The Magic Lantern: 3,2,1…

This book is a composition of 5 essays; the first four are Timothy Ash’s first- hand accounts of the East European “Revolutions” in in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the fifth and last essay is his conclusions based on the observations he made in the first four essays.

Main points:

■ As a historical observer, Ash describes meeting opposition leaders, and the evolvement of the Solidarity movement as an opposition to the Eastern Bloc (AKA Soviet Bloc). This was a social movement in Poland that used methods of civil resistance to promote cause such as workers’ rights as well as social change.

■ Ash shows how the democratic movements succeeded one another in a way that proved inevitability. He gives perspective on the natural procession of movements throughout Eastern Europe and uses experiences from individual accounts to depict the events. He tells a story of a German who crossed the border several times just for the hell of it after the wall was taken down. He also includes narratives of East Berlin residents picking up their 100 Deutschmarks (“greeting money”), and going shopping.

■ Ash reveals his small contribution to the revolutions after meeting Václav Havel in the backroom of a pub he frequented. He had told Havel “In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!”, to which Havel responded by summoning over a camera team. This opened up the doors for Ash to the “Magic Lantern” theater; the headquarters of the main opposition coalition in the Czech lands, the Civic Forum, and therefore the revolution. This allowed Ash inside access to decisions in regards to the revolutions.

■ Although Ash gives the reader a variety of plausible theories as to the cause of these revolutions, he proposes his own explanation  in three words–“Gorbachev, Helsinki and Tocqueville”; the amalgamation of Soviet liberalization, a global understanding of human rights and the absence of a rational right to rule were all factors that caused the revolutions in Eastern Europe.


■ How did Ash’s political involvement in the revolutions affect his historical account and interpretation?

■ Ash’s presentation of the natural procession of the movements makes them seem logical, even obvious. How come these changes to Eastern Europe weren’t predicted?


■ Ash never produces a complete comprehensible theory of the political shift in Europe or pretends to know the answers to the many questions it raises. He does, however, substantially articulate the questions that need answering.