235. 1989 Revisited

This follows Tuesday’s post. 

In the early nineties, my wife and I were traveling on a train in Germany, where we found ourselves sharing a compartment with a young German college student. We congratulated her on Germany’s recent reunification. She became flustered and could not understand why we, as Americans, could be concerned with the reunification of her little country.

Germany is not a little country. It fought the British Empire to a standstill in WWI, then conquered essentially all of mainland Europe in WWII, and today is a leading state in a more-or-less united Europe. But this young woman would have been the granddaughter of people who were there at Germany’s defeat in 1945, and her parents would have grown up in the western half of a nation, whose eastern half had been gobbled up by the Soviets. Her humility made sense, at that moment in history.

Germany was divided in 1945 and reunified in 1990, but the real year of change for Germany and the rest of eastern Europe was 1989. That is why I slid Raven’s Run into that year when I began to post it in the twenty-first century.

**       **       **

On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa (death sentence) against Salman Rushdie. Even before a year of great progress in international relations had fully begun, the sound of the coming world challenges were echoing in from the Middle East. The next day, the Soviet Union announced that the last of its troops had left Afghanistan, ending a fruitless nine year war that some called Russia’s Viet Nam. Unfortunately, America didn’t get the message about the fruitlessness of trying to change Afghanistan.

The Warsaw Pact alliance was getting shaky. For forty five years Russian had maintained its dominance over eastern Europe by military might. It had cost them, in rubles, in the lost productivity involved in maintaining a huge standing army, and in the growing recalcitrance of the peoples under their domination.

There had been other risings during that near half century – in East Germany in 1953,  and in Hungary and Poland in 1956. But by 1989, conditions within Russia itself had deteriorated badly. Russia’s new leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ready for change. When mass protests occurred in Hungary in March, he allowed reforms to begin. It was a far cry from the Russian tanks and guns of 1956.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 had been put down ruthlessly. Officially, it was not seen as a Hungarian uprising, but as something orchestrated by the West. Now the story was changed, and it was officially accepted as a popular movement. Soon the Hungarians began tearing down the fence that closed off the Austrian border, which eventually had major consequences for East Germany.

Germany was partitioned in 1945 and Berlin, inside the Russian sector, was also partitioned. The two Germanies were fenced apart, and between the two Berlins the East Germans, at Russian insistence, built a massive concrete barrier. The Berlin Wall became the visible symbol for the separation of Europe.

By stealth and guile, innumerable refugees fled from East Germany to the west, but no defections got as much attention as those that broke through, over, and under the Berlin Wall.

With loosening of restraints in Hungary, East Germans defections intensified. For decades, they had vacationed in Hungary. Now they went to Hungary by the thousands and crossed from there to Austria. By September, 30,000 had escaped. When the East German government closed that route, East Germans flocked to Czechoslovakia where they descended on the Hungarian and West German embassies. In October, the East German government closed the border with Czechoslovakia. Those East Germans who had not been able to escape, turned to protests, which grew weekly in size. A shoot to kill order was given, then retracted under pressure from Gorbachev. By late October, the crowds of demonstrators numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The East German government relented and opened the Berlin wall. East German people then tore it down.

Throughout eastern Europe, variations on the theme played out. Dozens of countries were freed from Soviet domination, but there was one massive casualty. Yugoslavia, a conglomeration of smaller states since WWI, disintegrated shortly after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact nations, leading to wars throughout the nineties.

Germany reunified in 1990 and the Soviet Union dissolved into its component states in 1991.


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