1989!

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)
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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.

1.

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…


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