Throughout the 40 years of the Cold War, popular uprisings against governments established by the Soviet Union in east-central Europe took place over and over again -- in East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and in Poland almost too many times to count -- but repeatedly failed.
In the fall of 1989, they succeeded. No one saw revolution on the way, and certainly no one could have predicted that it would take place as peacefully as it did. (The exception, of course, was the violent revolution in Romania, but even there the casualty figures were not large.) These were complex events, and the details differed substantially from country to country. Most historians would probably agree that the outcome was the result of a mix of factors. Yet simplified views still abound -- and the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall will offer plenty of opportunity to rehearse some of them yet again. Here's a reality check on the most persistent myths:
Why remembrance of imperial glory holds back Russia today.
By Nina L. Krushcheva
No. 1: It was Ronald Reagan.
In this version of history, U.S.
President Ronald Reagan's resolute hawkishness and emancipatory eloquence saved
the day for the free world.
On June 12, 1987, in front of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, Reagan issued a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to make good on his promises of liberalization. "Come here, to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Reagan's supporters claim that this speech played a key role in sparking the events of 1989, but there's little evidence to back this up.
In fact, Reagan's words left little obvious imprint on the thinking of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. The opposition movements in East Germany and Czechoslovakia were more peacenik than Grand Old Party; in Poland, Solidarity activists already had their own pope as a moral beacon. Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times even ran Reagan's speech on the front page. Some Reaganites tended to regard the speech as a grand bit of political theater, intended mainly for consumption back home, with limited real-world repercussions. Reagan's own national security advisor, Frank Carlucci, later recalled thinking, "It's a great speech line. But it will never happen."
And in West Berlin itself -- where the late-1980s population included a disproportionate number of Greens and counterculture refugees from West Germany's draft -- the applauders were outnumbered by the rioters, who chose to protest against Reagan's conservative policies rather than applaud his chutzpah. If anything, it was Reagan's willingness, throughout most of his second term, to meet Gorbachev halfway that helped the Soviet leader back away from the use of force -- an achievement that led British journalist Victor Sebestyen to dub Reagan "America's Leading Dove."
No. 2: It was inevitable.
Those who hold this view usually argue that history was on the side of the protesters because Communist Party leaders wouldn't have dared to use force.
It certainly didn't look that way at the time. The June 4 massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square -- and to some extent the violence used by pro-regime forces in Romania -- vividly demonstrate that resorting to firepower remained an option. In China the use of force proved successful in defending the regime's claim to power; in Romania it didn't. But that failure might have been precisely because Romania's uprising had already been preceded by peaceful revolts elsewhere in Central Europe, thereby fatally undermining the system's defenders.
Had East Germany's much more efficient communist leadership resorted to force to put down anti-government protests, the chilling effect could have swept across the entire region. It was an option that Erich Honecker and his cronies in the East German Politburo considered very seriously indeed. In September 1989, East German TV aired frequent paeans to the "resolute" approach of their Beijing comrades. One broadcast featured a member of the party's paramilitary force vowing to "defend socialism with a gun in the hand."
On Oct. 9, 1989, the authorities handed live ammunition to security forces ahead of the scheduled "Monday Demonstration" in Leipzig and mobilized hospitals to prepare for the large numbers of casualties that would have resulted. (As it happened, some 50,000 people took to the streets that evening.) But a last-minute effort by local notables and party leaders to avert violence saved the day from bloodshed. The history of Europe would have looked far different if they hadn't.