I was present in Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague in 1989 when non-violent revolutions swept the Communists from power, creating a brand new model of regime change. I stood in Wenceslas Square as hundreds of thousands of people rattled their keys, unleashing an eerie, shimmering sound into the air, chanting, “Your time is up!” I had lived among the Czechs for a decade in the 1970s, and I felt the power of their relief as the hated regime slipped into history. So, not surprisingly, I was intrigued by the instant media punditry comparing the bloodless revolutions in central Europe with the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East. Even on television, I could see similarities between Prague 1989 and Cairo 2011: the peacefulness of protesters; the prominent role played by young people; the sparkling displays of public eloquence and wit; the sudden release from fear and the rebirth of civic pride; the infectious jubilation when the regime was finally brought down. But I saw big differences as well. In 1989, British historian Timothy Garton Ash, having a celebratory beer with Václav Havel, observed that in Poland it had taken ten years to overthrow the system, in Hungary ten months, and in East Germany ten weeks; Czechoslovakia would perhaps take ten days. He was simplifying, of course, yet his remark captured something of the truth of the moment: Soviet-style Communism was a unified system run, with some minor local variations, from Moscow, and its collapse overturned the old Cold War domino theory — the belief that if Communism were not contained militarily it would spread to other countries. The revolutions of 1989 marked the end of an era, and provided an occasion for joy and optimism to everyone who had lived so long in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon.
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