Book Review: Michael Meyer's The Year that Changed the World
Rewriting American myth: Journalist Michael Meyer sets out to prove that U.S. triumphalism after the collapse of the communism was misplaced
1989: The Untold Story
Newsweek reporter Michael Meyer was perfectly positioned to capture the unraveling of Communism in Eastern Europe. Sent to cover Germany and Eastern Europe in the summer of 1988, "it was like stepping onto a magic carpet, to be whisked away into a world of revolution – and revelation – beyond imagining."
He covered the rebirth of Lech Walensa’s Solidarity movement in Poland; he was with Vaclav Havel and others in Prague as they planned the Velvet Revolution; he was the last American to interview Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu before the December 1989 coup that ended in his assassination.
In The Year that Changed the World: the Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Meyer reconstructs the events of the year preceding Nov. 9, 1989 – the growing dissatisfactions, ferments, and calls to action across Central and Eastern that in so many places in such close succession across the region, pulled the foundations out from under the communist system so that, permanent and unshakable as it seemed, it suddenly collapsed under its own weight. Much of this he knows because he was there; still this is not the story he originally thought he had to tell.
Michael Meyer is an American and The Year that Changed the World is a very American Book. This is both its strength and its weakness.
Concerning Meyer the writer, his Americanism is generally a strength. His narrative is lively and colorful; rich in observation and descriptive detail, revealing the curiosity, perseverance and demand for evidence that characterize the best of American journalism. The writing is also very personal, with gushes of enthusiasm and an insistence on seeing himself at the center of his narrative that may well grate on European readers. Fortunately, his standards are high and on the whole, the reporting wins out.
His Americanism also sets the thesis and the tone:
"Berlin, the famous divided city was 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."
Still, he was uncomfortable. "I sensed we weren’t seeing the full story, even at the time," he claims. "Now I am sure of it."
So Meyer sets out to prove that this triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist systems of Central and Eastern Europe was misplaced, and how the myths that surrounded this pivotal event have "hurt the world."
Which is all very well, and laudable – except that almost no one outside the United States ever believed any of that to begin with. And to come upon a book at this late date that treats this as a revelation of earth shattering proportions is bound to strike many readers here as, well, silly.
And yet… If you look at the undertaking the other way around, it suddenly becomes extremely interesting. Here is someone, a very intelligent and observant someone at that, who proceeds to explicate the roots of these American assumptions and – now that he realizes what he didn’t see the first time around – is particularly articulate in explaining what was, and generally still is, behind them. We also get to here an American trying to explain to other Americans, in a language he thinks they will understand, what they are missing.
So first he tells the Reagan-as-Commie-fighter version, in which Americans hear their president invoking "history’s call." They hear him standing before the Brandenburg Gate, exhorting the Soviet General Secretary:
"If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this Gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Crowds cheered, Meyer reports. Some waved American flags, though he has found out that most "had been planted by the U.S. embassy." This speech, delivered two full years before the Wall came down, was believed to have played a significant role in bringing communism to its knees.
And then he tells us the other Berlin story, the one about the confusion and bumbling in the East German Politbüro that announced new visa rules essentially by mistake, that left border guards with no instructions about the thousands gathering at the wall.
But this story too is a deception, Meyer says, because the campaign to dismantle communism didn’t really come from Germany – the most doctrinaire of all the satellite states – at all. It came from Hungary, the land of "Goulash Communism", whose economy was crumbling. The Hungarian political elite decided they had to do something about it. It is the story of Miklos Nemeth, the young, Harvard-educated Finance Minister who suggested they hold real elections and dared to asked Gorbachev if the Soviets would intervene. Horrified at the question, Gorbachev pauses, and says, "No."
And so, in the end, the book Meyer writes is a book absolutely worth writing and absolutely worth reading, a fine retelling of the final chapters leading up to Nov. 9, 1989 – the planning, the negotiations, the cutting of the border fence with Austria, the Pan Europa picnic held by an aging Otto Habsburg whose vision of a united Europe was suddenly being reborn.
So we should be grateful to Meyer, the American, for writing a book for Americans, in hopes of bringing them to an understanding of recent history so much closer to the way it looked to those who lived through it. And for Europeans, it’s perhaps a rare chance to hear the story told, and told very well, from the other side.
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