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Anna Porter in 2007
Anna Porter in 2007

Review: Non-fiction

Anna Porter's moral tour of eastern Europe Add to ...

In a speech delivered on Sept. 7 this year, European Union President José Manuel Barroso declared, "Racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe. … I make a strong appeal not to reawaken the ghosts of Europe's past." The immediate objects of his concern were recent actions against Europe's Roma communities, but the message was broader and very clear: Twenty-first-century Europe's historical memory is tied to its searing 20th-century political agendas. Time may have passed, but in central Europe, memory still traverses the eras of Hitler and the Iron Curtain, the changing geographies of divided lands, and the accumulated experiences of fascism, communism and racism. These are Europe's ghosts, at once evanescent, intangible and irredeemable.

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The theme of retrospect and prospect runs through Anna Porter's intriguing and accessible narrative of contemporary central Europe. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Porter set out to explore the changing political and cultural landscapes at the heart of Europe's latest transformations, in Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

What she found was not surprising. The past two decades are simply too short a period in which to absorb the experiences of the postwar Communist period; even more, the deep wounds of the Second World War have not been erased by the 65 years of the postwar period, particularly since they were in some ways reinforced by the communist era. Porter's tale is less one of discovery than of the telling itself, and through the words of some of central Europe's intellectuals and politicians, she is able to tease out many of the contradictions, discomforts and unresolved tensions that colour politics in Prague and Bratislava, Budapest and Warsaw.

Porter frames The Ghosts of Europe as a travelogue of reminiscence, whether for Europe's blurred unity under the Hapsburgs, the youthful fervour of the 1968 Prague Spring or the 1980s uprisings in Gdansk. These historical moments were bursting with intellect and passion. Havel, Michnik, Urban, Zeman, Walesa and their compatriots were romantic figures who seemed to speak honestly, do good and place historical evils in sharp relief.

Central Europe, Porter reminds us in example after example, never caught its breath after the Second World War. Instead, it went straight from occupation and destruction and genocide to totalitarianism. The results were profoundly sad, in many and untold ways. After the immediate postwar tribunals, many communist leaders were complicit in hiding the war's crimes, creating new layers of dishonesty, mistrust and malign politics that were at the same time very personal.

This was an era in which voting was mandatory and elections held little sway, when intelligence services permeated society, spying and informing became expected counterpoints to daily life, and morality often highly relativistic. The Ghosts of Europe rests of two historical pillars: The first is the holocaust, which took place in Poland and Czechoslovakia's towns and villages. Porter writes, "These are the lands where, under both Nazism and Communism, brutality had been an everyday event, where expulsions of whole populations were explained as inevitable, where disappearances had to be borne in silence."

The second is the dense, unaccountable governing that left central Europeans at the mercy of their states, and where, after 1989, "no one had an excuse for evading the brutality of history." History, of course, can be highly subjective. Porter's treatment is clear-eyed and, at the same time, nuanced. Her interlocutors range from those complicit in the events of both fascism and communism to those who resisted one or both. She tracks postwar and post-communist trajectories with equal commitment, sparing few.

The portrait she paints is important and true. Some of this territory has been explored before, notably in The Haunted Land, Tina Rosenberg's award-winning 1996 study of collaboration and complicity in communist Europe. The Ghosts of Europe, however, takes aim not simply at the crimes of communism, but at the ways that those crimes magnified - even while trying to diminish - those of fascism. She is therefore rightly critical of some of the instrumentalist, technocratic ways that the West tried to "fix" eastern Europe after 1989, as if political parties and elections and a handful of trials might answer problems that had yet to be fully recognized or even named.

Even so, Porter leaves several issues untouched, and their absence is unfortunate. First, her study focuses on the notorious and the notable. The story of the region's leaders - valuable as this one is - is familiar. But every class and region of central Europe was affected by the tragedies of the 20th century. Clever elites might find ways to play hide-and-seek with the secret police, or choose principle and prison over complicity. The chronicles of commoners, however, have yet to be written, and until they are, we are unlikely to understand fully the destructive depth of criminal ideologies.

Second, the political canvases of fascism and communism (and racism today) stretch beyond the geographies of these four countries in additionally difficult and compelling ways. Central Europe's history in the 1990s was coloured, and indeed overshadowed, by brutal Balkan wars that quickly reminded its own people, and then everyone else, that racism too easily taints nationalism, and violence can equally easily lie at the surface of politics.

Porter's interlocutors can be eloquently introspective, but in this volume, rarely trespass the boundaries of their own societies. Looking inward, however, has been the region's downfall before, and perhaps could be again. This is the lesson Jose Manuel Barroso has derived from the Roma's sad experience with Europe's otherwise open borders. And it is one that Porter herself suggests as she concludes by citing the Czech philosopher, Jan Patocka: "No society … can function without a moral foundation … it is morality that defines man."

Paula Newberg is the Marshall B. Coyne Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

 

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