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Human rights symposium to examine world-changing events of 1989


April 2019 | By David Ching. Photo by Public Domain images via Wikipedia Commons.


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When she reflects upon the atmosphere in post-Cold War Europe, Rebekah Klein-Pejšová happily recalls the optimism of the time.

Klein-Pejšová studied in Budapest as an exchange student in the early 1990s, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. There, she witnessed first-hand the excitement that spread across the region after a string of Communist-bloc dictatorships fell, where citizens who once lived under oppressive regimes suddenly had the opportunity to experience freedom.

“It was incredibly open,” said Klein-Pejšová, director of the Human Rights Program at Purdue and associate professor of history and Jewish studies. “We had conversations in the ’90s that we can’t have now, just in terms of the naiveté and this willingness to listen to each other and not immediately assign people into kinds of pigeonholes: ‘Oh, you said that, so therefore you fit here on the political spectrum.’ It was a time of just talking and being together and thinking about ways that we can change the world.”

The world unquestionably changed in 1989, as millions of citizens across the globe took to the streets with revolution on their minds. In addition to the regime changes across central and eastern Europe, 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Apartheid era in South Africa. It also produced one of the darkest events of the late-20th Century, when the Chinese government brutally snuffed out the student-led democracy movement at Tiananmen Square.

In recognition of these landmark events, the Human Rights Program and International Students and Scholars Office will host a spring symposium, “Thirty Years After Global 1989,” on Monday, April 8 at the Purdue Memorial Union’s Faculty East Lounge, starting at 9:30 a.m. Through a series of lectures and discussion panels, the Purdue Ideas Festival event – co-sponsored by the departments of history, political science, and philosophy – will focus on these three main developments and their legacies.

Their lasting impact will be a pivotal theme for Elisa Massimino, senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights and former president and CEO of Human Rights First, when she delivers the keynote presentation at 5 p.m. at Krannert Building, Room GO16.

“She wants to think about what kind of human rights lessons we’ve learned over the past 30 years and how we can apply them to today’s challenges,” Klein-Pejšová said. “We had great hope. It was a year of enormous potential and great change. It has been spoken of across the political spectrum as a year of courage and miracles. I know the political trajectories which have emerged since that time have again swayed into ideological territory, from the triumph of the market economy and the liberal democratic state – but primarily of the market economy – to neoliberalism, to globalization.

“We always talk about the end of the Cold War as the end of the last obstacles to globalization,” she continued. “We have to consider what globalization means, what we’ve learned over these 30 years. That is really the turning point, a sea change, in the way global relations function. What can we learn from these trajectories?”

In addition to Massimino’s talk, the panel discussions will feature input from three primary speakers:

* James Krapfl, associate professor of history and classical studies at McGill University, will discuss the changes in Europe in a presentation titled, “The Revolutions of 1989: Invention, Repercussions, Repression and Desire.”

“What I would want to capture is that euphoria of the immediate post-Cold War period – the euphoria of openness, of contact between East and West,” Klein-Pejšová said of the mood in Europe at the time. “I don’t remember where I read this, but it was like first contact. It was the last time, perhaps, that we have that degree of separation between peoples, and then bridging that gap and having those first conversations and life-changing experiences.”

* Fenggang Yang, professor of sociology at Purdue and director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Study, will address the Tiananmen Square protests.

“The Tiananmen Square protests were driven by the hope of democracy, but the June 4 massacre shattered that hope,” Klein-Pejšová said. “Since then, China has moved further and further away from democracy and it’s on its own path. It has done exceptionally well economically, but in terms of democracy and human rights concerns? No. What does that mean for the world today? How can we understand the place of China?”

* Finally, Alex Lichtenstein, professor of history at Indiana University and editor of American Historical Review, will examine the events in South Africa with his presentation, “Liberating the Last Colony: The End of Apartheid.”

“The year 1960 was the year of Africa in terms of decolonization, but yet Apartheid persisted in South Africa until after ’89,” Klein-Pejšová said. “1989 was just the beginning of the end of that system there. He’s going to talk about what that means and how do we understand liberation in this case. That’s where we have Nelson Mandela that we can look up to just as we have these other brilliant figures. We have wise leadership in 1989.”

The final panel discussion will cover how institutions and communities should respond to the modern-day issues facing migrants, refugees, and scholars in countries where their academic work is subject to political suppression.

One such school under attack is Central European University, the Budapest-based institution where Klein-Pejšová received a master’s degree in 1996. CEU was originally established in three cities – Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw – before combining into the single Budapest campus in 1996. Following extended conflict with the Hungarian government, CEU is being forced to relocate to Vienna.

The university’s fight for academic freedom resonates in important ways as Klein-Pejšová reflects upon the world-changing events that occurred three decades ago. When the Soviet-style European dictatorships fell, core liberal arts concepts helped provide structure to the new governments. Failing to protect the freedom to teach these fundamentals risks repeating the harsh lessons of Cold War-era Europe.

“It was crucially important that CEU was established in Hungary, that it was in a country formerly behind the Iron Curtain and an institution of democratic change and open society,” Klein-Pejšová said. “One of the lessons that we learned – and I think reverberates even more loudly now – is that you need the humanities and liberal arts for an open society. That was a top priority after the changes. How do we rebuild here? How do we make leadership? How do we rebuild civil society? How do we build democracy and real inclusivity? We need liberal arts, and liberal arts functioning in an open environment where you can have this free exchange of ideas.

“We all love STEM and recognize its importance, but STEM thrived behind the Iron Curtain, too. Brilliant mathematicians and scientists came from Hungary and from Romania. But you couldn’t have brilliant political scientists or sociologists or historians functioning in acknowledged official academic positions who were deemed ‘politically unreliable.’ The government wanted to control the historical narrative, which we see again in increasing ways – certainly under the current Hungarian government.”