The Year That Changed the World
Two decades later, a journalist remembers the rapid crumbling of European communism.
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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.
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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.”