End of endless history

The Nineties were full of amazing contradictions. On the one hand, pranks were galore, our state disintegrated, whatever there was to steal got stolen, and there was war in the former Yugoslavia. On the other hand, were still delighted by the grand collapse of communiasm, echoes of global victory of the free world still reverberated, and the strength of democracy was in the air.

Radio Free Europe, which once aired its programmes to the East Bloc, had moved from Munich to Prague. It was a symbolical move, as the invitation was sent by Havel personally. Out of faith in what future might hold: Berlin yesterday, Prague today, Moscow tomorrow, and Beijing a day after that. People had always craved for a life in freedom. They could afford that, in the 1990s.

RFE’s new headquarters (former Federal Assembly building) became a public space. People were coming and going freely, nobody checked on anybody else, it was almost like a hotel. The debate was, how long will it take for the East to catch up with the West. Across the Atlantic, Mr. Francis Fukuyama had just released his book, The End of History, which claimed that the victory of Western liberal democracy is a foregone conclusion.

How come, we wondered, that dubious characters always score points in democratic elections? We wondered why communism had left such a great void and what could fill it. Also across the Herring Pond, a Samuel Huntington warned, in The Clash of Civilizations, that the Cold War will be followed by a conflict with the Islamic world. Something was in the air, but faith in democracy persevered. That’s what the Nineties were like.

Then came September 11, 2001. RFE’s public space turned to a fortress. After minor hitches, an armoured vehicle was parked outside the gates as a symbol of new times. We suddenly found ourselves walking to work past concrete barriers and passing several identity checks. Unescorted strangers were not allowed into the RFE building. We were instructed what to do in case of an attack.

Suddenly, the 2000s were filled with fear. It showed we have a problem even if the Cold War is not followed by another global showdown. It showed that the end of history, spurred by democracy’s winning crusade, was not coming. It showed that man is a political and religious creature. That a religious conflict has no political solutions and the other way round. That faith and politics can support but also eliminate one another.

Who remembers today the simple assumption that was part of the Iraqi campaign? Namely that if democracy takes root there, Iraq will become a shining example for the whole region? It was an example, but one of ominous nature. However, attempts to introduce democratic mechanisms followed in many more countries and talk was about an “Arab Spring”: but it did not inspire freedom at all: Extremism prevailed in many places and blood was running. Why? Aren’t general elections a cure for the maladies of society?

The 2010s have not given an answer yet. It seems clear that democracy in the sense of elections must be presaged by something. Certainly, by democratic freedom that breeds tolerance. It might sound strange, but we must first learn to respect something we cannot put our finger on, before we can respect various views on the running of the state, which are readily visible. Anyway, the Patent of Toleration arrived in the Czech Lands a bit earlier than universal suffrage. If you want to sow seeds in fertile ground, you must know what comes first and what happens later.

I am not a seer, but I would still guess that the 2020s will supplant the promotion of democratic mechanisms in unfree countries by the cultivation of local religious and other freedoms. One fine day it might expose those countries to democracy as we know it. Then will come the coveted end of history. Unless somebody thinks differently…