The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe's Past and Uncertain Future

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In 1989, Adam Michnik said that Central Europe came “as a messenger not only of freedom and tolerance but also of hatred and intolerance. It is here, in Central Europe, that the last two wars began.” Nearing the twentieth anniversary of Communism’s collapse, acclaimed author Anna Porter traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary to discover whether and how democracy has taken root in these former Iron Curtain countries.

            The former borderlands of the long-defunct Hapsburg Empire and the more recently dispersed Soviet Empire have attempted to invent their own forms of democracy and capitalism. However, disturbing signs of old attitudes have returned, bringing into question Central Europe’s ability to reform its elites and to effectively control public demonstrations of hatred, the rise of racial tensions, and the emergence of fascist parties. Porter interviewed the young and the old, the winners and the losers, in this grand European transformation.

            Porter walks Wenceslas Square with those who suffered the violence of the state police and helped to organize the ’89 revolution. She meets with revolutionary leaders such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik, as well as custodians of the new regimes, among them Radek Sikorski, Michael Kocáb, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. She takes us to Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance and Budapest’s House of Terror Museum—fascinating if controversial attempts to reckon with dark periods of history. She interviews the wealthiest man in Hungary, the general who ordered martial law in Poland, attends an ultraright rally, and visits a Gypsy village where a newly burgeoning yet all-too-familiar racism has destroyed a family. Gradually, a portrait emerges of a Europe struggling under the weight of history and memory, its peoples divided over half-forgotten events, old ethnic rivalries, borders drawn and redrawn—ghosts that had lurked, unacknowledged, under Communism’s force-fed stories of peaceful coexistence and a common front toward the Western enemy. Now, Central European rhetoric veers between historical reckoning, revisionism, and the politics of retribution.

            Penetrating, fascinating, and powerfully observed, The Ghosts of Europe illuminates themes of tyranny, nationalism, racism, and denial in nations with a tumultuous history and a future very much in the balance.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A deeply intelligent journalistic report on the state of that part of the world today, in the form of interviews with powerful people there now. Compelling reading even superficially, but the underlying subject is history itself, and historical consciousness, and it will leave thoughtful ghosts in your mind, too."

The Ellenville Shawangunk Journal

"An enlightening if unsettling account of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia 20 years after the collapse of communism....broad and vivid."

Kirkus Reviews

Essential reading for anyone who cares about Central Europe’s past and its impact on the present.  This book is in Anna Porter’s bloodstream and she writes with passion and conviction about Central Europe’s tormented past and often confused and confusing present. Every page brims with information and firsthand knowledge.”

—Kati Marton, New York Times bestselling author of Enemies of the People

Intimate and insightful: an exile's poignant return home, an accomplished journalist's shrewd analysis.”

—David Frum, New York Times bestselling author of Comeback

“Anna Porter’s brilliant The Ghosts of Europe will not necessarily confirm what you thought before you started reading it, but it is sure to make you think again about what you thought you knew.”

—George Jonas, author of Vengeance

“Anna Porter is the modern version of a Renaissance explorer.  She views old lands with a fresh eye and sends back essential dispatches about new worlds....A must read.”

—Peter C. Newman, author and former editor of Maclean’s and The Toronto Star

"Highly readable and enormously informative, this is a book that will make your head spin."


"[An] intriguing and accessible narrative of contemporary Central Europe."

—Globe and Mail

"Porter offers a succinct, highly readable, contemporary history, interspersed with interviews with influential national figures regarding past, present, and future."

—National Post

Kirkus Reviews

An enlightening if unsettling account of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia 20 years after the collapse of communism.

A Canadian writer whose parents fled Hungary in 1956, Porter (Kasztner's Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, 2007) tours these nations, describing the sights and history in between interviews with heroes of the struggle for freedom, as well as a few villains (as in Russia, many former communist bureaucrats have prospered spectacularly). She then moves on to other establishment figures: elected officials, opposition leaders, artists, academics and gadflies. A universal vision during the heady first years of independence was an economic "third way," a compromise between inefficient socialism and heartless capitalism. Nearly everyone now admits that was a fantasy, and that capitalism has won. Porter describes chain stores, malls, skyscrapers, trendy night life and glitzy Western media transforming formerly sleepy medieval Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Budapest. An unfettered free market combined with Russian crony-capitalism has produced new wealth and a large middle-class, leaving behind a growing, resentful underclass as pensions and social programs dwindle along with uncompetitive, state-supported factories. The author notes a persistent nostalgia for former communist security in addition to a few disquieting movements with a long history in central Europe but stimulated by the current world economic crisis: anti-Semitism; persecution of ethnic minorities (Hungarians in Slovakia, gypsies everywhere); and nasty right-wing nationalism.

Less a scholar than an opinionated journalist, Porter fills her book with interviews and personal observations, producing a broad and vivid but not terribly deep portrait of four nations that have been off the American radar for decades.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312681227
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/18/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 2.24 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

ANNA PORTER fled Hungary with her family after the ‘56 Revolution and now lives in Canada. She is the author of Kasztner’s Train and winner of the Nereus Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 21, 2011

    Interesting overview of current affairs in Central Europe

    I've traveled to central Europe but don't really keep up with current goings-on in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This book did a good job filling me in. It's not a book of data and charts; it's an overview of the current situation in those countries, based on interviews with everyone from Otto von Habsburg to leading Poles. Definitely interesting. The author clearly doesn't care for Viktor Orban (PM of Hungary).

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