Saturday, November 22, 2014

History

Bookmark found in my Grandfather's encyclopedia. 1905: That's Teddy, baby!

On November 22, 1989, according to my collection of newspaper clippings from that date, more than 150,000 protesters filled Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest the former Czechoslovakian government and for the first time, opposition leaders were given access to the loudspeaker system in the square, In five days, since the Bloody Friday events that triggered the massive protests, the government had gone from beating the protesters to grudgingly handing them a microphone.  

Vaclav Havel, a playwright and leader of the Czech opposition, was joined on a spotlighted balcony overlooking the square by other opposition leaders and some of the country's most popular actors and singers, who helped read a declaration demanding the immediate resignation of the Czech leaders responsible for the 1968 Soviet invasion, as well as those who ordered the Bloody Friday crack-down,  It also called for the release of all political prisoners and for free access to the media.

In Russia, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev indicated strong backing to the rapid changes in Eastern Europe, including the new demands for reform in Czechoslovakia, saying, "I think the change is very important, and the importance of the change will be that it will create a better society, a more open society, a more democratic society."  In a related incident, Gorbachev also oversaw the dismissal of conservative Moscow Communist Party chief Lev Zaikov, nearly two years to the day after liberal chief Boris Yeltsin had been removed from the same post.

Meanwhile, a debate was brewing in East Germany over whether or not Communist Party chief Egon Krenz actually prevented a potential massacre by reversing Erich Honecker's orders to Leipzig police to shoot, if necessary, pro-democracy protesters.  While his supporters claim Krenz did reverse the order, his detractors say he did so only after being persuaded by local party officials and church leaders. At the same time, the press, although still under Communist control, had begun reporting to the impoverished East Germans some of the abuses of privilege enjoyed by the party leaders.  Krenz was rumored to be a connoisseur of fine wines and other luxuries, although he claimed to the press that he and his family lived in a small, modest apartment.  What he didn't admit was that he had only moved into the apartment the Sunday before, checking out of a spacious abode at the party's lush Lake Wandlitz compound on the outskirts of Berlin, a settlement blocked off from ordinary citizens by guarded private roads.    

Back in the U.S., the White House announced that refugee status for Poles and Hungarians would be sharply curtailed as political conditions in those countries had improved to the point where the residents "no longer have any reason to fear persecution in their homelands." 

In Romania, where people did still have reason to fear persecution, the ill-fated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu attempted to sir up nationalistic support for his dictatorship by claiming that the non-aggression pact of 1939, in which Stalin and Hitler divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, should be cancelled. "First of all," he said, "a clear, unequivocal stand of condemnation and cancellation must be taken on all the accords concluded with Hitler's Germany, practical conclusions being drawn to eliminate all the consequences of those accords and dictates."  The 1939 non-aggression pact ceded the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Soviet Union, but Romanians understood that what Ceausescu was really talking about was Bessarabia, a contested sliver of land between Romania and the Ukraine that changed hands many times through history, but had been a Romanian possession from 1919 until 1940, when it was absorbed into Soviet Moldavia.   

A bit of deeper history regarding Bessarabia is necessary here, and my sources for this portion are not my newspaper clipping from 1989, but a 1942 encyclopedia and summary of "current events" inherited from my grandfather.  According to my sources, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Romania fought alongside the Russian troops but at the Treaty of San Stefano after the war, Russia demanded the Bessarabian territory from Romania, even though it was largely inhabited by Romanians.  As compensation, Russia offered Romania the Dobjura, a region along the Black Sea. The Treaty held and was reinforced by the 1878 Congress of Berlin, such that Romania lost Bessarabia but gained the Dobjura, 

After World War I, Romania invaded Hungary in 1919 and occupied Budapest, retreating only when Romania had extorted territorial concessions, including the return of Bessarabia from Russia.  To protect the new acquisition, Romania felt the need for foreign security and became a member of the Little Entente, a treaty with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, to protect her against Russia and possible attack from Hungary.  In April 1939, to further protect its rich oil fields and Bessarabia from Russian aggression, Romania received pledges for assistance from England and France. 

However, after the fall of France to Germany in 1940, Russia did not hesitate to move and delivered an ultimatum to Romania for the immediate return of Bessarabia, and two days later moved troops into the region, meeting "some little resistance."  On July 1, 1940, Romania announced the evacuation of Bessarabia and at the same time the abrogation of the mutual assistance pact with England.  The greater part of Bessarabia was made into the Moldavian Republic and admitted into the Soviet Union on August 2, and the remainder was added to the Ukrainian Republic.  On August 1, 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov boasted of the gains. which largely returned territories taken from Russia in World War I.      

In 1989, with the neighboring countries engulfed in revolutionary protests, Ceausescu appeared to be trying to maintain control and popularity by asserting nationalistic claims to Bessarabia.  Romania's official press published accounts of unrest in Moldova, where 60% to 75% of the people were ethnic Romanians and much of the unrest was due to nationalistic sentiments, and Scinteia, the Communist Party daily, described a crackdown on ethnic Romanina demonstrators in the Moldavian city of Chișinău several days earlier.  Throughout Ceausescu's five-hour speech, delegates reportedly jumped out, shouted slogans, applauded, and sat back down in unison.  There were reports that Ceausescu even urged the Warsaw Pact to consider invading Poland, but those reports were not confirmed.    

"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it," George Santayana warned us. Ceausescu's appeals to old territorial claims and his concern about the plight of ethnic brothers and sisters in neighboring lands is eerily reminiscent of Putin's more recent comments and actions in the Ukraine.  It seems that Putin is merely following Ceausescu's old playbook, which in turn has been used by dictators throughout history.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It


Following the dramatic events of 1989 in Germany, protests erupted in the former Czechoslovakia in the greatest threat in decades to the rigid, hard-line communist government, leading 25 years ago today to the largest demonstration in the country since the Soviet-led crack-down on the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968.

Before the massive November 21, 1989 protests, Slovak high school and university students organized a peaceful demonstration in the center of Bratislava on Thursday, November 16.  But the next night, Friday, November 17, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators who had been given permission to march if they avoided Wenceslas Square, a favorite site of past anti-government protests. were viciously attacked by police using tear gas and clubs.  The violence erupted when some of the demonstrators disobeyed the order and defiantly headed for the square, and police beat the demonstrators, forcing them to run a gauntlet down Narodni Street.  

Martin Smid, 20, a student at Charles University, was beaten to death during the crack-down by red-bereted paratroopers of the Czech military.  Smid's girlfriend reportedly told activist Petr Uhl that the paratroopers singled Smid out for unknown reasons and pushed the couple against a wall.  "Two or three (paratroopers) took him into a dark side street and beat him with batons, then kicked him while he was on the ground," Uhl said.  The government denied that Smid was beaten to death, and detained Uhl for spreading "false rumors." Nevertheless, the movement now had a martyr.

The next day, Saturday, November 18, about 2,000 people confronted riot police in Wenceslas Square.  The protesters, undaunted by the crackdown of the night before, were blocked from entering Narodni Street by scores of helmeted riot police, and witnesses said that at least three people were chased, beaten by troops, and taken away in vehicles.  The protesters chanted "Freedom, Freedom" and other slogans and then, before dispersing, called for additional demonstrations.  

The people responded on Sunday night, when tens of thousands of people filled Wenceslas Square to mourn Smid's death.  The protesters built makeshift shrines, lit candles and laid flowers on the Narodni Street site where Smid had been beaten.  They then moved en masse across a bridge spanning the Vltava River, heading toward the ancient Hradcany Castle where government offices were located.  The police, who had stood quietly by during the protest in the square, quickly blocked the marchers' path with police vans on the other side of the bridge.  The crowd, which included parents holding small children and people in wheelchairs, began to jeer the police saying, "You killed the student, will you kill again?"

Eventually, the police gave way, and the crowd, relishing their victory, began clapping as they headed back to the square.  The movement had reached a tipping point of popular acceptance, and the police stayed out of sight as the people continued the massive demonstration, ringing bells and jangling keys.  Someone placed a banner reading "Don't Kill Our Children" at the base of the statue of King Wenceslas.  

Then on Monday, November 21, 1989, exactly 25 years ago today, more than 200,000 people filled the streets of Prague, demanding free elections and the resignation of hard-line leader Milos Jakes. The protests were accompanied by the clanging of bells from sympathetic trolley car drivers and bystanders jangling their keys in solidarity, and in a sharp break with tradition, Czech television devoted extensive coverage to the demonstration.  Some of the protesters carried banners reading "Red Murderers to Court" in reference to  Martin Smid.   Students also began a sit-in strike at Prague universities to protest the police attacks, and television reporters told of strikes at some high schools.
  
The Velvet Revolution was underway in Czechoslovakia.  Meanwhile, in a direct challenge to the Kremlin, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared that the republic was illegally annexed by military force in 1921 and reasserted its right to secede from the Soviet Union.  In Sofia, a crowd of about 2,000 people listened to fiery political speeches and signed petitions denouncing Bulgaria's communist regime.  In the U.S., a poll found Americans cautious about the changes sweeping Eastern Europe, and indicated that while most felt the changes were permanent, they were not yet dramatic enough to declare an end to the Cold War.       
       
At a major Communist Party congress in Bucharest, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu made it clear that as long as he was in charge, Romania would not follow other Eastern European countries along the paths toward democracy and capitalism.  By Christmas Day, a secret military trial will have found Ceausescu and his wife guilty of genocide and other grave crimes against Romania, and both will have been executed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Always Reliably Incorrect Dick Cheney

Budapest, 2004
Writing in a May 17, 1989 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Albert Schweitzer professor of the humanities at the City University of New York and a winner of Pulitzer Prizes in history and biography, lamented the "strange thought floated the other day by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney that he doesn't expect Gorbachev to last and, because 'somebody who will be far more hostile' may replace him, we should be in no hurry to deal with him."  

Actually, when you think about it, Schlesinger pointed out, Cheney advanced an argument for reaching agreements with the Soviet Union while Gorbachev is still around, not an argument against agreements with him.  "The prospect of hostile leadership should spur us on to institutionalize arms control agreements while there is still time," Schlesinger advised.

One has the impression that President George H.W. Bush, "a man of unimpeachable good will," according to Schlesinger, "is the prisoner of a bunch of foreign policy hacks whose idea is to meet every new problem with old cliches."

I've stated here before that conservatism is a neurological condition marked by an inability to form new mental maps and models in the face of new conditions.  Schlesinger's view of Bush's 1989 cabinet reinforces that view.    

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

History of the World, Part Two

Budapest, 2004
November 19 headlines from my notebook of press clippings documenting the Eastern European revolutions of 1989:

"Czechs brave riot cops"
"Bulgarians protest abuses of old leader"
"Latvians hold rally against Soviet rule"

More than 1.6 million East Germans went sightseeing and shopping in West Berlin that day, fueled by $54 per person in "welcome money" from the West German government.  West Berlin's shopping avenues were transformed into pedestrian malls, and people in West Germany reportedly greeted the tourists with free lodging, well-stocked store shelves, and just plain curiosity.  

Communist Party chief Egon Krenz, who had averted the bloodbath in Leipzig the month before, strongly indicated that a panel convened to investigate cases of corruption, personal enrichment, and abuse of power would investigate the activities of his predecessor and former mentor, Erich Honecker.

But probably the best quote in the 11/19/89 news was by the always reliably incorrect Dick Cheney, then George Bush's Secretary of Defense.  On CNN's Evans & Novak, Cheney "reiterated his long-held position that the odds are against Gorbachev being able to transform the Soviet Union into a modern society,"
"I remain of the opinion that the likelihood of that happening is still remote, that the obstacles he has to deal with are, in fact, enormous," said Cheney.  "I wish him the very best, but I don't think we could base our policies on the assumption that he will be successful."  
Ah, Dick Cheney - on the wrong side of history then, wrong on current events now.       

Monday, November 17, 2014



We constantly seek to disavow the self that is lost in delusion and identify with a self that we consider enlightened.

Until we realize that these two selves are both one and nothing at all, we're still clinging to the relative understanding of words, and missing the wisdom of the universe.