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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.5 An erroneous report on Radio Free Europe that a student called Martin �?mid 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.6 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.

Important though it is, the Soviet–East European interaction is only part of a wider international setting. During the first half of 1989, the new US administration of George H.W. Bush was extremely reticent in its response both to Gorbachev and to the changes being pushed forward by a combination of reform communists and dissidents in Poland and Hungary. What we have learned from the Soviet and East European archives confirms that Washington’s assessment was, in fact, far too skeptical. (In one of several excellent scholarly essays in the volume edited by Jeffrey Engel, Melvyn P. Leffler notes how then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested that Gorbachev’s policies “may be a temporary aberration in the behavior of our foremost adversary.”) Nor did Bush set much store by bearded dissidents who looked like something out of Berkeley in the 1960s. Victor Sebestyen, in a book full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative, has a well-sourced account of the President meeting with the leading Hungarian dissident János Kis in Budapest in July 1989, and subsequently telling aides, “These really aren’t the right guys to be running the place.” Much better to stick with a preppy reform communist.

Yet even though Washington’s cautious attitude partly resulted from a misassessment, this was actually the best possible position it could have taken. This time around, unlike in 1956, no one in Moscow could suggest with even a jot of plausibility that the United States was stirring the cauldron in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, Bush personally urged General Wojciech Jaruzelski to run for Polish president, as a guarantor of stability, and he was obsessed with doing nothing that could derail Gorbachev. Sarotte suggests that American restraint made it easier for the Soviet Union, too, to step back and let events unfold on the ground in East-Central Europe. With some exaggeration, one might say that Washington got it right because it got it wrong.

To give credit where it is due: in the last months of 1989, especially after the fall of the Wall, and throughout 1990, this initial superabundance of caution turned into a combination of entirely deliberate restraint (“don’t dance on the Wall!” was the injunction heard in the corridors of the White House and the State Department) and some quite impressive statecraft in support of Helmut Kohl’s drive for German unification on Western terms. But for the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland’s roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States’ contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.

That is even more true of the other superpower. Kramer argues that at several moments Gorbachev did quietly nudge East European communist leaders in the direction of bolder change. But for the most part, his crucial contribution was to accept changes happening at the periphery of the Soviet Union’s outer empire, rather than attempting to slow down or reverse them.

When Helmut Kohl asked him what he thought of the Hungarians’ decision to open the Iron Curtain to Austria, he replied, “The Hungarians are a good people.”7 Another telling example comes from Poland in August 1989, at a moment when the Solidarity adviser Tadeusz Mazowiecki was trying to form a government led and shaped by non-communists. The last leader of Poland’s communist party, Mieczysław Rakowski, records in his diary a telephone conversation with Gorbachev: “When I [Rakowski] said that one could not alter the situation with the help of a state of emergency, G. said that a new variant of martial law [ stan wojenny , the Polish term for the martial law imposed by General Jaruzelski in December 1981] is impossible and, however wearisome it would be, we would have to get out of this situation without resorting to such means.”8 And the day after the unplanned, spontaneous popular breaching of the Berlin Wall, the last leader of East Germany’s communist party, Egon Krenz, received a message from Gorbachev, via the Soviet ambassador to East Berlin. As Krenz recalls it, the Soviet leader congratulated him on a “courageous step.” He was, as the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger observed, an example of a new kind of hero: the hero of retreat.

Yet Gorbachev’s laid-back attitude was based on a much deeper misapprehension than Bush’s. He mistakenly believed such changes would stop at the frontier of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a country, not an internal empire. Instead, as Kramer shows, the revolutionary changes in East-Central Europe contributed directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Robert Conquest, the historian of the Soviet Great Terror and Ukrainian famine, asked Gorbachev many years later whether, if he had known where it would all lead, he would have done the same again. He replied: “Probably not.”9

It is perhaps a characteristic of superpowers that they think they make history. Big events must surely be made by big powers. Yet in the nine months that gave birth to a new world, from February to November 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives. They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.

China also plays an important part. The Tiananmen Square massacre occurred on the very day of Poland’s breakthrough in a semifree election, June 4, 1989. I will never forget seeing on a television screen in the makeshift offices of the Polish opposition daily Gazeta Wyborcza , amid the excitement of Poland’s election day, the first footage of dead or wounded Chinese protesters being carried off Tiananmen Square. “Tiananmen” happened in Europe, too, in the sense that both opposition and reform communist leaders saw what could happen if it came to a violent confrontation, and redoubled their efforts to avoid it.

To put it another way, the fact that Tiananmen happened in China is one of the reasons it did not happen in Europe.10 However, an influence then flowed back in the other direction: from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to China. As David Shambaugh and others have documented, the Chinese Communist Party systematically studied the lessons of the collapse of communism in Europe, to make sure it did not happen to them.11 Today’s China is a result of that learning process.

The year 1989 was one of the best in European history. Indeed, I am hard pushed to think of a better one. It was also a year in which the world looked to Europe—specifically to Central Europe, and, at the pivotal moment, to Berlin. World history—using the term in a quasi-Hegelian sense—was made in the heart of the old continent, just down the road from Hegel’s old university, now called the Humboldt University. Twenty years later, I am tempted to speculate (while continuing to work with other Europeans in an endeavor to prove this hunch wrong) that this may also have been the last occasion—at least for a very long time—when world history was made in Europe. Today, world history is being made elsewhere. There is now a Café Weltgeist at the Humboldt University, but the Weltgeist itself has moved on. Of Europe’s long, starring role on the world stage, future generations may yet say: nothing became her like the leaving of it.

In any case, the longer-term consequences of 1989 are only now beginning to emerge. They, too, belong in the synthetic global history of 1989 that, partly for this reason, could not have been written sooner. But after two decades, the time has come for a brilliant young historian—at home in many languages; capable of empathizing both with powerholders and with so-called ordinary people; a writer of distinction; tenured, but with few teaching obligations; well-funded for extensive research on several continents; Stakhanovite in work habits; monastic in private life—to start writing this necessary, almost impossible masterpiece: a kind of Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk of modern history. With luck, he or she should have it ready for the thirtieth anniversary, in 2019.

—This is the first of two articles. A sequel will look at the post-1989 history and prospects of “velvet revolution.”

  1. 5

    An appropriately detailed account is Hans-Hermann Hertle, Der Fall der Mauer: die unbeabsichtigte Selbtsauflösung des SED-Staates (Second edition, Westdeutscher Verlag, 1999). The same author’s documentary television program When the Wall Came Tumbing Down: 50 Hours That Changed the World (English edition: Icestorm International, 1999) is well worth watching.

  2. 6

    The most important set of articles is his “The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union,” published in three parts in the Journal of Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Fall 2003); Vol. 6, No. 4 (Fall 2004); Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter 2007). But see also his research reports published by the Cold War International History Project, and his chapter in Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present; edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash. (Oxford University Press, 2009).

  3. 7

    Hoover Institution Archives—Hoover Institution-Gorbachev Foundation Collection, Adamishin, Box 1, p. 26. I owe this reference to an as yet unpublished paper by my Stanford colleague Norman Naimark on “The Superpowers and 1989 in Eastern Europe,” and my analysis of the role of the superpowers has been enriched by conversations with him.

  4. 8

    Rakowski diary, August 22, 1989, Hoover Institution Archives, consulted by courtesy of the curator of East European Collections, Maciej Siekierski. My translation. (Note that the Rakowski papers are not yet fully catalogued and available for general use.)

  5. 9

    Personal information from Robert Conquest.

  6. 10

    There was substantial bloodshed in Romania—but unlike Tiananmen, it did not result in the existing communist party and leadership remaining in power.

  7. 11

    See David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/University of California Press, 2008).

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