Twenty years ago this week, two young men found themselves standing in a crowd here in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, chanting, jumping up and down to music and demanding an end to one of history’s more cartoonishly heavy-handed dictatorships.
Dan Drapal and Frantisek Kostlan were both manual labourers with decent educations, trapped in the menial and constricting lives that state socialism offered to otherwise creative people. They embraced the protest movements of 1989, both as a way to express their frustration and as a form of community.
By the time December was over, the regime had stepped down and the newborn protest group they’d joined, Civic Forum, had become the government of the country then known as Czechoslovakia.
It’s interesting to see what happened next. At the moment when liberation arrived, both young men decided it was time to start doing what they’d always wanted to do.
For Mr. Kostlan, it was a moment of freedom that had long been repressed.
He began distributing rock music and formerly forbidden publications, and, discovering liberalism and social justice, started pushing for even more dramatic freedoms and rights - for women, homosexuals, racial minorities. His 1989 was a moment when people could finally do what they wanted.
For Mr. Drapal, it was a moment of morality that had long been repressed. “I remember that one day in November, there were no more restrictions, so I started going into the high schools and talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he told me.
A state-censured protestant pastor, he discovered conservatism and began advocating for family values, patriotism, national independence. His 1989 was a moment when people no longer had to do what the state wanted.
Those two views - one that saw communism as too restrictive and limited, the other as too permissive and immoral - would create an enormous rupture in the politics of eastern Europe and draw millions of people in opposite directions. Today, as the anniversaries of those Iron Curtain transitions are being celebrated, the tensions that lay beneath the surface have overwhelmed European politics in 2009 and ground it to a standstill - usually guided by the same people who brought communism to an end.
For November of 1989 was something like what astrophysicists call a singularity - a moment when all matter and energy become the same thing and converge into a single, dense point. It can’t last, and leads to a Big Bang.
In Poland, the divergent forces were united in the Solidarity movement. In East Germany, they rallied in Leipzig. And in Czechoslovakia, they were organized by the playwright Vaclav Havel, on Nov. 17, 1989, into Civic Forum, the coalition that brought down the government.
All these groups agreed what they were against - but nobody knew what they were for.
“We talked endlessly about basic rights and responsibilities and the need for openness,” says Petr Uhl, one of the founders of the original Czech anti-communist movement Charter 77 and a key figure in Civic Forum. “But we said nothing about all about any kind of government system or democracy, because we were unable to agree on that and, in fact, had no idea about any of those things.”
At first, it was the liberation-minded people - the Frantisek Kostlans and Vaclav Havels - who got all the attention. Freedom was the byword - freedom of movement, free markets, free trade, free people. But as the 1990s progressed, the voices that began to prevail were those who had felt that communism had been too permissive, valueless and internationalist. The conservative moralists seized the moment.
In Prague, it was Vaclav Klaus, a conservative economist who had joined Civic Forum from what Mr. Uhl calls “the grey space” between dissident movements and the communist regime, who took over. Even as Mr. Havel won the presidency, Mr. Klaus took control of the economy, leading the wave of privatizations - and calling for a return to national values.
In 1992, Civic Forum split into two parties, the most successful one, the Civic Democrats, led by Mr. Klaus. They are nationalist, libertarian, opposed to international deals and to feminist and gay-rights issues. Mr. Klaus believes that global warming is a hoax, and has published papers to this effect.
Today, Vaclav Klaus is the president of the Czech Republic, and his version of anti-communism has a dramatic effect on Europe. He has been the only one of the European Union’s 27 heads of state to refuse to sign the EU’s new constitution, the Lisbon Treaty. He has said that the EU with its open-border regime resembles Moscow’s colonial control of his country in Soviet times.
(Only this week, with the EU allowing the Czech Republic to be exempted from its minority-rights charter, did it appear that Mr. Klaus would sign the deal).
In Poland, former Solidarity activist Lech Kaczynski, a member of the dissident side of the Round Table negotiations that ended communism, is now president.
He, too, represents a closed, nationalist, xenophobic view of post-communist life, resisting the EU, clashing with Germany and Russia and attacking sexual and reproductive rights.
And in Hungary, the party poised to win the next election and dominate the country’s life is Fidesz, created by anti-communist activists in 1988. It started out on the liberation-minded side of the divide, forbidding people over 35 from joining and promoting a lively liberalism.
But by the end of the 1990s, under the leadership of anti-communist hero Viktor Orban, it had dramatically switched paths, turning into an ethnic and religious-nationalist movement that makes it one of the most far-right mainstream parties in Europe.
The post-communist liberals have often dispersed: Both Frantisek Kostlan and Petr Uhl have drifted from party to party, never quite satisfied. While there are ex-dissident progressives in power, such as Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, they’re outnumbered.
The Klauses and Kaszynskis and Orbans have risen to the top because, I suspect, ultra-conservatism offers voters a kind of purity and authority - one that offers something strikingly similar to the old certainties of communism.