An expectedly interesting essay by Timothy Garton Ash. I applaud the strictures against hindsight bias, an endlessly recurring analytical error which practitioners of my trade seem especially prone to.
Every writer on 1989 wrestles with an almost unavoidable human proclivity that psychologists have christened “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). What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen. Henri Bergson talked of “the illusions of retrospective determinism.” Explanations are then offered for what happened. As one scholar commented a few years after 1989: no one foresaw this, but everyone could explain it afterward. Reading these books, I was again reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s “law of the infinite cornucopia,” which states that an infinite number of explanations can be found for any given event.
And this–the direct quotation from Gorbachev, I mean–was something I hadn’t seen before.
[Gorbachev] mistakenly believed such changes would stop at the frontier of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a country, not an internal empire. Instead, as [Harvard's Mark] Kramer shows, the revolutionary changes in East-Central Europe contributed directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Robert Conquest, the historian of the Soviet Great Terror and Ukrainian famine, asked Gorbachev many years later whether, if he had known where it would all lead, he would have done the same again. He replied: “Probably not.”
Well, well. Though always a plausible speculation, I had not previously seen those words attributed to the great man himself.
In contrast, by the way, I thought this column by Garton Ash was pretty lame. Though it might be that what put me off was his closing appeal to “Europe”: play your full part in shaping the future of the world!
So, 20 years on, the question before us Europeans is this: Can we recapture some of the strategic boldness and historical imagination of 1989? Or shall we now leave it to others to shape the world, while we snuggle down, Hobbit-like, in our national holes, and pretend there are no giants yomping overhead?
Grandiosity bias. No, Europe, enough with the historical imagination. Take a breather and think small for a while.
Thanks to A&L for both links.