The Fall and Rise of the Communists: Guess Who's Running Central Europe?

In the fall of 1993 and spring of 1994, Western politicians and journalists were caught off guard by a series of political changes in Central Europe. In Poland, parties led by former communists and their rural allies won a majority of parliamentary seats; in Hungary, the former Communist Party won absolute parliamentary power; in Slovakia, former communists calling themselves Social Democrats replaced former communists calling themselves Nationalists.

If the changes caused surprise in the West, they were greeted with shock by former dissidents and anticommunist intellectuals in Central Europe. In both West and East, observers had assumed that the former communist parties were thoroughly demoralized and defeated and would remain nothing more than a marginal political force. Most believed that the potential for trouble in Central Europe lay elsewhere - in the resurgence of 1930s-style nationalist parties. After all, several Central European nations did have authoritarian or fascist governments before the Second World War, and it was feared that they might well bring such people to power again.

Western, particularly American, diplomats in Central Europe went out of their way to encourage politicians whom they perceived as antinationalist and to discourage "decommunization" programs, which were often favored by politicians whom they perceived as nationalist. This was the case across the former Soviet bloc, even though decommunization projects, sometimes called "lustration," usually did little more than forbid former high-ranking communist party officials from holding office under the new regime. While diplomatic efforts did not determine the political developments in Central Europe - they did not stop the Czechs or Germans from passing laws on lustration - they did have an impact. Right-wing and conservative politicians in Central Europe failed to receive the official approval, invitations, and fellowships given their left and center-left counterparts.

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