Why did the Berlin Wall fall precisely twenty years ago this month? Or is that even the right question? Victor Sebestyen’s superb new book reminds us that the first breach in the Iron Curtain actually came in March 1989, when Hungary opened its Austrian border, providing an exodus route for East Germans. The first political breakthrough, he observes, came in January at Poland’s Round Table negotiations, where the labor union Solidarity came back from its defeat in the strikes of 1980-81 to wrest the free elections of June 1989 in which Poles repudiated Communism and birthed a new government.
Why did Eastern Europe’s despotic states collapse? Why did the Soviet Union not send in tanks, as it had in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968? Sebestyen locates the crisis in the inefficiency of bureaucratic economies headed by sclerotic leaders like Leonid Brezhnev, the crushing debt burden of the satellite states to Western banks, the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, and the failed Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mikhail Gorbachev, who after 1985 initiated relaxations meant to revive Communism, refused to defend the satellite regimes of Eastern Europe as they toppled, not wanting another expensive, self-defeating, Afghanistan-style quagmire.
Little sustains the American conceit that Ronald Reagan was responsible. Reagan’s successor George Bush, actually the president in 1989, sought to stabilize Eastern Europe, fearing a careening out of control if the Communist regimes fell. The attitude of the Western establishment was typified by a Citibank executive who said of Poland in 1982, “Who knows which political system works? The only test we care about is: can they pay their bills?”
Assiduously researched, Revolution 1989 recreates events in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Sebestyen’s triumphant narrative has limits. By hewing to only six countries and the endpoint of 1989, Sebestyen sidesteps Yugoslavia, where blood would flow in Sarajevo and Kosovo, as well as Russia, where authoritarianism is recrudescent. But Revolution 1989 is a riveting volume on events no one could imagine. “I thought it was impossible, it was impossible,” said the Polish dissident Jacek Kuron. “I still think it was impossible.”