Sunday, November 29, 2009

(Recent) History Lesson

In this 20th anniversary year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the tumultuous change in Eastern Europe, I came across Michael Meyer’s first person account of those events, The Year That Changed the World: the Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s a fast-paced, gripping account of that heady time, an account that also challenges the myth that America “won” the Cold War by Ronald Reagan’s steely determination to stand up to the “Evil Empire” of Soviet Communism. In Meyer’s telling, the fall of Soviet Communism and the liberation of Eastern Europe came about when Mikhail Gorbachev was no longer willing to enforce Soviet hegemony beyond its borders. Ronald Reagan figures in the narrative as Gorbachev’s partner rather than adversary and America’s greatest achievement during the transition was restraint and common sense.

As central as Gorbachev’s actions were in 1988 and 1989, events on the ground were guided by a local forces and individuals. Meyer reports that by 1988 Eastern Europe was becoming an economic basket case (as George Kennan had predicted 40 years earlier). Communist regimes were desperate for something that would work. In Hungary, the solution was to allow Party members who had previously called for reform, to take power in hopes of handing them the blame for the worsening situation. Instead, Miklos Nemeth and his allies began loosening the binds of the old regime, creating political space for debate and organizing outside of the Communist Party. In Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who in 1981 led the crackdown on the Solidarity Movement, turned to the men he had imprisoned for a way out of the worsening economic situation. Changes in these nations forced a crisis in East Germany. And the Wall came tumbling down. Or so it seemed.

It wasn’t quite that simple. Meyer’s account begins in 1988 and shows how events took unpredicted turns and everybody was uncertain how the Soviets, would react, despite Gorbachev’s assurances. Experience from earlier reform attempts—1953, 1956, 1968 and 1981—offered grim warnings toward would-be reformers. The Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 was an all too pointed reminder of the possibility for state violence against citizens calling for change. That’s where Gorbachev figures so prominently. His unwillingness to intervene with Soviet military force or to back hard-line resistance to change gave reformers openings to pursue ideas that heretofore been anathema. The openings allowed sheer luck and determination to create further change and additional opportunities. Meyer chronicles these events in detail and time, quoting liberally from interviews with just about everybody.

Not part of Meyer’s story is the notion that Eastern Europe rose up in response to American challenges to the Soviets. According to Meyer, change came from within the system, from reformers with long time Party credentials who skillfully exploited opportunities to overcome resistance from entrenched Communist ideologues. Change also came from the people, it welled up from citizen frustration and impatience with failed regimes. Many streams of thought, passion and hope became a transnational movement whose consequences surprised the entire world. Meyer credits the US for its restraint and willingness to let events unfold; to do otherwise would have changed the dynamic and given the hardliners weapons to discredit reform. He contrasts that restraint with the subsequent belief that America had become the “indispensible nation” and that all America had to do was to stand firm and its enemies would wither and collapse. It is a strong point, one that most Americans have not considered much since 1989.

Meyer’s account is decidedly first person. He had the opportunity to be most everywhere in Eastern Europe in 1989 to witness events. He describes his unique vantage as both blessing and curse. It was a blessing to see the many ways that events played out across different cultures and nations, a curse to be so immersed in the action. Meyer makes the best of his experience and the passage of 20 years to offer a nuanced account of a momentous time. The lessons he draws from those events are well informed, as important today as they were in 1989. Meyer’s lively reporting is far more informative than the Triumphalist portrayals in the mass media this past fall.

Writing this, I began to think of Michael Meyers as a latter day John Reed. Where the two seem most similar is their sympathy for the change they witnessed. Meyer is considerably more objective than Reed but Meyer, too, is definitely excited about what is happening. Like Reed, Meyer tells us what it was like for participants at all levels, how it felt and about their hopes and fears. Unlike Reed, Meyer’s enthusiasm is tempered with the benefit of 20 year hindsight. Reed did not live to see the full results of the change he welcomed.

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