More Bosnias? National and Ethnic Tensions in the Post-Communist World

Article excerpt


I never aspired to become a politician: for a convinced democrat living in a Communist-dominated country such an idea could not occur - it was not easy even to become a historian of academic standing. But since my childhood I used to wonder why the very first sentence of my Latin textbook, Historia est magistra vitae (which I was instinctively in agreement with), did not enable mankind to avoid so many fallacies and tragedies. I was impressed when later I came across a more sophisticated version of that Latin sententia made by the Earl of Bolingbroke: History is a philosophy which teaches through examples. My ambition became to contribute to better political decisions by discovering the major lessons to be drawn form the history of Central and Eastern Europe, a troubled part of the world, where two world wars started and were largely fought, where two terrible dictatorships caused so much suffering, and from where so many gifted people felt compelled to emigrate. I never dreamt that in 1990 the end of Communism would throw me into a position where I could try to put some of my thoughts and conclusions reached in libraries, archives and at my desk to practical use as a politician, trying to avoid mistakes committed by my predecessors, so instead of merely "shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations"(1) immediately after the fall of the Communist dominoes I was called upon to make decisions which were likely to influence the course of history, in a region full of bad historical memories, prejudices, great fears and even greater hopes.

At Christmas, 1989, most Hungarians believed that their proverbial ill-fate and misfortune was over and that their relations with their neighbors could also be placed on a new basis. That was expressed in a Manifesto: "Now, in our hands we have a great opportunity to put an end to the conflicts that traditionally have turned the peoples of this region against each other. [...] Our new democracies should be determined not to let old conflicts spring up, so that attention could be focused on creating a better future. [...] It is our hope that in the future social integration in the new democracies will go side-by-side with respect for regional, national and ethnic distinctions, and that representative democracy will be based upon local self-government. [...] In past centuries, the peoples of East-Central Europe could never stand together on the same side. Today, history offers us a unique opportunity for such a unity."(2)

These ideas formed the basis of the program of the Antall government elected in Spring, 1990, and I tried to turn these principles into practice in the following four years. Poland and Czechoslovakia were then led by the same type of non-Communist intellectuals like Hungary, in 1990 1 was trying to reassure many large international audiences, like an Aspen Conference in Prague, a Wilson Center Alumni Association meeting at Cambridge and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Bonn that there were so many reasons why a return to old nationalist quarrels was unlikely: these countries learned a lot during common suffering and their anti-Communist movements established ties of solidarity with each other; opposition to the mistreatment of political, religious and national minorities under the Communist system used to be a unifying theme; the new democratic governments were eager not to unearth old disputes but rather to deal with the urgent tasks of reconstructing their economies, societies, to make up for lost time, to repair the damage done by Communism to the mental and physical environment. Were these assumptions naive? Perhaps, but I think that these aims and considerations are still valid, only the legacy of decades of dictatorship and survival tactics proved too strong to overcome in one moment of katharsis. Still one should not forget that in November, 1989, speakers from Hungary received the biggest ovation in Bratislava and that taxi drivers in Bucharest in early January, 1990, displayed the Hungarian colors and offered free rides for all Hungarians. …