The British historian, Timothy Garton Ash, travelling in Poland during the time of the strikes [in the 1980s], asked the demonstrators faced off against the police what they hoped to achieve. The memorable reply: ‘Forty years of socialism, and there’s still no toilet paper!'” (p. 48)
The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Michael Meyer (Simon & Schuster/Scribner, 2009) was written on the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1989). I didn’t know that much about the collapse of the Berlin Wall or the Soviet Union other than the dates and that it had something to do with Russian spies. That is, I didn’t know that much until I read The Year that Changed the World. Though I have travelled through the Soviet world through post-Soviet countries that are still caught in the funk of sticky air, one kind of cheese, one kind of bread, and the small amount of toilet paper that was probably sent from over seas in a bottle by some obscure group of young, sympathetic individuals. Okay, I’ll be fair, it was a post-Soviet country, so there was enough toilet paper to fool the tourists.
Anyway, I picked up this book somewhat critical: Michael Meyer is a journalist and currently chief speechwriter for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon. Meyer is true to his title of journalist, he will sometimes use his artistic vocabulary to spend three paragraphs telling you something you probably didn’t really need to know. But once you cut through the foam-flecked journalism there’s actually a decent book… That probably could have been a lot shorter. The only reason I trust Meyer in this case is because he was Newsweek‘s bureau chief for Germany, Central Europe and the Balkans between 1988 and 1992. Thus I trust the book when he tells you what he saw, not what he thinks or speculates.
Two East German Stasi agents on a surveillance mission grew bored. One said, ‘Hey, what are you thinking about?’ The other replied, ‘Oh, nothing special — the same as you.’ First agent: ‘In that case you’re under arrest!’
Meyer takes you through East and West Germany, Romania, Poland, Hungary and more. At each point he shows you the cracking seams in the foundation of Soviet Communism with decisions and words of leaders due to demands of the people. You know the Berlin Wall only fell when it did because of a dumb administrative miscommunication? Yep. East Germany was crumbling to pieces, many wanted the Communists out, and those who wanted them to stay argued over who would lead. Egon Krenz, the last Communist leader of East Germany, capitulated to the will of the multitudes: They were going to allow East Germans to cross the Wall with virtually no difficulty. East Germans with a passport would be entitled to an exit visa and could come and go at ease. Those without a passport would have their identity cards marked with a special Stempel, which granted exit right. Thus, all East Germans were given free travel across the Wall.
Why would the Krenz do something so destructive to his own regime? “We would be the patron saints of the German unification!” Explained Günter Schabowski, a former East German politician. “This was our message to the people,” Schabowski said. “‘You are free to go, without restriction. We hear you, we are changing, here is what you seek. Send us your hosannas.'” (p. 165) In other words, it was the only way to fall with style.
When Krenz presented his new plan to the Central Committee, he explained that the policy would take effect “henceforth,” meaning the next day (November 10, 1989). After the Central Committee approved the plan, Schabowski dropped by Krenz’s office before he was off to his daily press conference. Schabowski asked if there was anything to announce, first Krenz told Schabowski the good news about the policy being approved, then in a last minute decision, gave Schabowski the policy to read at the press conference.
Schabowski read the policy out. Which produced the inevitable question, “When does it take effect?” There he was, confused, shuffling through his papers. There was nothing about a release date or November 10, just the word “sofort,” immediately, henceforth, right now. With that word, being heard from TV’s all over East Germany, the news spread fast. East Germans headed for the gate and demanded to be let through. Wall guards became increasingly nervous, the guard chief in his glass-walled command post stood dialing his telephone. No one was to be found, Krenz, Schabowski, no one. Everyone was gone for the day. So with a shrug of his shoulders, the gate was opened.
This is just a small taste of the information in the book. It’s full of interesting information (some even more interesting) about the Soviet Union. But whatever you do, when you read this book, brace and gag yourself before you read the Epilogue.
You see, like I said, Meyer is a journalist. Good journalists tell you what they saw, they are supposed to tell you the facts. When they dip their toes into analysis it often ends up as a belly-flop straight into a pool of gelatine in which the swimmer slowly, surely and stickily sinks to a suffocating death. Consider this quote from the Epilogue:
For nations rich and poor, there was but one path for economic and social advancement. That was the American model. By early 2009 that model was widely seen as a sham….Like monarch butterflies fluttering north from Mexico, business and political leaders descended on the little village of Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum….For so long, Americans lived under the almost religious illusion that markets we inherently self-correcting and self-regulating…Growing populations and rising wealth place unprecedented stress on the earth’s resources….Malthus is back in vogue. Everything we have long taken for granted seems suddenly in short supply: energy, clean air and fresh water…Climate change and environmental degradation threaten the very future of our planet….Yes, Al Qaeda remains a challenge but it is not remotely on the same scale as the threat of global warming or world-wide economic meltdown.” -The Year that Changed The World by Michael Meyer (p. 218-219)
Monarch butterflies? Global warming? Overpopulation? Al Qaeda? Where did all this treacle come from? If only Meyer realized that all these worries were “unprecedented” and “new dangers” long before he ever thought about them (with the exception of Al Qaeda.) Is he just some random, poor, misinformed guy? No, he’s a journalist and a speechwriter for the UN General Secretary (who, by the way, he quotes. Which in effect means he quoted himself.)
As far as this book goes, stick with the facts, that’s all it’s good for. Besides, I can’t really complain, I got it at a book sale of stuff a library didn’t really want any more for $3 and it was worth every penny.
Here’s the only true piece of analysis in the book: “We journalists, with all our questions concerning the moment, didn’t see the bigger picture.” A truth that stands the test of time.