History is not the inexorable working-out of impersonal biochemical, economic, or political forces. History is the actions, inactions, and interactions of men and women endowed with intelligence and free will, capable of nobility, beastliness, and banality. History, Hegel wrote, is a butcher’s block; history is also Homer and Virgil, Dante and Michelangelo, Bach and Mozart, Einstein and Mother Theresa. The estimable Dr. Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding, history cannot be reduced to the institutional structures by which we govern ourselves and regulate our commerce; history is also art and architecture, music and poetry, the novel and the drama, philosophy and theology. History is custom and tradition, innovation and discovery. History is about sin, and history is about redemption.
In some times and places, history can seem frozen in amber. Harper Lee began her splendid novel of the American South, To Kill a Mockingbird, with an evocative description of an “old town” where “people . . . ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” But in other venues, history seems set on fast-forward, and the experience of life is correspondingly intensified.
For centuries, east central Europe has been the kind of place where history is painted in vivid colors—blood red, brilliant blue, deep green, burnished gold. Geography has had a lot to do with this. The great plain between the Germanic tribes and nations, on the one side, and the eastern Slavs, on the other, seems made to order for the march and counter-march of infantry and the wild charges of cavalry, a fact seized upon by marauders and heroes alike: Genghis Khan, Jan Sobieski, Charles X Gustav, Józef Pilsudski, and Field Marshall Gerd von Runstedt, among them.
Religion has also contributed to the boisterousness of the region. For in this (now fast-closing) second millennium of the common era, east central Europe has been one of the cock-pits of intra-Christian controversy: first, as an arena of conflict between the Latin Christianity of the West and the Eastern Christianity of Byzantium and Moscow; later, in the Reformation-era battles between Catholics and Protestants, and then among the Protestants themselves. On its southeastern borderlands, the religio-cultural mix was made even more volatile by the only sustained Islamic settlement on the European continent. And throughout the centuries, Jewish communities sought a modus vivendi with their Christian neighbors; that the quest ended, for millions, in the modus moriendi of the Holocaust is a memory that will scar east central Europe for centuries.
Then there were the empires. The Khanate of the Golden Horde and other raiders from the vast steppes to the east; the Teutonic Knights and their Prussian heirs; Hapsburg kings and queens, Russian czars, Polish-Lithuanian gentry, Ottoman sultans and viziers, Nazi Gestapo and Stalin’s commissars—all battled for political control of the eastern parts of Middle Europe. The one constant in the political life of the region was that its people rarely controlled their own destinies.
Now, they do. Or, to put it a bit more precisely, now they have the opportunity to do so, and in a historically unprecedented way: a democratic way. Whether that opportunity is fulfilled or botched will be affected by decisions made elsewhere; but the tale will be told primarily through decisions made by the people of east central Europe.
And so, at this fifth anniversary of the annus mirabilis, 1989—the year of the largely non-violent revolution that marked the end of the Cold War—let’s meet some of the people who have been creating the future of that part of the world during the last half decade.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.