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Escaping the Lie

To sit together and measure the nation's needs, and not be dominated by any group, allowed truth to surface from under the Lie.

In a cafe in Prague, a man I'd never met before sang me Chattanooga Choo Choo in English. He was, it turned out, a clerk in a factory who, in his spare time, runs a jazz group playing music once banned as coming from the decadent West.

I was the first English-speaker he had come across. He had learned the language more than 40 years before at school, but when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia he was denied tertiary education because his father had been director of a bank.

Such stifling of talent and initiative was one of the main causes of collapse in East Europe under Communism. Now, a few short months after the spectacular events of 1989, there is still gleeful celebration in the air, and the visitor comes away with sharpened pictures of countries in transition.

In Poland, for instance, where the process of economic restructuring has perhaps gone farthest, the shift to free enterprise translates into a mountainous pile of meat on a tin tray in the boot of an old red Mercedes in a Warsaw street, surrounded by housewives wanting to buy. All kinds of eatables are sold from the back of cars and trucks. The prices are 40 per cent lower than in the state shops - that is if you can afford any meat at all.

Many things as well as food are sold privately, not least books. The free interchange of ideas is valued intensely.

Right across the region, the new leaders are having to tackle enormous problems inherited from those they displaced. Economic restructuring has already begun. Pollution is chronic. And bold moves will be needed to rebuild relationships between the area's peoples, which have been strained by decades of cruelty and injustice.

Fortunately this bold leadership is being shown. Czechoslovakia's President Havel, for instance, invited West German President von Weizsacker to come to Prague on 15th March, the 51st anniversary of the Nazi invasion in 1939. Havel wanted his fellow citizens to realize how far Germany has moved since Hitler's day. And von Weizsacker took the chance to say, 'We ask your pardon for the memory, and we have need of your forgiveness. Guilt, like innocence, is never a collective affair, it's a personal one. But together we bear the responsibility for what we do in the present with our past heritage.'

Polish Prime Minister Mazowiecki seized a similar chance on his first visit to Moscow after taking office. At a Kremlin banquet he raised the subject of the massacre of 4,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest during World War II. It is well known that they were killed by Soviet troops, but this had not yet been officially admitted. 'For Poles,' Mazowiecki said, 'the Katyn crime remains a wound that has not healed. We want to close all the difficult chapters of history. This is not only a matter for our alliance, but for a real reconciliation of our peoples, which is necessary for us and for you.'

To face facts is a watchword of both Havel and Mazowiecki. And one of the main reasons for the extraordinary breakout in Eastern Europe is that they, with relatively small groups of like-minded people, have spent years, despite great persecution, working at how straight talking could become the pattern of their nations. Their gamble that something more than anger would be needed has paid off.

A major difference between this and earlier periods was that this time there was no Soviet army to silence the dissent. Gorbachev's signals that there would be no intervention, though not always believed, strengthened the hand of the reformers. And now, in turn, the pace of change in the other Warsaw Pact countries is influencing events in the Soviet Union.

While circumstances clearly conspired to assist this process, the most telling factor was the profound character of the leaders of the opposition movements. Vaclav Havel symbolizes this. In The Power of the Powerless, written in 1978, he looks squarely at an issue which Solzhenitsyn has also addressed: that Communist control has depended on deception - on acceptance of 'the Lie'. This Lie, as Havel points out, translates into a million lies, which everybody at all levels of society has had to swallow: 'Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything.... Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.'

But, Havel adds, if someone 'stops living within the lie and starts doing what he knows he really thinks he should, he will be living within the truth'. And by doing so, 'he will have shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.'

Timothy Garton-Ash, one of the foremost commentators on recent events in East Europe, writes in his new book, We The People, of the effect on people of living within a lie: 'In order to understand what it meant for ordinary people to stand in those vast crowds in the city squares of Central Europe, chanting their own, spontaneous slogans, you have first to make the imaginative effort to understand what it feels like to pay this daily toll of public hypocrisy. As they stood and shouted together, these men and women were not merely healing divisions in their society; they were healing divisions in themselves.'

Havel's prison Letters to Olga, his wife, are a moving account of someone who refused to be submerged: 'In lengthy prison terms, sensitive people are in danger of becoming embittered, growing dull, indifferent and selfish. One of my main aims is not to yield an inch to such threats. I want to remain open to the world, not to shut myself up against it; I want to retain my interest in other people and my love for them....'

Later in the book he explores the horizons of modern man and what there is for us to relate to, and concludes that the final horizon - 'without which nothing would have meaning and I would not, in fact, exist' - must be God. This conclusion, he says is a 'quite vivid, intimate and particular' experience.

The liberation process in Poland began, says Janusz Witkowski, a Warsaw industrialist, on a day in June 1979. Pope John Paul II was making his first visit to his homeland since his election eight months earlier. A million people in a Warsaw square heard him say, 'There can be no history of Poland without Christ,' and caught their breath. 'For the first time they realized they could be a force,' says Witkowski.

Then on 14th August 1980, the strike at the Gdansk shipyard began - and almost ended after three days. Just in time Lech Walesa realized his responsibilities not only to his own members but also to those in dozens of small factories who had gone on strike as well but were not going to get the pay rise Walesa had organized for the shipyard workers. And thus the great movement was born. 'Moral reasons,' he writes, 'impelled us towards solidarity with our neighbours and our co-workers in every line of endeavour.'

Seventeen days later agreement was reached on 21 points, including some redress of the appalling working conditions. But its real significance was that the Communist government agreed to negotiate with the strikers. This was the first time in the Communist world that a measure of real control had been conceded to anyone else. Within weeks, Solidarity had a membership of ten million.

Five hundred days later martial law was in force and Solidarity's leaders were interned, but the deed had been done. There was no way the Communists could make a sullen nation deal with the catastrophic economic situation.

Walesa's peasant humanity, gut humour and courage won him leadership and caught the hearts of the world. Religion, wrote a friend, means much to him: 'Being in church was another food; he really needed it. When he took part in the service, you felt that he was utterly absorbed in its progress, that he was living it physically and spiritually.' He is much more than a consensus man, says another: 'He refuses to submit to anyone else's anything.' This has its good and bad sides: his own colleagues do not always know whether his latest statement has come from his search for wisdom or is an off-the cuff reaction.

Walesa says he has most valued 'being able to point to a third way in those situations where everybody says there are only two.... Party politics didn't really interest us; we had no desire to assume power ourselves and to re-establish order through a government of our own. Instead we were looking for profound internal changes in the existing government.' It was around such concepts that a core leadership was built for Solidarity among workers, intellectuals, a constituency of the widest range of people with a common passion for human rights. There were arguments, but their differences compelled respect and affection, and stood the tests of persecution.

By early 1989, Jaruzelski was forced by sheer economic pressure to turn to Solidarity and agree to its earlier suggestion of Round Table talks. This was the first equal consultation between all sides that had taken place since the Iron Curtain was put up. As Professor Geremek, leader of the Solidarity group in both houses of the Polish Parliament, said to me a year to the day after it had started, 'It meant first of all the acceptance of the principle of a dialogue. You can't have a dialogue with your adversary. The success of the Round Table came not only because the Communist power was so weak, not only because the economy was in a terrible crisis, but because in both parties there was enough imagination and a kind of common reference - the interests of the country.'

The elections agreed on at the Round Table gave Solidarity a 99 per cent victory in the new Senate and a similar landslide in those lower house seats it was allowed to contest. Mazowiecki, Geremek and their colleagues allowed themselves to be persuaded to form a government.

This Round Table was a decisive precedent for the whole region. To sit together and measure the nation's needs, and not be dominated by any group, often allowed truth to surface from under the Lie. The pattern was followed in Hungary, and in many East German cities, and in a great rush in Czechoslovakia.

The East German regime fell because of massive defections to the West and huge demonstrations in many cities. These started in Leipzig where, every Monday since 1982, an ecumenical group had met for prayer in the St Nicholas Church. It was outside this church at the time the prayer meetings ended that the demonstrations began. And those who had been praying took into the demonstrations a theme outlined by Bishop Johannes Hempel: 'Keine Macht, keine Gewalt' (no power, no violence). In other words the people should demonstrate for principle but not try to grab the mechanisms of power from those who then held it. This made it much harder, with the world's press and television watching, for the authorities to clamp down.

On the crucial day, Monday 9th October, Erich Honecker, whose regime had just celebrated 40 years of rule, thirsted for a crack-down. Leipzig hospitals had been told to get extra supplies of blood, and there were armoured vehicles in the suburbs.

Egon Krenz, Honecker's successor, has claimed credit for stopping the violence. Whatever the truth of this, Bishop Hempel's theme was echoed that afternoon by an unlikely group of Leipzig's leaders. The internationally-known conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur, invited to his home at 4.15 pm three secretaries of the city's Communist Party, a well-known cabaret artist and a professor of theology. They jointly framed a resolution saying there should be no violence by anybody, including the authorities, and calling for 'level-headedness and peaceful dialogue.'

Masur's group sped through rush-hour traffic to deliver copies of the resolution to the four churches where prayers were being held and arrived during the services. It was later announced on loudspeakers around the city. There is some debate about how many heard the message: but clearly it made a difference to those who did. The atmosphere at the end of the service was of calm and joy. Der Spiegel commented, 'The people in the procession were so relaxed and cheerful it was almost painful. At no moment in the two hours was there a feeling of danger and confrontation.'

Less than six weeks later, and barely days after the opening of the Berlin Wall, the focus switched to Czechoslovakia. To the astonishment of the activists in Prague, one of the most conservative regimes in East Europe collapsed within a week. Jan Urban, coordinator of Civic Forum, told me, 'They had no allies, no spirit and no perspective in themselves. The overthrow of the regime was the easiest part of the changeover. It was a war of symbols. When we occupied Wenceslas Square, they were lost. They weren't able any more to defend their symbol of power.'

On 17th November, the regime had decided to teach Prague's students a lesson. As 2,500 of them, in a candlelight procession in memory of a student martyred by the Nazis, moved past the National Theatre they discovered they had been hemmed in by tanks. They were left there 'to boil for one and a half hours', in Jan Urban's words, and then set upon by the Red Berets, Czechoslovakia's world-famous anti-terrorist troops.

Eventually the students escaped, battered and bleeding, many of them into the surrounding theatre-land, Havel's home territory. The actors were horrified, particularly at what had happened to the drama students. One of them, Jaroslav Novotny, found himself one of the leaders of the theatrical strike that began spontaneously. 'It felt absurd,' he recalls. 'I wanted to say, "It's just a joke; forget it!"' But there was no way back. If the regime had won, he would have been treated as a criminal and dismissed from his college.

In the following days the actors toured the countryside enlisting the people. Those who had bought a theatre ticket found they were not seeing a play but taking part in a passionate discussion about what to do next.

Civic Forum, a coalition of protest groups, was cobbled together very quickly, and it has taken time to reconcile different views within it. One of its strengths, says Urban, was the work done for nearly 13 years by Charter 77 to identify the people who might take a stand and give them 'moral authority, vision and a programme.'

Urban and other Charter people used to have regular clandestine meetings in the mountains with the Solidarity activists - and were amused in late 1989 to discover them in Cabinet posts.

Civic Forum's current efforts are directed towards preparing Czechoslovakia for the June elections. 'We need to change people's horizons,' Urban says. 'We had 50 years of ideologically-backed regimes, Nazi and Communist. They completely destroyed the sense of the force of law. We have to start from zero to rebuild trust in that. It's not enough to change the system.'

The scale of change needed in the system beggars imagination. The Czech pundit Jacques Rupnick, who hosted the 1988 TV series, The Other Europe, once said: 'It's easy to make fish soup from an aquarium, but very difficult to do this vice versa.' Many are worried that the nomenklatura, the privileged party functionaries, will sabotage the reconstruction needed.

Difficult or not, these countries are moving boldly from command to market economies. They are determined to remove economic activity from political control and reach international standards of quality and price. It is a race against time and the patience of their own people.

In Poland in January inflation was 70 per cent per month. Average wages rose 1.3 per cent, and production was down by 20 per cent. There was a drop of 36 per cent in the standard of living - the largest monthly fall ever recorded anywhere in the world outside times of natural disaster. People are agitated at not being able to make ends meet, but there were no riots, as there would have been under the Communists for even a fraction of this change. 'For the first time in 45 years,' said a professor of medicine, 'we have a government that is on our side.'

President Havel has proposed common economic planning by Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, despite the fact that, as a Czech sociologist told me, 'Poland could bring us to our knees.' Economists, he said, 'have told us to go it alone. But we couldn't do that to the Poles.' Fortunately now the situation in Poland is improving, with inflation down in March to an estimated four per cent per month.

The chance to make plans such as Havel's has come largely because in seeking to overturn the 'Lie', small groups of people got down to what was true and what was false in themselves and in their countries.

It was not just a philosophic exercise. There are many instances of people taking action which in retrospect seems inspired. A Catholic priest in Leipzig said with a laugh, 'God has been working very conspiratorially here.'

So what next? Will these new democracies be able to fulfil their hopes and deal with their daunting problems? It could easily depend on the response they get from the rest of the world, and whether nations to the west and east - of them are as keen as they are on seeking truth, however uncomfortable.

The roars of laughter which greeted three one-act plays by Vaclav Havel in a packed Washington theatre one recent Sunday afternoon showed how close was the parallel between his plots and the pressures on Americans to compromise with 'lies' they face.

Havel told the US Congress of the contribution he hoped Czechoslovakia would make to the world's decision-making. The 'enormous human humiliation' his people have suffered, he said, 'has given us something positive: a special capacity to look somewhat further than someone who has not undergone this bitter experience.... The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.

'We still don't know,' he added, 'how to put morality ahead of politics, science and economics.... If I subordinate my political behaviour to this imperative, mediated to me by my conscience, I can't go far wrong. If on the contrary I were not guided by this voice, not even ten presidential schools with two thousand of the best political scientists in the world could help me.'

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