A quarter century ago, the people of Central Europe liberated themselves, bringing down the Iron Curtain, choosing capitalism over communism, and democracy over dictatorship. This week, at an event in Prague, we unveiled ten online Google Cultural Institute exhibitions recounting the amazing and thrilling events from Poland in the north to Hungary in the south.
Communism represented an artificial transplant in Central Europe. Throughout history, the region enjoyed strong religious, economic and political ties with the West. The Museum Masaryk T.G. Lany brings its readers back to the founding ideas of democracy and freedom on which the Czechoslovak Republic was built through the legacy of the first Czechoslovak president.
All through the 1980s, pressure for change mounted. An independent free trade union called Solidarity swept through Poland at the beginning of the decade. Even though the government declared martial law to crush it, the light of freedom would only be dimmed temporarily. Dissidents appeared. Priests protested. Musicians revolted. The Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel Library’s exhibition of black and white photographs captures not only the period of mass demonstrations in 1989 and the subsequent revolution, but also the visits and performances of cultural icons such as Frank Zappa and the US alternative troupe The Bread and Puppet Theater. For the citizens of Czechoslovakia, these first tastes of the Western world represented “the first free steps of a society.”
Starting in the spring of 1989, East Germans began fleeing to other Soviet bloc countries. The Hungarian government opened its border with Austria in May and the rush to escape was on. The Vaclav Havel Library exhibit captures the wave of citizens of the German Democratic Republic in September who inundated the surroundings of the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Prague, waiting in anticipation for longed permission to travel to the West.
In June, the Polish government legalized Solidarity and held partially free elections. Solidarity won a landslide and formed the Soviet bloc’s first non-communist led government. The Polish History Museum has created an exhibit called “Tearing the Iron Curtain apart.” It includes a photo of the symbolic meeting between Poland’s first non-communist Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the German Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Another exhibition from the Julian Antonisz Foundation shows experimental art from the communist era.
In November, the Berlin Wall crumbled and millions of Czechs crowded the streets. The Muzeum umění Olomouc has prepared a selection of images from photographer Petr Zatloukal, showing a behind-the-scenes look at the November events. The Muzeum policie České republiky showcases photographs of the uniforms of the riot police on 17th November 1989, as they watched, powerless, while millions of Czechs marched for their freedom. Dissident playwright Vaclav Havel emerged from prison to become president. The photographs from the Nadace Dagmar a Václava Havlových VIZE 97 exhibit maps Havel’s extraordinary journey from 1989 to 2011.
Slovakia also won its freedom and soon broke away from Prague to achieve full independence. Its the Museum of Crimes and Victims of Communism illustrates the path to freedom through photographs of unknown heroes who participated in country’s Candle Demonstration.
The sweep of the events accelerated and the shackles of communism were gone by the end of 1989, not only throughout Central Europe, but also in the Balkan countries of Romania and Bulgaria. The Balts, within the Soviet Union itself, soon would form a human chain hundreds of miles long and win back their freedom. In Hungary, the Open Society Archives, is bringing online one of the world’s largest archives from the Cold War, including propaganda films and surveillance documents, samizdat and opposition activist videos, publications and posters.
Take time to browse and learn. We believe putting historical material on the Internet and organizing it in a way that allows visitors to read and understand what it felt like to be in the midst of events not only gives more people access to important material but also preserves these perspectives for future generations. Today, memories of the Cold War may be fading and it is our duty to keep them alive as a reminder of the tremendous achievements of the courageous people of Central Europe.
PostePosted by William Echikson, Head of Free Expression, Europe
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