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The Magic Lantern

The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash is an account of the collapse of the communist regimes in a number of eastern European nations in 1989, which is largely told from a personal perspective.  In the first chapter, Witness and History, the author recounts some his personal experiences in Poland and traces some of the path that led to the negotiated end of communism in that country.  The Round Table talks that included both government officials and representatives of Solidarity were an integral part of this process.  The Magic LanternThe author stresses at this point that he will confine his observations only to those countries in which he was present during the transition away from communism, and will therefore exclude Bulgaria and Romania.  The second chapter, Warsaw: The First Election, examines in detail the events in Poland, particularly the campaigning and outcome of the first open elections.  Solidarity candidates were heavily promoted, while the communist Party-coalition side wasted time with internal feuding.  The author reports through personal anecdotes a good voter turnout and a high degree of enthusiasm.  The communist lost and Solidarity leaders assumed control of the government.  Because Solidarity had originally developed as a trade union, however, it faced many difficulties in organization and political policy development.  Lech Walesa, the head of Solidarity was accused of being too authoritarian and compared to the pre-communist dictator of Poland, Marshal Pilsudski.

Solidarity leaders began establishing a timetable for transition to democracy, which they called a “harmonogram.”  Solidarity was assuming control faster than it wanted to, while the Polish economy began to suffer.  The spreading threat of labor troubles threatened to undermine the democratic advances in government.  To counter this threat it was proposed that Solidarity leaders ask workers not to strike.

The next chapter, Budapest: The Last Funeral, deals with the Hungarian transition away from communism.  The experience of Hungry in its abortive 1956 uprising against Soviet domination had become a popular memory that was sparked by the 1988 reburial of Miklos Vasarhelyi, a hero of the uprising.  The Committee for Historical Justice, a group opposing communist rule, organized the funeral. The growing popular sentiment against the government forced the communist party to make concessions based on their estimate of the real power relations in the country.  This led to the formation of the new Hungarian Republic in which power would ostensibly be shared between the communists and other elected representatives.  In essence, Hungry developed multi-party politics before it had a functioning democracy.

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