They’re just not ready

Neal Ascherson

  • Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment by Stephen Kotkin, with Jan Gross
    Modern Library, 240 pp, $24.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 679 64276 3
  • Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire by Victor Sebestyen
    Weidenfeld, 451 pp, £25.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 85223 0
  • There Is No Freedom without Bread: 1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism by Constantine Pleshakov
    Farrar, Straus, 289 pp, $26.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 374 28902 7
  • 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe by Mary Elise Sarotte
    Princeton, 321 pp, £20.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 14306 4

The 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall was merrier than the tenth. In 1999, Berlin was in the middle of a hangover. The European Union was plagued by doubts about its future course; the bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia had unnerved optimists; the Russian economy had collapsed; the sullen misery and unemployment in what had been East Germany seemed to mock the hopes of real unification. This November was different. There was still plenty to worry about – the war in Afghanistan dragged hopelessly on; the world’s financial economy was in ruins – but the Germans seemed not to mind. In Berlin this time, few people talked about betrayed hopes or the failures of free-market capitalism. Instead, they simply celebrated that moment 20 years ago, the laughter and tears as the barriers across the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint gave way and the thousands surged through.

They celebrated with a silly, happy re-enactment. A thousand polystyrene blocks of mock-Wall were set up along the central stretch of the old border. When the moment came, Lech Walesa gave the first push and the blocks faultlessly performed their domino ballet, rippling down one after another until the last block fell obediently flat. All over the city, smaller Wall replicas had been put up in school playgrounds and parks. Children waited impatiently and then, at the signal, rushed yelling to knock them over. It was all such a success that Wall-busting might become an annual festival. Invented tradition? Trivialising symbolism? No doubt, but is there a better way to synthesise the taste of sudden freedom than bashing down a barrier?

Stephen Kotkin, the co-author of Uncivil Society, observes rather biliously that ‘the books on Communism’s demise in Eastern Europe in 1989 could probably be piled longer and higher than the old Berlin Wall.’ But then he cheers himself up. ‘What more could there be to say on this 20th anniversary of 1989? Plenty.’ He goes on to say some of it himself. It’s true that almost all the books, including those discussed here, go over the same events: the pope’s visit to Poland, the rise of Solidarity, the resignation of János Kádár, Václav Havel in the Laterna Magika theatre, the Leipzig marches, the monstrous climax of Ceausescu’s tyranny, Günter Schabowski’s farcical and fateful press conference in Berlin that effectively opened the border – and use much the same sources. But each one uses those sources with her or his own interpretation. (For instance, the authors of this batch all give different answers to the – utterly unimportant – question of which journalist first asked Schabowski whether he meant that the Wall would open right away.) And most of them, to be fair, are at least striving to find some new and striking analysis.

Victor Sebestyen’s book, although it has sharp perceptions, is not really a new wide-angle survey of why these revolutions happened or what the year’s consequences were. Instead, he provides a detailed and useful narrative, country by country rather than synoptic. But when he’s in a hurry, his prose creaks. It’s irritating to have one Soviet leader after another presented as a ‘Red Tsar’, and to find chapters kick-started with that ancient Sunday Times ‘Insight’ flourish of the stopwatch: ‘At 11.45 a.m. two military helicopters landed outside the army barracks in Târgoviste, a bleak steel town 120 kilometres north of Bucharest built in the brutal style favoured by etc, etc.’

Yet he also provides a continuous, highly readable flow of detail. Some of it is unfamiliar to the general public, if not to the experts who have tunnelled through the Soviet files, and most of it is accurate. (Not quite all. For example, Sebestyen writes that ‘most of those who had returned to Poland after fighting with the non-Communist resistance led by General Wladyslaw Anders were murdered.’ They did not ‘return’ from the Home Army (AK) resistance because the resistance was inside Poland; Anders was not the AK commander but led the Polish Second Corps in Italy; and most of the Home Army soldiers, though they were brutally persecuted by the Communist regime, were not murdered.)

The best sections of Revolution 1989 are about Hungary, about the Communist Party’s cunning retreat from its power monopoly, and the majestic funeral in June 1989 of Imre Nagy and his comrades, martyrs of the 1956 Revolution. He gets across the grotesque flavour of that occasion, the contrast between the grieving passion of the crowd and the calculating duplicity of the organisers. He is good, too, about the murky events in Prague on 17 November 1989, when police attacked a student demonstration with sudden, unexpected savagery. The word went round that a student, named as Martin Smíd, had been killed. Outraged, tens of thousands of ordinary Czechs joined the students in the mass protests which soon became the ‘Velvet Revolution’. But Smíd was never found, and it is now assumed that the false report of a death was a deliberate provocation by some element in the ruling elite. Sebestyen confirms that there was indeed a conspiracy, hatched by reformists in the Party. They hoped that public fury would bring down the bone-headed, hardline Party leadership and allow them to step in and save Communism in Czechoslovakia. Their plot’s outcome was, of course, that Czech Communism, hard and soft, landed in the dustbin three weeks later.

But then, as Sebestyen says, it was not just scheming Party hacks who failed to grasp what was happening in Europe. Nobody grasped it. It’s hard to blame the CIA alone for saying, in September 1988, that ‘there is no reason to doubt ultimate Soviet willingness to employ armed force to maintain Party rule … the Berlin Wall will stay.’ That December, Gorbachev was not taken seriously by the Americans when he told the United Nations that ‘everyone must have the freedom to choose. There must be no exceptions,’ and announced big Soviet troop reductions in East-Central Europe. Early in 1989, the new American president, George H.W. Bush, still assumed that Gorbachev was ‘too good to be true’. General Scowcroft, his national security adviser, suggested he was ‘potentially more dangerous than his predecessors’. Dick Cheney, then the secretary of defense, was half-right for the wrong reasons when he predicted that Gorbachev would not last, and would be replaced by somebody far more hostile to the West. Scowcroft had a point too. He was less afraid that Gorbachev would fail than that he might succeed, and that the Soviet Union might emerge from perestroika reformed, refreshed and more formidable than before. This was an illusion that Gorbachev himself shared. Still convinced of the ultimate triumph of ‘socialism’, he had no idea of how decrepit and brittle these systems had become.

In the first half of 1989, Western politicians and journalists – myself among them – saw change accelerating but did not imagine that it would become uncontrollable. We expected that Hungary and Poland would soon become relatively open societies, uncensored and with mainly privatised market economies. But they would still be in the Soviet alliance, and governed by coalitions headed by reformed Communists. So, for a time a least, there would be two Eastern Europes: one ‘with a human face’; the countries of the other – East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria – remaining closed dictatorships for the immediate future. The Soviet Union, even ‘liberalised’, would never allow German reunification. Independence for the Baltic republics of the USSR was a notion too odd to think about.

At that moment, this was not as unreasonable as it now seems. We missed two things. One was the hollowing-out that had overtaken Communist authority, leaving it as fragile as a dried-up wasps’ nest. The other was the unstable chemistry of the 1989 changes. What began as a series of apparently orderly retreats by the governing elites became mass social mobilisations. Revolutions do not happen because ordinary people lose fear; the crowds in Leipzig or Prague or Bucharest always thought it possible that the tanks would come or the police would open fire. What the masses lose is patience. It suddenly seems unbearable to put up with these preposterous little autocrats for another week, another day, another hour. So the people went into the street, and reform turned into collapse.

Here Kotkin and Gross have an interesting analysis. Kotkin is contemptuous of theories which argue that ‘civil society’ asserted itself. There was no civil society in those nations, he claims – with the significant exception of Poland. (There, since 1980, the opposition had not only remained numerically large, but had established an ‘as if’ alternative society; it didn’t challenge the regime but created ‘authentic spaces’ where Poles simply behaved as if they already lived in a democracy.) Instead, there were ‘uncivil societies’: the Communist elites with their millions of dependants. Where the ‘uncivil societies’ capitulated, mass mobilisation did not take place in 1989. But where they refused to change, they set off what Kotkin calls ‘a political bank run’, a ‘cascade of activism on the part of formerly inert masses’.

Different nations now claim to have set off that ‘bank run’. Western media, television especially, equated the whole revolution with the fall of the Berlin Wall. This annoys the Poles, who consider that the June election in Poland, which destroyed Polish Communism as a credible force and led that autumn to the first government in the bloc led by non-Communists, made all the subsequent upheavals inevitable. They add that the brief triumph of Solidarity in 1980 dealt the outer Soviet empire a wound from which it was bound to die sooner or later.

This is not entirely true, and it’s now clear that the piercing of the Wall was not just theatrical but decisive. The 1989 revolution in Europe happened in stages. First came the ‘round table’, planned-retreat phase in Poland and Hungary. By the summer, the first ‘mass mobilisations’ were beginning, even in the Baltic republics. But the opening of the Wall on 9 November set off a third phase. It was not just that the success of the German revolution encouraged the Czechs and Slovaks to rebel, and sent tremors through Romania and Bulgaria. It was that for the first time the possibility of a united Germany emerged, and that Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in actively driving forward German unity against the agonised doubts of his allies, fractured what remained of discipline in the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

Directly or indirectly, West German policy determined what took place in Europe for the rest of the year. Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, forced the pace. In contrast, Gorbachev – evidently bewildered by the process he had allowed to start – at first did little to control it. Party leaders from Europe who made the journey to Moscow, hardliners and reformers alike, got nothing useful out of him. Gorbachev was tired of them, and of what seemed to him their narrow horizons. In Bonn, Paris and London, he was hinting at a very different European order, a ‘Common European Home’ stretching from the Urals to the Atlantic that would transcend the two Cold War pacts. He was preoccupied with his new partners in the West, the Americans and West Germans, and with the sinister omens of gathering system failure in the Soviet Union itself.

American policy in the year of revolution was indistinct. None of these writers – and they are all either American academics or sojourners at American universities – swallows the old myth that Ronald Reagan ‘won’ the Cold War by standing tough on Communism. Sebestyen concludes that ‘it was 40 years of Western “containment” that weakened the Soviet Union’; Reagan, he writes, ‘made no progress whatsoever in his first four years. It was only after Gorbachev emerged and Reagan tried a new, more conciliatory approach that a process began which ended the Cold War.’ One could add that it was only when the West moved from containment to engagement, landing the Eastern Bloc with unmanageable hard currency debts, that the Communist economies began to fall apart. And even that is not a full explanation. The Czechoslovak dictatorship carefully avoided foreign debt, yet shared the fate of all the others.

Bush the Elder took over in 1989, suspicious of Gorbachev and determined to halt Reagan’s rush into arms reduction agreements, which Bush thought were destabilising the global balance. But he was far from being a passionate freedom fighter. As the year drew on, and widening cracks spread across the Cold War’s architecture, he was not so much happy about the new birth of liberty as worried about Europe’s growing unpredictability. All these books give examples of his exaggerated caution. He came to prefer reforming Communists, who at least had experience of managing things, to dissidents and opposition heroes. In Poland he urged General Jaruzelski to run for president, judging him a much safer pair of hands than Lech Walesa, and declined to pour aid money ‘down a Polish rat-hole’. In Hungary, he shocked opposition members by appealing to them to back the new Party leadership. He was dismayed by the enthusiasm of rebels like the bearded János Kis, who reminded him of a Woody Allen character: ‘They’re just not ready.’

His team shared his fear that the Cold War might end in chaos and local conflicts. At the start of the year, Bush had sent Henry Kissinger (codenamed ‘Kitty’) to Moscow on a secret mission to make contact with Gorbachev. Kissinger, going far beyond his brief, suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union set up a joint superpower condominium over Europe: ‘Let us make an agreement so that the Europeans do not misbehave.’ Bush later backed away from this appalling proposal, but Kissinger wasn’t wrong about his president’s instincts. At the end of 1989, as Ceausescu’s tyranny fell apart in wild bloodshed, Secretary of State James Baker sent a message to Gorbachev that the United States might not object if the Soviet Union intervened with armed force in Romania.

Bring back the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of military intervention – and at America’s suggestion? Eduard Shevardnadze, Baker’s Soviet opposite number and friend, laughed and said the idea was not sinister ‘but merely stupid’. The story, well told in his book by Constantine Pleshakov, shows yet again how reluctant American policy-makers were to see the end of the Soviet imperium as an undiluted triumph, rather than as a threat of trouble ahead. As Sebestyen puts it, ‘there were times in the middle of the year during which [Bush] tried desperately to keep Communist governments in power when he felt that Eastern Europe might be careering out of control.’ When the Wall finally fell, all President Bush could say to the expectant media was: ‘I’m not an emotional kind of guy … I’m very pleased.’

Academics like to classify. Several of these authors seek a taxonomic label to stick over all the 1989 revolutions in Europe. All agree, because it’s inescapable, that none of these events would have taken place as they did without Gorbachev, and his decision that the Soviet Union would no longer use armed force to rescue Communist regimes from their internal problems. Beyond that consensus, their labels differ. Kotkin and Gross speak of a collapse within ‘uncivil society’, the ruling elites, which led to the ‘political bank run’ on authority. Pleshakov agrees that the ‘rebellion was a domestic matter’, but between peoples and their rulers rather than within the nomenklatura.

He then goes on to say, obscurely, that ‘what happened in Eastern Europe was a clash of classes revealed as civil war in Poland and Romania, non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia, and peaceful transfer of power in Hungary and Bulgaria.’ If there was a civil war in Poland, I missed it – unless he means the declaration of martial law in 1981. Neither did the ‘mass mobilisations’ and protests of 1989 feel like old-fashioned class war. Which classes? The label might just stick if it were written in neo-Marxist terms: the struggle between a ‘New Class’ state bureaucracy and an alliance of the working class with the intelligentsia. But if that is what Pleshakov means, he doesn’t spell it out.

The ‘civil war’ term, on the other hand, would be interesting if Pleshakov had applied it to the country missing from his list: the German Democratic Republic. It seems to me now, 20 years on, that the relationship between ‘the two German states’ did indeed acquire the character of a cold civil war. It was not just the fact of their division that the two German populations disliked. They disliked each other. As time passed, two societies developed, each of which regarded the other with prim disapproval. One way to understand the tensions in unified Germany since 1990 is to remember the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. The ‘victorious’ Wessis became the new carpetbaggers. Like Northerners in the defeated South, they swept over the humiliated Ossis, plundering the economy, abolishing an unlovely but familiar way of life, and leaving behind them deep-seated resentment that soon took political form.

Much the most exciting of these books is Mary Elise Sarotte’s 1989. In contrast to the other authors, Sarotte treats the uprisings and collapses of that year as a prelude to the biggest change of all: ‘the struggle to create post-Cold War Europe’, as her subtitle puts it. Everyone remembers Wenceslas Square, or the human chain holding hands from Vilnius to Tallinn, or the crowds streaming through the Wall. Almost nobody now remembers the astonishing and fast-moving drama that followed the revolutions.

Everything centred on the sudden return of ‘the German Question’. Could Europe, Russia or the United States tolerate a unified Germany, a new monster state dwarfing its European neighbours? The attempt to create an independent, democratic East Germany was rapidly swamped. So if unification of some kind was irresistible, should Germany be demilitarised, or perhaps just its eastern half? What guarantees of security could be given to persuade Gorbachev, above all, but also Mitterrand, Thatcher and the Americans, to accept German unity?

The stakes were very high. The revolutions of 1989 had been, in a sense, internal affairs: a matter of nations recovering or installing their own democracies. The aftermath, in late 1989 and 1990, was about the global balance of power and the whole future of Europe. Getting the German problem wrong could have fearsome consequences: perhaps the fall of Gorbachev and a Soviet attempt to use its vast forces in Germany to preserve the ‘gains of the Great Patriotic War’; perhaps the emergence of an uncontrollable, neutral but hotly nationalistic Germany; perhaps a disastrous breach of Western unity, with France and Germany opposing the United States and Britain.

Frenzied diplomatic activity broke out. For months, the feet of Kohl, Mitterrand, Shevardnadze, Baker and a dozen other leaders and foreign ministers hardly seemed to touch the ground, as one meeting followed another in Berlin, Paris, Moscow, Washington, Camp David and Ottawa. As Sarotte says, the tempo was at times ‘unimaginable’. At the Ottawa conference in February 1990, which was supposed to be about aviation, Baker ‘managed in just one day … to speak at least five times each to both Genscher and Shevardnadze, meet with Hurd and French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, and hold a Nato ministerial caucus, all while carrying out the scheduled programme on aviation’.

Sarotte, a lucid and compelling writer, breaks down the process into four successive designs. Three were abandoned; the last design is the one we now live with. First came Gorbachev’s ‘restoration’ model. This proposed to go back to the 1945 settlement: the whole of Germany would once again be governed by the four-power Allied Control Council from the old Kommandatura building in West Berlin. One spectral meeting did take place in the Kommandatura, but Gorbachev soon recognised that the other Powers thought that ‘restoration’ was an absurd waste of time.

Next, as international alarm mounted over East Germany’s rush towards unification, Kohl put forward a ‘revivalist’ model. The new Germany could be a confederation, as Germany had once been in the 19th century: ‘two states in a German nation’. This appealed to almost nobody. It was not the full union most East Germans wanted, while Mrs Thatcher – already suspecting that Kohl was the reborn Adolf Hitler – said that it amounted to a new Anschluss which would soon annex Austria too.

Then came the most astonishing of all the models. Sarotte calls it Gorbachev’s ‘heroic’ design. The ‘Common European Home’ that he proposed was an enormous association of independent states, socialist and capitalist, stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. In the common home, both Nato and the Warsaw Pact would vanish. They would be superseded by a new pan-European security system, perhaps built on the existing ‘Helsinki’ institution, the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). Germany would be temporarily demilitarised. The details of this superb scheme were vague. It’s not clear that Gorbachev and Shevardnadze ever really explained them to their own colleagues in the Kremlin. Eventually, nothing came of it. And yet Sarotte now considers that it might have had a chance.

In early 1990, there were many voices calling for a new pan-European order to follow the Cold War: ‘If those voices had produced a well-thought-out blueprint for a common European home, with Eastern and Western wings, and a militarily neutral bridge linking the two at its centre,’ Sarotte writes, ‘it would have enjoyed the support of a number of leading figures in Europe.’ Mitterrand might have backed it. So might Thatcher, and the Italians and the Dutch, and perhaps a good many West German voters. But Gorbachev didn’t push the heroic design hard enough. He might have sold it to the West, even to Kohl, as the price for accepting German unification, but events were moving too fast for him. Sarotte comments: ‘He simply had too many balls in the air and too little time to deal with them.’

So Europe, in the end, was left with the fourth design, Sarotte’s ‘prefab model’: the West retained all its existing institutions and simply shoved them eastwards. East Germany was in effect annexed by West Germany, receiving its constitution, laws, social institutions and currency. Nato advanced up to the Polish frontier. The European Community absorbed the territory that had been the German Democratic Republic. No disarmed zone appeared in Central Europe. In the chaos and uncertainty, ‘prefab’ made sense. These were all things that were known to work, especially Nato and the Deutschmark. Few people wanted to live in yet another untried experiment. But the chance to build a solid bridge between Europe and Russia was missed. ‘Prefab’ led to Putin.

At the heart of Sarotte’s book is the story of a historic swindle. On 9 February 1990, at the end of a visit to Moscow lasting several days, James Baker met Gorbachev. The previous day, with Shevardnadze, he had talked about conventional force reductions, and then about Germany. Baker’s handwritten notes read like this: ‘End result: Unified Ger. anchored in a changed (polit) Nato – whose juris. would not move eastward!’ In other words, the Soviet Union was agreeing to accept German unification in return for an assurance that Nato would stay where it was. Gorbachev’s notes of his meeting with Baker the next day say the same: ‘any extension of the zone of Nato would be unacceptable.’ Baker then explained his bargain with Gorbachev to Kohl. When Kohl met Gorbachev, the chancellor repeated that Nato ‘would not move an inch eastwards’. This was disingenuous. Two weeks later, in Washington, Kohl was saying that Nato should cover the whole of the new Germany.

This was the deal that unlocked the heart of Europe. The Soviet Union, overcoming all its doubts and memories, had consented to a united Germany. But, unfortunately for Gorbachev, he had not bothered to make Baker put the deal in writing. And the West cheated him. That September, it was agreed that Nato should include the whole of united Germany. Gorbachev protested. But he had been outsmarted, and that public humiliation contributed to his overthrow a year later. In 1999, Nato enlarged to cover Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In another five years, Nato had reached Estonia, only 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Sarotte thinks that in 1990 a great opportunity was missed. A new European order might have been created, with Russia as a willing partner. Instead, the expansion of Nato ‘perpetuated the military dividing line between Nato and its biggest strategic threat, Russia, into the post-Cold War world’. Russian bitterness about the ‘swindle’ survived the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and has intensified ever since. Even Gorbachev excused the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia by referring to the ‘unending expansion of Nato … set against the backdrop of sweet talk about partnership’. Yet Gorbachev himself, holding winning cards at the crucial moment, was to blame for letting the chance of a very different settlement slide away.

But how real was that chance? Gorbachev’s ‘common home’ vision was cloudy. It now seems unthinkable that Poland, for instance, could have been left to face Russia alone, outside the guarantee of a military alliance. The bargain over Germany which stuck was not to do with either Russia or Nato. It was Chancellor Kohl’s historic understanding that Europe could only live with a ‘greater Germany’ if it surrendered more sovereignty to a more closely integrated European Union.

The journalist Sebastian Haffner used to say that ‘we are living in Hitler’s Europe.’ He meant that the whole Cold War landscape – the division of Germany, the advance of Russian power into Central Europe – became inevitable when Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was not just Communist misrule and Soviet imperialism that the brave crowds overthrew in 1989, but Hitler’s malign legacy. The Europe we live in now, with all its imperfections and tensions, is that of another German leader, Helmut Kohl.