A couple of nights ago I was reading Matt Welch’s introduction to the November issue of Reason, in which Matt wonders why we have heard so little discussion of the defeat of communism on its 20th anniversary. This fall is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989, with rumblings and precursors starting as early as August in Hungary, near Lake Balaton, when Austria opened its border to those wanting to cross the Iron Curtain.
Twenty years later, the anniversary of that historic border crossing was noted in exactly four American newspapers, according to the Nexis database, and all four mentions were in reprints of a single syndicated column. August anniversaries receiving more media play in the U.S. included the 400th anniversary of Galileo building his telescope, the 150th anniversary of the first oil well, and the 25th anniversary of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A Google News search of “anniversary” and “freedom” on August 23, 2009, turned up scores of Woodstock references before the first mention of Hungary. …
In 1988, according to the global liberty watchdog Freedom House, just 36 percent of the world’s 167 independent countries were “free,” 23 percent were “partly free,” and 41 percent were “not free.” By 2008, not only were there 26 additional countries (including such new “free” entities as Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia), but the ratios had reversed: 46 percent were “free,” 32 percent were “partly free,” and just 22 percent were “not free.” There were only 69 electoral democracies in 1989; by 2008 their ranks had swelled to 119.
As November 9 approaches, I was happy this morning to find Timothy Garton Ash’s article in the New York Review of Books, reviewing nine (!) books analyzing and exploring various aspects of the momentous events in 1989. Ash’s thoughtful review includes insightful comments on hindsight bias in history, and the extent to which the events of 1989 were “multiple interactions not merely of a single society and party-state, but of many societies and states, in a series of interconnected three-dimensional chess games.” I particularly appreciated his remark on the faulty expectations of the superpowers:
It is perhaps a characteristic of superpowers that they think they make history. Big events must surely be made by big powers. Yet in the nine months that gave birth to a new world, from February to November 1989, the United States and the Soviet Union were largely passive midwives. They made history by what they did not do. And both giants stood back partly because they underestimated the significance of things being done by little people in little countries.
So I hope that these works, and Ash’s review, make Matt a little more sanguine, as well as reminding us all of the perils of centralized political power in all of its forms and the value that is unleashed when that centralized power crumbles.