Matt Welch: 1989 ... Ignoring the Most Liberating Moment in History

Roundup: Talking About History

[Matt Welch is editor in chief of reason.]

On August 23, 1989, officials from the newly reformed and soon-to-be-renamed Communist Party of Hungary ceased policing the country’s militarized border with Austria. Some 13,000 East Germans, many of whom had been vacationing at nearby Lake Balaton, fled across the frontier to the free world. It was the largest breach of the Iron Curtain in a generation, and it kicked off a remarkable chain of events that ended 11 weeks later with the righteous citizen dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

Twenty years later, the anniversary of that historic border crossing was noted in exactly four American newspapers, according to the Nexis database, and all four mentions were in reprints of a single syndicated column. August anniversaries receiving more media play in the U.S. included the 400th anniversary of Galileo building his telescope, the 150th anniversary of the first oil well, and the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A Google News search of “anniversary” and “freedom” on August 23, 2009, turned up scores of Woodstock references before the first mention of Hungary.

Get used to it, if you haven’t already. November 1989 was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history, yet two decades later the country that led the Cold War coalition against communism seems less interested than ever in commemorating, let alone processing the lessons from, the collapse of its longtime foe. At a time that fairly cries out for historical perspective about the follies of central planning, Americans are ignoring the fundamental conflict of the postwar world, and instead leapfrogging back to what Steve Forbes describes in this issue as the “Jurassic Park statism” of the 1930s (see “ ‘The Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs,’ ” page 42). There have been more Hollywood hagiographies of the revolutionary communist Che Guevara in the last five years than there have been studio pictures in the last two decades about the revolutionary anti-communists who dramatically toppled totalitarians from Tallin to Prague (see Tim Cavanaugh’s “Hollywood Comrades,” page 62). And what little general-nonfiction interest there is in the superpower struggle, as Michael C. Moynihan details on page 48 (“The Cold War Never Ended”), remains stuck in the same Reagan vs. Gorby frame that made the 1980s so intellectually shallow the first time around.

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...

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/13/2009

the American one, as it was and still is just one superpower - the same.
The Soviets held the firm grasp on Eastern European states bordering them with basically one thing in mind - national security and territorial sovereignty - both of which have been violated in the most horrific ways twice over their short history, but they never committed aggression against the countries located thousands of miles from their national borders.
The US, never being attacked even remotely close to the degree the Soviet territory and peaceful citizens were, however, violates national security and territorial sovereignty of other nations as invariably and matter-of-factually (trashing all pertaining international laws and agreements) as the seasons of an year, and under flimsiest excuses possible.
Soviets never mercilessly bombed any country, except over WWII and in defense, with the terrifying power of its Air Force, as the US did in South-Eastern Asia, Iraq, and Afhganistan, to name just a few, killing many hundreds of thousands and wiping entire cities and towns from the face of the Earth.
Neither they have violently overthrown foreign governments through military invasion
thousands of miles from their national
We all remember and know how
the US/CIA through its proxy terrorists unfolded wide campaign of terror and invasion against tiny Cuba (the only sin of which was a different ideology and socio-economic system) before and after the placement of Soviet missiles there.
One don't want even imagine what would
happen to Cuban citizens if only one, more or less significant, act of terror traced to Cuban authorities actually happened on the US territory. God mercy their souls...
But, how dare those undemocratic Russians or Iraqis or Vietnamese or Chinese, or Palestinians or Iranians or Nicaraguans, or others to follow Made-in America suite!