"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Ronald Reagan's famous exhortation when visiting Berlin in 1987 has long been widely cited as the clarion call that brought the Cold War to an end. The United States won, so this version of history goes, because Ronald Reagan stood firm against the USSR; American resoluteness brought the evil empire to its knees. Michael Meyer, who was there at the time as a Newsweek bureau chief, begs to differ.
In this extraordinarily compelling account of the revolutions that roiled Eastern Europe in 1989, Meyer shows that American intransigence was only one of many factors that provoked world-shaking change. He draws together breathtakingly vivid, on-the-ground accounts of the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the stealth opening of the Hungarian border, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the collapse of the infamous wall in Berlin. But the most important events, Meyer contends, occurred secretly, in the heroic stands taken by individuals in the thick of the struggle - leaders such as poet and playwright Vaclav Havel in Prague; the Baltic shipwright Lech Walesa; the quietly determined reform prime minister in Budapest, Miklos Nemeth; and the man who privately realized that his empire was already lost and decided, with courage and intelligence, to let it go in peace, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary of the Communist party. Reporting for Newsweek from the frontlines in Eastern Europe, Meyer spoke to these players and countless others. Alongside their deliberate interventions were also the happenstance and human error of history that are always present when events accelerate to breakneck speed.
Viewed from a distance, random chaos can take on the semblance of logical patterns, and events that spring from accidents can be portrayed as inevitable. In his book, Michael Meyer reveals "the logic of human messiness" at the center of that history-making year, 1989, when the haphazard unravelling of the communist states was encapsulated by the misunderstanding that prompted the fall of the Berlin Wall: a confused spokesman at a press conference stated that people were free to travel to the West “ab sofort” immediately.
The great gift of this book is the first-hand familiarity that comes from the author’s stint as Newsweek’s correspondent in Germany, central Europe, and the Balkans during the years immediately prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We follow him from Budapest to Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, and Moscow as he chases stories and attends off-the-record meetings where he interviews and captures with the economical pen of a portraitist such key crucial players as Vaclav Havel and “unlikeable” Lech Walesa. There is an unforgettable portrayal of Ceausescu, each detail illuminating the psychology of a dictator. After an hour’s wait, Ceausescu shuffles in, “wearing woven plastic shoes and a baggy grey suit, and offered a moist weak palm. His people feared this man as Satan. They referred to him simply as ‘He’.”
The title’s boast of “untold story” is partially justified by the unprecedented attention given to the quiet contributions of Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth and his secret cooperation with the West German authorities in opening the Austrian/Hungarian border in the summer of 1989, allowing hundreds of East Germans to take the long route out. Meyer recounts each movement of defectors as if he was reporting on a surreal sporting event, a “maelstrom of calculated confusion”. At the end of the night, lines of abandoned Trabants those derided cars now nostalgic symbols of the GDR were left behind, unclaimed.
The choice of narrator here adds another dimension to the narrative. Ed Sala’s weathered voice recalls a cross between John Wayne and Donald Rumsfeld, an ironic choice given Meyer’s argument against the neocons’ retroactive adoption of 1989 as something other than what it was. If not quite an apt choice then, Sala is a fundamentally enjoyable voice to listen to, and his solid delivery is rich with personality. Even his slight awkwardness with non-English word is endearingly authentic. Sala’s seniority also lends authority to Meyer’s concluding message, that “we live as much as what we believed happened to us, as by what actually did”. Dafydd Phillips
"A coolheaded reconsideration of the revolutionary fervor that tore down the Iron Curtain in 1989.... Meyer 'liberates' the record with sagacity, precision, and remarkable clarity." (Kirkus)
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Great book about a great year for democracy.
- Susan "slc_reader"
A Challenge to Conventional US Perception