|David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.|
A lot happened in Estonia during the summer of ‘88. It began following the banning of a rock concert in Tallinn’s inner city by the ruling Communist Party, when a few thousand ordinary people walked down the road to a large outdoor arena, and started to sing.
The next day, there were 10,000 people at the arena. By the sixth night there were 200,000 people, holding hands and singing traditional songs unheard in the country for 50 years.
This story, in some form or another, was played out in more than a dozen East European countries during ‘88 and ‘89. In Romania the Ceausescus were shot after a kangaroo court hearing, in Czechoslovakia the Velvet Revolution seized power through sheer force of numbers, and in Berlin the sound of hammers smashing a diminutive concrete wall marked the end of European communism forever.
What these stories have in common is heroism. In Prague, Marta Kubišová emerged from 18 years of enforced silence to sing her banned anthem Prayer for Martha for a crowd of 100,000 people, knowing full well that in doing so she was challenging the regime to silence her. In Bucharest, miners trucked in from the countryside to cheer Ceausescu took to jeering him instead, despite lines of heavily armed stooges glaring from the balconies.
From Sofia to Gdansk, from Riga to Tbilisi, ordinary people stood up for what they believed in, and won their countries back.
The sadness is that these stories are being forgotten. While references to Hitler and Stalin still abound in our media, few young people are familiar with Honecker, Zhivkov or Kádár, despots who oversaw the enslavement and oppression of millions of their own people. These people need to be remembered, and not only in the countries they ruled.
Every weekend thousands of tourists infest Tallinn, and yet the city’s extraordinary Museum of the Occupation sits deserted. Budapest’s Terror House does better trade, but still nothing like the numbers one might expect. Other European capital cities seem to have chosen to forget the events ever happened – there are no museums; not even statues of those who gave their lives.
The 25th anniversary of the fall of communism will likely be marked in each of the dozen countries liberated, but without a glittering array of foreign dignitaries. For whatever reason, Central and Eastern Europe’s journey from dictatorship to democracy is no longer particularly sexy.
Shouldn’t every European school child be as familiar with the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall as they are with the rise and fall of Hitler? Is the tyranny of the Warsaw Pact really that much lesser than the tyranny of fascism?
George Santayana told us that he who forgets history is doomed to repeat it. If he is right, the future of Central and Eastern Europe might not be as hopeful as it should be.