The 9th of November, 2009, marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall—that colossal event, both climactic and generative, that stoked uprisings and revolutions across Eastern Europe, eventually broke down the Soviet Union, and brought an end to the Cold War that, for four decades, had sucked in not just America and Russia into confrontation but also most of the world into a series of proxy wars. The story of this marvellous and multi-sided event is thrillingly told by Michael Meyer, then Newsweek ’s correspondent in Eastern Europe, in his new book The Year that Changed the World.
Meyer’s presence at the great events of 1989 as an eyewitness, and then his distance from those events writing in 2009, make this a work both of journalism and of history. In particular he is keen to play down, if not to refute outright, the American triumphalism that greeted the fall of the Wall, and to criticize the sense of unbounded power and manifest destiny that has been the feature of the foreign policy measures of successive American governments ever since.
Liberation: The fall of the Berlin Wall was an epochal moment in history. Deutsches Historisches Museum/Bloomberg
If his book is subtitled The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, it is because he wants to highlight the many forces big and small, the contributions of individuals and masses, the connections and misunderstandings, that shaped the historical phenomenon that we may understand a little too neatly today, with the complacency of hindsight, as something inevitable, the victory of capitalism over communism. Nemeth, Honecker, Walesa, Havel, Schabowski, Jaruzelski—these are the names of statesmen, alongside those of Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, that Meyer would have us know as essential protagonists in this story. Perhaps the most influential protagonist—the entity which, when toppled, brought everything down with it—was an inanimate one: the Wall itself.
For 28 years the Wall had stood, 12ft high and more than a hundred kilometres long, between East Germany (the GDR) and West Germany (the FDR), closing off the countries of Eastern Europe behind the “Iron Curtain” of the Communist world. Built with Russian backing by the East German government in 1961 as a way of barricading mass emigration to the West, its featureless concrete soon became a repository of meanings.
“Nothing has ever been so weighted with symbolism, ideology and history,” writes Meyer. “The Wall was World War II, the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, the high tide of totalitarianism and communist dictatorship, the frontier of democracy.”
The Year that Changed the World: Scribner,256 pages, $26 (around Rs1,200).
Meyer takes the reader on a country-by-country tour of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s (Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania), showing how reformists, often from within government and the ruling party, were at work strategizing against hard-line Communists in each country.
The fall of communism in each state had an individual character, sometimes as a revolution, sometimes as a brokered truce, sometimes as a peaceful transfer of power. Some were top-down, plotted by a few courageous intellectuals and dissidents; others were bottom-up, gathering force from spontaneous mass gatherings and the voice of “people power”. News of a successful rebellion in one country emboldened long-suppressed citizens and dissidents in others; reverses suffered by one regime made others queasy and indecisive.
It became hard to distinguish between cause and effect. Just as inertia and repression had long allowed repressive governments to dictate every decision of their populaces, so now a new energy, passing around like wildfire, worked itself up into a motor that fired up every corner of Eastern Europe.
Even as he sketches in the larger picture, Meyer is alive to many individual moments of irony, tragedy, wonder and farce. As the gates of the Wall are suddenly opened under the pressure of surging East German crowds on 9 November 1989, he sees, among the first few people to freely break through for the first time in four decades, a woman in hair curlers and a coat thrown over her bathrobe, suddenly not a subject but an agent of history.
Touchingly, she doesn’t want to leave her homeland. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” she calls to a friend. “I just want to see if it’s real!” In Prague a few days later, exuberant demonstrators invented a new gesture of solidarity: The shaking of their house keys above their heads in their thousands, creating an enormous, soul-stirring jingling that literally sounded the death knell of the old regime. Rich not just with a telling of a particular history but with a thinking about history in general, this is a narrative that anyone remotely interested in politics will enjoy.
In Six Words: History and Journalism in one book
Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of Arzee the Dwarf.
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