20 Years Ago: The Iron Curtain Starts to Unravel

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Erich Honecker could not have guessed he was presiding at his last real May Day. It was May 1, 1989, and the aging overlord of the German Democratic Republic stood atop a reviewing stand in East Berlin before a sea of marching soldiers and flag-waving communist youth. The sun shone, and a soft breeze ruffled his fluffy, grandfatherly white hair. Regimes across the East bloc were holding their annual salute to Marxism and military might. But a blow was coming that would finally smash that empire.

In the next few months there will be all sorts of commemorations of communism's end, particularly of the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. To Americans it was a glorious moment, emblematic of the West's victory in the Cold War. But if you watched the East bloc's disintegration from the ground, as I did, you know that the process was far longer and more complex than many people realize. Most modern histories pay little notice to the bold plot that set the whole thing in motion and would ultimately redraw the map of Europe.

As Honecker luxuriated in a cloudless May Day, Miklós Németh trudged through a sullen rain 400 miles away in Budapest. Responding to rising discontent, Hungary's ruling communists had canceled their parade in favor of a People's Picnic. As prime minister, Németh had no choice but to attend—the proverbial skunk at a lawn party. The reform-minded economist stood in the chilly drizzle and listened as the Communist Party boss, a former typesetter named Károly Grósz, castigated him for his progressive policies. Németh, Grósz said in scathing tones, wanted to wreck the country with democracy and free elections—free markets and capitalism, too. Grósz all but spat upon him, Németh would later recall. "This may be your day," the prime minister told the party boss as they went their separate ways. "But my day is not far off!"

He spoke the truth. The next day, on May 2, Németh and his government did the unthinkable: they cut a hole in the Iron Curtain.

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