East Bloc Drama From Front Row

THE MAGIC LANTERN: THE REVOLUTION OF '89 WITNESSED IN WARSAW, BUDAPEST, BERLIN, AND PRAGUE By Timothy Garton Ash New York: Random House 156 pp., $17.95 `People, your government has returned to you.'

- Vaclav Havel

THAT Czechoslovakia's ebullient velvet revolution last fall was organized and conducted by a dissident playwright operating from a series of rooms beneath a theater called the Magic Lantern seems too perfect. Can art and nature and irony and justice all be so aligned?

They were last November in Prague. ``In a sense,'' writes Timothy Garton Ash, ``all of Prague became a Magic Lantern.'' The entire city glowed with a sudden awakening to an old Bohemian expression of religious reform: Pravda Vitez'i, or ``Truth shall prevail.''

The mass demonstrations, the factory strike committees, the improvised posters splattered everywhere, the theaters packed every evening for debate, the Civic Forum groups founded in schools and offices - all were expressions of men and women overthrowing the lies not only in the government and official press, writes Ash, but also in themselves, in the daily hypocrisy they had too long tolerated.

``The semantic occupation was as offensive to them as military occupation,'' he writes. Suddenly the people thirsted for a truer story: ``The long queue every morning in Wenceslas Square, lining up patiently in the freezing fog for a newspaper called The Free Word, was, for me, one of the great symbolic pictures of 1989.''

``The Magic Lantern'' is a short but substantial eyewitness account of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe (and one of the first accounts on that subject to reach United States stores). The book contains four vignettes - central moments in last fall's events in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and especially Prague - wrapped between an introduction and an excellent closing interpretive essay on the causes and meaning of East Europe's decisive rejection of Marxism.

No one is better qualified to tell this story than Ash, one of Britain's leading journalists on European affairs. Nor has any writer in the 1980s been closer than Ash to both the developing reform ideas and the dissident East bloc players. Last fall he coined the expression, ``A revolution of 10s'' (it took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany, and 10 days in Czechoslovakia.) But it was Ash's friendship with Vaclav Havel, and Havel's use of the expression, that made it famous.

``Magic Lantern'' is not as measured, deep, or stately a book as Ash's previous work, ``The Uses of Adversity'' (Random House, 1989), which assembled much of his reportage, setting a new standard in analyzing the interplay between the ideas and political behavior of Central European nations. The vignettes in ``Magic Lantern'' are less reflective; they've been dashed off immediately after he walked through the Berlin Wall, emerged from Solidarity headquarters, or witnessed the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyr of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Still, the book has more weight and content than its 156 pages would indicate. Ash puts anecdotes to powerful use. There is his Hungarian friend, who confides that ``I have survived 40 years of communism, but I'm not sure that I'll survive one year of capitalism.'' Longtime Solidarity advisor, Jacek Kuro'n, tells Ash of his recent meeting with George Bush: ``He said he was for democracy. I said `Me too.''' Or there's the moment after the Berlin Wall goes down when East German General Erich Mielke, the head of the brutal ``Stasi'' political police, walks away from an open microphone mumbling, ``But I love you all.''

The June 4 election that put Solidarity in power was a landmark moment in the history of communism, Ash writes. In the section on Poland, He details the politics that shifted Poland from a state of ``Authority, Solidarity, and Church,'' to one of ``Government, Parliament, and Presidency.''

If Poland had democracy before it had political parties, Hungary was just the opposite. Ash describes the three months of talks in Budapest between opposition groups and the Communist Party that led to an agreement on multiparty elections.

East Germany was more different still. Like other East bloc states, it held round-table discussions, demolished the leading role of the party, and set free-election dates. Yet the emotional tide of reunification swept everything else aside - though it was opposed by those in churches and opposition groups who actually began the revolution. Ash sympathizes with them.

But Ash's heart belongs to Prague. He loves ``the speed, the improvisation, and the merriness'' of that revolution. ``The students started it,'' he says. He's there early to hear Havel call it a ``four-day-old baby.'' Havel may have been the final arbiter of events in Prague, but ``a less authoritarian person could not be found.'' Ash describes the tension between the need for swift action and that for internal democracy beneath the Magic Lantern.

The final essay is a gem. Ash offers three differences between 1989 and the ``Springtime of Nations'' in an earlier revolutionary year, 1848: Gorbachev, Helsinki, and Tocqueville. That is, Gorbachev's acquiescence; the concern for human rights symbolized by the Helsinki accords; and, finally, what Alexis de Tocqueville described as ``the ruling elite's loss of belief in its own right to rule.''

Perhaps most moving is Ash's own tribute to the East European opposition, whose members he has known for more than a decade. And he asks at the end: ``Do they come like mendicants to the door bearing only chronicles of wasted time? Or might they have, under their threadbare cloaks, some hidden treasures?''

His answer: ``Traveling through this region I have found treasures: examples of great moral courage and intellectual integrity; comradeship, deep friendship, family life; time and space for serious conversation, music, literature, not disturbed by the perpetual noise of our media-driven and obsessively telecommunicative world; Christian witness in its original and purest form ... an ethos of solidarity.''

Might we all partake of such treasures.

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