‘The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall’ by Michael Meyer
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, September 13, 2009
This fall marks the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the beginning of the Cold War’s end. Symbolically, Berlin always represented ground zero in the fight against communism. So when the wall finally came down in 1989, many wondered how it happened and who deserved credit.
In The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Michael Meyer offers an important insider’s account of the wall’s crumbling. Some people write about history; Meyer lived it. He served as Newsweek‘s bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989. His first-person narrative takes readers back to his experiences in that historic year.
If storytelling comprises both content and context, Meyer deserves high praise for the former. His on-the-ground reporting of those momentous events is filled with new information and is told with a brisk, smooth style.
What ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Meyer argues, began when Hungarian soldiers cut down part of the electric fence between Hungary and Austria earlier in 1989. This first tear in the Iron Curtain led many East Germans to head south and escape. The hero who put things in motion, Meyer says, was Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, who knew that communism could not work.
But according to Meyer, Nemeth was made possible only by Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet leader is portrayed as something of a patron saint of the revolution. Meyer details a tense Warsaw Pact meeting in July 1989, where other communist leaders pressured Nemeth to repent. But each time Nemeth looked over at the Soviet leader, he noticed that Gorbachev winked at him. Meyer quotes Nemeth’s recollection of that meeting: “It was as if Gorbachev were saying, ‘Don’t worry. These people are idiots. Pay no attention.’ ”
Later that year at a news conference, an East German government spokesman mistakenly implied that East Germans would be allowed to cross over into West Berlin. This announcement led countless people to flock to the wall, where the guards were so overwhelmed and so unsure what to do that they let the people cross. The Berlin Wall, it seems, came down by almost by accident.
When zooming in with a narrow-lens camera, Meyer creates a fascinating picture filled with vivid images and bold colors. But when he tries his hand at the wider shot, his view is sometimes clouded with ideological revisionism. Meyer goes out of his way to mock American conservatives who revere Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And he points to Reagan’s “political evolution” and argues that the president became a diplomat in his second term and worked with Gorbachev. Thus, Meyer essentially argues, conservatives should be careful to claim America won the Cold War.
At times, this makes Meyer’s book look more like a work of polemics than a work of history. Most conservatives don’t argue that Reagan’s speech won the Cold War, but that his policies played a key role: He deployed Pershing missiles to Western Europe, supported Solidarity in Poland and forced concessions from Gorbachev.
And did Reagan’s negotiating posture change in the second term? Sure it did, after Gorbachev accepted Reagan’s terms at the negotiating table. Most notably, when Reagan and Gorbachev signed the treaty eliminating intermediate- range missiles in Europe, they did not ban missile defense, something Gorbachev desired desperately. Reagan changed because he got what he wanted. And this pressure from the American president almost certainly was an important part of the context that led Gorbachev to wink and allow reform to move forward in Eastern Europe.
Still, Meyer’s book represents a major contribution to Cold War history. And his central thesis rings true: The people in Eastern Europe did the most to win the Cold War. Yet it takes nothing away from their victory to acknowledge that they had help from their friends in America.
Kasey S. Pipes is the author of Ike’s Final Battle and is the Norris Research Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Building Community.
The Year That Changed the World
The Untold Story Behind the Fall
of the Berlin Wall