStar (a newly “federalized” Czecho-Slovak spin-off of Britain’s Pop Idol) addressed it. On November 17 itself, the smorgasbord of commemorative acts, became truly bewildering, with over a dozen different simultaneous events in Prague alone.

To anyone who had been following the memory of 1989 closely, such an “explosion” was only to be expected. Similar phenomena had occurred on the fifteenth anniversary, the tenth anniversary, and so on back to the “onemonth anniversary” in December 1989.2 The political cultures of the Czech and Slovak Republics are inscribed within the collective memory of 1989, such that the anniversary regularly invites vocal comparison of present-day realities with the ideals of a mythic (though by no means mythical) founding moment. The twentieth-anniversary commemorations were more extensive, to be sure, than any in the previous decade – but this, too, was to be expected, since twenty years marks the turning of generations and citizens had often said in 1989–90 that it would take this long to assess the fruits of their efforts.3 That Gál could have been surprised was indicative of a social fragmentation of memory – a phenomenon evident not just in the Czech and Slovak Republics, but throughout central Europe.

This article describes and analyzes the twentieth-anniversary commemorations in Poland, Hungary, Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania. It is based in part on my own observations (from May to December 2009) and in part on a survey of relevant discussions and coverage in the media of the countries in question. The anniversaries demonstrated the continuing importance of 1989 in all six countries as a founding moment on which the legitimacy of present-day regimes depends at least in part; the commemorations invariably sought to specify the meaning of 1989 in order to emphasize this legitimacy or to question it, and in order to support arguments for how the appurtenant political communities should evolve. Degrees of agreement about the meaning of 1989 were reflected in patterns of commemoration, which ranged from extensive, harmonious consensus in Germany and the Czech Republic to tense and clearly dysfunctional disagreement in Hungary. In Germany and the Czech Republic, commemorations were vividly “democratic” in nature; citizens rather than elites were at the centre of attention, and the activities both reflected and facilitated a renewal of civic engagement in public affairs. In Hungary, by contrast, the official commemorations were highly “aristocratic” – almost exclusively the affairs of state officials and privileged guests, and mostly off limits to ordinary citizens. Commemorations in other countries fell in a spectrum between these two extremes.

Though commemorations in the more “democratic” countries were characterized by a visible consensus, this was not a consensus about the exact meaning of 1989. In both Germany and the Czech Republic, there was a debate between fundamentally opposing interpretations of 1989 that took as their rival symbols the torch and the banana. Citizens organizing commemorations in Leipzig chose as their iconic image a photograph of a child on her father’s shoulders carrying a candle like a torch; they argued that the revolution had primarily been about democracy and that the torch needed to be passed on. The mayor of Prague, by contrast, chose the banana as the emblem of activities that his office sponsored, suggesting that the revolution had primarily been about material well-being, now happily improved. Despite disagreement about the meaning of 1989, however, participants in the “democratic” commemorations still functionally agreed about how to disagree. They could express opposing views in the same physical space without any fear of violence. In the more “aristocratic” countries, by contrast, there was a crisis of meaning, with the opposing camps literally unable to share public space and with barricades separating people from elites. In Hungary, moreover, the fear of violence was palpable.

“It all started in Poland”

My first encounter with Polish commemorations of 1989 was in Bratislava, where a red-and-white billboard at the main train station greeted visitors with the bold words (in English) “Freedom: Made in Poland.” Such billboards, I soon learned, were widespread across central Europe, along with signs proclaiming “It all began in Poland.” There were outdoor exhibits in Berlin, Prague, Bratislava, and Timişoara about the Polish road to 1989, and the Polish Institutes in the various capitals organized discussions and film screenings throughout the summer on this theme.

I arrived in Cracow on June 3 to find the city modestly decked out for the anniversary of the June 4 elections in which Solidarity candidates won a resounding victory over their Communist rivals. Banners fluttered on Rynek Główny, and outdoor exhibits were stationed in various parts of the city. That evening, however, a television debate made clear that the anniversary would be a contested one. Viewers were invited to vote via their mobile phones on the question: “Did the elections of 1989 mark the end of Communist power in Poland?” According to the vast majority of respondents, the answer was “no.”

On the anniversary of the elections I went first towards Wawel Castle. At 11 a.m., Prime Minister Tusk was to meet his counterparts from Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania, to be followed by a Te Deum in the cathedral and the sending of “a message to young Europe.”4 The entire hill was cordoned off, however – this commemoration was to be an exclusively elite affair. All those admitted at police checkpoints, their names ticked off a list, were in suits – even the group of middle school students who, presumably, were to represent “young Europe.” Now and then sirens would announce the arrival of cars and minibuses, some with diplomatic flags and all escorted by several police cars. Being present at the site I could learn little more than that this commemoration of Poland’s first democratic election since 1928 was closed to democratic participation, but on the evening news I learned that Greenpeace activists had somehow got in to stage a demonstration. Otherwise the event was as decorous as could be desired. Cardinal Dziwisz led the religious service, and Chancellor Merkel of Germany concluded her speech with the Polish words “dziękuję bardzo, Polsko” (thank you very much, Poland).

The only popular forms of commemoration I encountered that day in Cracow were a small renters’ protest, consisting of a march from Rynek Główny to the castle, and a more substantial anarchist march. Over 100 people took part in this second procession, which began at noon in front of the main train station and continued around the Ring and south to the foot of Wawel hill. Their lead banner proclaimed “without us there is no democracy,” while another declared “enough compromises: class war continues.” Amid the black or red and black flags were signs announcing affiliations, e.g. the Anarchist Federation, the Polish Association of Syndicalists, the New Left, and Young Socialists. While generally young, the marchers were not exclusively so; grey-haired old ladies walked alongside middle-aged men, and many of the participants in the earlier renters’ protest had joined this crowd. While some of the marchers wore black and a few had bandanas tied over their faces, most were dressed in ordinary street clothes and did not seek to hide their identity. Indeed, the well-behaved, polite manner of this demonstration made the extent of the police escort – perhaps one heavily equipped policeman for every marcher – seem ridiculous. Passers-by seemed to enjoy the scene even if they did not cheer the protesters (though the ranks of the marchers did swell somewhat as they progressed); the streets were lined with people taking photographs.

From television that afternoon I learned that things were much more interesting elsewhere in Poland. In Katowice, the trade union Solidarity had organized a demonstration larger than anything in Cracow under the banner “Silesia protests.” A placard in the crowd confirmed what one of the speakers said: “things are not as they should be,” and the ceremonies featured a coffin – suggesting, perhaps, the death of the dream of 1989. The real centre of events, however, was Gdańsk. While in one part of the city Tusk sat down with Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa for a conference on “Solidarity and the Fall of Communism,” at the shipyard an outdoor platform provided a space for workers and clergymen to address a crowd. The present chief of Solidarity spoke, as did a priest who related 1989 to John Paul II. President Kaczyński, sporting a button with a cross, declared that “twenty years ago the Polish people said no to Communism.” For some in the crowd, though, this was evidently not enough. One banner called for the end of political parties as such.

During the day the crowd in Gdańsk was smaller than the one in Katowice, but in the evening the proportion reversed itself. The shipyard became the site of a grandiose public ceremony organized by the European Solidarity Centre, a new state-funded institution in Gdańsk, under the theme “It began in Poland.” Monolithic red dominoes were set up in a line leading from the stage, each bearing the name of a formerly Communist country. From the stage, a grinning Lech Wałęsa pushed the first domino (Poland), which knocked down Hungary, the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and fifteen others, culminating in Mongolia. At that moment fountains burst into action while red and white confetti fluttered above. The subsequent item on the program was a Scorpions concert, for which there was now a huge crowd. The band commenced with heavy metal and a few times invited the crowd to fill in for their vocals, but hardly anyone seemed to know the words. Only when the time came for “Wind of Change” – the last number, just before 11 p.m. – did the audience really join in. Many held their hands up in the V-sign and swayed.

I don’t know how many Poles joined in the 8 p.m. (20:00) “toast to freedom” proposed by journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper founded to support Solidarity in the run-up to the 1989 elections, but the day did seem to be the occasion for discussion, even if it was quiet compared with what would take place in eastern Germany and the Czech Republic in the fall.5 Polish television broadcast footage from June 1989 (reminding people of the joy they had visibly felt after voting) and held several discussions on the theme of the anniversary – including one comparing independence in 1918 and 1989. Television interviewees included a boy born on 4 June 1989, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and President Kaczyński. Jaruzelski emphasized that the elections would never have happened without him, and Kaczyński complained that June 4 was not a public holiday. There were commemorative events in dozens of other cities, and special Masses were said throughout the country.6

The fragmentation of memory is quite visible in the Polish case, not just because of the protests or the refusal of the president and prime minister to appear in the same place, but also because of the enforced separation between people and elites.7 It seems that official organizers put more effort into foreign policy than providing an opportunity for civil society to renew itself. It is significant, though, that no one challenged Solidarity as a sacred anchor of collective memory. The logo was used in both official and protest commemorations – even Greenpeace invoked it (though with green lettering, not red). It is also significant that elitism was counterbalanced by dignified protest. The same would not be true everywhere else.

“1989 was made possible by 1956”

The twentieth anniversary of the reburial of Imre Nagy did not become the occasion of as much public discussion as the anniversary of the Polish elections. There were commemorative events, but not as big, and if anything the exclusion of ordinary citizens from participation was more complete.

I missed an event that was to take place at Plot 301 early in the morning, but made it to Martyrs’ Square downtown for a ceremony at 9 a.m. The square itself was completely blocked off, and from none of the surrounding fences was it possible to see clearly what was going on. A military band and a group of two or three dozen grey-haired men in suits were gathered around the statue of Imre Nagy, together with a gaggle of photographers, while policemen and well-dressed security thugs chatted here and there in other parts of the enclosed space. There was a speech about freedom, some singing, and the laying of wreaths.

Only on Nádor utca was there anything like a congregation, but there were as many police and guards as onlookers. A couple of youths were there with a large Hungarian flag, while a middle-aged woman stood right at the fence with a small flag, emblazoned with the numbers 56/96, over her shoulder. There were maybe two dozen onlookers in all. An older man in a black suit stood at the fence with a bouquet of white flowers, while a young man held a single flower in paper. I overheard a passer-by speaking on his mobile phone about what happened “twenty years ago,” and I witnessed an older man walking a bicycle, who evidently wanted to cross the square to get home, arguing with the police to no avail. Five minutes after the ceremony ended we were allowed to enter the square and see the wreaths that had been left, guarded by two soldiers in interwar-style dress uniform.

From the distance with which I could view Heroes’ Square at 10 a.m., its wide space appeared to be festively arrayed with toy soldiers and a variety of Hungarian flags. The brass band was there, neatly lined up on the square’s front left quadrant, while a military choir stood in formation behind them, to the left of the flag-surrounded catafalque. Opposite them stood a large crowd of grey-haired men in suits, enlivened now by the presence of a few women in more colourful dress. In the front right quadrant stood a cluster of soldiers with wreaths, while a central red carpet leading to the catafalque was lined by soldiers bearing a variety of Hungarian flags. All the soldiers, once more, were wearing interwar-style dress uniforms.

The square was closed off to the public, so I could observe the ceremony only from across the street, where about as many people watched with me as had been on Nádor utca in the morning – including some of the same ones. The woman with the 56/96 flag was debating about the nature of “the Hungarian person” with a portly man whose T-shirt featured a map of pre-Trianon Hungary and the inscription: “to the god of the Hungarians.” As the ceremony across the street continued, the debate expanded to include more onlookers and to touch on the themes of Viktor Orbán and the present (Socialist) leadership, the role of the Communists, and Hungarians in Slovakia and Ukraine, all the while returning to the dates 1956 and 1989.

The only official commemorative event at all accessible to the public was an evening concert on Heroes’ Square. It was a much less exalted affair than the concert in Gdańsk – no well-known political or cultural figures took the stage – but still, several hundred people came. In between performances of famous opera choruses and arias, a male and a female speaker (both too young to remember 1956, possibly teenagers in 1989) read prepared comments on the significance of the day. “Without 1956, there would have been no 1989,” read the man. “1989 was an important year in Europe,” read the woman, “but the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was what made it possible. We are gathered here to commemorate an event that took place in 1989, but the key date of that year was not June 16, but October 23 – the beginning of the Hungarian Republic. In October 1989, freedom and love stood next to each other. The ideals of 1989 were Hungarian independence, democracy, and Europe.” The crowd did not appreciably diminish when a rain shower burst in the middle of the concert, and they joined in singing Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” as well as the national anthem.

Whereas the official slogan of the Polish commemoration was “It all began in Poland” (in 1980), the officiators at the Hungarian commemoration insisted that it really all began in Hungary (in 1956). Whereas the Poles made their claims known throughout central Europe, however, the Hungarians kept their beliefs largely to themselves. The country attracted attention in early July, when the increasingly popular but arguably fascist Magyar Guard was dissolved by court order, but less so on the October 23, anniversary of the revolution of 1956 and the founding of the (non-People’s) Republic of Hungary in 1989, when the Guard successfully defied this order. While the president and Socialist prime minister attended an official ceremony off limits to the public in Kispest, Viktor Orbán of the opposition Young Democrats led his supporters in a rival commemoration in Buda, and Krisztina Morvai of the far-right Jobbik party addressed a crowd of thousands on Elisabeth Square in central Pest, with uniformed Guardsmen in attendance. As night fell, the Jobbik crowd – including the outlawed Guardsmen – invaded the square in front of Parliament, shouting across the heavily policed barricades at the government officials gathered for another official commemoration inside. The police did not intervene, and the Guardsmen were visibly proud of what they took to be not just a symbolic victory.8

“Jesus Christ, thank you for the peaceful Wende”

Germany also conducted an anniversary foreign policy, but it was less arrogant than Poland’s. In all four of the Visegrád capitals, the German embassies organized events under the banner “Germany says thank you,” spanning several days in June. The one I witnessed in Bratislava featured theatrical performances, concerts, discussions with German and Slovak writers, and a curious machine with which individuals could produce postcards with their photograph and handwritten “greetings of freedom.” The campaign explicitly declared that the German revolution of 1989, and subsequent reunification, would not have been possible without the efforts of opposition movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Germany’s official foreign policy was complemented by an extensive domestic discourse, particularly in the former GDR. There were exhibits throughout the “neue Bundesländer” on the revolution and about everyday life in the preceding decades. Museums and civic associations organized programs for schoolchildren, who of course had no memory of Communism or the revolution. New films premiered with titles such as Wir sind das Volk (We Are the People) and Das Wunder von Leipzig (The Miracle of Leipzig). Commemoration activity was particularly intense in Leipzig, with public discussions every Monday in the former Stasi headquarters, a weekly walking tour “Following the Traces of the Peaceful Revolution,” and at least a dozen long-running exhibits in museums, churches, theatres, and schools.

I arrived in Leipzig on October 9, just in time to catch the end of the “Democracy Market” on the city’s central Grimmaische Straße. Thirty-three citizens’ initiatives – some international, others national or very local – manned tables set up along the street, distributing literature, gathering signatures on petitions, and explaining their ideas to passers-by. The groups included Amnesty International, ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Aid to Citizens), a German movement for “More Democracy,” a “Christian Initiative for the Unemployed,” an “Anti-Privatization Initiative,” and a local group rallying under the slogan “No to the military airport.”

A stage was set up at the intersection with Universitätsstraße where readings, discussions, and allegorical performances had taken place throughout the day. When I arrived, a man was reading a poem he had written with the refrain “Freedom will be defended.” Hardly anyone was listening. Nearby was a “round table” (both literally and figuratively, with a sign attesting to the latter), where someone recorded an interview with the poet after he had finished. Later, I found the poet manning the ATTAC table. He told me that the city had spent roughly €900,000 on the official celebrations, but that the Democracy Market was at participating groups’ own expense. It was, however, endorsed by the citizens’ initiative “Day of the Peaceful Revolution,” which coordinated most of the official celebrations.

Peace prayers began at 5 p.m. in the Nikolaikirche. Admission was open to the public until capacity, but the line was so long that by the time I arrived I knew I had no chance. I therefore contented myself with milling about the huge crowd outside. The mood was positive. On the square, around a banner that read “The Third Way: Consensus Structure,” a group began singing the “Ode to Joy” while some of their number passed out leaflets summarizing Helga LaRouche’s interpretation of the past twenty years. A solitary man held up a poster declaring his “private protest” (target unspecified). The police were around, but not an overwhelming presence as in Cracow or Budapest. They wore dress uniforms (not in the interwar style), stayed in groups of two or four, and were not visibly armed. All ages were present, as was a greater number of wheelchairs than one normally sees on cobblestoned European squares. There were a few obvious foreign tourists, but mostly I heard German, and I noticed that people were speaking to strangers. Almost everybody had a camera or camera-equipped mobile phone.

The LaRouche choir was still singing after 45 minutes. I noticed more placards in the crowd: “Freedom of movement for all: abolish residence requirements” and “One of the 70,000 does not feel himself after twenty years to be just betrayed and sold.” At around 6 p.m. the services in the Nikolaikirche ended and the crowd started drifting in the direction of Augustusplatz. People were clearly coming from work now, and the crowd was growing. As the sea of humanity bore me in the direction of Grimmaische Straße I heard a loud voice proclaiming the need to defend socialism and urging citizens to disperse. It turned out that loudspeakers were set up at the intersection of Ritterstraße and Grimmaische Straße, broadcasting the speeches of twenty years past. Hearing it before seeing it was surreal.

At the entrance to Augustusplatz young people were handing out candles, neatly nestled in clear plastic cups to keep out the wind, but many people had brought their own. It was not long before the immense square was absolutely full. Around me I spied more banners, e.g. “Jesus Christ, thank you for the peaceful Wende” and “Non-violent revolutionary cells at the Central Theatre.” Way up front near the opera house, I knew, candles were being placed in large frames so that the wording “Leipzig ’89” could be read from the sky, but there was no hope of approaching through the dense throng. As the sun set, speakers on a platform in front of the opera house began to address the crowd. Though Kurt Masur and Hans-Dietrich Genscher spoke briefly, the masters of ceremonies were Jochen Lässig and Katrin Hattenhauer, local civil rights activists before and since 1989.9 Hattenhauer, who had been imprisoned for participating in the first Monday demonstration in September 1989, emphasized how important it was that everything took place in 1989 without violence and urged the crowd to continue in this tradition tonight. Together they spoke for only about ten minutes, which seemed to me just right. It was long enough to give focus to the event, but not so long as to deflect attention away from the real phenomenon of the evening: the tens of thousands of people assembled on the square.

At about 7:15, in the dark now, the crowd began moving off the square to march around the Ring. The march was combined with a “Light Festival.” At 21 “stations” on the route from Augustusplatz to the Runde Ecke (the former Stasi headquarters now turned museum), artists from across Europe had set up thought-provoking exhibits involving light and sometimes sound or tableaux vivants.10 Stations of the Cross? Certainly it was a time for reflection, and though people conversed with one another, the mood was – for lack of a better word – reverent. As fate would have it, out of the tens of thousands of people marching I ran into the anti-globalization poet. I could tell that he preferred solitude to company, but it would have been impolite to say nothing, so I asked what he thought of the event. “I have mixed feelings,” he replied. “There are probably more people marching tonight then there were twenty years ago, but I am unsure of their motivations. It is good, though, that young people can gain experience participating in something like this, and it is good that it brings people into contact with modern art.”

At the Runde Ecke, “cannon” periodically blasted into the air above the marchers little slips of paper, each of which bore the typewritten codename of a Stasi agent or informer. The route of the march officially ended there, but many people continued on as if they intended to go around one more time. Others went into the Stasi museum, which was keeping its doors open until midnight. Among the activities taking place there were a “free reading” from Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, a screening of Das Wunder von Leipzig, and “guided tours” of Stasi files. My last image from the evening was back at the Nikolaikirche, where again it proved impossible to get in – this time for a concert conducted by Kurt Masur. At the side of the church, however, many candles were lit alongside flowers and a small, handmade poster: “swords into ploughshares.” A woman, perhaps in her 50s, stood vigil beside the candles, with tears in her eyes.

Whatever mixed feelings one might have about the aims behind the commemorations of October 9, it would be hard to imagine a more balanced and tasteful way to organize them. The multiple activities and events allowed practically everyone to observe the anniversary as he or she saw fit, individually or collectively. As seems befitting a “democratic” revolution, moreover, the demos was really at the centre of attention throughout the day. An official ceremony had taken place in the Gewandhaus in the morning, with Chancellor Merkel and various other political figures in attendance, but it was open to the public and the dignitaries mingled with citizens afterwards, shaking hands and signing autographs.11 The high point of the day, moreover, was clearly the prayer service in the Nikolaikirche and the march around the Ring. Eastern German newspapers the next day confirmed that roughly 100,000 people had taken part – over a third more than in the original march.12 (Western German newspapers, in remarkable contrast, provided little or no coverage of the event.13) The poet was perhaps right that the experience would not convert many participants to greater civic activism, but because the commemoration had allowed them to do something – indeed, fulfilled a desire to do something – civic awareness was surely strengthened, renewing a sense of having a stake in a community of citizens. There was, finally, no kitsch (save possibly for the Stasi confetti at the Runde Ecke). Perhaps there would be a month later in Berlin, as there would be in Prague on November 17, but in Leipzig on October 9 there was nothing to detract from the earnestness of the commemoration.14

The next day anarchists, mostly but not all from eastern Germany, converged on Leipzig for an anti-commemoration. Over a thousand youths dressed in black marched from the main train station to Augustusplatz behind a banner that read “Still not lovin’ Germany: die Revolution – ein Mythos, die Freiheit – eine Farce, Deutschland – eine Zumutung” (the revolution – a myth, freedom – a farce, Germany – an imposition). They chanted “never again Germany!” as they marched, and several held aloft cardboard bananas on sticks. Others bore placards that read “the great Leipzig swindle,” “still loving communism,” or “against GDR-nostalgia: for a radical social critique”; two marchers carried Israeli flags. At Augustusplatz one of the marchers read a speech, in which she claimed that most East Germans were motivated in 1989 not by democratic consciousness but by consumerism, which led to a reawakening of German nationalism. She criticized united Germany as a racist “fourth Reich,” in which the myth of a dictatorial GDR diverted the attention of both westerners and easterners from the preceding regime and precluded critical debate about real socialism. She acknowledged that as a result of 1989 easterners had more civil rights and in many cases higher living standards than before, but insisted that “the transition from really existing socialism to capitalism was not a comprehensive emancipation,” since the basic freedoms of the Federal Republic were bound up with the capitalist logic of valuation and could thus be violated. As evidence she cited surveillance of workplaces, public spaces, and the internet. She concluded by insisting that the “really existing Germany” was an imposition, and led those assembled in shouting “for something better than Germany! For something better than the nation!” Police were more numerous at this demonstration than they had been in Cracow, though they were less heavily armed. Onlookers, however, were less amused than their Polish counterparts had been (a woman next to me exclaimed that the anarchists should be sent into a wasteland), but most went about their business rather than listening to the long speech, and the event concluded without incident.

The anarchists were implicitly arguing against the “Leipzig Theses” that the citizens’ initiative behind most of the commemorations, “The Day of the Peaceful Revolution,” had published on September 4. In these eleven theses the activists had argued that, precisely to overcome the legacy of National Socialism, the political identity of all Germans needed to rest on the twin pillars of the Federal Republic’s Basic Law and the Peaceful Revolution. They insisted that democratic engagement, incarnated in Leipzig on October 9, was what had made possible the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9 and subsequent reunification, yet they expressed concern that Germany was now becoming a “spectator democracy.” In order to revitalize democratic engagement, they hoped to harness “the power of memory” by drawing German attention away from November 9 and its accompanying narrative of a passive Wende, riveting attention instead on October 9 and the active yet peaceful revolution that citizens in Leipzig had begun.15 In keeping with this aim they committed themselves to elaborate commemoration not just of the twentieth anniversary, but of all subsequent anniversaries at least until 2014.

“The Day of the Peaceful Revolution” was not the only group that came into being in 2009 with the goal of making the memory of 1989 a force in the present. On October 9 itself, Christian Führer – the pastor of the Nikolaikirche in 1989 – and several colleagues announced the creation of “The Peaceful Revolution Foundation.” Führer declared that “the Peaceful Revolution must continue,” and specified that in the wake of the global financial crisis, the revolution should not limit itself to a renewal of democratic political engagement, but must also tackle economics. “I have in mind the Jesus mentality of sharing,” he said. “Instead of encouraging greed, we must share work, prosperity, and income with those who are weaker.” The foundation issued a “Charter for Courage” (clearly inspired by Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia), the signatories of which pledged to advance in specific ways four core ideals of the Peaceful Revolution: “no violence,” “swords into ploughshares,” “we are the people,” and “open for all.”16

“Make way for the Tunnel of Democracy”

As in Germany, the public discourse surrounding the anniversary in the Czech Republic began long before the crucial autumnal dates. Already in January, newspapers and radio stations began revisiting the news stories from twenty years ago “on this day,” highlighting the twentieth-anniversary commemoration of Jan Palach’s death in January 1989, the circulation of the “Few Sentences” manifesto in June, and the August and October protests coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion and the founding of Czechoslovakia. Special museum exhibits and conferences started inviting attention in early 2009 as well, until by autumn the country was thick with them. Refreshingly, all these manifold forms of commemoration took place in a spirit of genuine curiosity and open inquiry, exploring topics and interpretations that had hitherto received scant attention in the public sphere. Most of the exhibits were organized by small town museums, libraries, theatres, and other cultural institutions, and focused on what citizens in that particular locality had done in 1989, reminding the public that the revolution was not confined to Prague. Conferences, for the most part, were more serious and scholarly than they had ever been before, and when prominent personages of 1989 spoke at them, they engaged in hitherto uncharacteristic self-criticism17 The revolution was clearly something that lots of Czechs wanted to reflect upon in the anniversary year, and they wanted to do so in new ways.

The high point of the year naturally came on November 17, the anniversary of the “massacre” (as it was called in 1989) that sparked the revolution. Though local organizers planned candlelight marches, concerts, and other commemorative events throughout the country, the greatest concentration of commemorative energy was in Prague. As in Leipzig, independent civic groups were behind most of the activities in the Czech capital, but there were so many of them (at least twenty) that it was impossible for one person to attend them all.18

An 8 a.m. text message from a friend alerted me to a student initiative to prevent President Klaus from laying a wreath at the plaque on Národní třída that marked the spot where the greatest violence had taken place on 17 November 1989. The idea was to reincarnate the student guards of 1989 by physically, albeit non-violently, blocking access to the spot once the president arrived. In an effort to keep the city police from finding out, my friend told me, the plan was not being advertised publicly, but circulated only via Facebook and personal communication. I reached the memorial shortly before Klaus’s scheduled arrival and found a thick crowd around it, but no clearly discernible “blockade.” Because of the crowd I could not see Klaus’s coming, but I certainly heard it. From the opposite end of the archway under which the plaque was situated came cries of “Shame! Shame!” as well is booing and whistling, rejoined by other voices shouting “Long live Klaus!” Police evidently ensured that the president was able to lay his wreath, after which he disappeared into a high-class café adjacent to the archway. The shouting continued, however, with the shouters dividing into distinct camps, each of which seemed to unite multiple sets of constituents. Present and former “students” were evidently in the group protesting Klaus, while young Civic Democratic Party activists and anti-EU nationalists comprised the group protesting the protesters. Members of the first group displayed such banners as “Klaus is not our president! –students of 1989” and “Schröder-Gazprom, Klaus-Lukoil,” as well as EU flags. Members of the opposing group brandished placards saying “Enough of the EU,” “Berlin – Moscow – Brussels,” and “Klaus’s guarantee to business.” “Shame!” cried the one side. “Long live Klaus!” shouted the other. After perhaps fifteen minutes of this Klaus emerged from the café, followed by city police whose jackets identified them as an “anti-conflict team,” and exited stage left. Rock music commenced from a podium down the street, but did not deter the protesters and antiprotesters from continuing their war of words. “Long live Klaus!” shouted one side. “Somewhere else!” responded the other. The drama fizzled out about forty minutes after it began, though I noticed that the Klaus supporters held out longer – perhaps because they had a megaphone.

Whereas Leipzig had a Democracy Market, the City of Prague sponsored a “Socialist Market” on its Old Town Square. Advertisements scattered about the city promised that food and drink would be available “at socialist prices” (e.g. 2.90 crowns for a beer) but it turned out that this was to be for only half an hour later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, stands situated about the square offered sausages, beer, tea, and mulled wine at contemporary capitalist prices.

In the centre of the square, however, two “fruit and vegetable” stands and a booth labelled “Tuzex” (the Communist-era hard-currency shop for Western goods) were supposed to represent socialist reality. Long queues snaked in front of each of them. No produce was visible on the counters of the fruit and vegetable stands, but the women staffing them would reach down below the counters and produce for each customer one small orange. The “Tuzex” counter displayed chocolate eggs from (West) Germany and a handful of other insignificant items for five or six “coupons” each. The coupons could be obtained only from shady “moneychangers” supposedly circulating around the square. If Leipzig didn’t have kitsch, Prague certainly did.

The message became clearer when I returned to Národní třída, where I found the entrance to the street from the Vltava embankment embellished by a large inflated gate on which was written “What we would be running for if it hadn’t happened.” Go-carts in the shape of bananas raced along the street, the prizes being toilet paper, bananas, and similar items that had at times been scarce prior to the revolution. For the organizers, evidently, this was what the revolution had been about.

Upon this happy scene of consumer satisfaction there burst a large group of young people dressed in black, some holding banners with the letters “DS” for the arguably fascist Dělnická strana (Workers’ Party), accompanied by lots of riot police.18 They congregated in front of the space between the National Theatre and the New Stage, where their chairman, with a megaphone, delivered a speech. He had reached his peroration by the time I got close enough to hear, but the point seemed to be that the situation in 2009 paralleled that which existed prior to 1989. This thesis garnered enthusiastic applause from the black-clad youths, none of whom appeared to be old enough to remember life before 1989. The group then began to march in the direction of the bridge spanning the Vltava from Národní and I realized at that moment how large it was. I estimated 300, though newspapers the next day claimed only 200.20 They chanted “Dělnická strana” as they marched, police on every side, and quite a lot of them made the finger sign – to everyone around, it seemed. I was glad to leave the scene and head south along the embankment to Albertov, where a re-enactment of the 1989 march was set to commence, but when I looked back now and then I could still see a huge crowd on the bridge, where evidently the Workers’ Party adherents had stopped, and I heard some choral shouts. A helicopter hovered overhead.

Anyone who did not know the layout of Prague’s New Town could still have found the way that day to the Natural Sciences campus of Charles University in Albertov, simply by following the masses of people heading in that direction. In 1989, a student-organized commemoration of the Nazi execution of Czech students in 1939, which had begun at Albertov and continued to the National Cemetery, had turned into a march of perhaps 50,000 towards Prague’s downtown core, where they were brutally intercepted on Národní třída. In 2009, an independent civic initiative called Opona (the Curtain) invited citizens to join a commemorative march along the same route. I arrived at Albertov at around 3 p.m., shortly before the event was scheduled to commence, and made my way uphill toward the front, where a platform had been erected. On my way I encountered a bearded youth distributing what I guessed might be information about the event. “What are you handing out?” I asked him in Czech. “Flyers with the program,” he answered in Slovak. Over the course of the afternoon I would hear Slovak quite frequently.

The crowd was already thick around the grandstand, so I made it only as far as the entrance to the geography building, perhaps fifty meters away. After about fifteen minutes of what seemed to be irrelevant rock music, speeches began, but the sound system was so poor that it was impossible to make out most of the words. Fortunately I was later able to obtain an outline of the speeches from the organizers, according to which – after a few introductory words from a moderator – a spokesman for Opona addressed the crowd. According to the organizers’ program, the essence of his speech was: We have something to celebrate! Fellow thirty-somethings! We do not live in totalitarianism!

Besides being a celebration, today’s march is a reminder of what happened here twenty years ago. By recalling the Communist past of our country we are trying to contribute to the self-assessment of this nation and particularly of the young generation. If this self-assessment and a coming to terms with the period of totalitarianism and its consequences do not occur, we cannot expect that our democracy will develop in a good direction. We thank not only those who have turned out today, but all those who strive for democracy and freedom. Do not let yourselves be provoked by extremists. We won’t have anything to do with extremists!

The moderator then invited a Slovak guest, Milan Žitný, to speak for a couple minutes, followed by Šimon Pánek – one of the most prominent students of 1989. After his two minutes, Pánek welcomed two “foreign” guests, one from Russia and one from China (note that the organizers did not consider Slovakia “foreign”).

After a musical interlude, the moderator invited two representatives of the student initiative “Inventory of Democracy” to speak, noting that their declaration was being distributed among the people. These two students were allotted nine minutes according to the program – more than anyone else received. While I couldn’t hear them, I noticed at that time a commotion in the crowd behind me and heard a loud, clear voice cry out (in Slovak) “Make way, please, the Tunnel of Democracy is coming!” The voice turned out to be that of a young man dressed in a comic suit and hat, leading a “train” of other young people who held aloft a large tube of brown cloth given shape by hoops sewn in at intervals of a meter or so. White letters between the hoops identified the tube as, indeed, “the Tunnel of Democracy.” The gag clearly alluded to the many “tunnelling” scandals of the past twenty years (in which enterprise managers enriched themselves by metaphorically building secret tunnels through which assets could be embezzled) and produced lots of laughter and smiles among those able to see it.

The next speaker was Martin Kotas, the founder of a civic movement that had supported the installation of NATO radar in the Czech Republic before U. S. President Obama pulled the plug from the project in October 2009. The point of his one-minute address was:

Democracy isn’t for free. If we give up on it for reasons of repulsion and hopelessness, we will lose it. It is difficult to work towards it but easy to lose it. Therefore, the revolution of 1989 will continue only when young people take responsibility for the situation in society and join political parties (excepting the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia). If you’re angered, then join one of the parties.

Finally, the moderator invited the actor Tomáš Matonoha to present his “open letter to the Communist Party” – little more than a long string of extremely vulgar Czech words that he composed in response to a Communist proposal in the Czech parliament to restrict usage of such language in certain media.20 Matonoha introduced his “letter” by noting that it was addressed not only to the Communist Party, but “to all Lumpen who want to abuse or suppress our freedoms for their own personal interests.”20

“Are we going?” people started to ask, once the inaudible speechmaking had evidently stopped. “We’re going,” spread the answer through the crowd. I took a position on the steps of a research institute halfway down the street, where I could observe the march as it passed. Since the part of the crowd that had been behind me was now at the front of the procession I could from this position survey only a portion of it, but this was enough to reveal certain facts. First, the marchers included people of all ages, from toddlers in strollers to grey-haired grandparents, but I would guess that the median age was thirty-something. Newspaper reports the following day confirmed that many participants were veterans of the 1989 march, often now with young children in tow.23 University students (of 2009) also seemed to be a significant contingent. Second, nearly all of the many placards and banners in the procession were handmade – as they had been in 1989 – and in pleasing contrast with the boring, lifeless, printed placards that one usually sees in political demonstrations these days. The placards and banners in this procession were creative, lively, and often humorous (usually involving untranslatable puns), and some were minor works of art. Even more remarkable was the diverse nature of opinions that these handmade creations expressed. Not far from a placard demanding Havel’s reinstatement as president (“Havel back to the Castle”) was one condemning Havel as a criminal. A few meters behind a placard encouraging citizens to “support Klaus” was one declaring that “Klaus is not my president.” If ever there was such a thing as a democratic parade, this was it. The opinions expressed were diametrically opposed, but still all could agree on a framework for expressing them, and through their participation in this commemorative reincarnation, all celebrated this framework.

I opted not to follow the crowd to the National Cemetery so that I could take up a position on the embankment, whereby I would be able to watch the entire procession pass and gain a sense of its size independently of unreliable media reports. Many other people had similar ideas, and I found the embankment lined with people carrying flags, placards, and in some cases flowers. One young man (perhaps my age, actually – in his late thirties) particularly impressed me, with a solemn expression and a modest orange flower sticking up out of a small, beat-up backpack that might have been new in 1989, along with a sign: “Let us reason democratically: freely and responsibly.” Many people who looked to be my age were there with children in strollers – often with flags attached.

The head of the procession arrived shortly after sunset and found me in front of a building that, I soon discovered, happened to be the very one where Olga and Václav Havel had lived in 1989. From this position I watched the entire procession pass by, recording all the placards that had escaped my attention before. I also noticed how a woman’s voice repeatedly sounded from a position to my right, recalling how Olga Havlová had waved to the marchers from her window and enjoining the commemorators to thank Olga and Václav Havel. Applause inevitably followed and a white sky lantern rose into the air. The first time I heard the applause I thought it was touching. By the fifth time I began to wonder at its consistency, following the announcer’s speech each time with the same intensity. I learned from the next day’s newspaper that there were “professional applauders” in the crowd, thus accounting for the consistency but also – to my mind – inviting comparison with the secret police agents who, in 1989, had been planted in the crowd and guided it toward the trap set up on Národní třída.24

The procession took 35 minutes to pass me, and given the width of the street, the pace of the marchers, and the varying density of the crowd, I estimate that at least 24,000 took part (significantly more than the five to ten thousand reported in newspapers the next day).25 I then followed to Národní, where at 6:00 a concert was set to begin. As I entered the boulevard I passed a woman on the steps of the National Theatre handing out treats to her three children: “Chocolate for the demonstrators,” she said with a smile. I stayed for only the beginning of the concert – long enough to witness Michael Kocáb play a few notes and hear Václav Havel be introduced, but since the concert was being broadcast by Czech Television and a recording was made available on the internet, I was able to reassure myself later that I hadn’t missed anything.26 Havel did little more than introduce Joan Baez, limiting his substantive address to “I have been a citizen and now I rely on you, my fellow citizens.” Otherwise the point of the concert, as its moderator put it, was: “Those who want to celebrate, let them celebrate; those who don’t, let them refrain. We have freedom of choice.”

My choice was to make it to the top of Wenceslas Square in time to get a good position for observing the Inventory of Democracy happening that was set to begin at 6:30. Approximately 2,500 people turned out for this student-led event – those who, as one of the moderators put it, “do not mean to content themselves with a party on Národní třída, but who want to consider where we are after these twenty years and what will come next.”27 The students began by summarizing the results of their previous year’s appeal to politicians to give them a “present” for their “twentieth birthday” in the form of restrictions on the immunity of parliamentary deputies, regulation of lobbying, the reigning in of “wild riders” to legislation, and depoliticization of media oversight boards – i.e. the removal of “legislative absurdities” that, as the students put it, “place our democracy at times at the level of banana republics.” A representation of the gift that the students had in fact received had been unveiled in a Prague park the previous week – a sculpture its author described as an example of “fecalist realism” – but the students insisted that their failure had been mixed with hope. By personally visiting deputies and publicly reporting on their activities, they had succeeded in getting motions onto the floor of parliament. In other words, citizens could have an influence. The students then read sections of their “Student Proclamation on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.”28 They emphasized in these selections the risk of unfreedom in the present, asking “why” – twenty years after the supposed end of Communism – “do we still feel powerless? Why is there such tolerance for corruption? Why do we regard only our own material security as important?” “Entering public space is getting harder and harder and soon will be entirely closed off to decent folk,” they said. “There is a danger that in ten years we will be able only to lament that our democracy failed to reach its thirtieth birthday.”

At this point sheep masks were distributed through the crowd in preparation for the promised happening: an Orwellian “fairy tale” in which four students with pig masks danced on the stage and impersonated well-known Czech politicians. Playing on the Czech words občané (citizens) and ovce (sheep), the pigs addressed the crowd as “ovčané” and thanked them for allowing pigs to abuse their positions. “There is no one else to vote for,” they emphasized, “so please continue to vote for us and remain exactly as you are.” In the end, at a sign from one of the moderators, the crowd took off their masks and became citizens again, whereupon the pigs fled the stage. The moral of the story, explained the student dramaturge behind it, was that “even after twenty years we are still more ovčané than občané.” “We lack skills and competence that should normally belong to citizens in a democracy,” and as a result, “politicians here enjoy exactly such a life as these pigs; they get away with the most obvious roguery because no one has a vision that might compete with them.”

To conclude their event the students introduced “Truth and Love himself ” – Václav Havel. There was a moment of laughter when one of the student moderators had to intervene because Havel wasn’t speaking directly enough into the microphone, but his speech here was more substantive than it had been on Národní. He bemoaned the fact that the gulf between politics and society was deepening. “Politics,” he said, “should attract people and not repulse them.” He expressed his admiration for the student initiative precisely because it sought to correct this situation, and he emphasized the necessity for all citizens to shoulder their share of responsibility. The students then distributed candles for people to lay before the statue of St. Wenceslas, “to thank him thus for sticking with us on every occasion,” and closed by leading those assembled in the Czech national anthem. A few lone voices continued with the beginning of the Slovak anthem (which everyone twenty years previously would have sung) and then there was applause. Discussion groups formed and continued on the square for some time afterwards.

“What kind of Tiananmen Square...?”

The anniversary commemorations in Slovakia fit somewhere between the democratic German/Czech pattern and the aristocratic Polish/Hungarian paradigm. The civic dimension was markedly weaker in Slovakia than in the Czech Republic (a difference that Slovak commentators often lamented) but on the other hand, there were no barricades.

June’s “Germany says thank you” events in Bratislava were poorly attended and even the moderators made jokes that devalued the anniversary, but they were overshadowed by a high-profile rumpus on the occasion of a state visit by the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. Slovak human rights activists greeted Hu and his delegation in front of the downtown presidential palace with signs drawing attention to the plight of Chinese political prisoners and to other human rights violations; members of the delegation physically attacked the Slovak protesters and Slovak police intervened on the side of the Chinese. Several protesters were beaten and arrested. The irony of such an event on the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – at a time when Slovakia was otherwise celebrating the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – was not lost on journalists across the political spectrum. “What kind of Tiananmen Square would please [President] Gašparovič?” asked one.29 Jeremy Irons, accepting a prize at the Trenčianske Teplice film festival – which this year was devoted to the anniversary and featured a new documentary on the revolution in which Irons had participated – earned vigorous applause when he criticized Slovak authorities for their refusal to stand up for the ideals of the revolution.30

On the occasion of the November anniversary itself, rival commemorations took place in Bratislava. Though in Slovakia, as in the Czech Republic, November 17 is a state holiday (the “Day of the Fight for Freedom and Democracy”) President Gašparovič chose to spend the entire day in Austria, while Prime Minister Fico spent most of it in London, where he told his audience at University College that “speakers at the revolutionary stands were not always just and fair people” and asked, “How can one esteem November 1989, when the promises of a higher living standard have not been realized?”31 Fico returned to Bratislava that evening, just in time to attend a concert organized by the speaker of Parliament for members of the governing party and their coalition partners in the new building of the Slovak National Theatre. Zuzana Mistríková, Ján Čarnogurský, Martin Bútora, and other former “speakers at the revolutionary stands,” for their part, officiated at a well attended ceremony on Hviezdoslav Square (site of the city’s first revolutionary meetings in 1989), where a replica was unveiled of Daniel Brunovský’s “Heart of Europe” – a sculpture originally formed out of barbed wire taken from the border with Austria in one of the greatest Czechoslovak happenings of 1989 (the sculpture had subsequently been destroyed in a flood). “Nothing is ever definitively won,” the speakers lamented. “The struggle continues and will continue.”32 Members of opposition parties left candles and proceeded to their own concert in the old building of the National Theatre. Meanwhile, the Plastic People of the Universe opened a third, independently organized “Concert for Those Who Noticed” in Bratislava’s Park of Culture and Rest. The title of this most well attended event alluded to a statement by Róbert Fico in 2000, when the future prime minister had claimed not to have noticed in 1989 that any “fundamental change” occurred.33

The political split in Bratislava had its parallel in other cities as well. In Košice, for example, the mayor’s office sponsored the ceremonial installation of a plaque on the downtown library building, from the balcony of which speakers had addressed mass meetings in 1989. In opposition to the mayor’s initiative, the local founders of Civic Forum (which in Košice had been more prominent than Public against Violence) independently organized their own ceremony to install a plaque on the building where they had established their coordinating centre. Unlike the split in Bratislava, this one was not overtly partisan (the mayor belonged to one of the parties that participated in the Hviezdoslav Square commemoration), and though the two sides disagreed about how exactly to memorialize the revolution, they both agreed that it should be memorialized.34 Nonetheless, the inability of the two groups to cooperate speaks to the absurd extremes to which Slovak political discourse was fragmented (why not, after all, have two plaques?). The comparison with Košice is also revealing in another sense. In Bratislava, several founders of Public against Violence set up an anniversary exhibit in the gallery where their initiative had come into being, focusing on its leaders and their undertakings. The ladies selling tickets told me that hardly anyone visited. In Košice, by contrast, a group of young artists organized an exhibit showcasing the diversity of local civic initiative in 1989, including revolutionary texts that ordinary citizens had generated, and I could see for myself that visitation rates were high. The contrast suggests that the “success” of commemorative activities might be tied with 1) the ability to reach out to ordinary citizens, such that they can see themselves reflected in what is being commemorated, and 2) the ability to pass leadership roles on to a new generation. Part of the reason why, on the whole, commemorations in the Czech Republic were more engaging than those in Slovakia may not just be that Czech organizers were better at following these two principles, but also that many of the brightest Slovak youth go to study and work in the Czech Republic – an exit/voice dynamic reminiscent of that between the two Germanies before 1990.35 (Indeed, the chief coordinator of the Košice exhibit moved to Prague in 2011.)

“Heroes never die”

A wide range of commemorative activities took place in Romania in the fall of 2009, though they were more common in the formerly Habsburg parts of the country than elsewhere. Beginning in September, special religious services marked revolution-related anniversaries in Cluj and Timişoara; in November a new play about the revolution premiered in Oradea, and the exhibition ’89 Retro, showcasing young Romanians’ artistic interpretations of Communism, travelled from Cluj to Timişoara through Arad and Oradea. The main events, however, began on December 14 in Timişoara, the eve of the day when, twenty years previously, Communist authorities had attempted to evict Pastor László Tőkés from his residence at the downtown Hungarian Reformed Church, only to meet with the determined resistance of his parishioners. The conflict had set off a week of dramatic events, and the city was prepared to remember them with seven days of discussions, exhibits, film screenings, and more active forms of commemoration.

The first event I witnessed in Timişoara was a series of public addresses by Lech Wałęsa, Emil Constantinescu, Viktor Orbán, and László Tőkés in the university aula on December 15. The event began an hour later than scheduled, by which time the aula was about two-thirds full; students made up a large portion of the audience, but there were many others, mostly dressed in suits. A moderator from one of the Hungarian minority groups sponsoring the event began by introducing the speakers in relation to their “struggle” against Communism. Wałęsa, “a simple worker,” and Orbán, “a young student,” had shown that even the powerless could effectively challenge the Communist regime. In Romania, unfortunately, “Communists did not disappear; they transformed themselves in very efficient ways,” such that Emil Constantinescu’s administration from 1996 to 2000 marked the only time Romania had had democracy. László Tőkés, instrumental in sparking the Romanian revolution and now a delegate to the European Parliament, “continues to fight against Communism.”

Wałęsa received vigorous and lengthy applause when he rose to speak. Through an interpreter, he emphasized the role of Christianity in opposing Communism and sustaining civil society, making references to Pope John Paul II. He appealed to his audience “to believe.” Constantinescu pointed out that, when he visited Poland as Romania’s president, the first thing he did was to convey to Wałęsa the homage of the Romanian people. Instead of “Christianity,” however, Constantinescu emphasized “morality,” referring to Václav Havel and positing the moral impact that “Central Europe” should exert on international affairs, informed by its experience of totalitarianism and the struggle to overcome it. He also expressed the hope that this anniversary would re-establish the dignity of the revolution in Timişoara, which contained all the acts of a real revolution (presumably in contrast with the not-so-real one that took place in Bucharest). Timişoara, he said, should be the symbol of the revolution.

So far, so good. Then Viktor Orbán spoke. Unlike Wałęsa, he did not use an interpreter, and in reaction to this offensive gesture half the audience walked out. Orbán continued the theme of a particular Central European wisdom, highlighting again the experience with fascism and Communism but also castigating “the West” for its compromises with Communism and its naive sympathy for socialism based on lack of experience. “History has shown,” he insisted, “that freedom and independence are tied together,” and he suggested that Central Europeans should stand united to preserve both (in the face of threats to both the East and the West).

Pastor Tőkés began with a blessing in both Hungarian and Romanian. Perhaps because most of those who did not understand Hungarian had left, however, he continued solely in that language (as a result of which more people left, leaving the aula only one-fourth full). Tőkés thanked Wałęsa for his solidarity and the people of Timişoara for their tolerance and ecumenical spirit. He also spoke of Romanian solidarity with Hungary in 1956 and of how Romanians view Poland as a symbol of freedom, again sounding the Central European theme. He concluded with a blessing as he had begun.

December 17 was the anniversary of the day when armed forces had opened fire on protesters in Timişoara. Romanian television marked the anniversary by broadcasting recordings of the Securitate coordination of the attack and by commemorating the dead, while in Timişoara a large cross made up of votive candles was set out on Victory Square in front of the opera house. Early in the evening, after a memorial service in the Orthodox cathedral, a march set out from the church to Heroes’ Cemetery on the opposite side of town. At the entrance to Victory Square the crowd of perhaps 200 mostly but not exclusively young people passed a monument to the revolution, buried beneath wreaths after a ceremony earlier in the day, and proceeded to the cross of candles, where they knelt in silence. Several carried placards emblazoned with the symbol of a hand in the V-sign or the words “eroii nu mor” (heroes never die) and “respect.” A group near the front of the procession carried a large Romanian flag with a hole in the middle. From the square the marchers proceeded to the alley next to the opera house, where they paused to take in the screening of victims’ faces on a wall opposite the Opera, which had commenced at sunset.

By this time the crowd’s numbers had grown and its composition become more overwhelmingly young and male. A number of youths had maps of Greater Romania sewn onto their jackets. As they proceeded past the army building on Liberty Square, where someone left a candle burning atop a cannon, the chants of these young men became more aggressive. “Down with Communism!” they cried. “Down with Communists! Freedom! Timişoara!” At the next stop on their itinerary, the Museum of the Revolution, as many as could fit took up positions on the outer rim of the courtyard or one of the two encircling balconies above, but still people were left waiting outside. The ceremony was brief, centring on the dedication of a new monument to the victims of 1989: a bell-like sculpture around which individuals lit votive candles. The crowd then continued its march to the cemetery, chanting slogans on the way, and left candles and wreaths at the gravesites.

The killing had continued in Timişoara on December 18, so this, too, was a day of mourning. The focal point of the day’s events was a performance of Verdi’s Requiem in the opera house at 6 p.m., but before this another candlelit march set out, this time from the Reformed church where Tőkés had been pastor in 1989. Following a roundtable discussion sponsored by the president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, which had culminated in the inauguration of a “Revolutionary Pantheon” and the ceremonial lighting of the renovated church building, participants and parishioners gathered outside. Instead of the simple Orthodox candles that participants in the previous day’s march had brought with them, expensive-looking gas torches were distributed to those outside the Reformed church, along with white armbands on which were printed the words (in Romanian) “Timişoara, first city free of Communism, 1989–2009.” The crowd was smaller than on the previous day, but was more mixed in terms of age and gender and was markedly better dressed. Most spoke Hungarian. Following a short speech by Tőkés, in which he referred to the Hungarian 1848 hero Sándor Petőfi and liberty, we walked the short distance to the Orthodox cathedral, where on the steps a prayer was said in Romanian. We then proceeded across the square to the Opera, arriving early and obtaining good seats. The program featured not only Verdi’s Requiem, but also readings of specially composed poems by Herta Müller and Viorel Marineasa. It was broadcast live on Romanian television and simultaneously screened outside on the square, though when I went outside to check very few people stood watching it – perhaps because of the extreme cold.

The only event of significance that I noticed on December 19 (a Saturday) was an ecumenical service in the Reformed church at 5 p.m. Though the pews did not fill up, the organizers did an impressive job of gathering prominent representatives from all of Timişoara’s major religious and linguistic communities, including the Romanian Orthodox bishop, German- and Hungarian-speaking Roman Catholics, the Greek Catholic bishop, Hungarian-speaking Lutherans and Romanian-speaking Baptists, a Ukrainian Orthodox clergyman, and the head of the Jewish community. The present pastor of the Hungarian Reformed church began the service by emphasizing that the revolution did not come from abroad, that it began “here in Timişoara” thanks to the faithfulness not just of the Hungarian Reformed community, but everyone. Provocatively, though, he proposed that the revolution had no heroes, “for no one but Christ is the truth, the way, and the life.” The theme of a pluralist Timişoara was picked up by several speakers, including the Romanian Orthodox bishop and the leader of the Jewish community, who suggested that a unique chance existed in Timişoara for ecumenism. The German-speaking Catholic emphasized the theme of a divine origin to the revolution, asserting that “freedom is a gift from God and a grace to us all,” and added that there is no freedom without responsibility. Each speaker spoke his own mother tongue (sometimes adding some sentences in another language) and headphones provided simultaneous interpretation to the dignitaries (the congregation, evidently, was assumed to understand all the languages spoken). Tőkés wrapped the service up with a quotation from Scripture and the claim that what happened in 1989 was not a mere “regime change,” but a “revolution,” which was not just about Communism and in which the Church was strong. He thanked those who had come, saying that they represented “the true Timişoara,” and expressed his hope that the memory of the Timişoara revolution would continue to inspire common efforts across confessional and linguistic divides to solve common problems.

Sunday, December 20 was a quiet day in Timişoara. A heavy snowfall and temperatures below –10°C kept most people indoors. Nonetheless, at 10 a.m., members of the “Victory Association of Revolutionary Fighters in Timişoara” met in the County Council building for a “festive assembly” dedicated to the anniversary of the “unleashing” of the Romanian revolution, the constitution of the Romanian Democratic Front (RDF), and the proclamation of Timişoara as a city free of Communism. At midday, founders of the RDF repaired to the balcony of the opera house, where they reread their twenty-year-old proclamation to a largely empty square.36 They later complained of the low turnout, claiming that it showed the people of Timişoara to be apathetic, but the freezing cold and lack of any prior publicity for this event might be better explanations. When at 1 p.m. sirens sounded throughout the city, most people could probably only guess what it meant.

According to flyers that were posted around the city, the week’s events were supposed to culminate in a “spectacol festiv” on Victory Square at 6 p.m. When the event finally started at 6:30, the temperature was – 11°C and falling, and the square was nearly empty. The program began with a series of speakers from the Victory Association, starting with its president, the eccentric Lorin Fortuna. A teacher in the Electrotechnical Faculty of Timişoara’s polytechnic before 1989, Fortuna has since become a self-proclaimed prophet of esotericism, preaching that members of the “gorrillian” civilization, descended from the ancient Dacians and centred in Romania, are the original inhabitants of our planet but must now fight against various invading civilizations from outer space. At the “spectacol festiv,” however, he limited himself to more commonplace political commentary: what happened in Timişoara was an authentic revolution and “today marks the most important anniversary in our history”; the National Salvation Front in Bucharest was subversive and stole the revolution. When the speeches were done a music ensemble, dressed in folk costumes beneath winter coats, came on stage and with what must have been freezing fingers played a number of lively tunes. There were more people in front of the grandstand now (perhaps two dozen) and they danced to keep warm. Finally, at 7:30, a brief fireworks display over the cathedral consummated the event.37


What was the significance of these commemorations? First of all, they showed that 1989 remains a politically potent point of reference in central Europe. Even if there was disagreement about the exact meaning of 1989, there was substantial agreement that something meaningful happened in that year, and no government or head of state could ignore it. The commemorations were attempts to fix the meaning of events through collective acts of signification, and needless to say the promulgated meanings had significant implications for the present, being either calls to action or appeals to accept the status quo. While the commemorations allowed space for discussing particular political questions of the day, however, they transcended ordinary political debates by inviting citizens to focus on the framework through which political issues are resolved (or not), since in one way or another this framework was founded in 1989.

It is noteworthy that in Leipzig, Prague, and Timişoara, commemoration organizers made a determined effort to rehabilitate the notion that genuine revolutions had commenced in their cities in 1989. This did not go without saying. In Germany, Leipzigers’ elaborate insistence on the narrative of a “Peaceful Revolution” was self-consciously directed against a more nationally hegemonic Berlin-centred narrative of a mere Wende, or “turn.” Though Revolution was the term that East Germans themselves most commonly used in 1989, Helmut Kohl and the West German press followed Erich Honecker’s successor Egon Krenz in favouring the less radical-sounding moniker, which eventually became standard across reunited Germany.38 Similarly, in the Czech Republic, the term převrat (reversal) largely supplanted the originally dominant revoluce in the mid-1990s, until shortly before the twentieth anniversary the original conceptualization made a comeback. In Timişoara, as in Leipzig, there was an explicit effort to rehabilitate the idea of revoluţie by emphasizing its origins in local civic engagement prior to its “theft” by elites in Bucharest. The argument in Leipzig and Timişoara, as throughout the Czech Republic, was that the real meaning of 1989 was to be found not in the doings of elites in the capitals, but among citizens who had mobilized themselves as a force in public affairs. The relatively democratic nature of the commemorations in these locations can be directly related with the revived memory of democratic revolution.

The more aristocratic commemorations were correlated with a lack of revolutionary experience in 1989. Hungarian politicians have often attempted to make the revolutionary experience of 1956 substitute for the lack of one in 1989, but evidently the memories are too dim to serve this purpose, or they have not been effectively transferred to younger generations. In 2009, neither 1989 nor 1956 seemed capable of uniting citizens across the political spectrum. Whereas in other countries, despite political disagreements, citizens could still functionally agree on a framework for expressing them in public space, the framework in Hungary seemed to have fallen into dysfunctionality. By contrast, though most Poles concur that their country experienced no revolution in 1989, they still have a functional equivalent in the memory of Solidarity in 1980–81, which helps to explain why the separation of political elites from citizens – and of political elites from one another – was more laughable in 2009 than frightening. There might have been a fight over the legacy of Solidarity, but not over the remembered moment of collective transcendence itself.39

The awkwardness of commemoration in Slovakia, despite an experience of democratic revolution essentially akin to that of the Czech Republic, resulted in part from attempts by prominent political figures to discredit that experience. Slovakia was the one place in central Europe where revolution had never gone out of fashion as the proper name for what happened in 1989, but Prime Minister Fico nonetheless argued in 2009 that this revolution had failed and so saw no reason to encourage celebration. Opposition party leaders responded by appropriating for themselves the legacy of the revolution – in such a clearly partisan way that it became difficult for citizens across the political spectrum to revive the ethos of pluralist dialogue that had in fact characterized all of Czechoslovakia in 1989. With it being so easy and desirable, both politically and economically, for civic-minded young Slovaks to move to the other successor state (or elsewhere in Europe), it was not surprising to see a more aristocratic (or mafia-like) political culture emerging in Slovakia despite the revolutionary experience of 1989.

It cannot escape a historian’s notice that the two countries where barricades separated people from elites were the two countries that once had the largest aristocracies in Europe – a social peculiarity that left its mark on Polish and especially Hungarian politics well into the twentieth century. It is also a remarkable coincidence that the two countries with the most democratic commemorations were Germany and the Czech Republic – successor states of the Holy Roman Empire with similar patterns of medieval settlement (a greater number of smaller towns per unit area than in countries to the east) and similar trajectories of early modern industrialization (likewise more evenly distributed across territory than was the case farther east). The traditions of dead generations may indeed weigh on the brains of the living, if not necessarily as the nightmare that Marx bemoaned.40 However, the mixed cases suggest that while the longue durée may cast an influence, it is not inescapably deterministic. Slovakia, after all, is just as much a successor state of the Kingdom of Hungary as is today’s (ex-Republic of) Hungary, and if the Hungarians of Hungary could not organize pluralist commemorations, the Hungarians of Romania could.41

Between the “democratic” and “aristocratic” extremes of political culture, the anniversary commemorations revealed a spectrum of variation. With the exception of Hungary, the various efforts to articulate the meaning of 1989 were all characterized by a remarkable degree of pluralism. On the streets and on the internet there was, indeed, an “explosion” of anniversary-related discourse, allowing for the side-by-side and for the most part tolerant expression of multifarious views. Even the shouting match between Klaus’s critics and supporters on Národní was good-natured, with the two sides chanting against each other in harmonious counterpoint. The anarchists in Cracow and Leipzig marched under the sign of pluralism as well. The black-clad Poles were quite mild-mannered, settling into discussion groups as soon as they reached the barrricades at Wawel Hill. Their German counterparts seemed less intent on discussion than shouting, but they showed no sign of disrespect for the rules the city imposed on their protest. Only irredentists in Hungary and neo-fascists in the Czech Republic inspired fear, but in the latter case, at least, they were easily cowed. When a group of these youth tried to disrupt the late-afternoon commemorative procession, marchers carrying pro-Klaus placards united with their opponents to tell the would-be disruptors to “go home!” – and they did.42 After the Inventory of Democracy happening a middle-aged Workers’ Party supporter even settled into a passionate but civil debate with the students.

Despite the pluralism of anniversary commemorations, however, one could not help noticing that the various strands of discourse remained largely separate, with little consequential dialogue among them. The separation was enforced in Hungary and Poland, and the refusal of political elites to share a stage with one another extended to Slovakia as well, though no barricades were set up to keep citizens out. In the Czech Republic, by contrast, Havel and Klaus famously appeared together at a commemorative concert that Havel sponsored on 14 November, but discourses were sundered here as well.43 In Brno, for example, an assortment of cultural intellectuals and invited guests assembled with Havel in a theatre on 19 November to discuss “Czech visions” for the 21st century under the banner “Dawn in Bohemia.”44 While a group of protesters stood outside, asking when dawn might break in Moravia, a mass meeting took place on the city square that had been the focal point of civic gatherings twenty years previously, where people heard a concert mixed with speeches by former activists even as present-day activists circulated in the crowd, passing out flyers. Though it would have been easy and potentially productive to connect the conversations taking place among these three groups, there was no attempt to do so – quite unlike 1989. Whereas the revolutions of 1989 were made possible by the coming together of diverse groups of citizens and the discovery of a common language, in 2009 memory was socially fragmented. One could see this in Timişoara as well, where despite sincere and often successful efforts to integrate Hungarian and Romanian commemorations, a significant degree of separation nonetheless persisted.

In Leipzig and especially in Prague, the deepest discursive divide was between those who saw the revolution’s meaning in democracy and those who identified it with material prosperity – the torch versus the banana. The separate commemorations organized by Prague’s mayor and the Inventory of Democracy students illustrate the substance of this divergence particularly well. At the Socialist Market, as at the Národní třída races, freedom was explicitly equated with “freedom of choice”; on Wenceslas Square it meant the ability to participate in government. It is not a coincidence that the mayor at the time, Pavel Bém, was a member of Václav Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party and that the celebrations sponsored by his office promulgated a line equating political and economic freedom, in harmony with Klaus’s neoliberal ideology. In this line of thinking, the political arena is considered a kind of market, with voters free to choose parties just as they might select produce. The students, by contrast – whether or not they had read Hannah Arendt – agreed with her that “freedom [...] means the right ‘to be a participator in government,’ or it means nothing.”45 Which interpretation had been dominant in 1989? Evidence from East Germany and Czechoslovakia suggests that material issues were not actually at the forefront of citizens’ minds when they took action in 1989, though of course they were amenable to opportunities for material improvement should these arise.46 At the time it was probably not immediately obvious to most people that they had to choose between democracy and prosperity. Even in 2009, the necessity of choice was not necessarily obvious to central Europeans, though the lesson of Bratislava’s Tiananmen Square was clearly that the cost of economic development might well be political freedom. It seems fair to say, however, that material satisfaction is not what motivated citizens in 2009 to attend prayer services in the Nikolaikirche or to march around Leipzig’s Ring, and those of Klaus’s supporters who showed up for the Národní rumpus or marched in the anniversary procession demonstrated by their actions that even they believe democracy requires civic engagement outside the framework of elections and political parties. Though many of those who stayed home may have been celebrating the banana (one need not enter public space to do so), those who participated in public commemorations clearly paid homage to the torch.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the twentieth-anniversary commemorations was the passing of this torch to a new generation. In Germany, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania, at least, the generation just coming of age was keenly interested in the events of 1989. The organizers of commemorative acts and exhibits in these countries were often young people with no direct experience of the revolutions, and their undertakings – with a new focus on the experiences of ordinary citizens in 1989 – succeeded in transmitting knowledge and even intuition to a new generation. As a 17-yearold participant in the Leipzig march explained, “Now I have a better feeling for what it was like then.”47 Re-enacting the collective experiences of 1989, even if the original sense of risk could not be reproduced, constituted an excellent means of handing down a revolutionary tradition. This is a good thing, if we agree with the mayor of Leipzig that “democracy must every day be won anew.”48 It was significant, moreover, that the revolutionary tradition being reproduced was a self-consciously non-violent and pluralist one, capable of uniting rather than dividing. Such a tradition seems to have become firmly rooted in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland, and to a significant extent in Slovakia and Romania as well. In Poland people could laugh at the barricades because, despite political divides, there was really no chance of violence breaking out. In Hungary, by contrast, the threat of violence was vividly apparent, such that laughter was unthinkable. (It is not coincidental that Hungary was the only place in central Europe where soldiers figured in the anniversary commemorations.) If there is such a thing as historical policy, it would seem worth the attempt to write Hungarian citizens back into their history (particularly the history of what Hungarians call “the regime change”), in order to give them something to be proud of that lies more within the realm of human agency than “the god of the Hungarians.”49 As the Leipzigers noted, political identity must be founded on some collective point of reference, and the Hungarians desperately need a positive foundation.

Can anything of the revolutionary tradition of 1980–89 be transferred beyond the boundaries of central Europe? The disregard with which the western German press treated the Leipzig commemorations is not encouraging in this regard. Though the inhabitants of the former Ottoman and Romanov Empires may draw inspiration from 1989, the relevance of the revolutions to what used to be called the “First World” has apparently been lost on it. Arguably this is a result of neoliberal interpretations of 1989 that remain hegemonic in western Europe and its former colonies, according to which all that happened was the “collapse” of Communism and the concomitant reaching out of “East” European masses for the bananas of the West. Failure to appreciate the more radical implications of 1989, however, means passing up the chance to learn from a revolutionary tradition capable of integrating atomized societies and establishing functional democracy – complete with the wisdom (perfected after twenty-odd years) that democracy can never be established once and for all, but “must every day be won anew.” Organizers of 25th-anniversary observances might therefore seek to extend their commemorative foreign policy to the increasingly divided societies of western and southern Europe – if not farther afield.


James Krapel. Teaches European history at McGill University in Montreal, specializing in modern central Europe and the comparative cultural history of European revolutions. He is the author of Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–1992 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013). Dr. K rapfl completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007 and has commenced a new project on the popular experience of the late 1960s in central Europe.



Thanks are due to Kevin Adamson, Barbara J. Falk, Erin Jenne, Libora Oates-Indruchová, Susan C. Pearce, Don Sparling, and Marcel Tomášek, and Martina Vidláková for assistance with the research that brought this article into being.

1 This was spoken at a public roundtable with Jiřina Šiklová, Václav Žák, and Milan Hořínek, “Beseda k 20. výročí sametové revoluce,” Olomouc, 21 November 2009.

2 James Krapfl, Revolution with a Human Face: Politics, Culture, and Community in Czechoslovakia, 1989–1992 (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2013), pp. 221–25; Jiřina Šiklová, “Everyday Democracy in the Czech Republic: Disappointments or New Morals in a Time of Neo-Normalization,” in Grażyna Skąpska and Annamaria Orla-Bukowska (eds), The Contemporary Moral Fabric in Contemporary Societies (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 93–101; Andrew Lass, “From Memory to History: The Events of November 17 Dis/membered,” in Rubie Watson (ed.), Memory, History, and Opposition under State Socialism (Santa Fe, N. M.: School of American Research Press, 1994).

3 See, for example, Martin Kukučka, “Voláme po demokracii...”, Trenčianska verejnosť 2, no. 2 (25 January 1990), p. 1; and “Výzva klubu angažovaných nestraníků,” List koordinačního centra Občanského fóra v Pardubicích, no. 18 (29 April 1990), p. 6.

4 National Centre for Culture (Warsaw) and European Solidarity Centre (Gdańsk), website for “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II and the 20th Anniversary of the Collapse of Communism in Central Europe,” page “Spotkanie przywódców państw na Wawelu,” available online:,pl.html.

5 Piotr Pacewicz and Piotr Najsztub, “Nie ma wolności bez radości,” Gazeta Wyborcza, 4 June 2009, p. 2.

6 An extensive list can be found at the aforementioned website website for “The Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War II and the 20th Anniversary of the Collapse of Communism in Central Europe,” available online at:,d2,baza_wydarzen.html?wydwgdata=2009=6=4.

7“Prezydent i premier w Gdańsku, ale osobno,” Rzeczpospolita, 4 June 2009, available online:,315202_Prezydent-i-premier-w-Gdansku- -ale-osobno.html.

8 Ildikó Csuhaj, “Orbán a józan észről, győzelemről és újjáépítésről,” Népszabadság, 24 October 2009, available online at: eszrol__gyozelemrol_es_ujjaepitesrol; Robert Hodgson, “Far Right Takes Centre Stage,” Budapest Times, 26 October 2009, available online: far-right-takes-centre-stage/; Attila Kálmán, “Vesszen Trianon! – kiabálták francia vendégeiknek a jobbikosok,” Népszabadság, 24 October 2009, available online: belfold/tobb_ezren_a_jobbik_rendezvenyen; Susan C. Pearce, “Budapest, Hungary: October 23, 2009 Commemorations,” on the travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at: october-23=2009-commemorations/.

9 Kurt Masur had been the Gewandhaus orchestra conductor in 1989 whose personal appeal to local Party functionaries had been instrumental in preventing a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Leipzig. Hans-Dietrich Genscher had been the West German foreign minister in 1989–90 and thus one of the architects of unification.

10 Photographs of the installations and information about the artists and their motivations can be found in the bilingual publication edited by Thomas Seidler, Lichtfest Leipzig / Leipzig Festival of Lights: 20 Jahre nach der Friedlichen Revolution / 20 Years after the Peaceful Revolution (Leipzig: Leipziger Medien Service, 2009).

11 Thomas Mayer, “Wortfeuerwerk eines Bürgerrechtlers,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 3.

12 Peter Krutsch, Mathias Orbeck, and Thomas Mayer, “Über 100 000 beim Lichtfest,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 1; “Deutschland dankt den Helden von Leipzig... und 100 000 zogen um den Ring,” Bild (Leipzig), 10 October 2009, pp. 6–7. Newspapers in other cities, it should be noted, published substantially lower estimates; according to the Freie Presse (Chemnitz) the number was 70,000 (“‘Sie können für immer stolz sein,’” 10 October 2009, p. 1), while the Ostthüringer Zeitung (Gera) placed it as low as 50,000 (“Glücklicher Tag der deutschen Geschichte,” 10 October 2009, p. 1). The Mitteldeutsche Zeitung (Halle) agreed with the Leipzigers’ figures (“Leipzig feiert die friedliche Revolution,” 10 October 2009, p. 1).

13 Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung completely disregarded the commemoration, while the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried only a short article limited to the doings of Kurt Masur and the politicians in attendance (“Leipzig feiert die friedliche Revolution,” 10 October 2009, p. 4).

14 Western German newspapers did give coverage to the November 9 commemorations in Berlin, as of course did their eastern counterparts. For non-journalistic observations, see Susan C. Pearce’s travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at:, and Barbara J. Falk’s article “Berlin Wall: A Miracle in the Capital,” The Mark, 11 November 2009, available online: http://pioneers. Swine flu, alas, prevented me from attending.

15 The full text of the Leipzig Theses can be found at the “Day of the Peaceful Revolution” available online at:

16 Führer, quoted in “Wo ist der Schwung geblieben?” and Peter Krutsch, “‘Friedliche Revolution muss weitergehen,’” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 18. The full text of the Charter can be found at the Foundation’s website, available online:

17 Particularly noteworthy were Martin Bútora’s and Petr Pithart’s addresses on 16 September 2009 at the conference “1989: Society, History, Politics” in Liblice, where they identified as erroneous the decisions to embark on rapid rather than gradual economic transition and to give the new federal parliament elected in 1990 a mandate of only two years. Václav Havel, speaking in the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava on November 18, also said he would have done certain things differently.

18 See Jana Sotonová, “Oslavy v Praze: 20 akcí, 1000 policistů,” Hospodářské noviny, 16 November 1989, p. 3.

19 The Czech Supreme Administrative Court ordered the party’s dissolution in 2010 as a result of its affinity with Nazism and sanction of violence, declaring that the party constituted a direct threat to democracy.

20 Petr Weikert, “Extremisté v Praze řádili, střetli se s policií,” Hospodářské noviny, 18 November 2009, p. 7; “Neonacisty vyhnali z centra: Ti se pak poprali s policisty,” Mladá fronta dnes (Prague), 18 November 2009, p. C3.

21 Matonoha originally read his letter on the HBO comedy show Na stojáka (Stand- Up) in 2006; a recording is available at

22 The Communists, for their part, celebrated the anniversary of 17 November 1939, but refused to celebrate 17 November 1989. For their interpretation of the “reversal” that occurred in 1989, see the numerous articles in Haló noviny from 16 and 18 November 2009.

23 Lenka Tréglová, “S pivem, dětmi a hlavně bez obušků,” Mladá fronta dnes, 18 November 2009, p. A3; Michaela Poláková, “Pochod připomínal streetparty,” Lidové noviny, 18 November 2009, p. 3.

24 Tréglová, “S pivem.”

25 Petr Blahuš, “Česko slavilo pád komunismu,” Právo, 18 November 2009, p. 1; Petr Kupec, “Praha vzpomínala,” Mladá fronta dnes (Prague), 18 November 2009, p. C1.

26 A videorecording of the concert, under the official title “20 let bez opony,” available online at:

27 Police and organizers agreed on the estimate of 2,500, though I think this is high; since I was at the front of the crowd, however, I could not get an overall view. “Studenti vyzvali lidi, aby nerezignovali na politiku,” Lidové noviny, available online at: http:// aspx?c=A091117_204336_ln_domov_kim.

28 The text, “Prohlášení studentů ke 20. výročí sametové revoluce,” can be found at: inventura-demokracie-2009&catid=53&Itemid=73.

29 Andrej Matišák, “Aký Tchien-an-men by sa páčil Gašparovičovi?,” Pravda, 19 June 2009, p. 4.

30 “Jeremy Irons kritizoval postup slovenskej polície počas čínskej návštevy,” Sme, 20 June 2009, available online at: The documentary, directed by Cory Taylor, was entitled The Power of the Powerless (Los Angeles: Agora Productions, 2009).

31 Róbert Fico, speech at University College London, 17 November 2009, available online at:; Monika Tódová, “Fico: Ako môžeme oceniť november?,” Sme, 18 November 2009, p. 1.

32 Lenka Davidová, “Odhalené srdce pripomenulo pád totality,” Bratislavský kuriér, 23 November 2009, p. 4.

33 Quoted in Domino forum (Bratislava), no. 50 (2000).

34 Jana Ogurčáková, “Mesto Košice sa nedohodlo s aktérmi novembra,” Košický korzár, 14 November 2009, available online at: nedohodlo-s-aktermi-novembra.html; Ogurčáková, “Oslavy Nežnej revolúcie Košičanov nezaujali,” Košický korzár, 16 November 2009, revolucie-kosicanov-nezaujali.html.

35 Albert O. Hirschman, “Exit, Voice, and the Fate of the German Democratic Republic: An Essay in Conceptual History,” World Politics 45, no. 2 (Jan. 1993), pp. 173–202.

36 Ştefan Both, “Timişorenii au uitat prima zi de libertate,” Adevărul de seară (Timişoara), 20 December 1989, p. 1.

37 I was unable to attend the commemorations in Bucharest on December 21 and 22, but the sociologist Susan C. Pearce observes that they were more sombre than the events in Timişoara and that the cold snap and imminence of Christmas negatively impacted popular involvement, though there was evidently a constant stream of people waiting to write in the “guestbook” at a commemorative exhibition in the subway. See “Bucharest, Romania,” on Pearce’s travel blog “Commemorations of the 1989 ‘Autumn of Nations,’” available online at:

38 See Gareth Dale, The East German Revolution of 1989 (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2006), p. 59.

39 On the Polish debate over whether there should have been a revolution in 1989, see Artur Lipiński, “Meanings of 1989: Right-Wing Discourses in Post-Communist Poland,” in Kevin McDermott and Matthew Stibbe (eds), The 1989 Revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe: From Communism to Pluralism (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2013), pp. 235–52.

40 Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (New York: International Publishers, 1963), p. 15.

41 Following the Young Democrats’ “electoral revolution” in 2010, they proceeded to draft a new constitution that went into effect in 2012, as a result of which the official name of the country changed from “the Republic of Hungary” to just “Hungary.” It is worth noting that Prime Minister Orbán presented this “revolution” as making up for the lack of one in 1989. “Orbán Viktor: Most tetszettünk forradalmat csinálni,” Népszabadság, 14 May 2010, available online at: kepviselok; Dóra Matalin, “‘1989 forradalom volt, 2010 nem az,’” Népszabadság, 20 May 2010, available online:

42 Jakub Pokorný, “Táhněte domů, neonacisti!” Mladá fronta dnes, 18 November 2009, p. A2.

43 Jana Sotonová, “Havel: Země vzkvétá, ale...,” Hospodářské noviny, 16 November 2009, p. 1.

44 The reflections that formed the basis for their discussion were published in Tomáš Mozga, Barbara Gregorová, and Pavel Jílek (eds), Česká vize: Hledání identity 21. století... (Brno: Dialog centrum, 2009).

45 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking, 1963; rev. ed. 1965), p. 218.

46 Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and Reality (Harlow, Engl.: Pearson/Longman, 2003); Krapfl, Revolution, pp. 79–81.

47 Quoted in Mathias Orbeck and Peter Krutsch, “Ein Abend voller Emotionen,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 17. Emphasis added.

48 Burkhard Jung, quoted in Peter Krutsch, “Das Ei schweigt,” Leipziger Volkszeitung, 10 October 2009, p. 18.

49 So far the only effort to shed light on popular civic engagement in Hungary in 1989 is Alan Renwick, “The Role of Non-Elite Forces in the Regime Change,” in András Bozóki (ed.), The Roundtable Talks of 1989: The Genesis of Hungarian Democracy (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001), pp. 191–210.


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