Eyewitness to revolution

The Year that Changed the World:

The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall

A recent article in the Financial Times outlined how living standards in former Eastern Bloc countries are being chipped away in order to pay back tens of billions in loans from the International Monetary Fund. Romania has seen cuts in public sector jobs, pensions and wages. In neighboring Hungary the retirement age will be raised from 62 to 65 along with cuts in child support benefits for stay-at-home parents.

Just over twenty years ago, economic crisis in the same places was a prelude to a chain of revolts. Michael Meyer writes that in Hungary there was “30 percent inflation, the highest per capita foreign dept in Europe, falling living standards and wages. Few Hungarian families could make ends meet without working two or even three jobs. Resentment was growing.”

Meyer released The Year that Changed the World last year to coincide with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Stalinist bureaucracies. Michael Meyer, Newsweek’s bureau chief for Central Europe, was on the front lines during those final days. As he traveled from country to country, he saw firsthand the interactions between an old guard hanging on for life, reformist leaders maneuvering for change, and mass movements struggling in the streets.

He explicitly states his aim of dismantling the myth of “the United States as an emancipator, a liberator of repressive regimes.” Meyer’s narrative succeeds in disrupting the supposedly direct relationship between President Reagan’s 1987 declaration in Berlin, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” and the destruction of the Wall on November 9, 1989.

The Irish Times compares this book to John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, which chronicles the Russian Revolution of 1917. This analogy is faulty, largely because Reed saw mass action as the source of sweeping historical change, and Meyer tends to focus on the foresight of individuals. Meyer’s orientation is that of a liberal who also believes that the U.S. could be a force for international good, if only there were more astute policy makers—a position that Reed spent a lot of effort to debunk. If a reader is seeking an analysis of the social forces at play in the Eastern Bloc, people should check out Chris Harman’s Class struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, as this subject is outside the purview of Meyer’s book.

Meyer does, however, paint a vivid picture of what took place day by day on the ground and in the offices of the leadership. His descriptions are engaging, and the writing succeeds in placing the reader in the middle of events as they happened.

He follows the chain of events as they started with Hungary and ended with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Miklos Nemeth, placed at the head of the Hungarian government to fix a broken economy, wanted to bring in the free market and loosen the grip of the Communist Party. His ally and politburo member, Imre Pozsgay, was even more blunt, stating in an interview; “Communism does not work, it has come to the end of its days. It is an obstacle to progress in all fields—political, social and economic.”

The Stalinist variety of communism, where an authoritarian state directed the economy—and much of daily life—from the top down, was a fetter on development and became the prime target of the change sweeping the region. Stagnation in the Soviet Union had led Mikhail Gorbachev to initiate restructuring with economic and political reforms in the mid-1980s. As Nemeth states, “Gorbachev has taken the lid off a boiling pot, no doubt the steam is painful, but change is irreversible.”

The economic crisis forced a loosening of control that opened up a wider debate in the East Bloc. Censorship was eased, and underground publications and organizations rose to the surface. In Poland, the government sat down with Solidarity, the organization that, eight years prior, had led massive illegal strikes against the Stalinist regime.

A third of the population lived in poverty, and inflation was flying off the charts, with the average Pole spending “one-quarter of their waking day waiting in queues.” According to Meyer, some in the leadership, namely the chairman of the Polish United Workers Party, Wojciech Jaruzelski, thought, “Solidarity could help smooth the road through some tough economic belt-tightening.… Only the true believers, the hardest of the hard-liners, appear to have seen the threat as it was—the end of communism in Poland.”

In the election that followed, Solidarity devastated the ruling communists in every contested Senate seat, save one—which went to an independent. The upset election happened to fall upon June 4, and the international news became focused on events in Tiananmen Square, where a violent government crackdown was unfolding.

The fear of an Eastern Bloc-style Tiananmen hung over those organizing for change in the months that followed. There was a history of such military actions by the Russians: Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This time around, however, Gorbachev would make it clear time and again that he had no intent of intervening in any of the affairs of his neighbors.

In early July, the members of the Warsaw Pact (the Eastern military alliance formed in response to NATO) met in Bucharest, Romania, the “citadel of perhaps the most repressive of all the bloc’s regimes.” The main agenda point was to reverse what the Hungarian government had done, which was to stop monitoring Hungary’s border with Austria. Tens of thousands of East Germans vacationed in Hungary every summer, and an open border with the West could bring about a major migration of East Germans, considering that hundreds had already been killed attempting to flee to West Germany via the East German border. Meyer makes a compelling argument that the first cracks in the Berlin Wall came from hammer-blows by Hungary.

Meyer’s chapter on Czechoslovakia is fascinating, as it describes a revolutionary atmosphere that led to demonstrations including more than half the city of Prague. Meyer also makes the case that the Romanian revolution was partially orchestrated by leaders of the army, who took advantage of a situation when the people started rising up.

As a reporter for a major mainstream journal, Meyer had access to individuals that few others would have. While this inside track gave him a view that fills in many details regarding how things transpired, it also colors his perspective. In the introduction, he states that his book “gives overdue credit to the true victors and the remarkable degree to which the upheavals of 1989 resulted less from mass revolution than from the careful planning and thoughtful work of a few farsighted and courageous individuals.”

It would be difficult to argue, however, that any amount of backstage negotiations would have gotten very far without the mass numbers of people in the street. History has shown time and again that change that benefits regular people has only come when regular people themselves are mobilized. There is a relationship between those “farsighted and courageous individuals” and the “mass revolution,” where the confidence of one depends on actions of the other and vice versa.

This “great man” theory of history and social change is also evident in the epilogue, where George H. W. Bush is praised as a responsible manager of the Cold War’s end, and for not going all the way to Baghdad in 1991. Clinton and Bush II are deservedly criticized for increasing American military interventions around the world, and the book ends with a call for more international collaboration.

This liberal worldview of a kinder, gentler United States fits with Meyer’s current assignment as chief speechwriter for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. Despite illusions that a just foreign policy is possible under capitalism, this book does give an interesting glimpse into what transpired during that fateful year, and adds a depth of understanding to an important period of history.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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