As part of its Eh List Author Series, The Barbara Frum Library welcomed acclaimed author Anna Porter on November 17 to discuss her latest book, The Ghosts of Europe (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010). Marking twenty years since Central Europe wrenched itself free of its various Communist dictatorships, The Ghosts of Europe is a sobering glimpse into this region’s shadowy history and uncertain future. It focuses almost exclusively on the four countries that together comprise the Visegrád Group – Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – countries with distinct cultural traditions and histories, brought together after the collapse of Communism by a shared vision of European integration and democracy. In stark contrast to the initial jubilation and optimism that ushered in the post-Communist era with respect to these new ideals, Porter’s book reveals a Central Europe whose considerable transformation in the last two decades is threatened by its inability to adequately confront its own murky past. The Ghosts of Europe is a kind of cautionary historiography, an expertly researched portrait of the precarious nature of democratic ideals and the ease with which the unfulfilled promises of these ideals can give way to the corrosive rhetoric of nationalism, racism and extremism.
Interspersed with personal anecdotes of her childhood in Hungary and her many conversations with both civilians and key figures of Central European politics – including the last would-be emperor-king of the Habsburg dynasty, Otto von Habsburg, Polish intellectual Adam Michnik and Czech playwright-turned-President Vaclav Hável – Porter’s frank and charismatic delivery had the near-full house hanging on her every word. There was a sense of poignancy in the air, a sense that for the older generation in attendance, Porter’s accounts were more than mere stories of ongoing conflict in an often-neglected part of Europe. Rather, the evening seemed an exercise of quiet solidarity; for some, as for the author, it would be an exercise undoubtedly mixed with painful memories of lives lost or irrevocably changed, the traumas of first-hand experience under repressive regimes. Given Porter’s unflinching look at a region whose recent history is mired in upheaval and controversy, it is perhaps inevitable that old resentments and unresolved questions would resurface, as evidenced by one particularly tactless and misinformed audience question.
It is no surprise then that Porter’s most pressing concern is with the vital function of history itself, its crucial role in any truly democratic society. One of the biggest obstacles for Central Europe today, according to Porter, lies in the fact that the Communist regime, like that of the Nazis before them and their present-day extremist counterparts, took great pains to alter the past, to shape collective memory in accordance with their ideological aims, or simply to erase inconvenient aspects of the past altogether. As Porter pointed out, many influential figures of the Communist era, including prominent judges, lawyers and government functionaries, were able to retain their positions right into the present. It is against this background of corrupt, historical white-washing and global economic crisis that the last few years have witnessed a disturbing resurgence of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma extremist organizations such as the Hungarian Guard, a black-clad neo-fascist group known to terrorize the streets of the author’s native Hungary.
When asked about the likelihood of democratic values eventually achieving stability in Hungary, Porter’s cautious optimism was reserved for the generation currently under 25 years old, for whom nationalism and xenophobia are viewed as impediments to progress rather than sources of renewed strength. Before reading a chapter of her book dedicated to Hungarian dissident György Konrád, Porter assured the audience that overall she “collected heroes while writing this book, not enemies.” Still, the undeniably alarming trends of rising prejudice and violence serve as a reminder of both the fragility of democratic structures and the importance of engaging in open dialogue regarding the past, if only to ensure that it cannot be repeated.