Nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies about the long-term consequences of the revolutions and transitions that followed the end of Communist rule in countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Garton Ash, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor at Oxford University, spoke first about the “mixture of reform and revolution” in Hungary, which culminated on June 16, 1989, with the ceremonial reburial of Hungarian politician Imre Nagy.
A young student named Viktor Orbán gave a now-famous speech at that event, which thrust him into the political spotlight after he demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country, Garton Ash said. Today, Orbán is Hungary’s prime minister.
“The most electrifying moment was the speech of Viktor Orbán, who was totally unknown at the time,” Garton Ash said. “The scene was a bright hope of liberalism and democracy. He gave an electrifying speech, I’ll never forget it.”
Many of the problems facing East Central European countries today stem from the difficulties that surrounded those countries’ transitions from communist states to democratic institutions, Garton Ash said. It’s not surprising that democratic institutions in those countries are more fragile than they are in Britain or in the U.S., he added, because they’ve only had 30 years to establish themselves.
“The joke at the beginning of the transition in early 1990 was, ‘We know you can turn an aquarium into fish soup — but the question is, can you turn fish soup back into an aquarium?’” Garton Ash said. “The revolutionary transformation of communism had liquidized the aquarium. It had destroyed the rule of law, and it had destroyed democratic institutions, independent courts, and independent civil society.”
One of the biggest problems in East Central Europe today is not immigration — it’s emigration, Garton Ash said. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, nearly 2 million people out of a population of 17 million have left the former territory of East Germany, he said, and countries such as Latvia and Bulgaria have also seen staggering numbers of their citizens move elsewhere.
“Because of the freedom of movement granted by the European Union, there has been massive emigration of the most dynamic energetic younger people from these countries,” Garton Ash said. “But at the same time, populists win [East Central European] countries’ support by talking about the dangers of immigration as if these countries did not need immigration. There’s a kind of demographic panic in which the knowledge that the native population is being thinned out out under a very low birth rate is complemented by a paranoia.”