On the heels of Victor Sebestyen’s excellent Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire comes another book on those momentous events twenty years ago. The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall is published by Simon & Schuster and written by Michael Meyer, who is currently a communication advisor to Ban Ki-moon (who may well need one) and was Newsweek’s correspondent in Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans in 1989.
As such, Meyer takes a different approach from Sebestyen, namely that of an eyewitness to many of the key events. He was there to see the border guards at Checkpoint Charlie open the gates between West and East Berlin on the night of 9 November 1989, he was one of the last foreign journalists to interview Ceausescu and he was present during much of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
But Michael Meyer also takes a look behind the scenes and argues against what he considers several myths about 1989. One of them is that the revolution came as a result of the long-repressed people of Eastern Europe spontaneously rising against the communist dictatorships. Meyer’s version is that this is only partly true; it happened in some countries, while the events in other countries were the results of a revolution from above.
Meyer places Hungary at the centre of the story and looks at how a few members of the Hungarian leadership “deliberately took aim at the Berlin Wall – and more than any others, it was they who brought it down”. These men played a significant role by opening the Hungarian borders, thus allowing the “Great Escape” to happen, whereby thousands upon thousands of East German citizens fled to the West through Hungary and Austria, a flight which caused a serious weakening of the GDR regime.
Meyer also points out that what happened in 1989 was in no way preordained, although it may seem so in retrospect. He also argues that chance played a significant role – most famously Gunter Schabowski’s misstatement at the 9 November press conference that East German citizens would be allowed to leave immediately.
Michael Meyer also warns against American triumphalism over the end of the Cold War and the dangers of believing that the communist regimes collapsed as a result of hard-line confrontation from the USA. Meyer, like Sebestyen, argues that Ronald Reagan softened his rhetoric and his politics and chose to work with Mikhail Gorbachev “as a reformer, a potential partner in peace”, rather than confront the Soviet Union.
“The history of the revolutions in Eastern Europe was not written in Washington”, Meyer argues. “It had little to do with American military might. It had far more to do with the rise of Gorbachev, coupled with the economic collapse of the Soviet system and the glaring contrast to the dynamism of Western Europe. The preparedness of East European leaders, with the exception of those of Romania, to accept peaceful change was critical. So was the role of sheer accident and happenstance [...]. Above all, it had everything to do with people, individually and collectively, on the ground, deciding for themselves to tear down that Wall”.
Meyer ascribes new roles to several of the participants of this story. His hero remains Gorbachev, who “deserves enormous credit. He was the geopolitical demiurge, the prime mover that set all else in motion. Without him, the history of Eastern Europe and the end of communism would have been vastly different”.
Michael Meyer’s version of 1989 is well worth reading in this autumn of anniversaries.