The Values That Didn’t Fail
The twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism serves as a reminder that liberalism makes the right kind of “regime change” possible.
Humans tend to over-commemorate. Almost no historical event is adjudged so minor that some group can’t gather for a parade and speeches. I read recently, for example, of massive festivities marking the 213th anniversary of the Cherasco armistice, which apparently settled certain affairs between Napoleon and the Kingdom of Sardinia. I’ll pass on that one, but this summer and fall bring the 20th anniversary of a series of events very much worth celebrating–because embedded in those events are lessons about an idea liberals still grapple with, in new forms, today.
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. The wall’s collapse, in turn, culminated a series of vertiginous events in that astounding year that dawned, I think it’s fair to say, with no one anticipating it would end the way it did. Let’s start with Poland. Wojciech Jaruzelski was still in control of the Polish state. A series of strikes by Solidarity in 1988 had forced the government into negotiations, but it was hardly clear, as the year began, that in June 1989 free elections would be held in which Solidarity and other non-Communist candidates would win virtually every genuinely contested seat, in both legislative houses.
Also that June, two weeks after the Polish voting, something remarkable happened in Hungary, the kind of event that carries us back to that era of the vanishing commissar but stands its twisted logic on its head. The remains of Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 Hungarian uprising who had been tried, convicted, and hanged (all in secrecy) by Soviet authorities in 1958, were disinterred by pro-democracy forces. Nagy had been made a non-person by the Communist regime. But a series of reformist victories over the previous year created an environment in which anti-Soviet groups were able to defy authorities and give Nagy a respectful re-burial on the 31st anniversary of his death.
The air, that Hungarian summer, was rife with auguries. On June 27, 11 days after Nagy’s rehabilitation, Foreign Minister Gyula Horn met his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, at the border. Each official held large clipping shears and made ceremonial cuts in the barbed-wire border fence. Soon thereafter, an annual ritual, by which East and West German families divided by the Iron Curtain reunited for a short vacation in Hungary, started again. But this year, for some reason, Hungarian border guards began letting some East Germans slip through to the West. By summer’s end, there was a full-fledged refugee crisis at the border. It’s a shame that the date September 11 now carries the solemn historical weight attached to it, because it was on that date in 1989–after a brave decision by Horn to abrogate a treaty with East Germany forbidding Hungary from permitting East Germans to cross into the West–that East Germans started streaming by the thousands through Hungary into Austria.
The tumult spread quickly to Leipzig and eventually Berlin. George H.W. Bush and James Baker chose, correctly, to do and say little. Mikhail Gorbachev, more importantly and impressively, chose not to roll tanks into Budapest or Berlin. On November 9, with pressure mounting, East German official Gunter Schabowski announced–hastily and incorrectly, in fact, but, since the announcement was aired live across much of the world, irrevocably–that all rules for travel abroad would be lifted “immediately.” East Germans rushed to the Wall and overwhelmed the guards. They danced atop it and chipped away souvenirs. The next day, Bulgarian ruler Todor Zhivkov was ousted. On November 28, the Czech Communist Party announced it would relinquish power; Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek were running things by year’s end. And in Romania, there were the Christmas Day executions–broadcast live on state television–of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena (not exactly a democratic seizure of power, but given the nature of the Ceausescus’ rule, a perhaps understandable one).
By 1990, the Iron Curtain draped around only Albania, the Baltic states, and the Soviet republics, and their moment was coming. Twenty years later, the world has still never seen so total and rapid a demolition of something so seemingly permanent. It makes 2009 a good occasion to ponder whether anything like it can take place again–and whether liberalism can act as a lubricant to make it happen.
The setting for this drama has moved eastward. This June, there will have been, by the time you read this, an important election in Lebanon pitting forces seeking to redeem the assassination of Rafiq Hariri against groups allied with Lebanon’s longtime occupier, Syria. There are many problems with the so-called “March 14” reform forces (the date, since we’re talking anniversaries, of the massive Cedar Revolution demonstrations held in Beirut in 2005, leading to Syria’s withdrawal). But there is also no question that if the results have favored the other side (they call themselves March 8), Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah will be strengthened, and Lebanon’s push toward a more secular pluralism will have been dealt a difficult blow.
June also brings elections in Iran. As of this writing, few observers expect Mir Hossein Mousavi, the chief reformist challenger to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to prevail. But Mousavi has spoken openly about wanting to pursue better relations with the United States, praised Obama in speeches, and had the backing of some prominent figures. If he puts up even a decent showing, it will be a hopeful sign that a significant chunk of Iranians reject their president’s lunatic rantings. Finally, Afghans head to the polls in August. More than 40 candidates filed for president, but the lackluster Hamid Karzai appeared to be the favorite to win reelection.
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