From Kafka to Gorbachev

NEW YORK – On August 2, 1914, Franz Kafka wrote in his diary: “Germany has declared war against Russia. In the afternoon, swimming.” Kafka, the reclusive and visionary Central European writer, gave his name to the twentieth century. Seventy-five years had to pass after Kafka’s swim before Central and Eastern Europe would return to the broader European civilization. A Kafkaesque pause, some might say.

Central and Eastern Europe was never only a place of right and left dictatorships, of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, of perpetual and frozen conflicts, as some now caricature it. It was also the birthplace of a spiritual heritage, of thinkers and artists, of a specific mode of creativity and search for meaning beyond pragmatic negotiations with daily life.

In 1989 the region’s peoples brought with them in their “return to Europe” their diversity and richness; their vivacity, mysteries, and memories; and their old and new aspirations. And they brought the lesson that moving from a closed society to an open one is both possible and extremely difficult.

As Thomas Mann once wrote: “Freedom is more complicated than power.” Freedom changes the frame and substance of choice, and of individual and collective responsibility. It highlights the contrast between initiative and apathy, enterprise and obedience, competition and total dependence on a state that embodies a kind of unshakable fate. Just as slavery must be learned, step-by-step, in order to survive its terror and tricks, so freedom must be learned in order to face its risks and opportunities.