The Year that Changed the World

BOOK: The Year that Changed the World

Also by Michael Meyer
The Alexander Complex


The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall


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Copyright © 2009 by Michael Meyer

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First Scribner hardcover edition September 2009

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Manufactured in the United States of America

1  3  5  7  9  10  8  6  4  2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2008044917

ISBN 978-1-4165-5845-3
ISBN 978-1-4391-0049-3 (eBook)

and those few who dared



1: Genesis

2: The Wall

3: Democracy on the Danube

4: A Miraculous Conversion

5: Parallel Universes

6: The Hungarian Connection

7: High Noon

Déjeuner sur l'Herbe
, or Hieronymus Bosch's Hell

9: The Great Escape

10: Vortex of Change

11: A Kiss of Death

12: The Fall

13: Aftermath

14: Denouement


Notes on Sources



One fine day in early spring 1988, my phone rang.

“Mike,” asked our chief of correspondents. “How would you like to go to Germany?”

I'd heard, some weeks ago, that the assignment had already gone to someone else. What happened?

“Changed his mind. Decided it was too risky.”

In the news business,
too risky
means “bad for one's career.” The reporter opting out concluded that Germany and Eastern Europe were too far off America's radar screen. Not much was happening. He feared he wouldn't get into the magazine.

I couldn't believe my good fortune. For fifty years, Europe had been frozen. Now a new man was in charge: Mikhail Gorbachev. Change was afoot. You could feel it. I remember, vividly, thinking I would have perhaps a year or two to see the old Europe, a part of the continent that had been cut off behind the Iron Curtain, as if under glass, before it all went away. In my youthful enthusiasm, I considered it an almost anthropological adventure, a chance of a lifetime.

“When do I leave?” I asked. As soon as you can was the reply. And so, in the summer of 1988, I became
's bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe. It was like stepping onto a magic carpet, to be whisked away into a world of revolution—and revelation—beyond imagining.

Nineteen eighty-nine was a year of magnificent and unfathomable upheaval. Revolutions ignited across Eastern Europe, setting the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was an eyewitness to history. In Poland, I covered the renaissance of Solidarity. I was with
Vaclav Havel and other friends in Prague as they engineered the Velvet Revolution. I was the last American journalist to interview Nicolae Ceausescu and have free run of his tyrannized Romania. I airlifted into Bucharest with the German Luftwaffe during the fighting that deposed him and watched his execution in the company of the secret police who did him in.

The most epochal moment of that epochal year was November 9—the day the Berlin Wall came down. I watched it happen from the Eastern side of the border as the people of East Germany rose up and stormed the gates, ending four decades of communist dictatorship. I joined them as they danced atop the Wall and paraded through the streets, reveling in what was a new Berlin, the famous divided city suddenly divided no more. And like every American, I rejoiced. The Cold War was over. We won. Democracy was triumphant.

We saw this as our moment of vindication, a victory that justified all our struggles—four decades of Cold War confrontation, trillions of dollars spent on national defense, too many lives lost in shadowy wars far across the seas. And in most ways it was. Nineteen eighty-nine was a year that changed the world. The end of the Cold War moved us from a world of division and nuclear blackmail to one of new opportunity and unprecedented prosperity. It set the stage for our modern era: globalization, the triumph of free markets, the spread of democracy. It ushered in the great global economic boom, lifting billions out of poverty around the world and firmly establishing America as the one and only superpower.

And yet it was a dangerous triumph, chiefly because we claimed it for ourselves and scarcely bothered to understand how this great change really came to pass. I sensed that we weren't seeing the full story, even at the time. Today, I am sure of it. From the vantage point of two decades, and with a great deal of further research, I know now that our victory in the Cold War was not what it seemed. I have learned that it simply did not happen the way we think it did. Most painfully, the myths we spun around it have hurt the world and ourselves.

What are these myths, which we accept as truths?

First, The People. Most accounts of 1989 come down to a simple plotline: Eastern Europe's long-repressed citizens, frustrated by
poverty and lack of freedom and inspired by our example, rose up en masse and overthrew their communist overlords. Well, yes and no. In some countries, that is pretty much what happened. But in others, there was nothing of the sort. The most interesting (and certainly most decisive) subplot in this year of revolution was the tale of a small band of East European buccaneers—a mere handful of five or six top Hungarian leaders, with little popular support—who set out to bring down communism, not only in their own country but across the East bloc. In a conspiracy worthy of the most contrived Cold War spy thriller, they deliberately took aim at the Berlin Wall—and more than any others, it was they who brought it down. Theirs is the great untold story of 1989.

A second myth concerns the role of history. We Americans tend to see the end of communism as somehow foreordained. The inherent flaws of communism brought about its collapse; it could not stand up to the example of the West. This is a tectonic view, history as the interplay of great and almost inevitable forces. Seen from the ground, however, it looked very different. If you were there the night the Berlin Wall fell, you knew that it came to pass, in the way it did, because of a freak accident, a small and utterly human blunder. The iconic imagery of jubilant East Berliners celebrating atop the Wall, pounding it with sledgehammers, in reality owes as much to happenstance as to culminating history.

A third myth is most dangerous: the idea of the United States as an emancipator, a liberator of repressive regimes. This crusading brand of American triumphalism in time became gospel among neoconservatives, including many in the administration of George W. Bush. For them, the revolutions of 1989 became the foundation of a new post–Cold War weltanschauung: the idea that all totalitarian regimes are similarly hollow at the core and will crumble with a shove from the outside. If its symbol is the Berlin Wall, coming down as Ronald Reagan famously bid it to do in a speech in Berlin in 1987, the operational model was Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania. “Once the wicked witch was dead,” as Francis Fukuyama, the eminent political economist, has put it, “the munchkins would rise up and start singing joyously about their liberation.”

It is true that instead of seeking to contain the former Soviet
Union, as previous administrations had done, the United States under Ronald Reagan chose to confront it. He challenged Mikhail Gorbachev not only to reform the Soviet system from within but to “tear down this wall.” Yet other factors figured in this equation, not least a drop in oil prices from roughly $40 a barrel in 1980 to less than $10 a decade later, not to mention the Soviet leader's own actions. Even less well-known is Ronald Reagan's political evolution. From hardened cold war warrior, he softened both his rhetoric and his policies to the point where his administration became the very model of enlightened diplomatic engagement—the antithesis of hard-right confrontation.

Without question, the United States uniquely contributed to the end of the Cold War, from the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Europe, to containment, to our efforts to help create what today has become the European Union. But others “won” it, on their own (and our) behalf.
The Year That Changed the World
gives overdue credit to the true victors and the remarkable degree to which the upheavals of 1989 resulted less from mass revolution than from the careful planning and thoughtful work of a few farsighted and courageous individuals, as well as human error and the shortsightedness of others.

The purpose is not to debunk accepted history but to liberate it. Twenty years later, as a new generation arises with little or no memory of these epic events, the narrative deserves retelling. Told truthfully, it becomes if anything more dramatic. And who knows, perhaps along the way it might help us rethink the underpinnings of American foreign policy as we move into the second decade of a new century.

It's a straight line from the fantasy of 1989 to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, with all its aftershocks. America's disaster in the Middle East, it can be argued without overly stretching the point, grows from the hubris attending “our” victory in Eastern Europe. By logical extension, from past to present, all we have to do is confront the Evil One and, with a big push, the people will rise up and throw off their shackles. Drunk on pride and power, we got it terribly wrong. If America could be likened to an alcoholic on the mend, it is time to go back to the beginning, to see where and why we went awry, and to look at the world as it is.

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