These words, contained in Mr Sabata's message to E P Thompson's memorial celebration yesterday, help to illuminate the contribution of the Western peace movements to the end of the Cold War, a part of Eighties history that has been unjustly neglected.
Mr Sabata's exchange of letters with E P Thompson marked the beginning of an intense dialogue between Charter 77 and parts of the West European peace movement, in particular European Nuclear Disarmament (END) founded by E P Thompson and the Inter-Church Peace Council in the Netherlands. From early in the decade, hundreds of people involved in peace and green movements travelled to Eastern Europe and built up links with groups and individuals engaged in independent peace, human rights and environmental activities.
A network of communication was established and texts of the new groups in the East were published; Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier (who became the Czechoslovak foreign minister), Janusz Onyskiewicz (who became the Polish defence minister mainly because he knew about defence issues owing to his discussions with the peace movement]), George Konrad and many others wrote articles for and gave interviews to the END Journal.
Considerable pressure was put on governments in Eastern Europe, via the official peace committees, to get jailed activists released, to allow individuals to travel to meetings and generally to tolerate the existence of independent groups. All this served to increase the visibility of dissident groups and to expand the political space for manoeuvre. By the late Eighties it had spawned a new and younger generation of movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary.
'We thought, if you can do it, why not here?' said Pastor Rainer Eppelman, a leader of the independent East German peace movement Swords Into Ploughshares, who became Minister of Defence in the short-
lived post-1989 East German government. While the revolutions of 1989 were spontaneous outbursts of public sentiment, it was important that there were established groups able to articulate this public sentiment; these were the groups that had been engaged in what came to be known as 'detente from below'.
The role of the West's peace movement in the events that led up to the 1989 revolutions was also important in another way. Soviet-type systems were war systems that depended for their existence on a permanent external enemy. The burden of military spending was a major factor in explaining their economic weakness. But the Western military build-up did not precipitate their collapse; if anything, it nurtured them long after they had begun to show signs of strain. Each time hardliners reversed a period of reform, they did so in the name of the Western threat.
The crackdown on Solidarity in 1981 was justified in security terms; it took place at the height of Ronald Reagan's rhetoric about nuclear war-fighting doctrines. When the cruise and Pershing missiles were deployed, several hundred East German peace activists, who campaigned against Soviet missiles, were arrested or deported to the West and the independent peace movement in Hungary was broken up. One young Hungarian activist said: 'I am opposed to Reagan's nuclear policies, not because I am afraid of dying in a nuclear war but because I am afraid of a return to the Fifties, to closed borders and terror, and that would be unbearable.'
The peace movement challenged the notion of a nuclear balance. It was argued, most eloquently by E P Thompson in Protest and Survive, that it was not necessary to match each side's nuclear arsenal, weapon for weapon, warhead for warhead, since both sides had sufficient to destroy the world several times over. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, he used this argument and initiate a military build-down. His officials have testified to the influence of peace movement ideas on 'new thinking', including the link between peace and human rights, non- military forms of security and the Common European House.
Mr Gorbachev adopted the concept of 'reasonable sufficiency', adapted from the notion of 'defensive defence' that came out of peace movement thinking. He was also able to accept a series of disarmament proposals put forward by Western governments under peace movement pressure which involved far larger cuts on the Soviet than on the Western side. The most important of these was the INF treaty, which eliminated medium- range land-based missiles and was signed in 1987. Its enormous significance was that it eliminated those missiles that had been the symbols of the debate in the early Eighties.
The INF treaty ushered in a new period of detente - a feverish set of negotiations about arms control and confidence-building and an opening up of East-West communication. Without the INF treaty it is hard to believe that Mr Gorbachev could have relinquished the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe and enunciated the 'Sinatra doctrine' ('I did it my way'), the signal for the 1989 revolutions to begin.
Most leading figures in the dialogue with Western peace movements are again in opposition. The network created then still exists. People such as George Konrad and Jaroslav Sabata are among the most outspoken opponents of ethnic nationalism. It is this network which is now extending support to peace and democracy groups in the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps because this part of the history of the Eighties is not sufficiently known, these groups have as much difficulty gaining public recognition now as they did then.
The author is a member of the European Institute at Sussex University.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content