Courtesy Reuters

The Suicide of the East?

1989 and the Fall of Communism

In This Review

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989
Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel
Oxford University Press, 2009
208 pp. $27.95
The Red Flag: A History of Communism
By David Priestland
Grove Press, 2009
688 pp. $27.50
Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment
By Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T. Gross
Modern Library, 2009
240 pp. $24.00
There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism
By Constantine Pleshakov
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009
304 pp. $26.00
The Rise and Fall of Communism
By Archie Brown
HarperCollins, 2009
736 pp. $35.99
Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire
By Victor Sebestyen
Pantheon Books, 2009
480 pp. $30.00
The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall
By Michael Meyer
Scribner, 2009
272 pp. $26.00
1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe
By Mary Elise Sarotte
Princeton University Press, 2009
344 pp. $29.95
Mitterrand, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification
By Frederic Bozo
Berghahn Books, 2009
417 pp. $110.00

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

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.