Saturday 24 October 2009


Timothy Garton-Ash has a cracking New York Review of Books review essay on 1989, including the distortions of hindsight when discussing events 'which no one foresaw, but everyone could explain afterwards', and discussing the necessity and impossibility of writing the history of a truly international event which was made from both above and below.

A couple of snippets.

Melvyn P. Leffler notes how then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney suggested that Gorbachev's policies "may be a temporary aberration in the behavior of our foremost adversary.") Nor did Bush set much store by bearded dissidents who looked like something out of Berkeley in the 1960s ... 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.

The fact that Tiananmen happened in China is one of the reasons it did not happen in Europe. However, an influence then flowed back in the other direction: from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to China. The Chinese Communist Party systematically studied the lessons of the collapse of communism in Europe, to make sure it did not happen to them. Today's China is a result of that learning process.

And one vignette on British freedom of information compared to Kremlin sources, relating to Margaret Thatcher's opposition to German reunification (on which Garton-Ash also wrote in The Guardian last week).

It is shaming, for an Englishman, to learn how shamelessly Margaret Thatcher seems to have betrayed her public promises to Germany. "The words written in the NATO communique may sound different, but disregard them," she apparently told Gorbachev in September 1989, according to a note of their conversation prepared by Chernyaev. "We do not want the unification of Germany." (Sarotte also obtained the British record of this conversation, using Britain's Freedom of Information Act. She notes that "it did not contain these comments, but it was redacted.")

The essay can also be read in the NYRB print pullout in today's Guardian Review, and at the NYRB website. A second part on the velvet revolutions follows in the next issue.

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