A trek through Central Europe
There is a quantum leap from the classroom to the settings where
history has unfolded. For us this summer, that meant tracing
footsteps through the streets and squares of Budapest and Prague,
getting inside the shipyard of Gdansk where the workers’ union
Solidarnosc was born, crossing what had once been the death strip
at the Berlin Wall.
A three-week study tour of formerly communist countries in
central Europe was the centerpiece of a six-credit summer study
of the cold war, the collapse of communism and the role of the
media. We’d laid the groundwork in the classroom — a
crash course on Marxism, Leninism and communism and a history
of the roles of journalists and propagandists. Our students,
after all, are a post-cold war generation.
Then we set out to test our hypotheses. Not all survived. Many
of the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Germans our students met
told them what they had lived through were imperfect forms of
socialism, but not the idealized goal of communism. Anecdotally,
at least, we learned that western media — Radio Free Europe,
Voice of America, RIAS — were welcome voices across the
Iron Curtain. In one instance, the 1956 Hungarian uprising, RFE
may have encouraged the revolt against communism. But each effort
to overthrow or alter communist rule had indigenous roots.
As planning for our course evolved, Professor Dick Moore and
I felt it essential to introduce our students to a chronological
sequence of events: 1956 in Hungary, 1968’s Prague spring,
Poland in 1980, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The
itinerary was ambitious, about four days in each country. We
travelled by rail between cities and by public transportation
as much as possible within cities. The students rubbed shoulders
with locals and learned how to navigate trains, subways, trams
and on foot.
While there was free time in each city to explore, shop and
even watch World Cup soccer matches, we also had two or three
meetings each day with academics and journalists. We had 18
straight days of sunshine, almost surely a record for central
Europe, along with increasing heat. The ride from Prague to
Warsaw became known as the sauna train, for lack of air conditioning.
At times, we were all tired. Not every meeting or conversation
was scintillating. Many were riveting.
Since returning, we’ve dissected the experience step by
step, almost meal by meal. Predictably, some thought the trip
too long and too crowded. Others would have liked a longer venture
at a slower pace. Professor Moore and I have considered where
the trip might have been shortened or needed to be lengthened.
All nine students, as it turned out, were from the School of
Journalism and Mass Communications. We’d hoped for a few
more students and a mix of journalism and political science majors.
It would have created a more varied dialogue. But the group of
16 students, faculty—including Drs. Gordon Smith and Don
Puchala from political science--and accompanying spouses, ranging
from 19 to 71, travelled well together. We became masters at
moving and stowing heavy luggage on trains. The expertise of
the faculty members created a useful complement of journalism
and political science with specific knowledge of the areas we
visited and the historic background of the cold war.
From a personal perspective, the trip was a return to places
once familiar yet now much transformed. Between 1968 and 1981,
I had been a correspondent in Europe covering the developments
of the cold war. Subsequently, as a correspondent at the Pentagon
and White House, I frequently returned. I had seen the tanks
in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. I had heard President Reagan
declaim, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The Prague Spring was part of my own journalistic experience,
as was the Poland of Solidarnosc and the divisions of Germany
and Berlin. My wife, AP reporter Susanne Schafer, had reported
from inside the shipyard of Gdansk when Solidarnosc was created.
We were able to convey our personal journalistic experiences
to the students. At the same time, we shared their perceptions
of how the countries had struggled and changed after communism.
We reveled in the still slightly rough freshness of Budapest,
the ebullience of Warsaw and Gdansk, even the clutter of tourist
crowded Prague. But we especially were struck by the brilliance
of a Berlin united and the near obliteration of the scar that
once divided it, though enough of the wall has been retained
as a remembrance of the past.
We had great meals where once there were only glum restaurants.
We observed Poland’s presidential runoff—a meaningful,
not predetermined election. We rode bikes across the line where
East Germany’s “vopo” border guards used to
hunt down would-be escapees. We celebrated the Fourth of July
on a Baltic beach.