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Perspectives on the fall of the Berlin Wall

Four new books take different approaches in sizing up the events in Eastern Europe before, during and beyond 1989.

November 08, 2009|Carlin Romano | Romano is critic-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Year That

Changed the World

The Untold Story Behind

the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Michael Meyer

Scribner: 256 pp., $26

Uncivil Society

1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

Stephen Kotkin

With a contribution by Jan T. Gross

Modern Library: 184 pp., $24

There Is No Freedom Without Bread!

1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism

Constantine Pleshakov

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 272 pp., $26

The Fall of

the Berlin Wall

The Revolutionary Legacy

of 1989

Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel

Oxford University Press: 186 pp., $27.95


We make fun of Nostradamus and numerologists, but give editors an anniversary and the floodgates open. We're anniversary-ologists, as USA Today might say. Unfortunately, trying to take the pulse of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 is more complex than counting back the years. Just as 1865 or 1945 can't be explained without 1787 or 1933, so 1989 -- the year communism either imploded or didn't, the world either changed or didn't and history either ended or kept going -- poses challenges.

One can take the "I was there" approach of Michael Meyer, Newsweek's bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans between 1988 and 1992, in his book "The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall." Meyer places the spotlight on what happened -- Hungary's opening of its borders, the Nov. 9 fall of the Berlin Wall, the domino decline of other Eastern European states -- while lacing in accessibly deep, if not Hegelian, historical explanation.

Another tack is the "if you knew what I know" analysis offered in Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin's "Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment," which frames the story as badly told rather than untold: a fantasy of people power sweeping Europe that's better dissected nation-by-nation, with insight into doomed governments and failed systems.

The foreign-accented version of this -- "if you knew what we Europeans know, going back a century" -- is represented by "There Is No Freedom Without Bread!: 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism," courtesy of ex-Soviet academician and Mount Holyoke scholar Constantine Pleshakov. It traces Eastern European history in such detail that even David Hume might be convinced that mists of causal determinism hovered over the Danube, Vistula and other key rivers in the late 1980s.

Finally, there's the "multi-voiced mulling" of Texas A&M professor Jeffrey A. Engel's "The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989," which gathers papers from a symposium at the university's Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs.

How to make sense of all these overarching syntheses? The best way to start is to refresh one's memory of the year's events, then size up the cliches that emerged from them.

From February to April 1989, Poland's communist government, after years of wrestling with a Solidarity-led civil society, held round-table negotiations with the opposition. The result was a landslide Solidarity victory in June elections and a Solidarity prime minister by August.

On June 27, Hungary cut down the barbed wire on its Austrian border, allowing thousands of East Germans to begin a mass exodus to the West. Throughout the year, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev publicly and privately repudiated the "Brezhnev Doctrine," his nation's commitment to keep Eastern European states communist by force, if necessary. He also strategized, Kotkin writes, "to prevent Eastern European regimes from cracking down themselves."

On Oct. 9, a mass protest of some 70,000 in Leipzig elicited a weak response from the East German government, emboldening further protests. On Oct. 18, East Germany's Communist Party "retired" its longtime hard-line leader, Erich Honecker, who had once declared, "We took power in order to hold it forever."

By Oct. 23, 250,000 East Germans were marching in Leipzig. On Nov. 9, after East German spokesman Gunter Schabowski ineptly and incorrectly answered a reporter's question by stating that a new freedom-to-travel policy was operative immediately, thousands headed to the Berlin Wall, which then peaceably "fell." But bloodshed would still follow in Romania. In December, Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu ordered his troops to fire on demonstrators in Timisoara, triggering a series of violent events (1,104 Romanians were killed, according to official statistics) that led to the trial and execution of Ceausescu and his wife on Dec. 25.

For perspective, it's worth remembering that Germany didn't reunite until the following year. The Soviet Union's dissolution came only at the end of 1991. And China's Communist leaders, mindful of events in Eastern Europe, brutally cracked down on the Tiananmen Square street protests in June 1989, killing hundreds or thousands to keep alive the regime that persists today.

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