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Who killed communism? Look past the usual suspects.

By Gerard DeGroot
Sunday, November 1, 2009

TEAR DOWN THIS WALL

A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War

By Romesh Ratnesar

Simon & Schuster, 229 pp., $27

UNCIVIL SOCIETY

1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment

By Stephen Kotkin

Modern Library, 197 pp., $24

THERE IS NO FREEDOM WITHOUT BREAD!

1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism

By Constantine Pleshakov

Farrar Straus Giroux, 289 pp., $26

During the Cold War, the Eastern Bloc was a dark place. To Westerners, that seemed true both literally (the lights often went out) and ideologically (the Iron Curtain blocked freedom's beacon). The darkness made it difficult to see individuals; Poles, Hungarians and Czechs seemed a crowded multitude whose individualism had been crushed by the heavy hand of collectivism.

In 1989, the lights suddenly came on, and individuals emerged. Images changed overnight. Out went the Bulgarian shot-putters and East German swimmers who looked as if they had been made in a laboratory. The crowds who chiseled away at the Berlin Wall or cheered in Wenceslas Square looked instead surprisingly ordinary -- made up of slightly shabbier versions of ourselves.

People are, however, messy. They clutter up the precise narratives imposed upon the past. Now, 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, historians are competing to offer an explanation for the demise of communism. For some, it's easier to think of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as a bloc, manipulated and exploited by the Soviet Union and ultimately freed by the United States. That conception delights neoconservatives eager to extract parables to illuminate the present.

Romesh Ratnesar has decided to play to that crowd -- those Americans who see this 20th anniversary as an occasion for self-congratulation. His new book, "Tear Down This Wall," celebrates Ronald Reagan's speech -- with its memorable challenge to Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev -- at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. Ratnesar, deputy managing editor at Time magazine, elevates that speech to the status of Moses delivering the tablets, in the process providing a terribly simplistic account of the complex events that caused communism to unravel.

Ratnesar is wiser than his book suggests. Proof comes from one immense contradiction. The book is subtitled "A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War," yet deep within its pages Ratnesar lets slip his true feelings: "No single event, taken in isolation, caused the Cold War to end. . . . The final years . . . were a moving stream, the currents of history flowing in directions both unpredictable and unforeseen." After reading those sentences, I found myself wishing that he had used his considerable skills to chart that stream, instead of focusing on what was actually a small islet.

In truth, the stream metaphor is inappropriate because it suggests purpose and direction. Eastern Europe was not a single body traveling down one course, but a collection of thermal springs of varying size and volatility. Communism was not imposed from above, but arranged from within. The regimes evolved differently and died distinctly. Poland experienced a long popular uprising, Czechoslovakia a short, sharp one. Hungary saw a polite palace coup, Bulgaria a nasty one. East Germany was chaos, Romania a bloody mess.

While Ratnesar inflates Reagan's contribution, Stephen Kotkin ignores it. His "Uncivil Society" delivers an entirely credible explanation for the demise of communism without ever mentioning Reagan. The renegade Kotkin, a professor of history at Princeton, not only disagrees with those who emphasize America's role, he also derides those who argue the opposite. His book rebuts the crowd of scholars who contend that East European regimes were brought down by civil society -- in other words, ordinary people acting through established associations such as clubs, churches, trade unions and so on.

Kotkin argues that civil society, being either weak or nonexistent, was incapable of triggering a crisis so huge. Instead, East European regimes fell victim to their own "uncivility." The book provides irrefutable proof of a simple truth: Bad governments govern badly. What seemed to be a dramatic collapse was in fact the spectacular end of a slow disintegration caused by incompetence, corruption and greed. Kotkin's account is perfectly summarized in two lines from Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises":

"How did you go bankrupt?"

"Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly."

East European regimes slowly spent themselves to death, collapsing when the Soviet Union pulled out the props. Erosion began because the people could not be kept happy on a diet of turnips and the keys to a Trabant. As they grew restive, they were given things, which encouraged their desire for more things. Here, however, is where Kotkin's argument falls short. His obsessive need to refute the civil-society thesis causes him to neglect the people. While consumers desirous of Coca-Cola and Levis do not, strictly speaking, constitute civil society, they come darn close.

History, unlike photography, does not work well in black and white. The past is an abstract jungle of color that spills over neat lines of political thought. Brave is the scholar who embraces that jungle. Constantine Pleshakov, a history professor at Mount Holyoke College, not only has the guts to enter but also the instincts to find his way. His explanation of the 1989 collapse respects the complexity of Eastern Europe, yet his account is both clear and beautifully lyrical. His greatest strength lies in not being burdened by doctrine; he finds worth in communists and in Reagan. Of all the books that mark this anniversary, his is one that must be read. Pleshakov writes history with a human face.

His thesis is neatly summed up in his title: "There Is No Freedom Without Bread!" That's a clever play on the slogan of Poland's Solidarity movement: "There is no bread without freedom." The original slogan is abstract, yet ordinary people, Pleshakov realizes, abhor abstractions. In Eastern Europe, the people wanted communism's fairness but also capitalism's riches. The incongruity of those desires eventually eroded communist regimes but has since produced ironies worthy of Tolstoy. Freedom did not bring justice.

Pleshakov recognizes the need to temper celebration with cold reality. When light was restored, East Europeans emerged not as heroes but as flawed human beings. They are indeed just like everyone else. As Poland's Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski once warned, one gang of robbers replaced another. "Free elections," Pleshakov concludes, "do not necessarily lead to more freedom. . . . The free market can impoverish a nation as effectively as central planning." How true.

Today, the Czech Republic is a leading producer of pornography, while Sofia and Gdansk market themselves as destinations for stag weekends. Half a million Poles live in Britain, causing the British jokingly (and not so jokingly) to complain that they should take their work ethic and go home. That's not quite the simple beauty that starry-eyed romantics in the West envisioned in 1989, but Eastern Europe wasn't simple then, and it isn't now.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the author of "The Sixties Unplugged."

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