Everyday Ecstasy: Remembering 1989 in Sober Perspective and Double Exposure

What does it mean to live through certain historical events while simultaneously commemorating historical events from the past? In the case of 1989/1789, the effect was particularly powerful.

Ever since the nineteenth century, we have been living in an age of historical anniversaries and commemorations. The British Victorians marked the tricentennial of the Spanish Armada in 1888; the Columbus quadricentennial of 1892 was celebrated in the United States and then led to the spectacular Chicago “World’s Columbian Exposition” of 1893; and Polish centennials, like that of the Kościuszko Insurrection in 1894, followed soon after by the hundredth birthday of Adam Mickiewicz in 1898, were important occasions for the crystallization of Polish national sentiment in the age of the partitions. The centennial of the French Revolution, Bastille Day 1889, became the occasion for the founding of the socialist Second International.

The socialists of 1889 relived vicariously the revolutionary moment of 1789, and today, thirty years after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, we may recall that the tremendous events of that year coincided with one of the great historical commemorations of the late twentieth century, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. In photography, the process of “double exposure” superimposes images to create a kind of aesthetic collage, and this concept of double exposure may also be useful for thinking about what it means for us to live through certain historical events while simultaneously commemorating historical events from the past. In the case of 1989/1789, the effect was particularly powerful, as the revolutionary character of the two years suggested linked interpretations in which the historically momentous events, across two centuries, seemed to offer reciprocal insights and suggest illuminating analogies.

A Long Hangover after Attainment of the Zenith

Karl Marx, who lived through the revolutions of 1848, wrote with some irony about the ecstasy of the revolutionary moment, with an eye to the French Revolution of 1789: “Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliance (in Feuerbrillanten gefasst); ecstasy is the everyday spirit (die Ekstase ist der Geist jedes Tages); but they are short-lived; soon they have attained the zenith and a long hangover (Katzenjammer) lays hold.”

Marx was thinking of 1848 and 1789, but his account would certainly have described some aspects of our experience of 1989 as well. If the revolution of 1789 helped to illuminate Marx’s understanding of 1848, one might also suspect that the notable bicentennial revisiting of the French Revolution shaped our understanding of 1989, as we lived through that year. Certainly the spirit of ecstasy of 14 July 1989—which featured African American soprano Jessye Norman draped in the French tricolor and singing the Marseillaise in the Place de la Concorde—allowed some of the excitement of storming the Bastille to color eventually, on 9 November, the storming of the Berlin Wall. Jessye Norman died in 2019, and if we are now living through a long hangover, thirty years later, it may be partly because the French Revolution bicentennial accentuated the everyday ecstasy of the political moment in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Certain Concessions Lead to Dramatic Transformations

From the beginning of 1989, there were interesting parallels to be noted between the events of that year and the events that were being commemorated from 1789. In early February, for instance, when the Polish Round Table met in Warsaw to discuss the possibility for multi-party elections, historians of the French Revolution were recalling the summoning of the Estates-General by King Louis XVI in late January 1789. The events were interestingly analogous since both involved unprecedented discussions of representative government: the Estates-General had not met in France since 1614, as royal absolutism refused all consultation, while multi-party elections in Poland (or indeed anywhere else in Eastern Europe) had not been seriously contemplated since the immediate postwar years in the 1940s, before the consolidation of strictly Stalinist communist party states.

If the revolution of 1789 helped to illuminate Marx’s understanding of 1848, one might also suspect that the notable bicentennial revisiting of the French Revolution shaped our understanding of 1989.

In both cases, what was interesting to reflect upon for historians of the eighteenth century and Cold War political commentators was the way that the germs of revolutionary transformation emerged from within the structures of the ancien régime: the Estates General summoned reluctantly by Louis XVI, the Round Table conceded reluctantly by General Jaruzelski. Indeed, the analogy made it more clearly understand that the communist party states of Eastern Europe, in early 1989, did indeed constitute a sort of “ancien régime”—in which certain concessions might lead to dramatic transformations. The details of who sat at the round table and how elections would be structured corresponded intriguingly to the details of representation in the summoning of the Estates-General, with its precisely allocated places for the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Third Estate.

Moments of No-turning-back

In June 1989 historians commemorated one of the crucial turning points of the French Revolution, the Tennis Court Oath, in which the Third Estate gathering at the Versailles tennis court on 20 June 1789, constituted themselves as a national assembly, and vowed never to disband until they had put an end to royal absolutism by writing a modern constitution for France. They were partly inspired by the American constitution of the 1780s, and a painting by Jacques-Louis David represents the political fervor of the deputies as they took their solemn oath at the tennis court. It was a do-or-die moment for the Third Estate, a moment of no-turning-back, and one which might conceivably have led to the closing down of the Estates-General and the premature demise of the French Revolution before it had really begun. Strangely, it echoed across two centuries with the do-or-die High Noon poster for the Polish elections on 4 June: W samo poludnie, 4 czerwca 1989.

The communist party states of Eastern Europe, in early 1989, did indeed constitute a sort of “ancien régime”—in which certain concessions might lead to dramatic transformations.

The poster, referencing the 1952 American film High Noon, showed Gary Cooper prepared for a showdown and gunfight, below the logos of “Solidarność” —thus urging a vote for the Solidarity candidates and against the communists. 4 June was also High Noon for the student protesters at Tienanmen Square in Beijing, many shot dead in the square, to mark the end of the democracy movement in China, a revolution over before it began. In fact, the Chinese student protesters even carried with them a ten-meter papier-mâché goddess of democracy, her arm held high, in conscious imitation of the French figure of liberty leading the people.

Here was a case of double exposure that actually allowed for historical insight into the French revolutionary past: when we juxtapose the unexpectedly positive outcome of the Polish elections and the disastrous consequences for democracy in China, we can begin to comprehend how extremely uncertain the moment must have seemed, two hundred years earlier, when the Third Estate gathered at the tennis court. Did we really believe in 1989, on the eve of the Polish elections, that those elections would be free and that the communist government would respect the outcome? Would a knowledgeable observer in 1789 have been really persuaded that the Tennis Court Oath would lead to the end of royal absolutism?

The Iron Curtain was no longer Impassable

The storming of the Bastille took place on 14 July 1789, and the obvious analogue in 1989 was the storming of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, two physical monuments representing their respective ancien régimes, the objects of the revolutionary onslaught. Yet, the events of July 1989 in Warsaw were also interesting as an instance of double exposure: President George Bush (senior) was in Warsaw on 10 July 1989, probing the new dimensions of politics in Eastern Europe by promising American assistance to the new Polish government. He was in Warsaw, however, on his way to the meeting of the G7 which began in Paris on 14 July, the day that Jessye Norman sang the Marseillaise at the Place de la Concorde. It is strange to recall such conservative figures as George Bush and Margaret Thatcher participating in a revolutionary bicentennial celebration, but, in the case of Bush, his presence in Paris was directly linked to his presence in Warsaw a few days earlier, linking Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 to the commemoration of the French Revolution of 1789.

One might also think about the revolutionary amazement at the fall of the Bastille—a triumph of mass politics that would have seemed unthinkable one month earlier at the time of the Tennis Court Oath—in relation to the astonishing opening of the Hungarian border at the so-called “Pan-European Picnic” at Sopron in August 1989, allowing hundreds of traveling East Germans to simply cross into Austria, as if the Iron Curtain had suddenly ceased to exist. These were revolutionary moments when the previously unthinkable became casually achievable: the Bastille fortress no longer unassailable, the Iron Curtain no longer impassable.

There were grandly programmatic moments in August 1789, like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen—which seemed to speak directly to the values and ideals of the activists of 1989 in Eastern Europe.

There were grandly programmatic moments in August 1789, like the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen—which seemed to speak directly to the values and ideals of the activists of 1989 in Eastern Europe— while the abolition of feudalism in the French National Assembly on 4th August 1789, revealed a revolutionary commitment to the complete social and economic dismantling of the ancien régime. The abolition of feudalism was oddly echoed across the centuries in September 1989, when Leszek Balcerowicz began to meet with the committee that would eventually, by the end of the year, produce the program for the “shock therapy” that would radically dismantle the economic structures of state socialism in Poland.

The Peaceful and the Violent Aspects of Revolutionary Politics

The October Days of 1789, featuring the women’s march on Versailles, the storming of the royal palace, the murder of the guards, the seizing of the king and queen and their forced relocation to Paris—all this resonated strangely through the final months of 1989, from the November days that marked the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia to the Christmas capture and execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania. In November and December, both the peaceful and the violent aspects of revolutionary politics were alternatively on display, with the French bicentennial as the historical reminder of how easily those aspects might commingle.

When we juxtapose the unexpectedly positive outcome of the Polish elections and the disastrous consequences for democracy in China, we can begin to comprehend how extremely uncertain the moment must have seemed.

On Christmas Day 1989, the day that the Ceaușescus were executed by firing squad in Romania, Leonard Bernstein ecstatically conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy (Freude)”—the text for the final movement—was slightly adapted to make it into an Ode to Freedom (Freiheit). The performance brought together musicians from East and West Germany, and the chorus sang, “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” all men will become brothers, echoing the French revolutionary slogan of “fraternity.” Schiller, like Beethoven, had lived through the age of the French Revolution, and Beethoven’s Ninth was an apt cultural icon for concluding 1989, as a year of ecstatic and revolutionary double exposure.

Larry Wolff

is the Silver Professor of History at New York University, director of the NYU Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, and executive director of the NYU Remarque Institute. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books include Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (1994), The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (2010), and, most recently, The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotions on the European Stage.

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