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1989: how it ended

The wave of change across east-central Europe in 1989 was a real revolution - but with one missing feature. Neal Ascherson recalls a time of surprise and exhiliration.

What amazes me now is how long it took us - we in the west - to see what was happening. For journalists, it was a case of a great story blotting out a world-changing one. The communist regimes of Europe were transforming themselves, quarrelling openly. In the first part of that year, the East Germans snarled at the Poles, the Hungarians  hinted that they would license free political parties, the Czechoslovak regime became slightly more tolerant to protest demonstrations. It was all very exciting. Careful sources cultivated over years were suddenly becoming wildly indiscreet, while Mikhail Gorbachev and his spokesmen muttered about “the Sinatra doctrine” (“I did it my way”).  But it would be naive, wouldn't it, to think the Soviets meant literally that any communist country could now take any course without fear of Soviet tanks.

So we thought that several nations - Poland, Hungary at least - would become almost free societies, communist in name and Warsaw Pact allegiance, but  democratic in their tolerance of diversity. The East Germans and the Czechs would become angry and isolated,  but would not succumb to the new freedoms around them. Above all, Moscow would never let go of Germany.  Communism in Europe was braindead, but still had huge muscles.

It wasn't until June that I realised what was underway. In the Europejski Hotel in Warsaw, we  journalists read the inrush of election-result printouts and realised - suddenly - that  Polish communism had collapsed. And even then, realising that a non-communist Polish government was about to upset the whole balance of Europe, we did not quite get it. Even then, none of us understood that the whole imperium from the Bug to the Rhine was no more than an old wasps' nest hanging from a roof - dried-out, abandoned by the stinging hordes, ready to fly to dust at a blow.

But the people did get it.  They had lost something - not exactly their fear, but their patience. Suddenly it seemed unbearable to go on accepting these systems, these portly little idiots in their blue suits, for another year, and then  for another day, another hour. That special sort of impatience is the power-surge of revolution. As they poured into the streets in Leipzig and Prague and  Tbilisi and Riga, did they think they might be shot? Yes, possibly. In Georgia and Latvia and Lithuania, many were. But, with their patience, the people in the street had also lost their respect for the men with guns, the portly idiots in uniform. They could kill, but they were no longer real. A future without them had all at once become very real.

We know so much more now about how 1989 happened. The fall of the wall was consequence, not  cause: it was made inevitable by the opening of the Polish Round Table the year before. Above all, by Gorbachev, who went round Europe and the world unlocking the gates and telling everyone that the tanks would not come. Western diplomats and journalists didn't take him seriously. The party leaderships beyond the Elbe did, and they knew real fear.

It was a real revolution. But with one missing feature. That is the feeling in a people that “We have done it once, and if the new lot let us down, we can do it again!” It was that proud, menacing confidence which made the French revolution special. But it's not around in 21st-century Europe. After 1989, the people handed over liberty to the experts. Will they ever want it back?

About the author

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. For many years he was foreign correspondent and then columnist for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999); The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988); Black Sea (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996); and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003)


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