It is now almost twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. But did it really end, and did we win it? Look at the situation in Europe today, where many of the former Communist countries in the eastern half of Europe are freer and safer than many of those in the western half of Europe. Instead of an Iron Curtain we now have an Iron Veil of Multiculturalism, and Western Europe is on the wrong side of it this time around. Did we trade the USSR for the EUSSR? If we really "beat" Marxism, how come Marxists and Leftists of all stripes virtually control Western media and academia a generation later, and why does the USA have a Marxist-inspired President Obama?
Michael Meyer, the author of The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, is exercised by the onerous Cold War “myths” that we all cling to, yet he never engages or identifies those who supposedly propagate them. He rightly denounces the America-centric view of Cold War history but barely mentions the pivotal role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in reunification. France’s Francois Mitterand, Great Britain’s Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II are similarly absent from the narrative. (As Polish dissident writer Adam Michnik later observed, “It will be a long time before anyone fully comprehends the ramifications of [the Pope’s] nine-day visit” to occupied Poland in 1979.)
In place of the old myths, Meyer erects new ones: “For all the problems they faced…most East Germans had no desire to leave their country,” he insists, “contrary to the impression fostered in the West. Many if not most were perfectly comfortable with the socialist system that guaranteed them work, low-cost housing and free lifelong health care and schooling.” There is no source for this fantastical claim. That a certain measure of nostalgia for the East German dictatorship exists from a distance of 20 years is undeniable, but an opinion poll taken in 1990 showed that 91 percent of East Germans favored unification and, by definition, the dissolution of the “worker’s state.”
Reagan, of course, had his flaws, as voluminously documented by scholars, enemies, and sympathizers alike. But Gorbachev, Time’s “Man of the Decade” for the 1980s (unlike Reagan) and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (unlike Reagan), often escapes similar scrutiny. Meyer is more interested in score settling, pointing out that many hard-liners in the Reagan and Bush administrations, several of whom later joined George W. Bush’s administration, misjudged Gorbachev’s seriousness.
Gorbachev’s economic reforms were vague and ad hoc, and they wound up being tremendous failures. His chief foreign policy aide, Anatoly Chernyaev, grumbled during glasnost that Gorbachev “has no concept of where we are going. His declaration about socialist values, the ideals of October, as he begins to tick them off, sound like irony to the cognoscenti. Behind them—emptiness.” As historian Robert Service has observed, Gorbachev intended glasnost as “a renaissance of Leninist ideals,” while his books “still equivocated on Stalin.” He avoided repeats of 1956 and 1968, when the Soviet military ruthlessly cracked down on its restive satellites, but did send troops to murder residents of Vilnius, Tblisi, and Baku.
Both Mann and Meyer are correct that without Gorbachev, the end of the Cold War wouldn’t have arrived so quickly. And Vaclav Havel is surely right when he argues that Gorbachev’s “historical achievement is enormous: communism would have collapsed without him anyway, but it might have happened 10 years later, and in God knows how wild and bloody a fashion.” But Mann’s case is convincing that the man of the decade, the great peace laureate, destroyed the Soviet Union “unintentionally,” not as an expression of any democratic desires.
It is difficult to accept heroic portrayals of those who were complicit in the mass enslavement and murder of their unwilling subjects. The Soviet Union’s leaders, out of at least partial desperation, opened the door to democracy a crack, and their restless captives barged right through. On the other side they found VHS players, compact discs, supermarkets overflowing with fresh produce, press freedom, the hurly-burly of markets, multiparty democracy—and an army of fallible historians, journalists, politicians, and pundits, all desperate to prove that they had been right all along