Book Review: 'The Year That Changed the World' by Michael Meyer

By Gerard DeGroot
Sunday, September 6, 2009


The Untold Story Behind The Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Michael Meyer

Scribner. 239 pp. $26

Friedrich Nietzsche once described an argument about history. "I have done that," claims memory. "I cannot have done that," pride retorts. Or, to put it differently: The past is what happened, history what we decide to remember. We mine the past for myths to buttress our present.

The good historian is a myth buster. Michael Meyer is a very good historian. As Newsweek's bureau chief for Eastern Europe in 1989, he watched the world turn on a dime. The myth he busts in this book concerns the contribution the United States made to the collapse of communist regimes that year. Some Americans want to believe that those regimes crumbled because of White House manipulation -- clever diplomacy backed by raw power. In fact, American meddling was rather benign and, during that fateful year, conspicuously ill conceived.

The preferred myth begins with Ronald Reagan speaking at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. "We hear from Moscow about a new openness," he sneered, demanding proof. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" According to the myth, the wall came tumbling down because Reagan, like some benevolent wizard, shouted "Open Sesame!" The moral drawn is that evil, dictatorial regimes crumble when confronted by righteous indignation. Cue Saddam Hussein. George W. Bush, who idolized Reagan, tried to emulate his hero. His distortion of the past inspired tragedy in the present.

The real story, minus the comic book hero, is more complicated -- and interesting. Reagan still plays a role, but as diplomat, not Rambo. His contribution came in accommodation; his willingness to talk to Gorbachev gave the Soviet leader the confidence to break molds. Gorbachev, furthermore, did not tear down the wall; he merely suggested that change would be tolerated.

The events themselves were played out by a cast of thousands in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Bucharest. There was no script; this was an improvisational drama conceived by Camus, with help from Kafka and Molière. The Soviet Union came to the realization that its empire was no longer affordable. Like other imperial powers, it cut and ran, leaving colonial subjects to sort things out for themselves. Chaos naturally resulted.

Hidden deep in this brilliant book is the perfect phrase: Events were shaped by "the logic of human messiness." The regimes in Eastern Europe were destroyed not by monolithic force, but by myriad human beings reacting impulsively to the freedom of possibility. Watching from afar, we saw what seemed like neat little dominoes falling. In fact, what happened was as capricious, and messy, as a tornado.

Chance played a huge part. Meyer points out, for instance, that the "fall" of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, was an accident. It all started when Hungary unilaterally decided to open its border with Austria, thus offering East Germans an opportunity to join their cousins in the West by taking the long way around. Tens of thousands departed every day. With his country bleeding to death, East German leader Egon Krenz recklessly decided to grant freedom of travel, the logic being that if movement was not forbidden his people would return.

The policy was to be implemented "ab sofort"--"immediately." Krenz's "immediately" meant the next day, in controlled fashion. The East German people took "sofort" to mean "now." They converged on Checkpoint Charlie that night. A frightened border guard, lacking guidance, waited a few hours and then opened the sluice gates to a torrent of humanity. In an instant the wall fell, and so, too, did the logic of East Germany. What was supposed to have been managed reform became instead a chaotic revolution of people walking. Krenz, who had hoped to salvage some elements of socialism, lost control of events when Easterners crossed to the other side. History pivoted on the misinterpretation of a word. Krenz called it a "botch."

"Our leaders all wear a uniform mask and declare identical phrases," the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel told Meyer in October 1989. "Perhaps at the moment of history, the masks will fall, and it is only at that moment that we know who is who. . . . we may be surprised to find that the masks concealed an intelligent face." Meyer unmasks some intelligent faces, unlikely heroes who, at the moment of history, acted wisely. Chief among them was Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, a communist who decided that communism did not work and quietly conspired to destroy it. In contrast to Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Hungary's revolution was a coup carried out by a few sensible men.

My students would call this a "friendly" book. Meyer recounts momentous events in an accessible, engaging and intensely dramatic way. I had occasionally to remind myself that I was reading nonfiction; history is seldom written with such verve. The book is a two-for-one deal: a fine piece of analysis and a fascinating personal memoir. Added as a bonus are some poignant lessons: Dialogue often beats force, and heroes are sometimes quiet.

Gerard DeGroot is professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the author of "The Bomb: A Life."

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