Alex Massie

1989 And All That

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I don't think there's much doubt that 1989 was the best year of my life. Not so much for me personally, but for the world. True, there aren't many contenders for that bauble, but even if there were 1989 would be tough to beat. In fact, 1989 was probably the last and best year of the brutal short twentieth century.

Matt Welch explains why:

The consensus Year of Revolution for most of our lifetimes has been 1968, with its political assassinations, its Parisian protests, and a youth-culture rebellion that the baby boomers will never tire of telling us about. But as the preeminent modern Central European historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a 2008 essay, 1989 “ended communism in Europe, the Soviet empire, the division of Germany, and an ideological and geopolitical struggle…that had shaped world politics for half a century. It was, in its geopolitical results, as big as 1945 or 1914. By comparison, ’68 was a molehill.”

I recently asked Simon Panek, one of the student leaders of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, why he thought 1968 still gets all the headlines. He gave a typically Czech shrug: “Probably 1968 happened to more people in the West.” But even that droll formulation understates the globe-altering impact of 1989.

Without the superpower conflict to animate and arm scores of proxy civil wars and brutal governments, authoritarians gave way to democrats in Johannesburg and Santiago, endless war was replaced by enduring peace in Central America, and nations that had never enjoyed self-determination found themselves independent, prosperous, and integrated into the West.

In 1988, according to the global liberty watchdog Freedom House, just 36 percent of the world’s 167 independent countries were “free,” 23 percent were “partly free,” and 41 percent were “not free.” By 2008, not only were there 26 additional countries (including such new “free” entities as Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia), but the ratios had reversed: 46 percent were “free,” 32 percent were “partly free,” and just 22 percent were “not free.” There were only 69 electoral democracies in 1989; by 2008 their ranks had swelled to 119. 

The years since have scarcely been easy Indeed, progress has often been a messy, complicated business. But there has been progress. Millions of people around the world - not just in eastern europe - have opportunities their parents were denied. And in the old continent too the exapansion of the European Union - whatever its other faults - has been a blessing.

We're still, I think, coming to terms with how it all happened. Like most great disruptions, the causes were varied and complex. As Timothy Garton Ash writes in the New York Review of Books, no-one really knew what was happening:

Yet even though Washington's cautious attitude partly resulted from a misassessment, this was actually the best possible position it could have taken. This time around, unlike in 1956, no one in Moscow could suggest with even a jot of plausibility that the United States was stirring the cauldron in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, Bush personally urged General Wojciech Jaruzelski to run for Polish president, as a guarantor of stability, and he was obsessed with doing nothing that could derail Gorbachev. Sarotte suggests that American restraint made it easier for the Soviet Union, too, to step back and let events unfold on the ground in East-Central Europe. With some exaggeration, one might say that Washington got it right because it got it wrong.

To give credit where it is due: in the last months of 1989, especially after the fall of the Wall, and throughout 1990, this initial superabundance of caution turned into a combination of entirely deliberate restraint ("don't dance on the Wall!" was the injunction heard in the corridors of the White House and the State Department) and some quite impressive statecraft in support of Helmut Kohl's drive for German unification on Western terms. But for the decisive nine months, from the beginning of Poland's roundtable talks in February to the fall of the Wall in November, the United States' contribution lay mainly in what it did not do.

That is even more true of the other superpower. Kramer argues that at several moments Gorbachev did quietly nudge East European communist leaders in the direction of bolder change. But for the most part, his crucial contribution was to accept changes happening at the periphery of the Soviet Union's outer empire, rather than attempting to slow down or reverse them.

[...]Gorbachev's laid-back attitude was based on a much deeper misapprehension than Bush's. He mistakenly believed such changes would stop at the frontier of the Soviet Union, which he saw as a country, not an internal empire. Instead, as Kramer shows, the revolutionary changes in East-Central Europe contributed directly to the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself. Robert Conquest, the historian of the Soviet Great Terror and Ukrainian famine, asked Gorbachev many years later whether, if he had known where it would all lead, he would have done the same again. He replied: "Probably not."

It is perhaps a characteristic of superpowers that they think they make history. Big events must surely be made by big powers. Yet in the nine months that gave birth to a new world, from February to November 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives. They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.

This, I hazard, is an important lesson that's too often ignored. Histories of the Cold war written in capital cities often fall into the Great Man trap (It was Reagan! No, it was Gorbachev!) or a false sense of historical inevitability (Communism was always doomed!) but the truth is rarely as simple as that. We see through a glass darkly, at best, and our - or anyone's - ability to predict, let alone control, events is severely limited. Here too, boldness is not necessarily our friend and the case for limited government - that is, for modest government - seems pretty strong.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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