The Unknown War: The Defeat of Communism 20 Years Ago Was the Most Liberating Moment in History. So Why Don't We Talk about It More?

By Welch, Matt | Reason, November 2009 | Go to article overview

The Unknown War: The Defeat of Communism 20 Years Ago Was the Most Liberating Moment in History. So Why Don't We Talk about It More?


Welch, Matt, Reason


ON AUGUST 23, 1989, officials from the newly reformed and soon-to-be-renamed Communist Party of Hungary ceased policing the country's militarized border with Austria. Some 13,000 East Germans, many of whom had been vacationing at nearby Lake Balaton, fled across the frontier to the free world. It was the largest breach of the Iron Curtain in a generation, and it kicked off a remarkable chain of events that ended 11 weeks later with the righteous citizen dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

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.

Get used to it, if you haven't already. November 1989 was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history, yet two decades later the country that led the Cold War coalition against communism seems less interested than ever in commemorating, let alone processing the lessons from, the collapse of its longtime foe. At a time that fairly cries out for historical perspective about the follies of central planning, Americans are ignoring the fundamental conflict of the postwar world, and instead leapfrogging back to what Steve Forbes describes in this issue as the "Jurassic Park statism" of the 1930s (see "'The Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs,'" page 42). There have been more Hollywood hagiographies of the revolutionary communist Che Guevara in the last five years than there have been studio pictures in the last two decades about the revolutionary anticommunists who dramatically toppled totalitarians from Tallin to Prague (see Tim Cavanaugh's "Hollywood Comrades," page 62). And what little general-nonfiction interest there is in the superpower struggle, as Michael C. Moynihan details on page 48 ("The Cold War Never Ended"), remains stuck in the same Reagan vs. Gorby frame that made the 1980s so intellectually shallow the first time around.

The consensus Year of Revolution for most of our lifetimes has been 1968, with its political assassinations, its Parisian protests, and a youth-culture rebellion that the baby boomers will never tire of telling us about. But as the preeminent modern Central European historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a 2008 essay, 1989 "ended communism in Europe, the Soviet empire, the division of Germany, and an ideological and geopolitical struggle ... that had shaped world politics for half a century. It was, in its geopolitical results, as big as 1945 or 1914. By comparison, '68 was a molehill."

I recently asked Simon Panek, one of the student leaders of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, why he thought 1968 still gets all the headlines. He gave a typically Czech shrug: "Probably 1968 happened to more people in the West." But even that droll formulation understates the globe-altering impact of 1989.

Without the superpower conflict to animate and arm scores of proxy civil wars and brutal governments, authoritarians gave way to democrats in Johannesburg and Santiago, endless war was replaced by enduring peace in Central America, and nations that had never enjoyed self-determination found themselves independent, prosperous, and integrated into the West.

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.

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