Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe: A Conversation with Peter Schramm
Peter W. Schramm, Ellen Tucker
August 1, 1992
Between October 1989 and October 1991, Mr. Schramm made eight trips to three European countries—Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria—to observe the programs of democratic reform being undertaken there. He was sent as a member of several international delegations observing newly organized democratic elections and on one occasion as part of an American group reporting on democratic reforms in Hungary. A number of the trips were sponsored by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and others were made under the auspices of the National Republican Institute for International Affairs.
While not a specialist in contemporary Central and Eastern European history, Mr. Schramm—who himself emigrated from Hungary as a refugee from the 1956 revolution—was able to witness one of its most critical passages. The two years during which Mr. Schramm made these trips encompassed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the unraveling of centralized Communist authority in the Soviet Union itself. They saw tentative groupings toward liberalization, triggered by Gorbachev’s experiment in perestroika, snowball into reforms Western observers never anticipated. In August, 1992, Mr. Schramm reflected on what he observed of this process in the light of his broader studies of politics and political philosophy. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tucker: Your first trip to Hungary, in October 1989, was only a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What was the state of the reform movement in Hungary at that point? And what sort of future did Hungarians see for it?
Schramm: Hungary had been going through some massive changes over the previous six months. New legislation, surprisingly enacted by a still communist-dominated parliament, was rolling off the press, and outside observers had begun to suspect that a fundamental alteration of the political order was underway. Because the United States government needed some extra eyes to look at the situation and think about what it could mean, my group of three was sponsored by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, at the request of the State Department and the Agency for International Development. We talked with government leaders, who were of course communist, as well as with all the leaders of the various emerging opposition groups. We met with the US ambassador and his staff.
During the summer previous to this, a large number of East Germans had gone through Hungary, using their vacations and their ability to enter this Warsaw Pact country with relative ease, to come to the West. Uncharacteristically, Hungary allowed the East Germans to cross the border into Austria. That summer there was also the ceremonial reburial of Imre Nagy (the revolutionary anti-Russian, if not anti-Communist, leader of 1956), which proved to be a great catharsis for the nation. Not only did the Communist Party allow that to occur, in fact a number of the liberal or moderate leaders within the Communist Party attended the funeral. And more consequential, in political terms, were a series of “round-table discussions” that took place during the summer of 1989. A number of opposition groups in Hungary—which the following year would turn into what we properly call democratic political parties—were in negotiation with reform elements within the Communist Party to try to liberalize the regime. The anti-communist groups obtained the Communist Party’s assent to certain constitutional changes, some of which seemed to be rather fundamental. For example, free elections, legalization of political parties, free press, and so on. It was agreed during the round-table discussions that these changes would be placed in law by the communist-dominated parliament. And the interesting thing about it is, that’s exactly what happened. The Communists kept their agreement.
Now, mind you, at that point in Hungary, nobody talked about the Berlin Wall coming down, the demise of the Soviet Union, the demise of the Warsaw Pact. Nobody talked about that. There was great fear, on the part of democratic Hungarians, that the Soviet Union could move in at any time and crush this budding revolutionary movement. They also knew that nobody, including the United States, could do anything about it or would do anything about it. Historians should not forget that it was in such an atmosphere that these dramatic changes in Hungary took place.
Tucker: But surely the Hungarians knew that their actions during the summer of 1989 would have regional implications. When the Hungarian Communists allowed so many East Germans to flee through Hungarian boarders, did they not anticipate that this would cause changes in East Germany? Did they perhaps allow this refugee flow in order to provoke such changes?
Schramm: Perhaps, but they did not realize that the change they would provoke would be so vast, and they feared that at any moment the Soviets might step in to stop the exodus. Remember that by then the Hungarians had made a very large public point of showing to the world that they were dismantling the barbed wire around the Austro-Hungarian border, indicating that there would be freer movement to the West. Perhaps they were also encouraged by the West Germans, although this is not clear. At least initially they were encouraged by Gorbachev.
Tucker: Given the risk the reformers perceived, how was it possible for them to have undertaken to change the regime at all?
Schramm: Of course the perestroika movement in the Soviet Union had signaled that there could be some room for change. What is curious is that the Hungarian Communists allowed the round-table discussions to go as far as they did, and kept the agreement made there. In part, I believe, they kept their agreement because they were pretty well convinced, no less than Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, or other so-called reformed communists, that this attempted reform of the communist order in Hungary was really not particularly different from any other reform that had taken place under Hungarian or other communist regimes. That is to say, to would loosen a few political and economic strictures but still maintain the Communist Party in power. Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, communist parties for a variety of Machiavellian self-interested reasons have had to allow occasional periods of reform during which they might catch their breath and then continue on their normal path. It never occurred to the Hungarian Communists that within a few years of the round-table discussions, they could be voted out of power. In fact, by May of 1990, the Hungarian Constitution had been amended so that free and fair elections could be held. They were, and the Communist Party got less than four percent of the vote, while the Socialists—who had been reformed Communists—got around ten percent. In less than a year after the Round Table negotiations began, Hungary had become free: a real Republic of Hungary was born.
To say that the Socialists and Communists were surprised by the lack of support is to state the obvious. In fact, I was struck by how poorly the great (and then renowned, especially within American liberal circles) reformed Communist Imre Pozsgay fared in the elections. He ran for a parliamentary seat in western Hungary and came in a very low third. Since he was one of the powerful driving forces behind the reform movement in the round-table discussions, it was thought that he would quite naturally be a powerful force, perhaps even become President, of the new reformed socialist regime. The voters in May of 1990 did not think so. He wasn’t anti-communist enough for their tastes. This was a reform movement that turned into a revolution.
But the point here is that, after the reform process began in Hungary, reform did spread throughout the region, although the depth and seriousness of the reforms varied from place to place. We witnessed this huge uprising in Bucharest in late December, with shooting in the main square in front of the Communist Party Headquarters looking like fireworks going off. Ceaucescu was overthrown, and there was great relief, for it looked like even Romania was going democratic. It turned out, of course, that this revolution was only apparent. I went to Romania in May, to observe its elections. Opposition parties had developed very quickly, and an early election was hastily organized by this fellow Iliescu who replaced Ceaucescu and was given credit for his overthrow, and who of course ran in the election against two other opponents. Iliescu, under a renamed Communist Party, got elected by eighty-six percent of the vote. There was basically no change of regime in Romania. Then the following month—June of 1990—I went to Bulgaria where parliamentary elections were held. Here also the Communist Party, having renamed itself the Socialist Party, won a majority, in an election that this time appeared to us relatively free and fair. The Socialists continued to dominate Bulgaria until October of 1991 when I visited again, and a second series of elections was held where the Socialists were limited to a minority.
Tucker: So, in the three countries you visited, you noticed the greatest possibilities for fundamental democratic development in Hungary. After that, limited possibilities in Bulgaria and perhaps a stifling of those possibilities in Romania?
Schramm: Yes, the potential for democratization varies greatly. It is perfectly clear to me that Hungary is better off politically and economically than other states in the region. It fares better not only because of all the Central and Eastern European countries, including the ex-Soviet Union, it has received the majority of Western investments, but because of its political culture. It’s freer and more democratic and has better potential to remain so than Bulgaria, most certainly than Romania, probably even more than Poland or the countries that used to form Czechoslovakia. In this process, the character of the people matters more than the astuteness of the bureaucratic reforms and the new legislation. I saw this in Romania at the time of Iliescu’s overwhelming victory at the polls. The morning after the election I was in Transylvania in the offices of the local leader of the Liberal Party, which received less than six percent of the vote to the best of my memory, and there were a number of other people in the office, all very depressed. And as I tried to understand their depression, I suggested that while certainly they didn’t fare well, really wasn’t this just the beginning of a longer process and shouldn’t they be more hopeful? They said, “The Romanian people are not ready for self-government.” They saw the apparent changes in the regime during the previous six months as a ruse that the Romanian people had spinelessly allowed to be perpetrated against them. Iliescu had overthrown the tyrant Ceaucescu, but really hadn’t changed any Communist doctrine; he had merely promised the people a half-hour less work a week and half-a-loaf of bread more. And the Romanian people had taken that gift. That proves to us, said this leader of the Liberal Party in Transylvania (who was not a Hungarian but a Romanian), that the Romanian people are “slavish” and unready for democracy. “And furthermore,” he said, “we will not be ready for a very long time.” So he made a serious proposal to me, whom he took to be a representative of the United States government authorized to receive and transmit such proposals. He asked that we send in a couple of divisions of United States Marines to Romania to rule the country for thirty years without their consent, but during that time to teach them self-reliance, moderation, all the virtues necessary to rule themselves. It was quite a dramatic moment—the discussion lasted hours, actually—and it revealed to me the great difficulties of the so-called process of democratization. After all, he was asking for an imposition of self-government. He thought that the kind of citizenship necessary for free government to exist would have to be created by forces brought in from the outside. It was the kind of argument that Churchill made on the behalf of the British Empire.
Tucker: If you compare what you learned in that discussion to what you observed in Hungary and Bulgaria, what seems to you more fundamental in determining the prospects for democratic development in Central and Eastern Europe? Is it the thoroughness of the tyranny practiced during the Communist period? Or is it the culture that preceded the relatively brief period of communist rule? How much difference did that period make? Did it fundamentally alter the cultural attitude of the populace?
Schramm: That’s a very important question. I think you have to be much more prescient than I am to give it an exact and comprehensive answer. Certainly the communist regime had a detrimental effect on the possibility of free government. But the underlying culture also matters. Take the case of the former Soviet Union, or Russia. I remember, when I dabbled in Russian history years ago, coming across a famous nineteenth-century Russian fable. A genie appears, and in front of the genie are a Russian, an Englishman, and a Frenchman. And the genie says to the three of them, “I’ll grant each of you the fulfillment of one wish.” The Englishman says, “Well, I would like a cottage by the sea.” And the genie says, “Done.” The Frenchman says, “I would like a vineyard and a mistress.” And the genie says, “Done.” Then the Russian says, “My request is simple. My neighbor has a goat, but I have no goat. Kill my neighbor’s goat.” Perhaps the story exaggerates, but this is a Russian story, so the satire is introspective. Now what would an American say about his neighbor having a goat? He’d say, “Well, it’s a billy goat; give me a female goat and I’ll produce other goats and pretty soon everyone will have hundreds of goats and I’ll be as rich as all get-out.” The Russian response is negative, spiteful, and envious. It sees those who have something more than oneself as undeserving of it; there is an affinity between that view and communist orthodoxy, which sees the owners of capital as committing theft against the people. When you combine this cultural predisposition with Marxism-Leninism, you get a mixture that is really detrimental to the human spirit, and effectively squashes those traits necessary to live as free men.
Now, Hungarians have a culture very different from the Russian. Hungarians pride themselves on their capacity for hard work, and of course like other Central Europeans have a tremendous ethnic pride which is not unrelated to their resistance to Marxism-Leninism. But even Hungarians are afraid—still are today, and certainly were when I visited—of becoming responsible for their own economic well-being, because during forty-five years they grew used to a system that, in some measure or other, took care of them. Today, in the freer market, they face the risk of bankruptcy as well as the opportunity for profit. Probably any individual in virtually any regime fears the removal of government supports of his economic activity. We see the same reactions in the US; hence American commentators call for the provision of “safety nets,” and so on.
Tucker: You would say, then, that while some cultures are more open than others to the ideas of self-reliance and competition, the temptation to appeal to government for economic protection is open to everyone. Are there other factors than cultural ones, then, that affect the success of democratization?
Schramm: Just as important as the history, the culture, and the traditions of a people are its principles or purposes as it embarks on democratization, and how clearly these are understood. In talking to the opposition parties, I saw that the Hungarians had a much deeper and broader understanding of what free government was all about. There was one specific instance in which I had a conversation with members of what would be called, in English, the Young Democratic Party. These people still form an opposition party in Hungary. They were very young. In fact, you had to be under thirty-five to be a member of the party. Almost all of those who organized the party were intellectuals, young Ph.D.’s and such. So they were learned and thoughtful people. And I remember in the early days of October of 1989, being in their offices in Budapest, and having a three-hour conversation with four or five of them that, it may surprise Americans to know, was almost entirely a conversation on what we would call “political philosophy.” At one point I asked them, “Who are your heroes?” Now remember this was before the overthrow of the communist system. I said, “Obviously you do not look toward Marx of Lenin” (because they were vehement anti-communists) “but to whom do you appeal?” I suggested that perhaps they looked toward the leaders of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or, for example, the Hungarian reform movement of the 1830s. They said, “Well, yes, to some extent of course. 1956 was a critical moment for us. Of heroic proportions, even though it was incomplete. It was not really an anti-communist revolution. It was more an anti-Russian movement. But, our real heroes fundamentally [and these are their words] are John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.” And then we had a discussion of political philosophy around Lockean and Jefffersonian themes. They understood very clearly what that meant: that there is something called human nature, and that by virtue of that nature human beings have rights, and that there is such a thing as natural right or natural law that ought to govern positive law and positive regimes. They understood liberal democracy. This is significant: it’s not only the culture and the history, the habits and traditions, but the purposes toward which they are aiming.
Tucker: How did these young democrats manage to learn about liberal democracy?
Schramm: Well, that’s very interesting. They managed to learn about it, originally, through underground publications. But in a way, they’ve always known about it. Let me back up for a minute. The Hungarians, like all people, love their own history, and they well remember that, in 1848, Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary, (who would visit the United States after the 1848 revolution failed) used to tromp up and down the streets of Budapest quoting the Declaration of Independence. Now, starting in the late nineteenth century, and especially, of course, with the birth and growth of Marxism and Leninism, the things for which the Declaration stood in some ways were forgotten. But it’s not something that was never there. Throughout Europe during the last two centuries, the dominant models of freedom were the American Revolution and the French Revolution. While the French Revolution and the short-lived republic it established exerted an influence not necessarily favorable, of course, to political liberty, the continued existence of the American republic represented a viable ideal. America always stood for something, something high and dignified, and something more human than other nation-states. I mean, when I grew up in Hungary (I left there when I was ten), I had American novels my parents gave me that I remember reading at ages seven, eight, and nine. The very first books I read were Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and The Last of the Mohicans. Now, my parents were not educated. They were not in any technical sense America followers. Yet to follow America is what everybody did, and it was natural to give one’s child novels that, because they represented something called the United States of America, represented life, more than any other country. Now, the other thing about Hungary, to be more practical about it, is that, although a period of oppression followed the failed 1956 revolution, by the late 1960s the regime had started opening up, and Kadar, the fellow who helped the Soviets put down the revolution, liberalized the regime economically, more so than any other communist regime. Hence Hungary enjoyed much broader communication with the West, in terms of freedom but to travel out to the West and to receive Westerners, even Americans, back into Hungary, than most other places in Eastern and Central Europe. Radio Free Europe and the underground media increased this communication.
Tucker: It seems that in Hungary they didn’t try to completely eradicate outside ideas, if you could get copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and so on.
Schramm: Well, they attempted it. But, for example, I have a Hungarian edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was published later, in the 1960s, and I remember reading the end of it, where there’s a reference to Christianity, and that’s removed. So, certainly they attempted it, but not fully successfully. They just couldn’t be quite as successful as, for example, the Romanians or the Bulgarians. But even Bulgaria maintained a notion of American freedom during the communist period. I must say that I had my prejudices, like anyone else, about Bulgaria. A small country of nine million people. A reputation as sort of a sixteenth Soviet republic, even though not geographically joined to the Soviet Union, with hard-line anti-American foreign policy, and obedience to Soviet directives. It’s been involved in terrorism, including the attempt to assassinate the Pope. A bunch of tough guys. Yet I have felt that Bulgaria, certainly as compared to Romania, and perhaps even to, say, Serbia, had much more potential to democratize. The people seemed to be harder-working. And one thing that struck me in Bulgaria, aside from the fact that everybody there loves country and western music (which in itself is a significant moral and political fact—how can you like Merle Haggard and George Jones and not be a believer in free government?), was that they were very pro-American. On both visits I made to Bulgaria, even when the communists had not yet been fully overthrown, American flags were everywhere. You’d go to a little village in the middle of nowhere and you’d see little American flags that people would carry in their lapels or on their cars. I asked them, “Why is this?” And they were dumbfounded that I would ask such a ridiculous question because to them—and their answer was always the same—the American flag represents freedom.
Tucker: These anecdotes speak to a democratic ideal very alive in the popular mind. But you also speak of intellectuals under thirty-five years old who have read Jefferson and Locke. Did you see continuities between the intellectual idea of what democracy is and the popular idea?
Schramm: Well the popular idea of democracy, especially as held by young people in such countries, is the obvious one. That is to say, freedom. Do your own thing. That the human being ought to be allowed to do whatever he wants, and to be responsible for his own destiny. Now, frequently that manifests itself as the search for material well-being, rock and roll music, and all those sorts of things. After all, that’s the most physical, obvious manifestation of this thing called liberty. Young Eastern and Central Europeans have always pursued this ideal, even at the height of communist tyranny. You know, if you wanted to show your independence, say, twenty-five years ago, you wore blue jeans, which everybody knew cost you six months’ wages, and listened to Radio Free Europe, not only for the news, but to see what the latest musical developments in the Western world were. And the representation of the West, with a capital W, is a very significant thing, especially in a country like Hungary. Back in the early days before the communists were overthrown, the Hungarians spoke in terms like this: “There’s a train leaving the station and it’s going west, and if we don’t get on that train—we have attempted it before, and the attempt was noble, but it failed—then this could be the last shot.” More recently, Hungarians were conscious of the plans for Western European political unity, which they knew was scheduled for 1992, and wanted to be a part of that. To them, the European Community represented Western civilization. Here we see a theme of Hungarian history. They’re Roman Catholic. Their first Christian king was crowned in the year one thousand, King Stephen.
Tucker: So the popular yearning for democracy partakes on the one hand of a desire to participate in Western material culture, and on the other hand of an identification with the older religious tradition of the West.
Schramm: Of course, the Hungarians’ identification with the West is a philosophical as well as religious. You find Hungarians who have read The Federalist Papers. Yet the philosophic aspect lacks historical representation in the popular mind. See, Hungarians would say, “You Americans are lucky because you had a founder. You had a great event, lasting a generation, during which you worked out your form of government, the principles for which you stood, and this thing called a constitution, which is quite a remarkable document, that explains how you are going to achieve these purposes of liberty and equality. Since then, you’ve made mistakes, including of course the institution of slavery itself, and you go winging off in your politics occasionally, but you can always return to your fundamental principles and to the deliberations which the founders had with regard to the purposes and means of government. And that will always sober you up. We don’t have that.” That’s very interesting. The Hungarians have democratic or (in the nineteenth century sense) liberal traditions, given the 1848 revolution and the 1956 revolution which took inspiration from 1848 to some extent, but those were imperfect manifestations of something that we much more perfectly and concretely laid out over two-hundred years ago. And they are keenly aware of this. This problem became more obvious to me when I would visit a place like Romania or Bulgaria, because there they had very few of these kinds of democratic traditions to appeal to, and certainly very few democratic heroes. Then you get extreme cases, such as I read about in the New York Times less than a year ago, where the Mongolians, attempting to “democratize,” tried to appropriate a tradition which frankly they never have had as far as I know. A democratic party in Mongolia actually made the argument that Genghis Khan was one of the first democrats. Well, that’s a problem. Let us assume for the moment that he may not have been as tyrannical as we have thought him to be: one still doesn’t find here any semblance of the democratic ideal. Americans don’t have this problem, and they envy us for that and, indeed, it’s an enviable situation to be in.
Tucker: Given this problem, would the Hungarians you talked to, for example, now feel a need to completely re-found their regime?
Schramm: Clearly, clearly. They are attempting a re-founding, and in some ways, I think, the political discussion in a place where this is happening is much more profound than what we find in the United States today. Ultimate principles and the very nature of constitutional free government have to be addressed. I’m not saying that they’re all political philosophers, yet when I visited Hungary one saw those kinds of questions raised everywhere, even in newspapers. Of course, they always have difficulty in all of these countries, even in Hungary, in understanding “constitutional government.” It’s the same problem we had in our founding. On the one hand you want to found a regime which is popularly based, and in which the majority rule, and on the other hand you want to establish a majority that is reasonable, secures the rights of all, and doesn’t only rule in its own interest but rules for the whole on some understanding of justice. Yet constitutional government, that is to say limited government, is harder for them to understand than it was for the American founders not only because of the communist ideology that was imposed on them but because of the effects, of which Marxism may well be one, in fact, of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, of course, ended in tyranny, whereas our revolution ended in political freedom. Why the two revolutions ended so differently is a very interesting question, having to do with the limitation of government and ultimately, in my mind, with Rousseau being the godfather of the French Revolution and Locke being the father of the American Revolution. Yet the French Revolution remains a kind of touchstone of modern European political theorizing. Hence, that constitutional government puts a limit on governmental power, in the economic arena as well as others, is something that they find very difficult to understand. The fact that you can still be a thorough-going socialist and be a democrat in a place like that has to do with, I think, the effects of Rousseau’s teaching with regard to the general will. This teaching authorized government to do anything, for as long as it does on behalf of the people, it’s the same as the people doing it for themselves. It is a kind of obliteration of the individual on behalf of the collective. The whole purpose of politics understood in this manner is that man’s natural selfishness has to be done away with. That is what the Rousseauians mean by justice. The effects of this view are terrible from the Lockean point of view where governments are instituted to secure natural rights, which in practice means opportunities, and that government has certain limited purposes only and must stay away from trying to restructure society and fight human nature. And this view of things is going to be something that’s much more difficult to overcome for these Europeans.
Tucker: Is this entirely the influence of the French Revolution, and the ideas of Rousseau, or could it be attributed to the cultural differences between a Protestant people (as most of the American founders were) and a Catholic or Orthodox people.
Schramm: No, I don’t think so. Catholicism in the United States today, I think, understands limited government as well as Protestantism. Now it may well be true that the habits that Protestantism brought to the United States initially were more sympathetic to this Lockean, Jeffersonian view of the world. But just as Catholic thinking about social arrangements has evolved in the United States, so it has evolved, I think, in Central Europe, including Hungary, which is primarily Catholic, but not as Catholic as Poland. That religion is important goes without saying, and certainly in a country like Poland even more so than a country like Hungary, but there is also a sense that the religious understanding of things does not suffice to ground political liberty in the modern sense. Hence the appeal to heroes such as Locke, Jefferson, and of course Abraham Lincoln, whom the Central Europeans hold in the highest esteem. You’ll recall that, in the midst of the Polish labor uprisings that ultimately became their revolution, the kind of assistance that the Poles explicitly requested of Americans, when we offered our help, was “translations of Abraham Lincoln.” They don’t have them at all. So Mario Cuomo, the governor of New York, after a conversation with Polish leaders, back in 1989 and 1990 edited a book of readings from Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and letters that was translated into Polish and has since been published in English in the United States.
Tucker: So you’d say that the differences between Catholics and Protestants have faded in importance over the years. After all, when we think about the reform movements that spread over Central and Eastern Europe in recent years, beginning with Poland, later in East Germany, what we most often saw on TV was the crowds of protestors gathered in the churches, sometimes Protestant as in East Germany, sometimes Catholic as in Poland.
Schramm: And around Protestant churches in Romania as well.
Tucker: And when Hungarians, referring to their Roman Catholicism see themselves as more a part of Western civilization than their Orthodox neighbors do, they think of that civilization as including predominantly Protestant America.
Tucker: But what about the religious differences within Central and Eastern Europe? Can we overestimate the importance of those, for example, between the Catholic and Orthodox peoples and between them and the Islamic peoples?
Schramm: No, that’s a different matter. To backtrack a bit: what has happened in the United States, for good or ill, is that the religious question, in human life, is tamed by the purposes and means of American politics. And that means that the Judaic and Christian aspects of the Western tradition were moderated. Now it’s also true that certain other religions, including Islam, which of course is not properly said to be of the West, and perhaps some Orthodox sects—the one Serbs practice, or the one the Romanians practice, or the one the Bulgarians practice—have not been similarly touched by the moderating influence of a philosophical or political tradition. For example, in Islam the lack of separation of church and state makes the religion less, and I say this advisedly, reasonable.
I do not impugn the truth of the religion itself, I should add, but rather speak of its political consequences. In Western civilization we see a fruitful tension between Athens and Jerusalem, two entirely different ways of looking at the world and at man’s place in it, neither of which can, on its own terms, defeat the other. This tension drives Western civilization morally, philosophically, and even technologically. At this moment in human history, the United States of America represents that tension most clearly, and that’s why it is a domination force intellectually and practically: because it’s more comprehensive in its purposes.
Tucker: Could you speak of differences between the democratic movements you encountered in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary? Do they have competing ideas of what democracy is?
Schramm: Sure. Without going into too many details, there seem to be two varieties of democrats in these countries. One I would call universalistic, the other traditionalist. The first type tends to be in opposition, while the traditionalist parties more frequently rule. The first group, typical of which is the Young Democratic Party that I described earlier, appeals to Lockean or Jeffersonian principles far more than the second group does. The latter try to be more rooted in what they see as the democratic or moderate political tradition within their own country. For example, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which is the ruling party in Hungary now, and which sees itself in the Hungarian tradition of moderate conservatism. Of course such parties are characterized by the opposition, and by some commentators in the West, as being too nationalistic, too rooted in their own. However, even the traditionalist parties are influenced by the Lockean-Jeffersonian principle that I mentioned, so the two types of democrats are not utterly at odds.
Tucker: So you wouldn’t see these traditionalist groups as necessarily narrow and bigoted in their views?
Schramm: No. There are some extremists—fewer in Hungary, in my judgment, than in Romania and Bulgaria. But no, they’re not simply fascist or even reactionary. There are some extreme subgroups. In Romania there’s Vatra Romanesca, for example, a very nationalistic element which I think is essentially fascist, because it is primarily racially or ethnically oriented. Most of them are much more moderate than that. You must remember these are small countries which historically have been pushed around by larger powers, and so there is always much more of a patriotic attachment to their own self-generated political developments, even if they’re modeled according to liberal principles, than Americans today evince for their own politics. If you were to talk to an ordinary Hungarian about these matters—by that I mean a Hungarian who in not involved in high politics—to ask him, “Why do you want freedom over communism?” he’d say, “Well, because we Hungarians deserve it, we always have. We work hard and we can be responsible for our own actions.” So, he’s give a very Hungarian answer, at least at first. It’s really a natural answer. Patriotism and ideas of liberty are easily mixed. Of course, the effects of that frequently can be extremist. So far we really haven’t seen any manifestations of that extremism, with the exception of what is going on in Yugoslavia. But potentially it’s always there.
Tucker: If you do not see worrying immoderation on the part of ruling traditionalist parties, do you not find, nevertheless, that their more nationalistic orientation limits their implementation of democratic reforms?
Schramm: Yes, of course; it should be stressed that the real impetus for democratic reform comes from the universalist sort of perspective, the Lockean and Jeffersonian, with a kind of infusion of the French Revolution. A nationalist perspective is not sufficient. And the nationalist perspective does not does not limit the ability to grasp the universalistic idea. There is the problem that I saw when I first made these trips, that in the beginning of this process of democratization, the reformers do mean what we in the United States mean when they speak of “rights.” They refer less to individual rights than to the rights of Hungarians or the rights of Romanians or the rights of Bulgarians, etc. Or they speak of group rights, ethnic rights (although I admit that this is sort of rhetoric, unfortunately, can now be heard in the United States as well). So, it was harder in many cases to talk about human rights and natural rights as the basis of government. Frequently the discussion would revert to the rights that a particular people—the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, or whoever—have vis-à-vis others. In fact that’s the kind of logic that today drives the Croats and the Serbs.
Tucker: The bitter ethnic rivalries re-emerging today after the disappearance of communism seems perhaps the region’s major problem. You’re saying that it’s not simply Eastern and Central Europe’s complicated population patterns, but the incomplete understanding of what democracy is that fuels these conflicts.
Schramm: The population patterns are a big problem, of course, but only because of the historical memory that creates these strong feelings of ethnic identity. In Central and Eastern Europe we find small countries that once had been part of larger empires or dependent upon larger political entities for their existence if not well-being. Hungary, for example, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that entity was cut up, as a result of World Wars I and II, into a smaller country than it had ever envisioned itself as being. So you find something like two-and-a-half, three million ethnic Hungarians surrounding Hungary in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and what used to be Yugoslavia, areas once part of the vanished empire. These Hungarians, severed from present-day Hungary, have a keen appreciation of their ethnic predicament. They’re always subject to exploitation by other states, and they’re always on the verge of dissolution, from their own point of view. So, politically and psychologically they must continue to assert themselves to give themselves an identity, and of course the way to do that is to refer to their past and how they have been oppressed by larger powers and to talk about excellence in ethnic or communal terms. Of course, this kind of ethnic self-consciousness puts the focus on the differences between groups, and denies the commonality of the diverse elements within the modern nation. It is a tribal thing. One is challenged to show members of a tribe that, while in some ways they differ from members of other tribes, in some essential respects they are the same. To promote democracy we must show them, on the other hand, that the universalistic principle upon which popular government is ultimately based is not something that ends their identity as a people; that it does not rob them of the idea that has given them cohesion through, perhaps, thousands of years of existence as a people; that it will, in fact, be of great benefit to their collective identity. On the other hand, we must show them how this universalistic principle can broaden their horizons beyond the particular tribe they belong to by accident.
I had a very interesting experience in Transylvania that touches on this issue. I was with a number of interpreters in Tirgu Mures, and we had a free few hours, so we drove a little further south. It was a lovely mountain village with an ancient castle, one of the residences, I believe, of Count Dracula—a beautiful setting weighted with mythic significance. This group of interpreters, although most were of Romanian nationality, had different ethnic identities: one German, one Hungarian, one ethnically Romanian. They did not know, by the way, that I was born in Hungary. There was no reason to tell that to anyone in Romania. And I felt particular delight in keeping this secret because, since there are a large number of ethnic Hungarians in the center of Romania—in Transylvania—while most ethnic Romanians there speak Hungarian as well, I was able to understand a lot of their conversations without them knowing it. And of course, because I was there as an American, I didn’t want ethnic Romanians to hold any prejudices against me or to think—as they certainly would have—that I had a pro-Hungarian bias. In fact, I might remark in passing that because I kept this secret, I had a particularly interesting conversation, lasting many hours, with the leaders in Transylvania of Vatra Romanesca which are the extreme nationalist Romanian groups which absolutely, as far as I could tell, despise Hungarians. Of course, they talked to me as an American. It was very interesting, and most revealing.
But to return to my story, we’re standing on the parapets of this castle in Transylvania, overlooking this valley, and I’m admiring the spectacular view, when one of the Romanians with me says, “Yes, and this is where the battle took place,” and he points to the north in the valley. Then he says, “And this is where the Germans came through and slaughtered the Hungarians.” Then another Romanian says, “Yes, and this is where the Hungarians came through and slaughtered the Germans.” And they went on with a rather elaborate description of this momentous battle, their expositions and descriptions fierce and poignant, and always prejudicial to the other tribes. Given the way it was described, I assumed the battle had happened relatively recently, during World War II or that era. So I asked, “When did this battle take place?” and the answer I got was something like (and I honestly don’t remember the exact date) 1583. Realizing what had occurred there in this five-minute discussion that these people of various ethnic identities were reliving this battle of four-hundred years ago as if it were yesterday, I was in shock. And then, to their astonishment, I laughed. I couldn’t stop laughing for a while, but finally I composed myself and said, “Forgive me. Let’s talk about this later.” I was going to have dinner with them that night.
At dinner, we conversed for many hours, over wine, on the issues of ethnicity, identity, universalistic principles of democracy, etc. After a time, I explained my laughter to them as directed not at them but at my own earlier incomprehension. We had had conversations on this before and yet I hadn’t understood, until that moment at the castle, how alive this tribal sentiment was in their souls. In as humorous a way as I could, I tried to explain how hard it was for an American to appreciate their feelings, as an opposite sense of identity had developed in America. They all knew immediately what I was talking about. But their response, however, was, “Yes, you were able to do this partly because of accidental circumstances in your history, partly because of principles you laid out at your founding. But, you see, it’s too late for us to do this. We have too much historical memory. The memory is both a curse and a blessing, for without it we couldn’t have an identity, yet because of it we relive battles fought four hundred years ago.” And so, it’s a dilemma for them. At the same time, of course, if you were to give them the choice of either continuing to live their ethnically self-conscious existence in Transylvania or moving to Barstow, the vast majority of them, without doubt, would go to Barstow. The Transylvanian Liberal Party leader to whom I referred earlier, who cried after the election when his party only got six percent of the vote, as I was leaving him (after explaining to him that the United States Marine Corps could not come in and govern his country in order to teach them self-government) remarked that for himself personally, the only solution was to emigrate.
Tucker: So, while at times the ethnic rivalries in Central and Eastern Europe did not seem definitive, at other times they seemed overwhelming obstacles to unity in the new nations.
Schramm: You can only moderate the ethnic rivalries, you will never simply eliminate them. For these Europeans can only moderate their passions of self-love, which always make them oppose others. And therefore your expectations of them and the democracy they may achieve ought to be moderated.
Tucker: You referred earlier to Hungarian constitutional reforms. What is going on in that area? In the countries you visited, how does such a process work? Are they sitting down to write an entirely new document, or are they retaining elements of the old constitution? Have they produced other new founding documents, anything equivalent to our Declaration?
Schramm: The answer is relatively simple. The way it began, for example, in Hungary was that the still-communist parliament amended the constitution according to the dictates of the round-table discussions. Which amendments then allowed them to have elections, which they held six months later. Then the newly-elected parliament had the charge to rewrite the constitution, which they did. This new constitution speaks of human rights and natural rights, as do, to the best of my knowledge, the new constitutions recently produced in other Eastern and Central European states. All constitutions since the American Constitution—those of Latin America or wherever—use the same rhetoric. “All men are born free and equal,” etc. The actual details of the constitutional processes of government of course vary from country to country, but they tend to establish parliamentary systems, with very elaborate election codes—some members of parliament being elected on party ballots, some through districts, some through other methods, etc. It’s very complicated. One reason that it’s so complicated is that they tend to take as a model of the German system, which is essentially proportionally based. In Bulgaria, for example, there is a four-hundred member unicameral Grand National Assembly, with two hundred members being elected from single-member electoral districts, and two hundred from multi-member districts under a party list system; but a party had to receive at least four percent of the national vote in order to have any seats in the legislature. And in addition to setting out the parliamentary arrangements, the constitution writers excise all the typical Marxist terminology. The first thing the Hungarians did was to rename the country—what was the People’s Republic of Hungary becoming the Republic of Hungary—and to deliberate at great length over what would be their coat of arms and flag.
Tucker: What did they decide?
Schramm: The coat of arms is the old one used in the 1848 revolution.
Tucker: So at this turning point in their history they resort to a traditional, nationalist symbol—they do not create a new symbol. Would you say that their new constitution is a completely new vision of government, a way to start over, with a clean slate?
Schramm: No. Partly, of course, this was prudence on their part. You remember, they began rewriting the constitution in effect with the round-table discussions in the summer of 1989, before the Warsaw Pact fell apart. At that time prudence dictated that they not say things as explicitly as they meant them because of the feared Soviet reaction. The big bear could come into the little hut any time it wanted to and do what it wanted. So those kinds of geopolitical realities were always in the minds of the democratic leaders of these countries. To their surprise, this worry become less of an issue, and is now a non-issue.
One historical point should be made here, one that generally has been missed in commentary on the changes in Europe, especially commentary by Americans, ironically. Zhulu Zhelev, the President of Bulgaria (whom I met with a number of times in Bulgaria and later in Ohio), made the point himself. President Bush invited him to Washington. A reporter asked him whether he was travelling elsewhere in the United States after he met with Bush. He said, “I’m going to California because I want to meet the founder of perestroika.” The reporter, rather puzzled, asked, “The founder of perestroika lives in California?” And Zhelev replied, “Yes, Ronald Reagan.” And that’s what he did. He went to shake hands with Ronald Reagan. The Central and Eastern Europeans, in the beginning states of this process, understood that both the final cause and efficient cause of the demise of communism was, in fact, the United States of America. First, because the principles for which it stood and second, because of its policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and communism over the decade of the 1980s. They were absolutely convinced that what put an end to the Soviet empire were the policies of the Reagan administration, and they were right. You recall that in the early eighties the Soviet Union put mid-range missiles into Europe, and conducted a huge propaganda campaign to try to pacify the West, so as to prevent the United States and its NATO allies from putting similar missiles into Western Europe to counteract the Soviet threat. But the propaganda effort failed. Reagan stood up to it. Reagan’s announcement of plans to develop SDI and the pro-democracy speech in 1983 to the British Parliament, his estimation of Marxism-Leninism as a theory destined for “the ash-heap of history”, his momentous utterances. They admit that in the early 1980s they were frightened by the Reagan presidency, which they feared would rashly provoke Soviet power. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Empire had expanded to every portion of the globe, and the Central and Eastern Europeans thought the survival of the United States of American in doubt. Initially they saw Reagan as a cowboy who shot from the hip, making threats he lacked the skill or force to sustain. But as time went on, they saw him devastate the evil empire without firing a shot. For them, one of Reagan’s most astute moves was his Strategic Defense Initiative, which even in the planning stages promised to neutralize Soviet nuclear power, including the blackmail uses to which they could put that power. For the Central and Eastern Europeans knew that the Soviets could never keep up with the Americans in the development of an ADI technology. One after the other, the leaders of the democratic, anti-communist parties, from the Christian Democratic types to the Liberal types to those of the Socialist variety, told me that the policies of the Reagan administration were critical to the demise of communism. There’s no question in my mind that the historians will also recognize these policies as a cause of the Soviet collapse.
Tucker: This raises another question. If your defense posture was one way in which we facilitated the transition to democracy east of the Iron Curtain, are there other ways in which we can continue to promote democracy there?
Schramm: That’s, again, a difficult question. Let me back up a little bit and say that, before the full collapse of communism manifested itself, Hungary, still under a communist regime, signed (in mid-1989 to the fall of 1989) an agreement with the United States to admit Peace Corps workers. This was the first, and now probably the last, request of a communist-dominated country to the US for the Peace Corps. When I visited Hungary in October 1989 there were one hundred Peace Corps volunteers set to go into the country. And you know what the Hungarians wanted them to do? Very simple. Teach English. They weren’t interested in any technical assistance, because English to them, which they had heretofore been able to teach only surreptitiously, was really the avenue to all of the intellectual firepower as well as technological progress in the Western world. I suppose that agreement was fulfilled, even after the communist regime fell in Hungary, and a hundred Peace Corps volunteers are now teaching English there. So, how to answer the question? I think the last thing on earth these people want is foreign aid, given what they’ve seen of other countries who’ve fallen prey to this madness. What they want is foreign investment and free trade.
Tucker: Do the Central and Eastern Europeans you encountered generally believe in free trade?
Schramm: Well, on the one hand, they understand the market very clearly (sometimes I think better than most academics) and so they want to encourage foreign investments; on the other hand, there is some fear that foreigners will come in, buy everything, and soon own the country. Such fear is understandable, especially on the part of a people with intense ethnic pride. But I think that’s something that can be overcome or moderated. Here we might help by pointing to our own experience. For a long time, for example, during the construction of railroads in the nineteenth century, the United States relied on foreign investment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If foreign investment continues to pour into this country, it’s because we enjoy the unusually stable and moderate government. In that sense, our experience teaches that the important thing is to establish such government, creating the climate for private investment, whether by foreigners or otherwise.
Yet it may take more to moderate the fears of foreign investment. One thing I noticed in these countries, especially toward the end of my visits there, that is, in 1991, was the fear of Germany. Reunification made the power of Germany, which already dominated the European economy and which over the last century has wielded the greatest political impact in Europe, appear even more formidable. Many people talked to me about this, but I didn’t understand it at first, because the way they addressed the issue was to plead that our government encourage private American investment in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. At first I took this at face value, thinking their friendliness to American things made them desire an American business presence. Then I realized what they chiefly wanted was an American counter-balance to the Germans. As they see it, without an American presence in the small Central European countries (as they now like to call themselves), it’s only a question of time before Germany dominates, because no other European power has the interest of elan to affect their economy other than in a minor way. Of course, the Japanese were everywhere during my visits (not as tourists, for there was nothing leisurely about the pace of Japanese activity in these countries—they were on business!) and they have opened up all kinds of businesses and joint ventures—automobiles, etc.—in Hungary. They Hungarians don’t particularly mind that, because even that is a kind of counter-balance against the German thrust.
Tucker: Aside from encouraging private American investment in Central and Eastern Europe, what else might the United States do to facilitate democratic development there?
Schramm: I don’t think we need to do very much more. Ordinary kinds of exchanges—for example, bringing here Bulgarian parliamentarians and showing them how Congress works (which may not provide such a great example, however!), I think could be somewhat useful.
Tucker: You wouldn’t even say that we should presume to counsel them on how to rewrite their constitutions, for example.
Schramm: I think in the initial states, we had such consultations in all these countries, and I think they may have been of some use, but I don’t really think it’s necessary we be involved in the region’s particular reforms. I think we should remind them of the principles for which we stand and for which, in some measure or other, they themselves should stand by virtue of being free and democratic nations. For that can moderate them, especially with regard to these ethnic questions we talked about.
After all, there is the danger that those Americans who press for greater intervention in Central and Eastern European affairs might not understand what those they would help really want. For example, at the beginning of the reform movement, American liberals, and especially elements of the Democratic Party (in the delegations of Americans sent to monitor elections and so forth in these countries, Democrats and Republicans were equally represented) were less convinced than conservatives that the change made would be fundamental, and they were less certain that if communism were dismantled in these countries, East Germany as well as Czechoslovakia and Poland, would revert to a kind of Swedish-style socialism rather than to a free-market, laissez-faire system, a la the United States. Once real elections occurred in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the American Democrats were distraught when the parties with more free-market or Christian-Democratic rather than Social-Democratic tendencies dominated. And that’s exactly what happened in very single country except Bulgaria, which elected a more free-market oriented majority to parliament in a later round of elections. In other words, these newly freed countries said, “No, we don’t want to be Swedes. We are less interested in security and more in opportunity.” I mean the Communist Party in Hungary, after renaming itself and whatnot for the election, got only ten percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. They have no representatives in parliament. Those reform elements of the Communist Party that renamed themselves the Socialist Party got approximately ten percent of the vote in the initial elections. The most important so-called communist reform leader didn’t even get a seat in parliament. He came in third in his district. The man who everybody thought was going to become the President of Hungary while I was there in October of 1989 couldn’t even get elected to parliament a few months later; he only obtained his seat there through an appointment from the party list, a process that is constitutionally allowed. He’s a reform communist who now calls himself a Socialist, but he came to have absolutely no authority in the country at all. And all the radicals, that is say the anti-communists, dominate. All this was a shock to certain American liberals who had thought that to promote reform in the region they should work with Socialists.
Tucker: So you feel we should allow them to work out their own ideological preferences and constitutional solutions to government.
Schramm: That’s right. Where we must be vigilant is in the example we set and in the encouragement we offer to their democratic principles. I can illustrate how Americans might forfeit the moral authority they have in this regard. Something close to this happened at the meeting I earlier referred to, with the Young Democrats in Hungary, who are best described as moralists. I was there with another American at the time, just the two of us talking to four or five of these party activists, in this bleak office furnished with nothing but a few posers on the walls, a couple of Xerox machines which I think the Americans had paid for, no tables, and just the filmiest of chairs. The Young Democrats—these thirty-year old assistant professors at universities—looked like hippies, smoking one cigarette after another, and denouncing Communism. But they said their goal was not only to overthrow communism, but to set up a democratic political order which would teach the Hungarian people to behave rightly as self-governing human beings—to behave morally righteously, even. They spoke melodramatically of this duty, yet certainly they were rhetorically effective.
The conversation went on in English so that my American colleague could understand it and they would understand her. Now she was what the Russians would call an apparatchik—just a party hack, high-level, but a pragmatist. At length she leaned over to them, to these people who had tears in their eyes and were making fervent points which they held in highest importance, and said, “What you people don’t understand yet is that all these issues of right and wrong, of morality, don’t really belong in politics. As you get experience you’ll learn: you’ve got to just take power and rock and roll with it.” These were the terms this highly-positioned appointee of the current American administration speaking in strictly Machiavellian terms, which is exactly what they were trying to overcome. Immediately I broke into Hungarian—so that the woman, the other American, wouldn’t understand—and told them to ignore the comment, that this was not characteristic of American politicians, that such a point of view certainly didn’t belong to the party of Abraham Lincoln, which they held in high esteem, nor did it belong in democratic politics as a whole; that they were correct. Her comment was very embarrassing. Here she was this person who had been involved in American electoral politics for decades advising people on the verge of overthrowing totalitarian tyranny to, in effect, replace it by another form of tyranny. Such comments from such Americans clearly undermine our attempts to foster democracy abroad. We can’t send people like that woman to sit in front of these people with their new-found freedom and talk in such crass, unprincipled terms with them. It does nothing good for them, and it does nothing but lower their esteem for the United States.
Tucker: Without the introduction of such cynicism, there must be enough in the situation of the reforming countries to reduce the initial idealism of the anti-communists. One reads a lot these days about Russian frustration with their economic reforms, which so far have brought inflation but not yet prosperity. Did you see any changes in Hungarian attitudes between your first trip and your last? In their hopes, their optimism about the democratic process?
Schramm: Well, I think that recently they have become more realistic. They are finding the vestiges of communism hard to root out. The bureaucracy in most of these countries, even Hungary, is still run by the ex-Communists. The ex-Communists also still have most of the money. If you sell off all of the state-owned enterprises to whomever has the capital, there’s a very good chance that only ex-Communists will acquire these enterprises. While they governed, they used the Party and the state for their own purposes and stashed away great wealth. You’ll have noticed, there really hasn’t been a great effort to purge or bring to trial the ex-Communists of Central and Eastern Europe. They decided to make the thing as bloodless as possible, which in some ways is very admirable, but there are unfortunate consequences to this. Those who might be forgiven because they did not make the decisions that shaped the Communist regime—the mid-level managerial types who just a year or two ago worked on behalf of the Communist Party apparatus—are now working for the new democracy and shaping it from within.
So, the Hungarians are losing their initial euphoria. But Hungarians are pessimists by nature. They thrive on their pessimism, and you just have to read the words of their national anthem to realize that they see themselves as a sad, despairing people. Just before the Communist Party fell apart, when things were really worse than they had been in awhile, there was a joke going around Hungary in the form of a saying, “The situation is hopeless—but it’s not yet bad.” Hungarians think that they have been unjustly treated throughout their history and that their history will likely continue in the same manner. So their expectations have been more moderate. Some opinion polls I’ve seen recently say they’d now like to revert to a kind of Swedish socialism because they feel less secure than they did under the last years of communism. And there’s probably some truth to that. But I don’t foresee any reversion to communist or socialist tyranny in Hungary. The ex-Soviet Union is a different case. I think that’s a much harder nut to crack, because of the longer term of the oppression and because their habits of mind and heart are less open to democratic development.
Tucker: Some of the early leaders of the reform movements—those who gave them their intellectual drive—are already receding into the background, the people seeming to reject in some part what they strove for. Do you see this trend persisting?
Schramm: I think so and it’s ok. Take Czechoslovakia. Havel is not someone whom I have as high regard for as most American commentators. They liked him because they perceived him to be what Americans would call a Liberal. As indeed he was. You will note that, in the American press, one does not hear the intellectual accomplishments of other Central and Easter European leaders extolled as Havel’s were. Yet the President of Hungary is a translator of Faulkner and other English and American writers, having learned English while in jail for many years. The Hungarian Prime Minister is a historian. And the President of Bulgaria is a philosopher. Many others might be mentioned, but none of them have had the kind of public relations working on their behalf that Havel had. Yet the truth of the matter is that Havel’s position has not prevailed. His great antagonist within his own party, Klaus, is no less of an intellectual, but the Western press just doesn’t treat him well because he’s a hard-line free-marketer in his economic policy, which Havel never was. There’s tradition in Europe in general, and certainly in Central Europe, of honoring intellectuals and granting them authority. People assume that the intellectuals under Communism kept the flame, reading and writing their books at night under dark covers and by candlelight, so that ideas of freedom and national integrity could be resuscitated later on. If intellectuals have higher standing in their societies than we have given them here, that’s not necessarily to our disadvantage. It’s just a different ball game. Yet this will change, because politicians, as politicians should in a democratic regime, will come to the fore, and the Central and Eastern Europeans will become more trusting of them. But that will take time.