IN the United States, a leadership shift comes every few years. In Eastern Europe, it has come only once in a generation - and it is coming now, propelling much of today's dramatic changes in Eastern Europe. Only two years ago, four of the six communist party chiefs, Janos Kadar in Hungary, Gustav Husak in Czechoslovakia, Erich Honecker in East Germany, and Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria, were more than 70 years old and had been in power for more than two decades. Following the recent resignations of Mr. Honecker and Mr. Zhivkov, all these men are gone.
They were the Founding Fathers, men who often dominated their nation's postwar histories. When they chose communism, they acted out of genuine commitment, to fight for a Brave New World.
They were idealists, bony puritans with ascetic features. Around them, they saw a world filled with injustice, masses of impoverished workers, and peasants groveling in front of a few well-off.
Most of these courageous communists sacrificed and suffered for their beliefs, going to jail under right-wing regimes for belonging to an illegal ``subversive'' organization.
These experiences bred deep faith, an unbreakable conviction in the rightness of their ideas, which prevented them from recognizing communism's ultimate bankruptcy.
Hitler's SS arrested Erich Honecker in 1935, when the future leader of East Germany was 23. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Honecker wasn't released until the end of the war. Later, he justified building the infamous Berlin Wall by calling it ``an antifascist barrier'' against West Germany. Given his experiences under Nazism, given his belief that Nazism was a direct, natural consequence of capitalism, he believed this lie.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and moved to end the cold war, Honecker balked. Mr. Gorbachev moved to junk central planning. Honecker stuck to the bankrupt communist economic formula, and by the time he was forced from power, his legacy was shattered.
In Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov had a similar experience. Born in 1911 to a peasant family in a village near Sofia, Zhivkov's early biography is typical founding father: a child from a poor, rural background who goes off to work in the city and becomes a selfless, devoted communist.
Young Zhivkov studied at a technical school in Sofia and then worked as a printer. Before the war, he was imprisoned and tortured for his political activities. During the war, he joined the partisans, rose to the rank of colonel, and participated in the 1944 Sofia uprising.
Afterward he was named chief of the People's Militia, which conducted a bloody purge against anticommunists. As a loyal Stalinist, he continued to rise through the party's bureaucracy until he became first secretary in 1954.
Over the next three-and-a-half decades, he consolidated power and cultivated a certain popularity.
His formula consisted of ingratiating himself with successive Soviet leaders and portraying himself as a paternal father figure. Zhivkov never assumed intellectual airs. He preferred an image as a man of the people, who understood their needs and assured order and stability for them.
As best he could, he tried to adapt to the Gorbachev era. In an attempt to rid the country of the ``superficial pomposity'' and ``ostentation,'' he had adoring Stalinist statues of Zhivkov torn down.
But success in implementing true glasnost was limited. The thatched hut in Zhivkov's small home village of Pravets was turned into a museum. Visitors were handed a book entitled ``Todor Zhivkov, A Biographical Sketch.'' It ran 450 pages.
Successors Petar Mladanov in Bulgaria and Egon Krenz in East Germany, as well as Rezso Nyers in Hungary and Milos Jakes in Czechoslovakia, come from different backgrounds. They joined the Communist Party after the war, less out of idealism than ambition. Membership meant privileges and power.
Less ideological, this second leadership generation is not interested in capitalist bashing. Rather, it is looking for practical ways of improving living standards. But, if the going gets tough, some suggest that their lack of strong beliefs might leave them too weak to sustain deep, far-reaching reforms. ``The new generation has a no-risk, apparatchik mentality,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, the Czechoslovak dissident. ``They just look for the open door on the train and jump on.''
The results are unclear and contradictory. In Bulgaria, it is too early to say where Mr. Mladanev will stand. He enjoys the reputation as a liberal reformer. But some officials in Sofia are suggesting that he will be nothing more than a transitional figure.
In East Germany, Mr. Krenz came to power known as a hard-liner, the ultimate secret-police bureaucrat. Pushed by popular pressure, however, he has put his country on a fast path toward freedom.
In Hungary, too, Rezso Nyers accepts full Western-style democracy. But in neighboring Czechoslovakia, second-generation party chief Mr. Jakes hangs on to the old ways.
Mr. Jakes, a stocky man with a cold, chiseled face, represents the quintessential opportunist apparatchik. During the 1968 Prague Spring, he kept in close contact with the Soviet leadership. He approved of the invasion, and as the chairman of the Central Control and Auditing Commission supervised the ensuing purge of reformers. Almost 500,000 party members were expelled.
Hungary's Mr. Nyers represents quite a different character. Trained as a printer, he joined the Social Democratic Party when he was 17.
Later, after his party was absorbed by the communists, he always would insist that he remained a Social Democrat.
In 1968, he fathered the path-breaking ``New Economic Mechanism,'' which injected market forces into the stultifying central-planning system. But in 1973, a Soviet backlash forced him from the ruling Politburo and then from the Central Committee.
When Gorbachev came to power, the 67-year old Nyers returned to the Central Committee, and then joined the Politburo. Less than a year later, with preparations for free democratic elections well advanced, the party needed a leader who inspired confidence among the general public.
Nyers was the obvious choice. He enjoyed a well-earned reputation for sincerity, geniality, and honesty. Polls showed that more than half of opposition party members trusted him.
As rumors spread that he would be named party first secretary, Hungarian journalists tried to track him down. Nyers was returning home from a Socialist International meeting in Stockholm. The journalists staked out the VIP exit at the Vienna airport, where he was switching planes. They never found him.
``He's such a modest man,'' one of journalist later said in amazement. ``He just passed through the ordinary passport queue.''
Once in office, Nyers's only purge was of old-fashioned, outdated communist ideology. At a party congress in October, he agreed to drop all references to Marxist-Leninism. The red star on top of the parliament building came down.
The Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party became the Hungarian Socialist Party. The people's militia was disbanded. Hungary's name from even was changed from a ``People's Republic'' to the simpler, more democratic ``Republic of Hungary.''
The Congress elected Nyers party president. But many radicals in the party protested that the new president was refusing to expel the entire Old Guard. Nyers came off as weak and indecisive, and his popularity is plunging.
In roiling East Europe, it's hard to win. Nyers, considered a radical for much of career, now has become known as a ``conservative.''