In Searching for the Hidden History of 1989

Tr@nsit Online

Much of the history of the 1989 revolutions has been lost or remained hidden until now. A good part of it, however, can be retrieved by reconstructing the expectations (both elite and popular) prevailing at the time. A welcome message to our conference: The Brave New World after Communism. 1989: Expectations in Comparison.

On June 15-16, the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) organized, in cooperation with the Jena Center of 20th Century History, the Institute of Political Science at the Vienna University and the Renner Institut, an international conference on revisiting the pre-1989 visions of the much-awaited world after communism. The conference program was worked out by Rainer Gries, Dieter Segert and Janos Matyas Kovacs in a joint effort. A selection of papers contributed to this event is presented here. We are grateful for the generous support given by the Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED Diktatur, Berlin.

Welcome to our conference: The Brave New World after Communism. 1989: Expectations in Comparison.

We are delighted to see all of you here in Vienna. I am also pleased to welcome you on behalf of the Jena Center – 20th Century History, which is affiliated with the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. The Jena Centre emphasizes the unity of academic research and teaching and encourages the interdisciplinary and international exchanging of ideas, results and hypothesis – in opposition to the escalating divergence in the field of scientific research development.

The idea of this interdisciplinary and international conference project was born last year when Dieter Segert, János Kovács and I, thought about conducting a conference that could be organized here in Vienna in 2009.

We asked ourselves: How could we fructify the genius loci, the genius of this metropolis in the middle of Europe? And furthermore: how could we use the specific geographical, political and cultural distance and vicinity of the Austrian capital to the places where the revolution of 1989 took place, so that we could offer a neutral environment for discussion and the sharing of free speech?

We decided upon Vienna as the ideal location to discuss comparative questions and problems concerning the events of 1989 in Europe. And we decided specifically upon this location to ask for the hidden history of 1989. – What might that mean?

We seek to detect, discover and to discuss the neglected and unanswered aspects of this remarkable revolutionary story. The year 1989 seems to us to have been a transitory year, an in-between year, so to speak.

1989 seems to have been a year of ambivalence and ambiguity – in both greater and smaller matters, in the history of diplomacy and politics as in the history of everyday life. In contrast to other conferences in this special commemorative year 2009, we delve to discuss directly these ambivalences and ambiguities.

– In searching for the hidden history of 1989 means: to look for alternative ways of history: There can be no doubt about it, that the year 1989, in Germany, and especially the autumn of 1989, was an important and crucial parting of the ways – for the whole of Europe. Today, as with any political crossing, it possesses not only a beginning and an end, but we see this year moreover rich with inherent possibilities. 1989 held alternative ways of development. The constellation, the configuration and constitution of powers, which ruled European and global developments, started to become past – but still remained very present.

We usually construct „the history“ as a seemingly apparent progressive sequence of events, one event following the other, which is densified by historians to narratives of processes and dynamics. We are the doers, we make history!

We conjure ex post a certain stream of history, and we suggest that would have been the only historical possibility. Within this stream, we steer inevitable right up to the present. Apocryphal ways so become taboo. – The history which we tell remains one-sided and here and now we want to offer the possibility to be able to scrutinize, investigate and dissect the master narratives of this peaceful and unifying revolution.

The culture of alternative questioning creates a better understanding for the restraints, the needs and the anxieties of people and the seemingly inevitability of historical progress and development.

In the in-between worlds of 1989 the open attribute of history, their alternative structure, manifested clearly in the evaluating agendas and visions of the future of the different human actors. In as far as searching for the hidden history of 1989 is to detect and to uncover a previously unseen lost history of 1989.

– In that sense in 1989 the numbness and the mental structures broke and future visions of all kinds arose. Whereas, in that transitory time, old and new hopes were generated, anxieties were venerated. But surely, not every vision, which seemed to be possible, today, two decades later, has been implemented. Some ideas disappeared quickly; others became weaker and weaker, but may have arisen again during later periods.

In searching for the hidden history of 1989 means to write the history of expectations and prospects of that crucial time. „Expectations” as a category of historical thinking have been long known and recognized. Even St. Augustine, who significantly shaped medieval historical thinking, pointed out that expectations are one of three forms of human time consciousness: „Prospects are promising” he said. „The mind would then relate –

  • to past time by means of memory,
  • to present time by means of attention,
  • and to future time by means of expectation.

Prospects and expectations in a unique sense are mediums of the future and mediums which bring groups, generations and societies together.

During this two-day-forum we want to reconstruct some of the past and maybe forgotten visions of the future. And more precisely, we want to ask for the different acting groups: Who, which groups, which generations, which societies, heralded which hopes and visions, which fears and anxieties during these Months of the Opening?

Which discourses, which images and symbols had been linked with these emotions? Our meeting will engage in a comparative history of expectations and prospects. The Conference is not merely a pure pending story, but it seeks also to discover the traces of those expectations in today’s Societies of Eastern Europe. Therefore, contemporary witnesses and scientists from both East and West will have the opportunity to discuss their differing points of view and will have their say, here in Vienna.

– Alternative history, lost history and the history of expectations : Let me add a last consideration concerning historical culture. Attempts at unconventional historical perspectives such as ours carry not only an additional view on past events, but also inform us about new ways of dealing with history. By offering such a modus of historical writing we encourage the possibly passive recipient to become an lively participant of past discourses. Because: The History of expectations and alternative history requires open criticism, debate and discussion. Further to this, it opens up the opportunity, to get closer to the figure of the „mature“ participant of history, and in history.

I wish all of you and us, both exciting and enlightening discussions in the hope that we may be able to discover and open up new ways of seeing the story of 1989.

See Michael Salewski (Hg.), Was Wäre Wenn. Alternativ- und Parallelgeschichte: Brücken zwischen Phantasie und Wirklichkeit (= Historische Mitteilungen, Beiheft 36), Stuttgart 1999.

See Enno Bünz, Rainer Gries und Frank Möller (Hg.), Der „Tag X“ in der Ge­schichte. Erwartungen und Enttäuschungen seit tausend Jahren, Stuttgart 1997.

Aurelii Augustini: Confessiones 11.27.34–11.27.36.

A.a.O., 11.28.37–11.28.38.


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