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A Real People's Revolution

March 23, 1997|Michael Meyer | Michael Meyer covered Eastern Europe and the Balkans for Newsweek from 1988-92

NEW YORK — Two images of revolution: one, East and West Germans dancing on top of the Berlin Wall one night in 1989, brought to us live by Peter Jennings on ABC; the other, mobs of Kalashnikov-toting Albanians shooting up the streets of Tirana, looting shops and banks, herding onto refugee ships for Italy. These events bracket a decade of upheaval, like the hopeful overture and final coda of some dark geopolitical opera. What a tragedy, we think, this latest Balkan drama. Why couldn't change have come in Albania the way it did elsewhere in communist Europe, where peaceful "people's revolutions" brought the walls of dictatorship tumbling harmlessly down?

But Albania, you say, is a hermit fiefdom with no tradition of democracy. It has no respected opposition to guide the transition, to mute its excesses and channel its energies. It is too poor, too backward.

True enough. And there is another way in which Albania differs from the other European revolutions: For the first time, we are seeing it as it is. The Albanian uprising is, in fact, the only genuine people's revolt in the entire decade of supposed popular revolution. Elsewhere, with the qualified exception of Poland, no one rose up to overthrow anything. We merely thought they did.

Return to the night of Nov. 9, 1989. Gunther Schabowski, the portly spokesman of the East German Politburo, stops by the offices of the new Communist Party boss, Egon Krenz, while on his way to his daily press briefing. "Anything to announce?" he asks.

Krenz shuffles through the papers on his desk, then passes Schabowski a two-page memo. "Take this," he says breezily. "It will do us a power of good."

Schabowski scans the memo while being driven to the briefing. It seems innocuous enough. At the news conference, he recites it as item four or five among the various announcements he has to make. It deals with passports: Every East German citizen would now, for the first time, be allowed to have one.

If Schabowski didn't fully appreciate the significance of his announcement, others did. There was a sudden hush, followed by a ripple of whispers. As the cameras rolled, broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter in the back of the room asked what turned out to be a fateful question: "When does this policy take effect?" Schabowski looked confused. Krenz had simply handed him the memo, hadn't explained it. The spokesman shrugged--and guessed. "Sofort," he said (immediately).

Schabowski had neglected to mention anything a key caveat in Krenz's bold announcement. Yes, East Germans would be allowed to possess passports. Yes, they would be theoretically free to travel. But they would have to apply for exit visas to use them--subject to all the old rules and regulations. In other words, no real change.

But East Germans didn't know that, thanks to Schabowski. They flocked by the thousands to the exit points to the West. Overwhelmed by the crowds, not knowing what to do and receiving no instructions from the military or party elite, frightened guards took matters into their own hands. Like Schabowski, they shrugged--quite literally--and threw open the gates. So the Wall came down.

I was at Checkpoint Charlie that night, in the eastern sector, watching all this. It wasn't quite as simple as this retelling. (Among many things, this reprise ignores the big marches in Leipzig that pressured the regime to "grant" passports in the first place.) But it is history in a nutshell, if not the version we remember Jennings presenting. To be sure, the crowds cheered and danced atop the Wall. But it was a celebration, not an uprising.

The point is that our history of the revolutions in Eastern Europe was never quite what we thought it was. We had a television view of events, shaped by wish-fulfillment. The Wall came down. We won the Cold War. Democracy was triumphant. All hail the power of the people. Given the time and circumstances, such myths could hardly fail to seduce reality. That was true in Berlin. It was true elsewhere in the Eastern bloc.

Consider the Velvet Revolution, as Vaclav Havel called the peaceful transition in Czechoslovakia that began a week after the Wall came down in Berlin. There, the people turned out in Wencelas Square and jingled their car keys in gently falling snow--and down came the communist dictators. But, truth be told, the fix was already in. Commie bosses and dissident leaders around Havel had quietly negotiated throughout the crisis. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the two sides worked out a gentlemanly (and eminently Czech) agreement to calmly transfer power. The Velvet Revolution was done in the cloakrooms, not in the streets.

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