The Wink That Changed the World

This is the way the Warsaw Pact folded, not with a bang but a gesture.

Nicolae Ceaucescu in Bucharest in 1989

On July 7, 1989, the masters of the Eastern empire gathered in Bucharest for a fateful summit. They were a rogue’s gallery of the world’s dictators, assembled in the capital of the worst among them: Romania’s own Nicolae Ceausescu, Europe’s last Stalinist, the dark lord of the old Eastern bloc’s most repressive Communist regime. They were the hunters: Erich Honecker, the murderous boss of the German Democratic Republic, architect of the wall that separated his East Germany from the West. There was Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski, the man who declared martial law in 1980 and broke the famed trade union Solidarity. Czechoslovak strongman Milos Jakes was there, as well as Bulgaria’s Todor Zhivkov, whose secret police stooges once tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II. This day, however, the hunted was one of their own: reformist Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, whose determination to bring democracy and free markets to his country threatened them all. And so, in the interests of self-preservation, the satraps of the Warsaw Pact marshaled their forces. The goal: a classically Commie “fraternal intervention” of the sort the world had seen before—Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. Only one man stood between them and their quarry. His name: Mikhail Gorbachev. The coming months will see a crescendo of anniversary commemorations of communism’s end, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. For many, Americans especially, it was a glorious moment, emblematic of the West’s victory in the Cold War. It seemed to come out of the blue. But if you watched the Eastern bloc’s disintegration from the ground, as I did over the course of that epic year, you know that the process was far longer and more complex than most people realize. Often, it unfolded in melodramatic little chapters, unnoticed by the rest of the world, as on that fine summer day in Bucharest two decades ago. To grasp the full dimension of that drama, you must remember how Europe was still locked in the old order defined by the Cold War—and glimpse the changes afoot that would, abruptly, transform it. Nemeth arrived on the scene in late November 1988 as a new-generation “reform” Communist in the mold of Gorbachev himself. But if his titular master in Moscow remained a committed socialist, however liberal by contrast to his old-guard predecessors, Nemeth was the real deal. Moving quickly, he had drafted a new constitution for Hungary—modeled on America’s, complete with a Bill of Rights and guarantees of free speech and human rights. Then he allowed new political parties to form and promised free elections. And if the Communist Party should lose, hard-liners asked, what then? Why, said Nemeth, with perfect equanimity, “We step down.” Worst, just a few months before, in early May, Nemeth had announced that Hungary would tear down the fence along its frontier with Austria. At the height of the Cold War, he cut a hole in the Iron Curtain. In the Communist world, this was heresy. It had to be punished. And so it was that the Warsaw Pact’s leaders assembled in Bucharest. Seated in a great hall, surrounded by banners and the full pomp of Communist circumstance, they launched their attack. Ceausescu went first, brandishing his fists and shouting an impassioned indictment: “Hungary will destroy socialism.” His “dangerous experiments” will destroy the entire Socialist Union! Honecker, Jakes, and Zhivkov followed. Only Jaruzelski of Poland sat quiet, sphinxlike behind his dark sunglasses, betraying no emotion. Nemeth had been in office for only seven months. This was his first Warsaw Pact summit. He was nervous, but he knew his enemies would act only with Soviet support. The man who could give it sat roughly opposite him, 30 feet away on the other side of a large rectangle of flag-draped conference tables. As Ceausescu and the others ranted on, calling for armed intervention in Hungary, Nemeth glanced across at the Soviet leader. Their eyes met, and Gorbachev … winked.”This happened at least four or five times,” Nemeth later told me. “Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really a wink. It was more a look, a bemused twinkle. Each time he smiled at me, with his eyes, it was as if Gorbachev were saying, ‘Don’t worry. These people are idiots. Pay no attention.’ ” And so he didn’t. As the dogs of the Warsaw Pact brayed for his head, Nemeth went outside to smoke a cigarette. On this small moment, history turned. Nemeth flew back to Budapest and continued his reforms, dissolving the country’s Communist Party and opening Hungary’s borders so that tens of thousands of East Germans could famously escape to the West—and causing, four months later, the Berlin Wall to topple. Erich Honecker went home a spent political force who would be ousted in a coup d’état that began taking shape even before he left Bucharest. As for Nicolae Ceausescu, he would die by firing squad during the revolution that convulsed Romania at year’s end.