The Suicide of the East?

1989 and the Fall of Communism

There was no World War III. A fictional one, depicted in the 1978 international bestseller The Third World War, was imagined by one of the most remarkable soldier-scholars of his generation, a retired British general named John Hackett. His war begins when a 1985 crackup in Yugoslavia lights the great-power fuse, 1914 style. Analogies to World War I, of decaying empires and military machines primed to attack, were very much in the air when the book was published. It was the late 1970s, and Soviet interventionism had reached a high point, while the Soviet Union combined a sprawling, ill-governed military with an aging, insecure political class.

But by the time the real Yugoslav war did come, in 1991, another kind of chain reaction had already transformed Europe. In the late 1980s, Moscow was experimenting vigorously with economic and then political reform. The Soviet Union and Poland held limited elections in early 1989 that, in different ways, shook the foundations of their communist establishments. Soon, Poland had a noncommunist government. Hungary effectively defected to the West, attracting a flow of refugees from East Germany, thus undermining the bastion of Stalinism they left behind. The cascade quickened. Czechoslovakia's government was toppled by a "velvet revolution," and the Berlin Wall was breached when a bureaucratic snafu inadvertently opened the floodgates. Bulgarians overthrew their leaders, and as the year ended, Romania's brutal dictator died before a firing squad. As the Germans created a new unity for their divided nation, national movements splintered the Soviet Union itself. By the end of 1991, the Soviet empire had disintegrated.

Although there had been some bloodshed in China and Romania, there had been no great war. Hundreds of millions of people now led new ways of life in new states with new borders. The world was rearranged as in a great postwar settlement -- but without a war. So profound were the changes that when Yugoslavia started to break apart and the outside actors -- conditioned by habit to play leading roles in the drama -- stumbled onto the stage, the players seemed bewildered and scriptless.

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