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The Year That Changed the World

Two decades later, a journalist remembers the rapid crumbling of European communism.

By Elizabeth Pond / September 21, 2009



In Europe, 1989 was a hinge of history. The obscene Berlin Wall suddenly fell, after 28 years of seeming impregnability. The cold war, and with it the nuclear balance of terror, vanished after 44 years, without setting off Armageddon.

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The great Russian empire imploded; Moscow lost its post-World War II external clients and its internal vassals of two centuries (or more, in the view of Ukrainians). The Soviet Army that had quashed the East Berlin workers’ revolt of 1953, the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and, vicariously, Poland’s Solidarity in 1981, withdrew 1,000 miles to the east. Overnight, the specter of Communism ceased to haunt Europe.

Incredibly, all this transpired without bloodshed, except in Romania. Additionally, the vexing “German question” of a century and a half – how to prevent progressive ascents of the German behemoth from tipping the European imbalance into war, as in 1870, 1914, and 1939 – was finally resolved. Washington forced the balky French and British to accede to the reuniting of West and East Germany into a single state that now loomed over its neighbors in population as well as economic might.

Yet this time European peace was assured by embedding Germany in the European Union, surrounding it with new democracies to the east as well as the west, and, above all, by the aversion of post-Hitler Germans to power politics.

As a corollary, the Central Europeans resolved their own long-conflicted identities in a rush to join (or rejoin, as they preferred to phrase it) the rich and safe heartland of Europe. Their peaceful revolutions of 1989 began their journey to EU and NATO membership and accession to these institutions’ prerequisite rule of law.

Michael Meyer witnessed the acceleration of these astonishing developments from the epicenter of change as the Newsweek correspondent for Germany and Central Europe. On the 20th anniversary of 1989, he pays tribute to them in The Year That Changed the World.

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