My German and Italian Politics class has been finishing the semester with an intense look at the year 1989, the most important year since the end of the Second World War. We’re reading the book 1989: A Year that Changed the World by Michael Meyer. Beyond that I found the film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) to be worth taking class time to show.
For me 1989 is a milestone year. I finished my prelim exams so I could start teaching college courses and work on my Ph.D. I spent the summer in Germany researching East-West German relations, visiting East Berlin for the first time (and last time as a divided city), and following the unbelievable events as Communism started its quick and in retrospect inevitable collapse. I also broke up with a woman I’d been with for five years, which marks it as a turning point in my personal life as well.
Sometime I’ll blog about my experiences that summer — I feel very lucky to have been in Germany and Berlin in the last days of Cold War normalcy, heading back to the states just as the stories of East Germans escaping via Hungary hit the news. I’ve already written about the joy I felt when the wall came down; for most of my generation 9-11-01 is the most pivotal historic day in their lives, for me it remains 11-09-89.
The Meyers book is fascinating. It goes into detail about the behind the scenes maneuvering that he as a Newsweekcorrespondent was able to see. I could empathize with how he felt in the summer of 1989. I didn’t travel East Europe interviewing leaders and dissidents as he did, but I do recall the sense that something big was building. Until reading this book I hadn’t realized just how much of what happened was plotted by Hungarian leaders Miklos Nemeth (a true unknown hero) and Imre Pozsgay to plan opening the borders and entice the East Germans to leave. They plotted from within to bring down communism; that they could succeed is amazing.
The film The Lives of Others is a must see for anyone wanting to understand the evil of totalitarian bureaucratic socialism. It also shows how sick it is to try to compare American “liberals” or President Obama with socialism or communism. That minimizes the evil of “real existing socialism,” as it was called.
The complete and utter control exercised in Communist states is shocking. They used intense surveillance, would convince people to give secret information about friends and even family, and were able to control lives and careers. What is most frightening is how their methods were both efficient and mundane. They would imprison, but didn’t torture, kill or brutalize opponents. They would mix carrots and sticks, use threats and promises to compel people to “do their duty for the state.” Faced with the prospect of losing a career, having a child lose a place at the university, or being put in jail, most people choose the easy way: give them the information they wanted.
Your identity as an informant could be kept secret. The state would show its gratitude. Often your friends wouldn’t be arrested either, sometimes the secret police (in East Germany the Stasi) simply wanted to keep tabs on peace and human rights activists, dissidents, and artists. That choice was made easier by the fact there apparently was no choice but to give in. Those who stood on principle suffered — and the system churned on, with the Communists fully in control. The best and the brightest went into making sure they knew how to control people and society; creative thought was distrusted.
The people were provided a deal they had to accept: material security in exchange for not rocking the boat. You could have an apartment, medical care, pensions, a guaranteed job and physical safety. In exchange, you simply had to refuse to oppose the system. Resistance took place in the form of jokes and discussion in private circles where people truly trusted each other. Occasionally an artist would speak out, a priest would protest, a church would be known as being too rebellious, but through intimidation, threats and surveillance, most people were compelled to keep their end of the non-negotiated agreement.
In the film the characters show the impact of that brutality — betrayal is rational, lives are ruined, people are broken, and ambitious bureaucrats have the power to arbitrarily shape or destroy lives. The film helps those of us who have never had to endure such a system get a sense of what it felt like, the human oppression inherent in a system where a bureaucrat’s pen was as piercing to the soul as a soldier’s knife could be to the body. I will not try to recount the story line, it is however a film no one will regret seeing (it is in German, with subtitles).
But 1989 changed that. The anger and resentment of 40 years of oppression and persecution meant that as soon as there was a chance to change the people grabbed it. Once it became clear something could be done, that those in power were clueless on how to respond to real resistance, the entire edifice collapsed. To be sure, it took the system reaching economic disaster to do so. Poland and Hungary could only embrace their early 1989 reforms because the economy was so horrific that the hardliners had no choice but to allow reformers power. Mikhail Gorbachev could only implement glasnost and perestroika because Soviet leaders saw that the system was unsustainble.
In the US it was interesting that in early 1989 the Bush Administration had a skeptical view of the likelihood of change. Some in the administration, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, urged a hard line against Gorbachev, convinced he was a fraud. After President Bush visited Poland in mid-1989, his view changed. Folk like Cheney weren’t listened to as much as the President realized something meaningful was building. As change went through the region the US was criticized for not doing much to promote it or support it. But that was the right move — this was out of the hands of the Americans, and intervening would have done more harm than good.
It is still hard to believe that 1989 was 22 years ago. Graduating seniors were born in the year that for me represents dramatic change (and thanks to my musical choices that summer, gives me the title of this blog). I can still recall sensing the weight of the oppression while walking around East Berlin that summer, or the tears running down my face watching coverage of the wall coming down on a 13 inch color TV with antenna reception in my apartment that November. Then came the exhilaration of watching the rest of East European communism fall in the two short months after 11-09-89. Most importantly, I remember how few saw it coming, including the German experts I interviewed in both academia and politics that summer. 1989. It was a very good year.