… Reinhold Niebuhr famously warned about the dangers of «mis-memory» or, worse, the deliberate rewriting of history»

Time for a fresh look at a fateful year — 1989
«The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously warned about the dangers of «mis-memory» or, worse, the deliberate rewriting of history»

By Michael Meyer

January 3, 2010


Americans are prone to take credit for the Soviet bloc’s demise. The reality is that ‘our’ victory in the Cold War was not what we thought it was, and our myths have hurt the world and ourselves.

Alight snow came down in Bucharest, covering the mounds next to freshly dug graves, open and gaping in long straight rows. «Here are the fallen,» intoned a solemn priest as four men placed a wooden coffin before him on a wobbly trestle. Jacob Stetincu, shot by a sniper, lay wrapped in a thin cotton sheet, wearing a worn blue beret, snowflakes catching in his grayed mustache. After a hurried sacrament, the men nailed his coffin shut, carried him to the nearest grave — his widow struggling to keep up — and shoveled in the heavy earth. The priest, working in shifts with a dozen of his brethren, was already shaking holy water on the next victim of Nicolae Ceausescu’s brutal reign.

It was the bitter last day of an epic year, 1989. Revolutions had swept across Europe. From Poland to Hungary to East Germany, communist regimes toppled like proverbial dominoes. The Berlin Wall was gone, the Cold War over. And now, the hated regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was gone as well, the only revolution won with blood in the streets.

Abruptly, I felt an overwhelming need to be out of Romania, out of Eastern Europe, before the New Year. Perhaps it was the visit to the cemetery and the poor innocents being buried in the snow. «Revolution overload,» one friend called it.

The faded Orient Express left for Vienna that night. Twenty-seven hours later, I walked into my house in Bonn, the capital of what was then still West Germany, in time to join a midnight chorus of friends and neighbors singing «Auld Lang Syne,» just as people were in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest. For the newly free peoples of Eastern Europe, this was a moment of celebration.

On Christmas Day in Berlin, Leonard Bernstein had conducted Beethoven’s Ninth («Ode to Joy») with the word «joy» changed to «freedom.» Less than a year later, long-divided Germany would be reunited, and a year after that, the Soviet Union would come undone. The grim concrete symbol of the world’s division, East versus West, free and unfree, began its slow fade into historical imagination. And with it, so did truth.

The recent 20th anniversary celebrations of these epochal events are over. For Americans, especially, the fireworks and rousing rhetoric recalled victory in an existential struggle — four decades of Cold War confrontation, trillions of dollars spent on national defense, too many lives lost in shadowy wars overseas.

And in most ways it was a victory. The year 1989 changed the world. It moved us from a world of division and nuclear blackmail to one of new opportunity and unprecedented prosperity. It set the stage for our contemporary era: globalization, the triumph of free markets, the spread of democracy. It ushered in the great global economic boom that lifted billions out of poverty around the world and established America as the one and only superpower.

Yet it was a dangerous triumph, chiefly because we claimed it for our own and scarcely bothered to fully understand how this great change came to pass. We told ourselves stick-figure parables of defiance and good-versus-evil triumph, summed up in Ronald Reagan’s clarion call: «Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!»

From the vantage point of 20 years, we should be wiser. The reality is that «our» victory in the Cold War was not what we thought it was, nor did it happen the way we think it did. Most painfully, the myths we spun about it have hurt the world and ourselves.

What are these myths that we embrace as truths?

First, people power. Most popular accounts of 1989 come down to a simple plot line: Eastern Europe’s long-repressed citizens, frustrated by poverty and lack of freedom and inspired by our example, rose up and overthrew their communist overlords.

Well, yes and no. In East Germany, that is pretty much what happened. In Hungary, by contrast, change came from the top, as a small cadre of communist reformers threw over the old order and began, quite literally, cutting holes in the Iron Curtain. In Poland, the activists of the Solidarity trade union sat down with their onetime jailers and agreed to hold elections. There, democracy came first, and only afterward revolution.

A second myth concerns the role of history. Americans tend to see the end of communism as foreordained, born of its inherent flaws. This is the tectonic overview of history as the interplay of great and seemingly inevitable forces. Seen from the ground, however, it looked very different.

Factors beyond our control figured in the equation as well, not least a drop in oil prices from roughly $40 a barrel in 1980 to less than $10 a decade later.And if you were there the night the Berlin Wall fell, you know that it came to pass, in the dramatic way it did, because of a freak accident — an utterly human blunder.

In a Cold War vignette now become famous, played and replayed on YouTube, the spokesman for the East German Communist Party misread a press release and told his country’s people they were free to go — «immediately,» as of the night of Nov. 9, 1989, and not the next day, when new travel rules were officially supposed to take effect. In the ensuing administrative chaos, the Berlin Wall «fell.» The iconic pictures of Berliners dancing atop the wall owe as much to happenstance as to culminating history.

A third myth is the most dangerous: the idea of the United States as emancipator, a liberator of repressed peoples. This crusading brand of American triumphalism has become gospel over the past two decades in certain foreign policy circles, especially among neoconservatives. For them, the revolutions of 1989 became the foundation of a post-Cold War worldview. All totalitarian regimes are hollow at the core, they suggest, and will crumble with a shove from the outside. If the inspiration for this was the Berlin Wall, coming down as Reagan «ordered,» the operational model was the mass protests in Romania leading to the violent overthrow of the Ceausescu regime.

«Once the wicked witch was dead,» as Francis Fukuyama put it, «the Munchkins would rise up and start singing joyously about their liberation.» It is a straight line from this fantasy of 1989 to the misadventure in Iraq, and beyond.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously warned about the dangers of «mis-memory» or, worse, the deliberate rewriting of history in order to shape the future, much as the old communists tried to do. The United States contributed uniquely to the end of the Cold War, from the reconstruction of Europe and containment to capitalist economics. But others «won» it, on their own (and our) behalf. Among them were the likes of Jacob Stetincu, all but forgotten in his grave.

Drunk on pride and power, we Americans have tried to rewrite history. Having got it so wrong, it’s time to figure out how, and why, and move on.

Michael Meyer, Newsweek’s bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989, is the author of «The Year That Changed the World.»

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