Europe, Wake Up!

Witnesses to the fall of the Berlin Wall discuss the rocky road ahead for Europe

Adam Michnik and Liliana Niesielska at the “20 Years After Berlin” forum | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

From left: Adam Michnik, his translator Liliana Niesielska, Kurt Biedenkopf, Viktor Orbán, Timothy Garton Ash at the Feb. 22 debate on Europe, held at the Burgtheater | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Oxford prof. Timothy Garton Ash describes his experiences of 1989 | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

From left: Adam Michnik, his translator Liliana Niesielska, Kurt Biedenkopf, Viktor Orbán, Timothy Garton Ash at the Feb. 22 debate on Europe, held at the Burgtheater | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Oxford prof. Timothy Garton Ash describes his experiences of 1989 | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

From left: Adam Michnik, his translator Liliana Niesielska, Kurt Biedenkopf, Viktor Orbán, Timothy Garton Ash at the Feb. 22 debate on Europe, held at the Burgtheater | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

“Europe, wake up!  Wake up to where we are!” declared Timothy Garton Ash, renowned author and Professor of History at Oxford University.

“Wake up, but act!” interjected Kurt Biedenkopf, Prime Minister of the Free State of Saxony from 1990 to 2002. “There’s a long way between waking up and acting.”

Such were the passionate exchanges on the four-guest panel “20 Years after 1989” hosted by the Viennese Institute for the Human Sciences and the Austrian daily Der Standard in the elegant environs of the Burgtheater on Sunday, Feb. 22.

What had started out as a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall branched out into questions about Europe’s need to find itself, given the weight of history, at this defining moment in its political and financial future.

The invitees included figures who had witnessed and guided the peaceful revolution of that fateful last decade of the Cold War. To the right, the reserved and pensive Timothy Garton Ash, who had been a correspondent for The Times and The Independent from Berlin during the events of 1989. Next to him was Viktor Orbán, the former revolutionary visionary and eventual Prime Minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002.

Next sat Kurt Biedenkopf (to the left of moderator Krzysztof Michalsk), the soft-spoken but articulate leader of an 800 year old state that had been part of the former East Germany, who had witnessed the recovery of his Bundesland throughout the 90s. On our left, the key instigator of a peaceful change of power in Poland, Adam Michnik, editor of Poland’s leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.

The out-spoken, gesticulating Pole helped the packed house understand the significance of the revolution that had occurred in Poland in the 80s.

Adam Michnik and Liliana Niesielska at the “20 Years After Berlin” forum | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

“In democracy, compromise is the only thing that works,” he declared through translator, Liliana Niesielska. “We realized how to do it in 1989. Many other scenarios [for regime change] were possible: Tiananmen, the Balkans under Milosevic, Belarus under Lukashenko, Russia under the sovereign democracy of Putin.” Michnik had been a part of the round-table discussions that agreed to make compromises and have democratic elections on June 4, the same day a man stood in front of a tank on a square in Beijing.

Proving to be the story-teller of the afternoon, Michnik recounted his experience of attending the June 16, 1989 reburial of 1956 martyr of the Hungarian Revolution Imre Nagy. A 35-year old revolutionary Orbán addressed the attendees. “He just told the Russian tanks, ‘Go home!’,” Michnik said. “And they did!”

Orbán himself recalled the inspiring zeitgeist of his generation. “My father said ‘I will die in a Hungary occupied by the Russians.’ I said, ‘I will not!’” Michnik, the Hungarian pointed out, “I respect him more than I should. He wrote the civic social strategy: create and build up islands that are ready to become a continent at the right moment.”

Orbán brought the discussion to the issue of the “real and serious danger” of the current financial situation, calling for Europe to regard the banking crisis in the former Soviet nations as a high priority. “Without the Central European Countries, the EU cannot be competitive.” He warned against financial and industrial protectionism against Central Europe, stating that “our economy will dry out because we cannot get the euro. That financial protectionism is dangerous.”

If Michnik and Orbán reflected the revolutionary element of the cordial discussion, Biedenkopf and Ash exuded the gravitas and solemnity of a memorial service, heralding the achievements of those visionaries, all the while calling for a new vision for Europe.

Biedenkopf reminded the audience – that included Austria’s Minister of Science and Research Johannes Hahn and Vice Chancellor Josef Pröll – of the unique role East Germany held in 1989 vis-à-vis Poland and Hungary.

“The national identity was not the issue, but the resurrection of a divided nation. East Germany participated in the West German cultural life with the help of radio, and later television. In fact, the East Germans were better informed about West German politics than the West Germans themselves!”

Highlighting Orbán’s statements about the financial crisis, Biedenkopf added how unprepared Europe was. “It was the failure of the elites, and we have to fix the problem with the same elites. This is a time of reckoning. We should take courage to act, the same way the ‘89ers did.”

Oxford prof. Timothy Garton Ash describes his experiences of 1989 | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Garton Ash echoed the importance of the unique peacefulness of that revolution. “It has become the default model for nations such as Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, the UK, South Africa and Burma.” He recalled a similar gathering in 1999 with the same guests, minus Biedenkopf and plus then Czech President Václav Havel; The only difference was that 1989 marked the end of the so-called “short 20th century,” one which featured the clash of Fascism, Communism and Democracy.

“In 1999, we were in a strange intermediary period.” It was a period that ended, according to him, with the September 11th attacks, announcing a new chapter in history.

The Oxford professor offered a more critical, “non-continental” perspective of the current state of affairs, in sharp contrast to that of Michnik, who sees the last two decades as “the best 20 years of 300 years of Polish history.”

“1989 was the best moment in European history,” Garton Ash said, “for it was possibly the last time at which Europe was at the center of history.” The agenda is now set outside Europe, he said, in Asia and America. “The Weltgeist, a term I dare not translate into English, is elsewhere,” he explained, meaning the driving force of world events is in China or India.

In the final statement of the day, Garton Ash summed up the discussion with a call. “We need a new generation of believers and visionaries.” Michnik offered his suggestion, crying out “Schwarzenberg!” and garnering laughs from the audience.

Regardless of whether Karel von Schwarzenberg, Austrian aristocrat and current foreign minister of the Czech Republic and EU Council President, counts as a visionary for the future of Europe was, as everyone knew, beside the point. The future of Europe will always rely on the courage of its visionaries.

For more information on lectures offered by the Institute for Human Sciences, visit www.iwm.at.

Share This Post

Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » appearance » Widgets » and move a widget into Advertise Widget Zone