When Our World Turned Upside Down

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Pope John Paul II with a group of children in Czestochowa during his first papal visit to Poland, June 1979

We have lived through an Age of Astonishment, and have now come out on the other side, still a little bewildered about how we got here. Never before have so many savants—economists, political scientists, diplomats, sociologists, and commentators alike—been quite so stunned by the turn of events. In 1789 and in 1848, the intelligentsia had a pretty good idea what might be coming, even if the actual scale of the mayhem exhilarated or dismayed them. But in 1979 and 1989, onlookers and indeed some of the leading participants were utterly surprised by what happened. This was not the trahison but the ébahissement des clercs. As Christian Caryl makes clear in his book on how the world changed in 1979, those who had an answer for most things were left open-mouthed.

Not merely did the experts not have the faintest clue about the series of turning points that were in store. In most cases, they would have struggled to identify who would be the leading actors in those turns. How could they? Only five years before 1979, Deng Xiaoping was in disgrace and living in a tractor repair shop, on the run from the rampaging Red Guards. The Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Iraq, soon to be shunted on to the Paris suburb of Neauphle-le-Château. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was a rookie education minister, familiar to the public only as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher for having deprived younger pupils of free school milk. She had been promoted to the Cabinet mostly because she was a woman; the prime minister, Edward Heath, despised her as a garrulous nuisance. Karol Józef Wojtyła was archbishop of Cracow. The chances of his becoming the first non-Italian pope since Adrian VI in 1522 seemed slim.

The Catholic hierarchy, always cautious in its dealings with dictatorships, would surely shy away from provoking a Communist regime that had already imprisoned one cardinal. Nor did it seem likely that an unemployed electrician from the Gdańsk shipyards would go on to become the first president of post-Communist Poland. Last and anything but least, Nelson Mandela was halfway through his twenty-seven years in jail and looked likely to spend the rest of his life on Robben Island.

It seems plausible, to put it no more strongly, that there might be some systemic defect in our crystal balls. Now that another twenty years have passed, and the new status quo has bedded down as much as it is ever likely to, it is surely an intellectual duty to revisit the scene and attempt to salvage something from the wreck of our predictions.

In Strange Rebels, Christan Caryl concentrates on the overturnings occurring during the year 1979 in China, Poland, Britain, Iran, and Afghanistan. Here and there, he casts an eye forward to the momentous events of 1989–1990 in Eastern Europe. He does not extend his gaze …

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