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Der Vorhang Geht Auf: Das Ende der Diktaturen in Osteuropa

by György Dalos
Munich: C.H. Beck, 272 pp., e19.90

Histoire secrète de la chutedu mur de Berlin

by Michel Meyer
Paris: Odile Jacob, 348 pp., e21.00 (paper)
AP Images
Anti-government demonstrators in Wenceslas Square, Prague, November 20, 1989

Unsurprisingly, the twentieth anniversary of 1989 has added to an already groaning shelf of books on the year that ended the short twentieth century. If we extend “1989” to include the unification of Germany and disunification of the Soviet Union in 1990–1991, we should more accurately say the three years that ended the century. The anniversary books include retrospective journalistic chronicles, with some vivid personal glimpses and striking details (Victor Sebestyen, György Dalos, Michael Meyer, and Michel Meyer), spirited essays in historical interpretation (Stephen Kotkin and Constantine Pleshakov), and original scholarly work drawing on archival sources as well as oral history (Mary Elise Sarotte and the volume edited by Jeffrey Engel). I cannot review them individually. Most add something to our knowledge; some add quite a lot. It is no criticism of any of these authors to say that I come away dreaming of another book: the global, synthetic history of 1989 that remains to be written.


Over these twenty years, the most interesting new findings have come from Soviet, American, and German archives, and, to a lesser extent, from East European, British, and French ones. They throw light mainly on the high politics of 1989–1991. Thus, for example, we find that the Soviet Politburo did not even discuss Germany on November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall would come down, but instead heard a panicky report from Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov about preparations for secession in the Baltic states and their possible effects in Ukraine and Russia. “I smell an overall collapse,” said Ryzhkov.

It is remarkable to read the fulsome welcome Mikhail Gorbachev’s adviser Anatoly Chernyaev gives in his diary on November 10 to the fall of the Berlin Wall: “This is what Gorbachev has done…. He has sensed the pace of history and helped history to find a natural channel.” And it is shaming, for an Englishman, to learn how shamelessly Margaret Thatcher seems to have betrayed her public promises to Germany. “The words written in the NATO communique may sound different, but disregard them,” she apparently told Gorbachev in September 1989, according to a note of their conversation prepared by Chernyaev. “We do not want the unification of Germany.” (Sarotte also obtained the British record of this conversation, using Britain’s Freedom of Information Act. She notes that “it did not contain these comments, but it was redacted.”)

So, in a classic Rankean advance of historical scholarship, we know more than we did at the time about these traditionally documented areas of high politics. By contrast, we have learned little new about the causes and social dynamics of the mass, popular actions that actually gave 1989 a claim to be a revolution, or chain of revolutions.

I spent many hours of my life standing in those crowds, in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague; their behavior was both inspiring and mysterious. What had moved these individual men and women to come out on the streets, especially in the early days, when it was not self-evidently safe to do so? What swayed them as a crowd? Who, in Prague, was the first to take a key ring out of his or her pocket, hold the keys aloft, and shake them—an action that, copied by 300,000 people, produced the most amazing sound, like massed Chinese bells?

Historians such as George Rudé, with his pioneering study of the crowd in the French Revolution, E.P. Thompson, and Eric Hobsbawm have attempted to understand the underlying dynamics of popular protest in earlier periods. It is surely time for contemporary historians, with better sources at their disposal (hours of television, video, and radio footage, for example), to take up the challenge of trying to analyze 1989 from below, and not merely from above.

Every writer on 1989 wrestles with an almost unavoidable human proclivity that psychologists have christened “hindsight bias”—the tendency, that is, to regard actual historical outcomes as more probable than alternatives that seemed real at the time (for example, a Tiananmen-style crackdown in Central Europe).1 What actually happened looks as if it somehow had to happen. Henri Bergson talked of “the illusions of retrospective determinism.” Explanations are then offered for what happened. As one scholar commented a few years after 1989: no one foresaw this, but everyone could explain it afterward. Reading these books, I was again reminded of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s “law of the infinite cornucopia,” which states that an infinite number of explanations can be found for any given event.

A great virtue of Mary Elise Sarotte’s 1989 is that she makes the problem of hindsight bias explicit, and systematically explores the roads not taken. She reminds us, for example, how close East Germany may have come to bloodshed in Leipzig on October 9, 1989: the authorities mobilized a force of eight thousand men, including police, soldiers, and Stasi; hospitals were told to prepare beds for possible victims. And she looks at the diplomatic models that were mooted but not executed in the shaping of a new European order in 1990, including that of a pan-European security system built around the continued existence of two separate German states.

Every writer has a professional, geographical, or disciplinary bent. Journalists, politicians, diplomats, historians, political scientists, transitologists, scholars of social movements, economists, experts in security studies, civil resistance, and international relations—all come to 1989 with their own particular experiences, methods, comparative frames of reference, and jargon. Often, they end up saying much the same thing in different ways.

Success has many fathers, and everyone has a favorite. Poles and Catholics like to highlight the role of the Polish pope, particularly in his inspiring visits to Poland in 1979, 1983, and 1987. Germans and Hungarians single out the contribution of Hungarian reform communists who opened the Iron Curtain and let East Germans escape through it. (Michael Meyer, in a book full of vivid personal recollections of events he witnessed as a Newsweek correspondent, calls this the “untold story” of 1989; well, in English perhaps, but in German it has been often told.) Russianists usually give the largest credit to Gorbachev. Germans on the left make the pitch for their version of détente, known as Ostpolitik ; Americans on the right make it for Ronald Reagan. (Romesh Ratnesar subtitles his dispensable book on Reagan’s 1987 “tear down this wall” speech in Berlin “A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War.”)

There is nothing wrong with such a plurality of perspectives. Each illuminates a different part of the elephant, or views the whole beast from a different angle. But whenever an author seizes on a single element and says this is the explanation, the key, you know he is wrong.

Regrettably, Stephen Kotkin, a celebrated historian of the Soviet Union, falls into this trap when he turns his attention to countries he knows less well.2 Uncivil Society contains a lot of meaty, interesting historical explanation of communism’s failure, but it is spoiled by a stridently revisionist argument that 1989 was, as the book’s subtitle suggests, little more than an “implosion of the communist establishment.” This establishment of the party-state, or “uncivil society” (by contrast with what he identifies as the imagined or idealized “civil society” celebrated by dissident and Western intellectuals at the time), “brought down its own system.” Except in Poland, “the focus on the opposition falls into the realm of fiction.”

His polemic peaks in this line: “The GDR [East Germany] was a Ponzi scheme that fell in a bank run.” Now this statement might do as a provocation in the classroom; as a serious assertion in a book it is little short of ludicrous. True, thanks to exhaustive research by historians such as Andre Steiner and Jeffrey Kopstein, we now have a clear understanding of the scale of the GDR’s hard currency debt, and the impact this had on the communist leadership in the autumn of 1989. On becoming party leader in succession to Erich Honecker, who had concealed the depth of the problem from most of his colleagues—and in some sense perhaps even from himself—Egon Krenz asked for an honest report on the country’s economic position. At the end of October, he was told that the GDR was “dependent to the greatest possible extent on capitalistic credit.” But a state is not a bank, let alone a Ponzi scheme. States can live for long periods with large debt burdens. States do not simply “go bankrupt.”

And the GDR was a particular kind of state: it was the Soviet Zone of Occupation turned into a satellite of the Soviet Union. So long as that nuclear-armed superpower was prepared to bear the burden of its satellite states, that state could have continued to exist.3 But Mikhail Gorbachev and his advisers reckoned that their best chance of modernizing the Soviet Union lay in large-scale economic cooperation with the other Germany—the Federal Republic—and other Western partners. Gorbachev felt it was not worth risking that prospect by supporting repression in the GDR. If he, or a different Soviet leader, had made a different call, the GDR could have survived for many years—as a miserable, debt-ridden, crisis-torn country on the front line of a miserable, crisis-torn empire, to be sure, but that would not be the first such case in history.

The metaphor of the bank run, to which Kotkin often returns, shows what else is defective in his thesis. In a bank run, a mass of individuals, acting in panic, in a wholly uncoordinated fashion, run to a bank to get their personal deposits back. They have no other purpose. They have no organization. They articulate no vision of a better bank, let alone of a different banking system in an alternative polity. This is apparently what Kotkin wants to argue.4 Always excepting the Polish case, he sees in the crowds in the streets in 1989 only “social mobilization absent corresponding societal organization.”

And so, referring to the rapid development of Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” through mass demonstrations to a nationwide general strike, he writes, “None of this was inspired or led by dissidents or Civic Forum, which was abolished not long after 1989.” So the general strike somehow called itself. When 300,000 people on Wenceslas Square chanted ” Havel na hrad! “—“Havel to the Castle!”—this did not mean that Havel’s biography, personality, or highly visible leadership had anything whatever to do with it. For this was just another “implosion” of a communist establishment. To anyone who was there, or who simply reads the careful accounts by Czech and Western historians who have studied the Velvet Revolution in detail, this claim is as untenable as the one about the Ponzi scheme. This is revisionism on stilts.

The point about such moments of popular mobilization and civil resistance is that, given certain preexisting conditions (including what may be tiny opposition groups and isolated political prisoners like Havel or Aung San Suu Kyi), forms of societal organization such as Civic Forum—improvised, often chaotic, but nonetheless definitely organization—can emerge with extraordinary speed. This is a phenomenon that historians of 1989 should study more deeply, not deny. To claim that popular and opposition agency in East-Central Europe had nothing to do with the outcome is as absurd as it would be to claim that “the people” alone toppled communism and a nuclear-armed empire. As with all historical processes, agency and structure must be understood in a complex interplay.

  1. 1

    See a seminal article by Baruch Fischhoff, “Hindsight≠ Foresight: The Effect of Outcome Knowledge on Judgement Under Uncertainty,” in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1975).

  2. 2

    The title page says “Stephen Kotkin, with a contribution by Jan T. Gross,” and the preface says the book originated in a Princeton seminar co-taught by the authors, but nowhere specifies the exact nature of Gross’s “contribution.” Since Gross is an outstanding historian of modern Poland, I am assuming that this contribution came particularly in the chapter on Poland, which suffers least from the weakness I identify below.

  3. 3

    Difficult, of course, if most of East Germany’s people had escaped to the West via Hungary; but this counter-factual obviously involves Moscow instructing other satellite states, including Hungary, to keep the Iron Curtain closed for citizens of the GDR, as they had for decades before.

  4. 4

    In an endnote, Kotkin says that “the priceless ‘bank run’ metaphor was elaborated for the Soviet case by Steven L. Solnick, Stealing the State: Control and Collapse in Communist Institutions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).” But Solnick uses it to describe the behavior of officials stealing from the state. “Unlike a bank run,” Solnick writes, “the defecting officials were not depositors claiming their rightful assets, but employees of the state appropriating state assets.” While there were elements of this “privatisation of the nomenklatura” during the transition in East-Central Europe, such behavior does not begin to explain what happened in East Germany or Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1989. Illuminating in Solnick’s analysis of the Soviet Union, the metaphor is simply misapplied to East-Central Europe.

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