Past Forward

Year-that-changed-the-world-the-untold-story-behind-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wallPaul Hockenos in The Boston Review:

The end of the Cold War produced so much ostensible consensus—on democracy, on free-market economics, on liberal values—that one is struck by how little consensus there is, even twenty years later, on how and why the Cold War actually met that abrupt end.

The explanations for communism’s spectacular collapse fall into three basic camps. First, there are the conservatives, such as U.S. Republicans and European Christian Democrats, who champion Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II as communism’s noble slayers. It was their unstinting anti-communism, and Reagan’s full-throttle arms race, that undermined and bankrupted the Soviet bloc. Another camp, which includes historians Tony Judt and Timothy Garton Ash, credits above all the defiant, opposition-minded dissidents who challenged communist regimes in the name of human rights. It was they who initiated the nonviolent movements that swept their jailers onto the dust heap of history. And then there are the Gorbachev fans, who argue that the father of glasnost and perestroika was the prime mover of the transformative events of 1989 and 1990.

With the twentieth anniversary of the peaceful revolutions of 1989 just passed, a deluge of new books attempts to shed light on the forces that ultimately uprooted the East bloc’s dictatorships. While this may appear to Americans as an academic exercise, in Central Europe today, the competing narratives of “how” and “why” and “who” starkly delineate political fronts and still supply powerful election-time fodder.

In The Year That Changed the World, U.S. journalist Michael Meyer offers a somewhat new take on the spark that ignited communism’s implosion. Meyer, Newsweek’s Central Europe correspondent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, was on-the-spot at just about every twist and turn in this remarkable story: in East Berlin when the wall was breached, reporting from Bucharest as Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceauseşcu was executed, at Prague’s Wenceslas Square when Vaclav Havel delivered his famous 1990 New Year’s address. Meyer’s literary flourishes are eloquent, and his vivid, gripping account of these events, and many others he witnessed first-hand, is a pleasure to read. Meyer has also kept up with the enormous outpouring of scholarship since then and conducted more on his own. This book is not a simple recounting of journalistic glories.

Yet the most novel—and problematic—aspect of Meyer’s book is his thesis that the real heroes of 1989 (Meyer’s “untold story”) were a handful of mild-mannered Hungarian communists.