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.

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