"Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of European Freedom"
(Transcript from the 2010 Liberty Ball in Brussels)

20 years ago Europe changed. Following the collapse of communism, the people in Eastern Europe became free citizens. It was an unbelievable development in Eastern Europe: millions of people who spent their lives in the prison called Soviet Communist Bloc, like my parents, became free. Nobody in Europe ever thought that the Berlin Wall and the separation of Europe could have an end. The overthrowing of the repressive regime, followed by the peaceful reunification of Europe, was a new chapter in European History, and opened a singular chance for Europe as never before.

Dr. ZsuZsa Breier
Founder of the Association for Dialogue and Culture in the Enlarged Europe.

You see: I use enthusiastic words. I do it consciously, and I do it because I’m convinced that Europe needs these words much more than before. The commemoration of the end of decades of repressive communist rule is especially needed in countries in the Eastern Bloc that are in deep crisis and where the initial euphoria is long gone.

But my concern is not with the pure remembering, how it was, how we got it – the freedom we were longing for over such a long time. For me the question is what have the people in Europe made of this freedom, this singular chance. Why are Europeans in the East so disappointed after 20 years? Why did the West not notice the existence of communist crimes, which should become part of the European identity. After the failed experience with communism we all have to learn the lessons. Knowledge of history, including Eastern European history, is fundamental for Europe’s future.

In the West, there are millions of people who never heard about the Gulags. Millions have never heard about communist crimes, which eliminated, destroyed and damaged millions of lives. How will these people be able to choose between ideologies? How can they decide for or against political ideas and visions, without knowing this eastern European experience? How can they appreciate democratic values like freedom and human dignity when they never missed them? How can they understand what it means not to live in freedom and justice?

These questions led me to the idea, to confront the positions of eastern and western Europeans 20 years after the downfall of communist regimes in Europe, 20 years after overcoming the division of Europe. My “Double Memory” speakers from all over Europe came to the conclusion that in Europe there is still today an asymmetry. In communist times it was hard for eastern Europeans, living in the worst part of Europe. Everything was worse than in the West: our economy, our results, our clothes, our food, our houses, our language skills and our communication skills – and of course the future perspectives for our children.

But worst of all was the lack of freedom. It is not a good feeling, coming from an unsuccessful or even failed country or Bloc. A politician from Slovakia, Iveta Radicova was telling in her Double Memory Speech about her first visit to Western Europe. Her visit was marked by this asymmetry. She was frustrated; she was worried about the feeling of inferiority. And then it happened: Sitting at dinner with some people, her glass of red wine tipped over. She spontaneously asked for forgiveness. She said: “I’m sorry for that, but I’m coming from the East”. Years ago a German friend of mine looked at my letters and said to me: stop apologizing every time.

Eastern Europeans have to make up leeway. We missed a lot, we missed a normal development – our long-time lagging behind is ever-present in our minds. My first Memory Speaker, the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, said: “People who never actually lived in a totalitarian system will never understand what that implied. It is hard to imagine, how communism influenced everything: It dominated not only its true believers, it frightened not only its enemies, it corrupted not only its authorities - but it infected the whole life.” If you don’t know this basic fact of European experience, Schwarzenberg said, you will never understand Europe today. Eastern Europeans can still be frustrated with language problems even today, and also with bad economies, bad politics, bad moods. And Western Europeans can be unsatisfied with the Eastern European results, with fast-spreading populism and extremism, with bad political culture – but it does not help. Neither the frustrations, nor the accusations.

It is true: we in Eastern Europe are concerned about the economic downturn. People are disappointed and bitter (over 80% are unsatisfied with the situation), people lost their trust in politics and many run into the arms of populists and extremists. And it is true, surveys show: in a few post-communist countries, a majority says people were better off in communist times than after joining the EU. I am not kidding. Nevertheless people should be happy about the fall of communism, the overthrowing of the repressive regime, the unprecedented positive change.

Eastern Europe should enjoy the rule of law, the respect for human rights, the free market economy, free travel, free expression – all things the Eastern Bloc was longing for. But now people are suffering and are unhappy.

Do people have a reason for being unsatisfied, or were their expectations false? Do they have to learn how to live in freedom? How to be responsible for themselves?

It is with freedom the same as with other aims: once you have reached them, you seem to lose awareness of their significance. 20 years after the fall of the Wall, everybody asks: where is the enthusiasm, the happiness of 1989? Why is it over? But have you ever heard of a honeymoon that lasts for 20 years?

If you wake up a Hungarian from a deep sleep, and ask him to recite a piece of poetry about freedom, he will tell you:

Szabadság, szerelem! / E kettő kell nekem. / Szerelmemért föláldozom / Az életet, Szabadságért föláldozom / Szerelmemet. // Liberty, love! These two I need. For my love I will sacrifice life, for liberty I will sacrifice my love."

In the Hungarian culture there is also a counterpart to Hamlet’s famous question “To be or not be”. For Hungarians, the existential question has always been a different one: Shall we live as slaves or free men? That's the question.

Rise up, Hungarian, the country calls!
It's 'now or never' what fate befalls...
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That's the question - choose your `Amen'!
God of Hungarians, we swear unto Thee,
We swear unto Thee - that slaves we shall no longer be!

What wonderful statements about freedom! One very romantic and passionate, the other, “The Ode to Liberty” is intent and impulsive. (Just one single word of this really perfect poem I would replace: “Shall we live as slaves or free men?” - I have never understood, why our poet did not remember to include also the will for freedom of the women – but anyway.)

This “Ode to Liberty” is not about literature. It has been in Hungary a really delicate political and security issue, all over the communist years. I grew up with these words like millions of other Hungarians. Every year on the 15th of March, the Hungarian National Day, Hungarians commemorate this question of being free or being a slave with this poem. Why? The origins of this day and of this poem are to be found in the liberation from Habsburg rule in 1848. But when I recited this poem on the 15th of March, it was much more than remembering this 19th century liberation – the Habsburg times are long gone. It was neither our passion for poems nor a special interest for the history of the 19th century, which led us to this recitation. It was the communist dictatorship, it was the lack of freedom.

Our communists did not think much of freedom. They preferred to control, to check, to spy, to restrict, to limit, to reduce. The narrower the life space, the easier the control about it. The less diversity, the more uniformity – the easier to dominate, to rule, to dictate. Dictatorships do not tolerate freedom. The Day of Liberty and the Ode to Liberty were troubles for communists. So they cancelled it. They simply abolished the Hungarian National Liberation Day on the 15th of March. But it did not work. You can cancel a National Day, but you can’t abolish a national memory. You can suppress people, frighten them, corrupt them, put them in prison, even kill them – but you can’t abolish a national identity. Hungarians recited their Ode to Liberty even after the abolition. The poem, a small revolt, grew into a big one. Every year on the 15th of March in Hungary there was a small revolution. The last one was in 1989, 20 years ago.

20 years after the fall of the Wall, the enthusiasm is over. The happiness about the freedom Eastern Europe was longing for so courageously and passionately, is long gone. Nobody recites the poem of Sándor Petöfi. I like poems and especially this poem. And I also liked the exciting times when people took to the streets and fought for freedom. But I don’t feel sad and I am not sorry about this change of the time: I enjoy living in a free world, having democratic rights.

We all need freedom, and we all need love. Eastern Europe risked a lot for the freedom and did not give up. It was a time of heroes: the poet Petöfi was a hero and all the people who recited his poem for freedom were heros. But it is good that today we don’t have to sacrifice our life for love and our love for freedom.

But take care, and remember the history for the future: Freedom is not something we can take for granted. We have to work on it every day, both in the East and in the West.


The 2010 Liberty Ball

Friday, March 5, 2010