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The Ghosts of Europe
Central Europe's Past and Uncertain Future
In 1989, Adam Michnik said that Central Europe came “as a messenger not only of freedom and tolerance but also of hatred and intolerance. It is here, in Central Europe, that the last two wars began.” Nearing the twentieth anniversary of Communism’s collapse, acclaimed author Anna Porter traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to discover whether and how democracy has taken root in these former Iron Curtain countries.
The former borderlands of the long-defunct Hapsburg Empire and the more recently dispersed Soviet Empire have attempted to invent their own forms of democracy and capitalism. However, disturbing signs of old attitudes have returned, bringing into question Central Europe’s ability to reform its elites and to effectively control public demonstrations of hatred, the rise of racial tensions, and the emergence of fascist parties. Porter interviewed the young and the old, the winners and the losers, in this grand European transformation.
Porter walks Wenceslas Square with those who suffered the violence of the state police and helped to organize the ’89 revolution. She meets with revolutionary leaders such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, as well as custodians of the new regimes, among them Radek Sikorski, Michael Kocáb, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. She takes us to Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance and Budapest’s House of Terror Museum—fascinating if controversial attempts to reckon with dark periods of history. She interviews the wealthiest man in Hungary, the general who ordered martial law in Poland, attends an ultraright rally, and visits a Gypsy village where a newly burgeoning yet all-too-familiar racism has destroyed a family. Gradually, a portrait emerges of a Europe struggling under the weight of history and memory, its peoples divided over half-forgotten events, old ethnic rivalries, borders drawn and redrawn—ghosts that had lurked, unacknowledged, under Communism’s force-fed stories of peaceful coexistence and a common front toward the Western enemy. Now, Central European rhetoric veers between historical reckoning, revisionism, and the politics of retribution.
Penetrating, fascinating, and powerfully observed, The Ghosts of Europe illuminates themes of tyranny, nationalism, racism, and denial in nations with a tumultuous history and a future very much in the balance.