Years that end in xx89 have a habit of bringing on some big events. Think 1789 in France; the highest recorded temperature in Australia (53 Celsius) in 1889, then the Iron Curtain falls across Eastern Europe in 1989. This year, this month, and this week marks the 20th anniversary of the latter. This has brought forth an avalanche of polarised commentary and equally combative publishing efforts. Admittedly, it was history in the making, the likes of which had not been since the end of the Second World War.
I had been to the former West Berlin only months beforehand. I still have my t-shirt from Checkpoint Charlie, probably now a collector’s item worth a considerable sum. I took the subway into the former GDR, as you could do, and it was like entering a time machine and going backwards, not forwards. The train slid eerily past abandoned, blackened underground stations before stopping in the one sanctioned entry and exit point to East Berlin. The landscape was like someone had converted a colour TV to black and white. People stared; soldiers glared and the West German girl who accompanied me was horrified.
In reliving much of this experience and the era through the raft of anniversary commentary this last week, Ronald Suny’s evaluation and summation in The Nation probably tells it best:
The events of 1989 are most often depicted as the failure of socialism. It’s a powerful interpretation that has served to discredit alternatives to the capitalist system, which is said to have triumphed, and to bestow upon capitalism an aura of legitimacy based not only on a reading of recent history but also on assumptions about the natural order, not least human nature. Capitalism, it is proposed, is the normal state of human traffic in what people make and value and need; socialism is the deviation. Capitalism responds to the nature of “man”–acquisitiveness, competition, egoism and the insatiable need for more. Socialism stands in the way of initiative, creativity and competition. Going by its nom de guerre, communism, it proposes radical equality in a world of unequals. Therefore, it can be maintained only by the coercive power of an entrenched elite and a repressive state. In the Eastern bloc, once that force was removed and party leaders lost confidence in their right to rule, communism naturally fell, and people’s instinctual drives for material accumulation were liberated. Markets won out everywhere, even when democracy did not.
History, however, is always more complicated and messy than the moral and ideological tales it may be called to serve. The history of Eastern Europe in the second half of the twentieth century can be told as the story of two series of revolutions: the communist-led revolutions of the post-World War II years that ousted the former ruling elites and transformed largely rural societies into urban industrial ones; and the anticommunist revolutions of 1989, mostly peaceful and in one case even “velvet,” that overturned entrenched party regimes already weakened by political sclerosis.