Spirit Quest


Ghosts of the Old World haunt the New

'The worst part of communism is what came after it'
By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

I believe in ghosts, the kind that Anna Porter writes about in her fascinating book, Ghosts of Europe. These are not the poltergeists that are reputed to rattle the windows and swing chandeliers in those old and dusty castles on the Rhine, the Danube and the hills of Transylvania, but the spirits that will not rest after Europe’s  transformations since 1989.
That year the Berlin Wall came down. Young Germans swarmed over that concrete obscenity into “freedom.” They had hopes for a better life, to travel, to purchase a car without waiting months if not years for its delivery. They wanted to be informed and not have the Stasi poke their noses into their every affair. They weren't all satisfied as East German businesses were bought  up by western interests, then closed down those old and inefficient factories causing massive unemployment. Along with the Wall the Iron Curtain that divided Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean collapsed as the Soviet Union ceased to be soviet or union. 
Porter writes about the events that convulsed the former communist countries: Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Slovakia that soon separated from the latter, as well as Hungary. She had spent her early years in Hungary before fleeing west, first to New Zealand and later to Canada. 
Since the fall of communism Porter spent much time travelling, interviewing and researching the torturous paths to freedom.From the war’s end, when those countries fell into a new captivity as harsh as what they had experienced under fascism, to the present she found that elements of that past still slink like phantoms in the night. 
The story of Hungary is a convoluted and troubling odyssey. In 1956 it underwent a revolution against its communist masters which was crudely aborted by Russian tanks. Thousands of Hungarians attempted to flee to Austria. I was in Vienna at the time and encountered some of the successful ones.The rich located themselves in hotels in Vienna and those who came with nothing were housed in crowded refugee camps. They had hoped for American support of their revolt but nothing came. 
I also recall their coming on ships docking at Pier 21 in Halifax. I was serving as chaplain at the port and watched their arrival. When the gangplank was in place they marched off proudly carrying their flag. Many were wounded by their experiences of loss and betrayal. In their flight they were often double-crossed by their own people who wanted to be on the safe side of power. The captured were imprisoned, tortured, worked to death and outright killed. There is a museum in Budapest that documents the atrocities committed.
I met a very young woman from Budapest who told me that one evening her parents sent her out to buy some bread, but when she got to the store she was swept up by huge mobs running down the street pursued by police armed with batons and guns. She ran with the crowd and never saw her parents again. She lied and layed her way to safety so much so that she scarcely knew what was truth. With many others she managed to get across the Austrian border and was taken to a Red Cross camp. Now finally she came to Canada alone and so confused that she was temporarily housed in an immigration hostel receiving those in need of psychiatric care. 
In 1968 I returned to my Czech homeland for the first time since my family’s flight from the Nazies in 1938. I was there during the Prague Spring when the president, Alexander Dubcek, was attempting to put a human face on communism.  I met a happy and optimistic people as I walked the streets of Prague. Pictures of their beloved philosopher president, the late Thomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850 - 1937) hung in windows. People seemed to breathe more easily. Then once again in August of that same year Soviet tanks put an end to this experiment. A very severe, hard line communist government took over.
Among the people that Porter interviewed was Vaclav Havel and other members of Charter 77. This was a petition drawn up by Czechoslovak writers and intellectuals. It demanded that the Communist government recognize some basic human rights. All of them had spent time in prison for refusing to knuckle under the system. They had published clandestine writings and performed plays in secret, all challenging the government and its advocates. 
In Poland in the spring of 1980 Lech Walesa rallied the workers of the Gdansk shipyards against the communist dictatorship. It along with “glasnost” initiated by Gorbachev set off the end of communist dictatorship. In our part of the world it was President Reagan’s economic and military policies that was largely given the credit for the end of communism. That’s only partly true.  But as Adam Michnik the fearless Polish activist wrote, “The worst part of communism is what came after it.” He was of course referring to struggles to cover up, to make up for lost opportunities but also a revival of racism especially against the Roma (gypsies)  and other ethnic minorities along with an ever present anti-Semitism.
In each of these countries there were Quislings that betrayed and took advantage of the system. In Prague I heard it said that the biggest communists are now the biggest capitalists. There are ghosts and skeletons in the closets of all those countries, that want out into the light of day.  As Wikileaks revealed truths hidden from the public, so intrigue and collaboration needs to be revealed in Europe’s east.
Porter’s book has opened up the recent history of eastern Europe. We in the west thought that once the power of the Soviets was broken democracy in all its glory would prevail. The people she interviewed revealed a much more difficult journey. There are ghosts that walk the streets of Budapest and Prague, Warsaw and Gdansk that many would rather keep hidden.
We, who as tourists glide down the Rhine and Danube, enjoy the rich culture of Mozart’s Prague and Vienna, drink the fine wine of Hungary’s Lake Balaton region, are scarcely conscious of the blood and tears that were shed on those very places in that last century.
Books like Anna Porter’s are very important to wake us to historic realities. She concludes her account with the words of the great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (1907 - 1977):  “No society ... can function without a moral foundation, without conviction that has nothing to do with opportunism and expected advantage. Man does not define morality according to the caprice of his needs, wishes, tendencies and cravings. It is morality that defines man.” Dare we apply this to our own situation where corporate and financial powers set the nation’s agenda? 

I believe that there is a Spirit even in this young land that disturbs and defines us. It is not our wealth and systems of governance, but our compassion, ideals and our morality that reveal who we truly are.