A Mitteleuropa Gallery

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By George Weigel

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  • Lothar de Maizière was the first and last noncommunist prime minister of “East Germany.” He compares his people’s experience and their current discontents to the experience of the Israelites in the Wilderness, between the fleshpots of Egypt and the promised land of freedom: “They told Moses that life in the desert was too difficult, and that at least when they were slaves they had food and water and places to sleep. Moses’ friends asked him how long he thought the people would be complaining like this, and he replied, ‘Until the last person born under slavery has died.’ Our situation here is very similar. The psychological gap between eastern and western Germany will last for at least a generation, or until the last person born under communism passes away.”
  • Hungarian entrepreneur Gabor Varszego has built a manufacturing, distributing, and retailing firm, “Fotex,” into an operation that will gross $300 million this year. In filling the 7,000 jobs his business has created, Varszego goes out of his way to hire men and women too young to have been involved with the communist regime. Why? Because never before in history, he says, has “a country had to change the total culture of its economy so fast.”
  • Elzbieta Leszcynska, a skilled seamstress in the Polish town of Konin, has a new worry, one she could hardly have imagined four years ago when, with a $5,000 interest-free loan from the government, she started a wedding-dress business. Then, the questions were, “What is ‘business’?” and “Can I make it work?” Now what she asks is, “How can I take a vacation?” Her forty-three employees would keep the $500,000 business going, she’s sure, but “I can’t afford the time. I have to prepare for the new season.”
  • Four Polish journalists were sitting around a dinner table in 1993, debating whether Lech Walesa would run for president again in 1995. One finally said, “Do you realize we’ve not been talking about the government falling? Or the economy collapsing? Or an invasion? We’re talking about something that’s supposed to happen years from now. How’s that for proof of stability?”
  • Zdenek Cerny, a former army officer, now monitors air pollution in Usti nad Labem, a Czech town northwest of Prague. Fantastic ecological damage is part of the legacy of communism in the region. “We still get about twenty types of harmful substances,” Mr. Cerny notes. “Suddenly half the town may get pains in the joints. Or skin problems. When these chemicals interact, it creates a kind of nerve gas.” Usti nad Labem is frequently visited by American, western European, and Japanese air-quality technicians. “When they have just 10 percent of what we get,” says Cerny, “they think they have a disaster.”
  • In the London Spectator, deputy editor Anne Applebaum (whose husband, Radek Sikorski, a former dissident, became deputy defense minister in a democratic Poland) tells of visiting the suite of the Marshall (the “Speaker”) of the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament. Occupying that post is Józef Olesky, the former first secretary of the communist party in the town of Biala Podlaska: “. . . he has the round face so familiar from the past, as well as the cheap-looking suit and shoes. At least, the people for whom Warsaw’s official buildings were designed have returned to inhabit them, a turn of events that came as a surprise to many, including Olesky himself. ‘I am one of the great defenders of democracy,’ he says, grinning widely. ‘Without democracy, I wouldn’t be here.’”
  • A different kind of ex-communist (or “post-communist,” as they say in the region) is on display in Budapest. Victor Polgar had been in the Hungarian diplomatic service during the last years of the communist regime, and then went into business. He is now a member of the Socialist Party (the former communist party), which was returned to power in Hungary last year. “We will be a no-nonsense government,” he says, in the assured tones of a young technocrat. “We have no doubt about what has to be done.” Shortly after it took office, some analysts began to praise the government for its economic decisiveness.
  • Maciej Karpinski, a Polish film director and screenwriter, remembers that, during the communist period, “people sought refuge in cultural life. [They] talked about books, analyzed the latest critical article, movie, or play. It was all taken so seriously, and everyone took themselves so seriously.” But what about now? “When you can talk about anything, what do you talk about?”
  • Timothy Garton Ash, the English historian and journalist who was to the Revolution of 1989 what George Orwell was to the Spanish Civil War, recently found himself at the editorial meeting of what he described as an “elevated journal” in Vienna. There a German feminist exclaimed, “Eastern men are such pashas.” Her colleague agreed: they could do with some “re-education.” Writes Garton Ash: “I glimpse a new central Europe, where Polish men are to be ‘re-educated’ by German feminists.”
  • Richard Thornton, an American, is the general manager of GM Poland, which recently launched a $30 million joint venture with the Polish automaker FSO. The basic rule for the Poles, set by GM: Keep the workers, as long as they leave everything else behind—the factories, the old methods, the bad habits. The mentality under the communists, says Thornton, was “‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of money in the West. Give us some and we’ll be rich, too.’ They don’t understand that you’ve got to change the way you think before profits roll in.”
  • Miroslav Pilsniak is the young prior of the Dominican monastery in Kraków, which was founded in the early thirteenth century and has a long tradition of ministry to the students of the Jagiellonian University. Kraków has for centuries been a center of lively conversation among scientists, humanists, and theologians; two of the more notable former students of the university are Nicholas Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, known these days as Pope John Paul II. Like many other Polish clergy, Father Miroslav has been told (primarily by Western churchmen and journalists) that democratization and the transition to the free market in Poland will result in a precipitous drop in religious practice. The prior is not convinced. Every Sunday evening, the monastery church is jammed to the rafters with over 2,000 young people, virtually all of them dressed in the standard adolescent livery of jeans and sweatshirts. When a visitor asks what these students come to church for. Father Miroslav answers, with a twinkle in his eye, “The truth, of course.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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