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the year that changed the world

13 may 2010

Michael Meyer wrote The Year That Changed the World to combat three common myths about the breakdown of the Warsaw Pact in 1989. The first myth is that Communist governments in Eastern Europe were all overthrown by broad-based, popular uprisings. The second is that the collapse of those governments was inexorable and inevitable, without contingency or alternative. The third is most pernicious:

the idea of the United States as an emancipator, a liberator of repressive regimes. This crusading brand of American triumphalism in time became gospel among neoconservatives, including many in the administration of George W. Bush. (xi)
Meyer was a senior Newsweek correspondent in Eastern Europe in 1989, which gave him unusual access to the leaders of Communist governments and dissident movements alike. He comments on his own biases of perspective, which naturally tilt away from the masses and away from Washington DC. But those very biases make his book a useful corrective to the faith, common inside the Beltway and out, that all we need to do is send in the Marines and the world's huddled masses will go all Velvet Revolution on their Snidley-Whiplash-like leaders.

The Czechoslovakian regime change of 1989 that came to be called the Velvet Revolution was the closest of the uprisings to the stereotype in the American public imagination – though one must note that the 101st Airborne was conspicuously absent. Emboldened by events in Berlin and Budapest, Czech citizens took to the streets of Prague, ultra-peacefully. Every day, the country's most famous dissident, Vaclav Havel, would speak to them from a balcony in Wenceslas Square. The images from that time are indelible to anyone who saw them on TV: a notoriously hard-line regime was simply nudged aside by mass civil disobedience.

And the United States stayed on the sidelines. Like historian Timothy Naftali, Meyer expresses admiration for President George H.W. Bush's restraint during the crucial autumn of 1989. Given the enormous power of the United States, restraint was a kind of activism in itself. American power was exerted just by not threatening the Soviets and not seeming to pull the strings of pro-Western leaders in the Warsaw Pact. Sometimes you can get the results you want by keeping your mitts off the operation.

Far more important than George Bush in the mitts-off department, of course, was Mikhail Gorbachev, who suddenly truly meant the words about "self-determination" that his Soviet predecessors had mouthed hypocritically for decades. And more important than either superpower leader was the large cast of characters who engineered the opening of borders and the democratizing of governments in the four key 1989 nations: Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

The notion that Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall in 1987, opined that Gorbachev should tear it down, and thereby triggered the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, is one of the more preposterous things ever to be widely believed. American Presidents had been standing tall on Berlin since Harry Truman ordered the Airlift, and had been pretty much ignored by the Soviets. True, Reagan backed up his rhetoric with copious military spending; but it's hardly as if Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon were pacifists.

No, what changed the world in 1989 were decisions made by Eastern Europeans, both the leaders and the rank-and-file. Meyer tells a compelling story of the process as it worked itself out differently in different nations. Hungary's reform was a top-down matter, in his eyes, with Németh Miklós, a little-remembered Communist leader who eventually served only a caretaker's term as Prime Minister, the key figure. Németh, according to Meyer, saw Hungary as the vanguard of far-reaching European reform, and helped precipitate the opening of the East German border as a means to that end. (Ironically, Meyer notes, events moved so quickly that Hungary never held a unique lead in the rush toward democracy and free markets.)

In Poland, a collapsing Communist government made its peace with the powerful Solidarity union to democratize the country by negotiation. But in East Germany, one of the world's most thorough police states, there was no broad movement like Solidarity, and no leader like Németh. Instead, the iconic moment of the entire year – the fall of the Wall – was precipitated almost by accident. Well, not so much by one of those accidents as by a contingency that historians of inevitability often discount. When new leader Egon Krenz, struggling to buy time, told spokesman Gunter Schabowski to announce a new plan to open the border with West Germany, Schabowski was insufficiently briefed. He casually announced to the press that the border would open immediately. A Berlin crowd took him at his word and rushed through the checkpoints in both directions. The East German government had drawn an initial lesson from Tienanmen Square earlier that year: it isn't great for your image to shoot down your own people (let alone shoot down the mass of celebrating Westerners who joined them). From that moment on, die Mauer war weck.

Meyer notes acerbically that the second Bush Administration drew all the wrong lessons from the successes achieved in Europe during the first. Dick Cheney, in particular, seemed chronically tone-deaf. In 1989, he was convinced that Gorbachev's liberalizations were a ploy to lull NATO to sleep, so that the Red Army could pour into the Fulda Gap. After seeing much of Eastern Europe freed without a single American tank getting into the action, Cheney's conclusion was that you could march into Baghdad with a few such tanks and be greeted by Wenceslas-Square-like adoring crowds. I wonder how that turned out.

Meyer, Michael. The Year That Changed the World: The untold story behind the fall of the Berlin Wall. New York: Scribner, 2009.