- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE YEAR THAT CHANGED THE WORLD:

THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND THE

FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL

By Michael Meyer

Scribner, $26, 255 pages

Reviewed by Frank T. Csongos

The year 1989 was a historic milestone. It brought the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the very symbol of the Cold War itself, and the end of communism in Eastern and Central Europe.

Journalist Michael Meyer chronicles the events leading to these momentous changes — the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the opening of the Hungarian border to Austria, the Velvet Revolution in Prague led by dissident writer-philosopher Vaclav Havel and the bloody overthrow of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The way Mr. Meyer sees it, a small group of Hungarian government officials emerged as the unsung heroes of this period. They were led by Harvard-educated Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, a reform communist, who ordered the dismantling of the Iron Curtain at the Austrian border. The free border made it possible for tens of thousands of East Germans encamped in Hungary to make their way into West Germany, thus rendering the wall irrelevant.

The book contends Mr. Nemeth and his close allies sought from the beginning to dismantle the communist system in Hungary after concluding it was simply unworkable.

Mr. Meyer, a former Newsweek West German bureau chief, says in this excellent book that it would be simplistic to conclude that the long-oppressed citizens of Eastern and Central Europe rose up to overthrow the communist regimes in 1989.

Instead, Mr. Meyer says, in Hungary the regime change was engineered by reform-minded leaders, and in Poland communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski made it possible by inviting the opposition to take part in negotiations that led to Solidarity’s political triumph.

It was a bloodless revolution in Czechoslovakia. In East Germany, the regime crumbled, swept away, in part, by the indecision of the leadership. Only in Romania the regime fell following an uprising in Transylvania and street fighting in Bucharest that climaxed with the execution of a despised dictator and his wife.

Communist Romania was not only the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe (with the possible exception of Stalinist Albania) but its people faced severe food and energy shortages. There was a joke circulating toward the end that said, “If only we had a little more food, it would be just like wartime.”

Mr. Meyer says the collapse of communism came mainly because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was unwilling to prop up unpopular regimes by ordering a military crackdown.

“He was the geopolitical demiurge, the prime mover that set all else in motion. Without him, the history of Eastern Europe and the end of communism would have been vastly different. His reward for services to humanity was to be unceremoniously ousted, after an attempted coup, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.”

Mr. Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1990.

“The regimes of Eastern Europe were indeed rotten at the core,” Mr. Meyer writes. “But the push to collapse came less from the outside than from within.”

Mr. Meyer says President Reagan also had an important contribution — but not paramount to his Soviet counterpart — to ending the Cold War. He says Mr. Reagan did this not through stepping up confrontation with the Soviets but by engaging Mr. Gorbachev, embracing him as a potential partner. And that, he says, made all the difference.

But ultimately, the United States won the Cold War because the Soviet system could deliver its people neither freedom nor material wealth. And in the end, even the eastern bloc communist leaders were unable to believe in the cause.

As a child not yet 11, I remember Soviet tanks rumbling into Budapest in 1956 to crush a popular revolution. The Hungarian people hated the old communist system and disliked the Russians.

But, ultimately, they made a bargain with Soviet-installed Hungarian leader Janos Kadar who sought to bring material comforts and some measure of freedom popularly called “gulyas [goulash] communism.”

As the Berlin Wall was going up in 1961, I recall how a group of privileged East German professionals vacationing at a Hungarian resort talked dismissively about their own country. They presented a pessimistic view of the future of communism even as the Soviet system appeared to be at the zenith of its success with the triumph of sputnik and first manned space flight of Yuri Gagarin. I thought that if those East Germans foresaw the eventual collapse of communism in 1961, then it was an inevitable event.

Thirty years later, traveling with then-Secretary of State James Baker to Moscow as a reporter for United Press International, I asked America’s top diplomat during a private conversation how he felt representing the United States.

With the Soviet Union on the brink of dissolution, Mr. Baker replied, “These are exciting times. In a way, it’s easy and certainly rewarding to represent the most powerful nation on Earth.”

In his book, Mr. Meyer credits President George H.W. Bush for “working skillfully to keep the drama of Eastern Europe’s revolutions from cascading into a broader East-West crisis.”

Mr. Meyer notes that the U.S. president “avoided rubbing Moscow’s face in the reality of its collapsing empire” and says his son, the 43rd president, “hijacked” this legacy and American foreign policy.

But that’s another story and for other books to argue.

Frank T. Csongos, currently an adjunct professor of international journalism at George Mason University, is a former reporter and editor for United Press International and Radio Free Europe.

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