Like 1776, 1789 and 1917, the year 1989 was one of those rare moments that mark a decisive turning point in human history. So, at least, it seemed at the time, especially to those of us who spent 1989 in the thick of the pro-democracy revolutions of communist central and eastern Europe.
It seemed little short of a miracle that the region’s oppressive one-party systems crumbled with hardly a drop of blood shed — except in Romania — and without intervention from the Soviet Union, the region’s lord and master since the end of the second world war. Now, at last, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles could be reunited with Britons, French and Germans in a Europe whole and free.
There was, of course, a darker side to 1989. On June 4, the day when Poland’s patriotic trade union movement Solidarity swept to an overwhelming victory over the Communist party in semi-free elections, the Chinese armed forces massacred crowds of student protesters on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
China’s ruling Communists have never expressed remorse for the slaughter. Even with regard to China, however, the optimistic expectation of many western leaders and opinion-makers was that the nation’s single-minded pursuit of partly market-based modernisation would eventually bring so much social and economic progress that authoritarianism would yield to some form of democracy.
Thirty years on, 1989 appears in less rosy colours. China’s modernisation has done nothing to soften the state’s authoritarian features. Russia, which appeared on a promising path to freedom in the Soviet Union’s final years, is an autocratic kleptocracy. Most countries in central and eastern Europe have been integrated into the EU and Nato, but the region abounds in nationalists, nativists and populists who have few values in common with the enlightened liberal revolutionaries of 1989.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the west itself seems to be in deep trouble. President Donald Trump is turning the US against its own democratic idealism and internationalist outlook. The EU struggles to control events within, on and beyond its borders.
What’s more, the western financial and economic system is no longer delivering on its promises to millions of citizens. In August Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, warned at a gathering of central bank chiefs in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that the present system “is not only making it harder to achieve price and financial stability, but it is also encouraging protectionist and populist policies . . . Past instances of very low [interest] rates have tended to coincide with high-risk events such as wars, financial crises and breaks in the monetary regime.”
The four books under review, each of which I strongly recommend, range from Norman Naimark’s expertly detailed analysis of Stalin’s postwar policies in Europe to Simon Reid-Henry’s formidably ambitious attempt to paint a thematic portrait of the world’s democracies from the early 1970s to the present day. Kristina Spohr beautifully reconstructs the events of the 1989-92 era, reminding us of the importance of intelligent, responsible political leadership at critical moments of history, while Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes give an unflinchingly honest explanation of what has gone wrong in the west — and the east — since 1989.
Four books on 1989 and its impact
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes examine the nationalist reaction to the sweeping democratic changes and how western liberalism was doomed by its complacency and arrogance
Kristina Spohr looks at the critical few years after 1989 and policymakers’ mistaken assumption that liberal democracy was the wave of the future and the world was converging on American values
Simon Reid-Henry boldly attempts to paint a thematic portrait of the world’s democracies and delivers an argument that leaders grounded these political structures on free-market economics
Norman Naimark selects seven case studies to illustrate the complexity of Stalin’s aims in Europe, as he brings his superlative knowledge of the Soviet leader to bear on present-day realities
Krastev, a Bulgarian-born scholar at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and Holmes, a professor at New York University School of Law, contend in The Light that Failed that western liberalism became soaked in complacency and arrogance after 1989, generating a backlash in the east’s new democracies and in the west itself. “Liberalism ended up the victim of its heralded success in the cold war . . . Liberalism fell in love with itself and lost its way,” they write.
The authors construct a powerful case by focusing on four areas: central and eastern Europe, Russia, the US and China. By the mid-2010s, the states of central and eastern Europe were undoubtedly wealthier and the capitalist future promised in 1989 had arrived — “but its benefits and burdens were unevenly, even crassly distributed”, they write. The region’s severe depopulation over the past 30 years exacerbates the problem as the emigration of young, well-educated people makes it harder for liberal parties to win elections.
The authors are no admirers of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s illiberal prime minister — “he has shielded from public scrutiny both his electoral manipulation and epic levels of insider corruption” — but they warn that there is “scant reason for confidence that he is destined to fail”. The anti-Orban opposition won local elections in Budapest and other cities last weekend, but Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party was comfortably re-elected to power in national parliamentary elections. The larger point is that after 1989, many central and eastern Europeans came to resent being told to copy western practices and values as if they were mere pupils in a class.
Perceptively, the authors argue that the nationalist reaction came about not only because the western liberal model discredited itself in the 2008 financial crisis, but because it was never plausible that central and eastern Europeans would adopt the “radical disavowing of ethno-nationalism” embraced by West Germany after 1945. As for Russia, Krastev and Holmes write in one memorable sentence that the post-communist political elite in Moscow “found faking democracy perfectly natural, since they had been faking communism for at least two decades before 1991”.
US and eastern European populisms are similar in expressing contempt for establishment elites as well as hatred and fear of immigrants. Trump, however, is different from Orban and other European populists in that he is “anti-intellectual to the point of illiteracy”, Krastev and Holmes write. The American public’s enthusiasm for remaking the world in its image after 1989 was bound to fade as US global dominance gave way to the rise of China and a more multipolar world. Nonetheless, Trump is “the first president in American history to scrap the conviction that America stands for a teachable idea”.
The authors take pains not to end on a gloomy note. They reject the idea that “reactionary authoritarianism and nativism will inherit the earth”, and suggest that a “chastised liberalism, having recovered from its aspirations to global hegemony, remains the political idea most at home in the 21st century”. Still, it will take much hard work and self-criticism to correct the errors of the past 30 years.
In Post Wall, Post Square, Spohr echoes Krastev and Holmes in arguing that western policymakers took it virtually for granted in 1989-92 that liberal democracy was the wave of the future and the world was converging on American values. A history professor at the London School of Economics and Johns Hopkins University, Spohr uses recently declassified material in the British, French, German, Russian and US archives to describe how political leaders grappled with the revolutionary waves of change surging around them.
“In retrospect, the whole Soviet bloc seems like a house of cards,” she writes. Yet at the start of 1989 very few people predicted that it would all come down by the year’s end. Crucial to the outcome was the restraint of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader. If only we had known at the time that he called Erich Honecker, East Germany’s reactionary communist leader, a “scumbag”, and that he dismissed Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romanian dictatorship as a “primitive phenomenon”.
Spohr pays deserved tribute also to the “people power” of central and eastern Europe. She mentions not only those who filled the streets of East Berlin and Prague in peaceful demonstrations, but also brave individuals such as Lech Walesa, the earthy, politically astute electrician from Gdansk, who symbolised Poland’s non-violent move to democracy. However, if there are three heroes of Spohr’s book, they are Gorbachev, former US President George HW Bush and former German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Negotiating the end of the cold war, German reunification and the Soviet Union’s demise required statesmanship of a high order, and this trio provided it.
One theme of Spohr’s book — that western leaders viewed it as essential to root the east’s new democracies in free-market economics — forms a core argument of Reid-Henry’s Empire of Democracy. The origins of this faith in economic liberalism lie in the methods that western governments chose to overcome the multiple crises besetting their countries in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Reid-Henry writes.
In short, the west fought inflation, currency volatility and lost productivity growth by opening up their economies to market forces in a way that increased wealth but also dramatically transformed the social contract between governments, capital and labour that had defined the major democracies since 1945. “In the heady blur that was communism’s demise, it was taken for granted that capitalism was ticking along nicely in the west and carrying democracy with it,” Reid-Henry observes.
In the author’s view, dangerous tensions were building up. On the one hand, citizens were coming to feel disconnected from their democratic systems because of rising economic inequality, especially in the US, a pro-market political consensus that seemed to rule out genuine change and the growth of unaccountable, quasi-governmental agencies. Large-scale immigration came to be conflated after the 9/11 attacks on the US with terrorism, Islamism and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the other hand, “the financial sector was allowed to grow beyond almost all limits, while the state progressively unburdened itself of the regulatory tools that would be needed if such a casino economy was ever to run into trouble”. The result was the 2008 meltdown. As Mark Carney pointed out, the recovery from that shock has by no means stabilised the system.
There is much to admire in Reid-Henry’s book, but one must ask who fact-checked it, for unfortunately its 700-plus pages of text are littered with basic errors. Among them: Gorbachev’s birthplace (southern Russia, not Ukraine); Kohl’s departure from the chancellorship (1998, not 1997); the 1992 referendum vote against the EU’s Maastricht treaty (in Denmark, not the Netherlands); and the founder of Italy’s Northern League (Umberto Bossi, not Ossi).
Naimark has few peers as a scholar of Stalinism, the Soviet Union and 20th-century Europe, and his latest work Stalin and the Fate of Europe is one of his most original and interesting. He selects seven case studies to illustrate the complexity of Stalin’s aims in Europe. These involve the Danish island of Bornholm (briefly occupied by Soviet forces in 1945-46), Albania, Finland, the Italian elections of 1948, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, Poland up to 1949 and Austria.
In each case Naimark reaches a conclusion that surprises but convinces: despite the shadow of Stalinism advancing across eastern Europe, “the agency of Europeans mattered and mattered a lot”. Strong social democratic parties in western Europe and courageous politicians such as Finland’s Juho Paasikivi, West Berlin’s Ernst Reuter and Austria’s Karl Renner succeeded in keeping communism at bay. But even hardline communists such as Albania’s Enver Hoxha and Poland’s Wladyslaw Gomulka strove to preserve as much sovereignty for their countries as possible.
Stalin was never intent on fomenting revolution in western Europe, Naimark says. But the cold war for which he bears much responsibility has etched its legacies in the institutional cultures of Washington and Moscow to this day.
Combine this with the political fragmentation of European democracies, the shortcomings of the EU, the weaknesses of the eurozone and Brexit, and it is not difficult to see why Europe, so far from being the beacon of promise that it imagined itself in 1989, may once again generate much instability in years to come.
The Light that Failed: A Reckoning, by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 256 pages
Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989, by Kristina Spohr, William Collins, RRP£30, 768 pages
Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West since the Cold War, 1971-2017, by Simon Reid-Henry, John Murray, RRP£30/Simon & Schuster, RRP$35, 867 pages
Stalin and the Fate of Europe: The Postwar Struggle for Sovereignty, by Norman M Naimark, Belknap Press, RRP£23.95, 368 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe commentator
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