Fighting Words

The Lessons of 1989

The fall of the Berlin Wall is a reminder of the duty of solidarity.

The Berlin Wall

Lenin once defined a revolutionary situation as one that occurred when the rulers could not go on in the traditional way and the ruled did not wish to continue in that old way. Engels was more metaphorical, saying that revolution was the midwife that delivered a new life out of an older body. Both images come to mind in remembering the revolutions of 1989, which humbled a ruling system that believed itself to be based on the historical wisdom of Lenin and, indeed, of Engels.

In fact, the Communist leaderships of Eastern Europe had almost wholly ceased to believe in anything but their own survival and self-interest, which is one of the reasons their demise was so swift. While the revolution from below was not animated by any great “new” idea, as had been the case in 1789, 1848, or even 1917, the intellectuals and the masses were agreed that they wanted the unexciting objective of “normality”—a life not unlike that of Western Europe, where it was possible to express everyday criticism, register a vote, scrutinize a free press, and become a consumer as well as a producer. These unexciting demands were nonetheless revolutionary in their way, which gives you an idea of the utter failure and bankruptcy of the regimes that could not meet them. In 1988, in a public debate with a hack official of the Polish Communist Party, Lech Walesa won over the audience with his simple statement that “Europe moves by car, and we are trying to catch up with them by bike.” (This glimpse appears in Elzbieta Matynia’s new book Performative Democracy, which gives a first-rate and firsthand account of the slow but inexorable transformation of Poland.)

This 20th anniversary has seen yet another crop of boring articles about how so many people, especially in former East Germany, are supposedly “nostalgic” for the security of the old Stalinist system. Such sentimental piffle—which got a good airing in that irritating movie Good Bye Lenin!—would not long survive a reading of another new book: Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire, by Victor Sebestyen. Making effective use of archives opened since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Sebestyen describes the day in late October 1989 when the head of State Planning in the German Democratic Republic, Gerhard Schürer, presented the party leadership with the unvarnished economic news. “Nearly 60 per cent of East Germany’s entire economic base could be written off as scrap, and productivity in mines and factories was nearly 50 per cent behind the West.” Even more appalling was the 12-fold increase in the GDR’s national debt—a situation so grotesque that it had been classified as a state secret lest loans from Western creditors dry up. “Just to avoid further indebtedness,” wrote Schürer, “would mean a lowering next year of living standards by 25 to 30 per cent, and make the GDR ungovernable.” So the wall came down just before the hermetic state that it enclosed would have imploded. I doubt that there would have been much “nostalgia” for that.

Sebestyen’s book shows how it all, eventually, became a matter of looking the facts in the face. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze seem to have resolved to do this after the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor and the campaign of reflexive official lying that at first accompanied it. From then on, they accepted one thing after another: the inevitable defeat in Afghanistan and the unsustainability of the Warsaw Pact alliance. It was only a matter of time before a satellite government picked up this cue. The decisive moment came when the Hungarian authorities decided to open their frontier with Austria, allowing East German “tourists” in Hungary to begin an exodus to the West. (They had previously asked Shevardnadze for his reaction to such a move and been told that as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, it was their own affair. That was the end.)

There will be the usual stuff this week, I expect, about how Ronald Reagan and his faithful ally Margaret Thatcher brought down the wall with their intransigent anti-communism. The most recently opened archives aren’t so kind to this view, either. In September 1989, the Iron Lady visited Moscow and lectured Gorbachevagainstthe reunification of Germany: It “would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security,” she said. She kept up this view even after the people of Berlin had taken history into their own hands and demolished the barrier.

Also overlooked in most histories and much commentary is the role played by “people power” movements in non-Communist countries. Throughout the 1980s, democratic insurgencies in the Philippines and South Korea, as well as the long resistance of the anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, showed that when the ruled do not want to go on in the old way, all they really need do is to fold their arms. These examples were studied behind the Iron Curtain: Matynia’s book on Poland makes a direct comparison case with South Africa, and leading Polish dissident Adam Michnik was a close observer of the gradual but impressive manner in which Spain evolved from a sort of fascistic theocracy into a civil and secular society.

Today, the memory of the “velvet revolution” or the “soft revolution” is very strong in Iran, where arrested intellectuals and activists are accused in so many words by the secret police of having a “velvet” agenda. In Tehran, alas, there are still many in the clerical leadership who believe, as the Communists no longer did, in their own primitive and oppressive ideology, and who are willing—if not, indeed, eager—to kill for it. (And the brutish Iranian mullahs secured the first great-power endorsement of their election theft from Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, which, these days, is the seat of an aggressive, chauvinist, militarist, and clerically influenced regime.) So we still have our duties of solidarity with movements of transformation, and we can draw on the memory of a time when civilized peoples, so long forced to hold their tongues and hold their breath, all exhaled at the same moment and blew the old order away without a shot being fired.

Slate V: Pictures of a Vanished Country