William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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Central and Eastern Europe

A third theme in your book -- the most striking section, I thought -- was your section on Central Europe. We talked earlier about your career and we learned how you became attuned to that part of the world. Is it fair to say that you're suggesting that there was a conspiracy of silence, that somehow, and you mentioned this earlier, Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War was excluded from the agenda?

Well, it disappeared off the map. The reason it did was perfectly understandable. Nothing was happening there. It totally was frozen there.

But something was happening under the rocks, so to speak.

Yes, but people lost interest except for a handful of academic specialists. As far as journalists were concerned, it no longer existed. It simply disappeared until the underlying developments began to reemerge.

You argue that the weight of history pointed the elites in those countries to look toward the West, that there was a bankruptcy insofar as the legitimacy of the Soviet Union was concerned.

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union had, in some of the East European countries, in Poland and in Czechoslovakia in particular and perhaps in Hungary, some real standing as the society of the working class, of the proletariat, of the revolutionary society. The Communist Parties in those three countries at least were indigenous parties, and in East Germany. There were real Communist Parties, linked to the Soviet Union through the prewar Comintern and underground work during the war.

With the return to power, even in Czechoslovakia, as we know, the Communists gained a plurality of the vote in the first free elections after the war. In addition to the party itself, there was a sense that Czechoslovakia would be the intermediary between Russia and the rest. But by the time the takeover had been completed, the surviving non-communist parties destroyed, the murders, the jailings, the purges, by the time you got to the early 1950s, it was clear that their rule was by force. The East German uprising in '53 and Hungary and Poland in '56, etc., etc., made it perfectly plain where popular sentiments lay.

As I argue in the book, the Soviet Union simply failed to impose itself, so to speak, morally or culturally. That may seem an odd phrase to use, but one can say of the nineteenth century empires, for example, that the British in India in some real sense imposed themselves morally and culturally so that elites in India wished to emulate and to adopt some of the values of the colonizing society. It seemed a superior society in important respects. It was not only that it had a more advanced technology or administrative apparatus, in fact, when the British Empire was acquired, there was no technological edge, the Indians were as well armed as the few British regiments were and, in fact, they had the numbers so that if anybody in those years had resisted, the way the Vietnamese resisted French and American forces in the 1950s and 1960s, there never would have been Asian colonies.

European societies imposed themselves in a very complex way. They attached those elites to themselves. But the notion in Eastern Europe that young poets would want to go to Moscow to somehow be part of this rich and fascinating society, the way a young Senegalese intellectual wanted to go to Paris or an Indian wanted to go to Oxford -- the idea is ludicrous. From the mid-1950s on, all that went on in Eastern Europe was "How do we divest ourselves of this geopolitical catastrophe that has fallen upon us?"

Do you think Europe, Western Europe as we know it, is now ready to absorb Central and Eastern Europe?

There's a surprise and a gratitude. I was struck ... I'll mention two things. In the mid 1970s there was an exhibition in Berlin on the Weimar Republic, and in that you suddenly realized how many of the artists and writers, the people who were in Berlin at the time of Weimar, were East Europeans, all of whom were, if Stalin didn't kill them, Hitler did. And yet, they were as vital at that time as [Western European artists].

We situate the modern movement in Paris, with extensions in Berlin, sort of "decadent Berlin" in the Weimar years, and then we're willing, in recent years, to say, well, Vienna was part of it too, and of course there was London with Shaw, etc. We've seen the modern movement as a West European phenomenon, but the modern movement was a Central European, East European phenomenon.

The first time I was in Bucharest, which was about five years ago, I went to the National Museum. There on the second floor, after you trudge through all of the self-glorifying (I won't go into it, but the museums were turned into instruments of the glorification of Romanian nationalism and the Ceausescus), there was modern Romanian art. There were people that we did get to know in the West, Brancusi and Ionesco and two or three other painters or sculptors that we know in the West. But the amount of really quite brilliant work that was being displayed there, by names that meant nothing to me, again, I realized how this line was drawn through Europe by the Second World War, that in a way lobotomized -- it didn't lobotomize, but a whole hemisphere of the European brain was removed. I think everybody's sort of fascinated to find suddenly that they're coming together again.

Are you suggesting a kind of a mutuality here in the sense that the West can contribute to an economic revitalization of the East, but possibly there is a cultural revitalization [from the East]?

I think we might see a really quite brilliant flowering of intelligence and aesthetics in art in Eastern Europe now that the pressure has been lifted. There has been much that has gone on underground, but we may be at one of those points where events transpire to stimulate very important intellectual artistic production. And that there will be interaction of that with the rest of the world; above all, with Western Europe. But if we, the United States, open ourselves to it, why, we could be part of that too.

Western civilization, at the moment, looks pretty bloody good! It's interesting to be around.

Next page: Thoughts on Western Europe

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