Matt Welch at Reason:
On August 23, 1989, officials from the newly reformed and soon-to-be-renamed Communist Party of Hungary ceased policing the country’s militarized border with Austria. Some 13,000 East Germans, many of whom had been vacationing at nearby Lake Balaton, fled across the frontier to the free world. It was the largest breach of the Iron Curtain in a generation, and it kicked off a remarkable chain of events that ended 11 weeks later with the righteous citizen dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
Twenty years later, the anniversary of that historic border crossing was noted in exactly four American newspapers, according to the Nexis database, and all four mentions were in reprints of a single syndicated column. August anniversaries receiving more media play in the U.S. included the 400th anniversary of Galileo building his telescope, the 150th anniversary of the first oil well, and the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A Google News search of “anniversary” and “freedom” on August 23, 2009, turned up scores of Woodstock references before the first mention of Hungary.
Get used to it, if you haven’t already. November 1989 was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history, yet two decades later the country that led the Cold War coalition against communism seems less interested than ever in commemorating, let alone processing the lessons from, the collapse of its longtime foe. At a time that fairly cries out for historical perspective about the follies of central planning, Americans are ignoring the fundamental conflict of the postwar world, and instead leapfrogging back to what Steve Forbes describes in this issue as the “Jurassic Park statism” of the 1930s (see “ ‘The Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs,’ ” page 42). There have been more Hollywood hagiographies of the revolutionary communist Che Guevara in the last five years than there have been studio pictures in the last two decades about the revolutionary anti-communists who dramatically toppled totalitarians from Tallin to Prague (see Tim Cavanaugh’s “Hollywood Comrades,” page 62). And what little general-nonfiction interest there is in the superpower struggle, as Michael C. Moynihan details on page 48 (“The Cold War Never Ended”), remains stuck in the same Reagan vs. Gorby frame that made the 1980s so intellectually shallow the first time around.
Timothy Garton Ash at New York Review of Books:
In truth, the essence of 1989 lies in the multiple interactions not merely of a single society and party-state, but of many societies and states, in a series of interconnected three-dimensional chess games. While the French Revolution of 1789 always had foreign dimensions and repercussions, and became an international event with the revolutionary wars, it originated as a domestic development in one large country. The European revolution of 1989 was, from the outset, an international event—and by international I mean not just the diplomatic relations between states but also the interactions of both states and societies across borders. So the lines of causation include the influence of individual states on their own societies, societies on their own states, states on other states, societies on other societies, states on other societies (for example, Gorbachev’s direct impact on East-Central Europeans), and societies on other states (for example, the knock-on effect on the Soviet Union of popular protest in East-Central Europe). These portmanteau notions of state and society have themselves to be disaggregated into groups, factions, and individuals, including unique actors such as Pope John Paul II.
The end of communism in Europe brought the most paradoxical realization of a communist dream. Poland in 1980–1981 saw a workers’ revolution—but it was against a so-called workers’ state. Communists dreamed of proletarian internationalism spreading revolution from country to country; in 1989–1991, revolution did finally spread from country to country, with the effect of dismantling communism. Yet the story is as much one of unintended consequences as it is of deliberate actions—let alone of historical necessity.
So what happened in 1989 can only be understood on the basis of a scrupulous, detailed chronological reconstruction of intended and unintended effects, in multiple directions on multiple stages, day by day, and sometimes—as on the evening of November 9 in Berlin—minute by minute. The reporting or misreporting of events, especially by television, is itself a vital part of the causal chain. When a trusted, avuncular presenter on the 10:30 PM West German television news declared that “the gates in the Wall are wide open” they were not yet wide open; but this report helped to make them so, since it increased the flood of East Berliners (who watched and were more inclined to believe West German television) hoping to get through the frontier crossings to the West, and the crowds of West Berliners coming to greet them on the other side. An erroneous report on Radio Free Europe that a student called Martin Šmid had been killed, in the suppression of the November 17, 1989, student demonstration in Prague, helped to swell the protesting crowds in the first days of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. (In what seems to me the best, and certainly the most amusing, of the retrospective chronicles, György Dalos tells how the student came home the next evening to be told by a somewhat agitated father that he was reportedly dead.)
A model of the kind of fine-grained, multinational analysis that we need is the work of the Harvard scholar Mark Kramer on Soviet–East European relations, so far published only in a series of scholarly articles, research papers, and book chapters. Basing his work on extensive digging in Soviet and East European archives, plus a wide range of published sources, Kramer demonstrates the full intricacy of the interaction between imperial center and periphery. He concludes that what he calls the “spillover” was mainly from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe between 1986 and 1988, in both directions in 1989, and then mainly back from Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union in 1990–1991, as the Baltic states, Ukraine, and eventually Russia itself were emboldened to follow the East-Central European example of self-liberation. If leading academic publishers are not already pursuing Kramer to turn this work into a book, they should start doing so now.
Histories of the Cold war written in capital cities often fall into the Great Man trap (It was Reagan! No, it was Gorbachev!) or a false sense of historical inevitability (Communism was always doomed!) but the truth is rarely as simple as that. We see through a glass darkly, at best, and our – or anyone’s – ability to predict, let alone control, events is severely limited. Here too, boldness is not necessarily our friend and the case for limited government – that is, for modest government – seems pretty strong.
David Frum in the National Post:
Perhaps the point is obvious, and yet it still needs to be said. Nov. 9 is not only the anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall. It is also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the organized attack upon German Jews in 1938, and of Hitler’s Beer Hall putsch in 1923.
Some kind dispensation of fate has arranged for this grim anniversary now to be tinctured with the joy of 1989. Yet there is a reason that the new reunified German state has chosen to set its national day not on Nov. 9, but on Oct. 3: the anniversary of the formal merger of the two Germanies in 1990.
Nov. 9 is the more momentous date, but like so many German dates, it is perhaps too momentous to be remembered in full.
On this particular Nov. 9, the Germans will want to remember only what is joyous. Even the day’s anthem is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Let’s join with them. They have built a good society and a solid democracy. They have earned the right to a little forgetting.
Nina L. Khrushcheva at Foreign Policy:
It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell, yet Russia still cannot accept the loss of its imperial power. Today it is clear that unlike other communist states, Russia’s own 75 years of captivity to Soviet ideals and leadership cannot be blamed on the despotic nature of its former communist leaders. Neither closed borders, nor the Iron Curtain, nor the Berlin Wall, can imprison the Russian mind more than the idea of a Great Russia. As the saying goes, “Every nation deserves its government.” Russians fully deserve Putin’s illiberal leadership, and his popularity consistently rates at more than 70 percent. It is Mikhail Gorbachev and his liberal ideals that they have never embraced, or deserved.
UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias
Ross Douthat in the NYT
UPDATE #2: Noah Millman at The American Scene
Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic
Matt Y on Kaplan
Attackerman on Kaplan
Alex Massie on Kaplan
Daniel Larison on Kaplan