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Out of the Ice

Enda O’Doherty
Uncivil Society, by Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T Gross, Modern Library, 197 pp, $24, ISBN: 978-0679642763 Timothy Garton Ash, in his 1999 essay collection History of the Present, writes of the intellectual pleasure historians can derive from the patient, professional study of sources and archives, a process that may be long, laborious and sometimes discouraging but which can be followed by the slow emergence of pattern and meaning in events ‑ perhaps even new, previously undiscerned meaning. > But then you start wondering, [i]s this pattern really in the past itself? Or is it just in your own head? Or perhaps it is a pattern from the fabric of your own times. Each generation has its own Cromwell, its own French revolution, its own Napoleon. Where contemporaries saw only a darkling plain, you discern a tidy park, a well-lit square, or most often a road leading to the next historical milestone. The French philosopher Henri Bergson talks of the “illusions of retrospective determinism”. Garton Ash, one of the most distinguished chroniclers of the years leading up to and immediately following the democratic revolutions of 1989, had occasion to return to the notion of “retrospective determinism” this year in an essay-review in The New York Review of Books (November 5th) of a number of 1989-related titles. Every writer on this year of revolutions, he argues, must wrestle with an all too human tendency towards “hindsight bias”, “the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time (for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe)”. Thus what actually happened is presented as if it had to happen ‑ indeed in more arrogant versions of the syndrome as if any fool could have seen it was bound to happen. A common trope, employed by the Polish former dissident Adam Michnik among others, points out that what commentators tend to offer up as the main cause of the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 is likely to vary according to their geographical, and perhaps ideological, origins. Thus, in Washington, it is Reagan and his unrelenting fight against the Evil Empire; in Berlin, it’s the slowly maturing fruit of Willy Brandt’s policy of engagement and detente (Ostpolitik); in the Vatican the moral influence of the Polish pope, John Paul II; in London Margaret Thatcher’s name will be added to that of Reagan; in Kabul you will be told “don’t…



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