Big Thaw Begins in East Bloc Politics


AS they emerge from the deep freeze of Soviet control, the reforming nations of the East Bloc are rediscovering the problems and prospects of their past. Decades of communism will leave indelible political marks. Neutral nations such as Sweden and Austria set a prosperous example to aim for. But long-suppressed national histories will also play an important role in shaping the future of Eastern and Central Europe.

In Hungary, a simmering feud with Romania has reemerged as perhaps the preeminant domestic political issue.

In Poland, a pre-war split between Catholic and secular democrats is showing up in Solidarity.

In East Germany, the question of reunification with West Germany is heavy with historical import.

Throughout the region, historians, writers, and intellectuals play a much more prominant role in politics, particularly opposition politics, than is typical in the United States. Bronislaw Geremek, a top Solidarity leader, is a historian. So is Lajos Fur, presidential candidate of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the country's main opposition group.

``Unlike in the West, historical issues often cut to the bone'' in these countries, says a State Department official.

During the Cold War, some facets of history went into suspended animation in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact nations. Soviet-installed communism dominated traditional internal political divisions; Soviet-enforced alliances buried traditional national rivalries. When Soviet muscle supressed uprisings, something of national identity was crushed.

Now that Eastern and Central Europe are beginning to go their own ways, national character again becomes important in mainstream political life. This does not mean that 1939 is about to reappear. Communism, whatever its future in the region, will leave a legacy, perhaps in a commitment to a broad social safety net.

``It will not be a return to pre-war Eastern Europe. It will be a mixture of things,'' says Milan Svec, a former Czech diplomat who is now a fellow at the US Institute of Peace.

Hungary, farthest along the road to reform, is the clearest case in point. Increased political freedom has meant the reemergence of many pre-war political parties. Some are led by many of the same people, such as the once-powerful Smallholders Party.

The largest Hungarian opposition group is the Democratic Forum, a descendant of the post-war democratic opposition. Nationalistic and populist, one of the Forum's main concerns is the ongoing ethnic battle with Romania.

Hungary has long charged that ethnic Hungarians are discriminated against in Romanian Transylvania. This is a serious charge in a part of the world where wars have started over the alleged mistreatment of blood brothers. Democratic Forum presidential candidate Lajos Fur, a Budapest University professor of medieval and early modern history, reportedly had his books on the Romanian question banned in the 1970s by Hungarian authorities eager not to offend another Warsaw Pact member.

Hungary and Romania now trade harsh language over the allegations. A group calling itself the Young Hungarians Political Action Committee demonstrated in front of the Romanian Embassy this week - not in Budapest, but in Washington.

With an estimated 20,000 members, the Democratic Forum is much larger than other main opposition groups, such as the more cosmopolitan, intellectual Free Democrats. With a dozen or so factions, however, the Hungarian opposition is splintered, and the communists have hope of emerging from free elections as the largest national party.

In Poland, Solidarity, led by the commanding figure of Lech Walesa, has already wrested some measure of power from the ruling Communist Party. But even Solidarity has shown divisions along pre-war lines.

On one side is a Social Democratic wing of Solidarity, represented by Bronislaw Geremek and journalist Adam Michnik. On the other is a Christian Democratic wing, somewhat more conservative and more oriented towards the Roman Catholic Church. Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, long a promient Catholic intellectual, is a member of this wing.

With political success, Mr. Walesa may find it harder to get these two groups to stay together. Earlier this year Walesa told Monitor reporter William Echikson that such a division is ``a matter of time - five, 10 years.''

But the presence of the past may be most keenly felt in East Germany. The historical issue that has arisen again is the vision of a united Germany. The Soviet Union still dismisses the notion, and the East German Communist Party still hopes to retain power.

But the thousands of East Germans who have poured into the streets and the implications of free travel over the intra-German border have made the issue more concrete than it once was.

Both Germanies have been intent on raising a postwar generation that will never repeat the history of its ancestors. To all appearances they have succeeded - neo-Naziism exists, but only as a fringe movement.

But neighboring countries, particularly France and Poland, would look askance at a new Germany. Jewish leaders have spoken out against any reunification.

East and West Germany are not just the same basic stock with different economic systems. Among other things there are disparities in religion.

East Germany is 90 percent Protestant and 10 percent Catholic, while West Germany is split 50-50. Protestant evangelicals, says William Griffith, a European history specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have played a large role in the East German uprisings. ``The church has been the only refuge for dissidents,'' he says.

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