Thirty years ago, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Since then, a lot has changed in the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe: democratisation, economic liberalisation, EU accession, globalisation and migration have brought opportunities to many. For some, however, these changes are viewed with unease. This has resulted in the phenomenon of nostalgia for the communist past (or “Ostalgie”) where people retrospectively romanticise the pre-1989 years.
Reasons for nostalgia include the relative stability and security of state socialism, paired with disenchantment with the current political system. Many argue that capitalism has failed to deliver a broad-based rise in living standards, to tackle corruption, or to guarantee rule of law across the former Eastern Bloc.
Yet the communist days were also marked by systematic human rights abuses, economic stagnation, and the suppression of political opposition. There are also many who benefit from the increased openness that has come since the fall of the wall; taking advantage of opportunities to work and live abroad that would not have been possible pre-1989.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Nate arguing that, in some parts of Europe, people still have nostalgia (or “Ostalgie”) for the “good old days” under communism. Why is that?
To get a reaction, we spoke to German-Hungarian journalist and author Boris Kálnoky, who works as a foreign correspondent for various media (including Die Welt and Deutsche Welle). What would he say to Nate’s comment?
Just today I spoke with the former Hungarian Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky, about this, and he quite succinctly summed up what was the problem. In Hungary, specifically, communism was not as hard on people, as it was in, for instance, Eastern Germany, or Poland, or Czechoslovakia. Therefore, many people in the 1970s and ’80s did not feel they were suffering so much from oppression, were not afraid of going to jail, being tortured or locked up. There was a certain amount of free enterprise on a very small scale. You could travel to foreign countries – not necessarily to Western countries, but to places like Egypt. Schooling was free, university was free, healthcare was free, everyone got to go on summer vacation for very little money, jobs were secure.
So, when the system changed, everyone wanted it, of course, but the expectation was not so much that there would be more freedom – of course, that was very welcome – but the expectation was greater well-being, greater prosperity, more money, better jobs. And, to this day, that hasn’t really happened. Instead, what they got was greater insecurity; nobody is really sure where they will work next year, if they will work; it’s impossible for them to go on a summer vacation; their standard of living is still way behind that of Western Europe.
So, that sense of insecurity, together with a relative failure to obtain prosperity in relation to the West, leads many people, especially of the older generation, to compare their lives back then with how they are right now, and it is only partially favourable.
You ask anyone in their 60s or 70s, and almost all of them need to work to make ends meet. Many people lived in the countryside in small towns, and all these factories shut down, so people had to move to Budapest, where it is very expensive to rent a flat. So, many feel they had a better life – more secure, not very rich, but more comfortable – than they have now.
To get a response, we put Marek’s comment to Maria Lewicka, Professor of Psychology at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. How would she respond?
Are people too nostalgic about Europe’s communist past? Are people rose tinting and forgetting the communist past? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!