The Year That Changed the World

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Meyer says he wrote this book primarily to debunk the (neoconservative) myths that attributed the seismic shift overwhelmingly to America’s unipolar supremacy and example. Such persuasion might seem unnecessary after US voters last November elected a president whose foreign policy itself denies these myths. But Meyer renders a service in reminding older readers of that annus mirabilis and in introducing it to 20-somethings for whom the events of a generation ago might otherwise seem as remote as the Punic wars.
In this role Meyer is an affable guide. He recounts tales of his interviews with key officials and demonstrators throughout Central Europe. He watches the impish playwright, former jailbird, and future president, Vaclav Havel, choreograph the end of Communist rule in Prague. He sees, on a hotel TV in Bucharest, Romania, the instant videos of the corpse of the “tyrant” Nicolae Ceasuşescu after his execution in a palace coup. He tracks Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh, the hero whom he regards as the secret mastermind of the transformations.
In elevating Németh’s significance, however, Meyer slights other key actors. He scants the audacity of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in thinking he could reform the Communist political system without destroying it. Meyer also says too little about the Poles’ testing of Russian limits in 1956 and 1980-81, and their cheekiness in 1989 in voting out a Com­munist government for the first time anywhere in the 70 years since the Russian revolution.
Curiously, too, for a book that promises to reveal “the untold story behind the fall of the Berlin wall,” Meyer is weak on the crucial dynamic in Germany. In particular, he misses the tipping point of the sudden rejection by 70,000 Leipzigers on Oct. 9, 1989, of three decades of East German fear and quiescence.
The authorities, expecting 10,000 demonstrators to show up for the weekly Monday peace march, had ordered 8,000 scared, ill-trained security forces to suppress the city’s “counterrevolution” with live ammunition. As the confrontation hour approached, the Politburo froze, issued no further instructions, and did not return the nervous phone calls from Leipzig officials. Only at the last possible minute did the Leipzig party secretaries dare to breach party discipline, take local initiative, and order the men with guns to stand down.
The rest is history. Once the Leipzigers abruptly demonstrated that the emperor had lost his clothes, it was easy for the East Berliners on Nov. 9, the Czechs on Nov. 25, and subsequent others to replicate the exercise.
Two cheers for Michael Meyer, then, for reviving the memory of that giddy, fraught, and ultimately logical year of 1989.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of a trilogy on 1989 and its aftermath in Europe, including “Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification.”

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