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Michael Meyer: The picnic that brought down the Berlin Wall

Roundup: Talking About History




[Michael Meyer, Newsweek's bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989, is the author of "The Year That Changed the World."]

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 1989, the plug was pulled on the bathtub of Soviet empire.

At the stroke of midnight, tiny communist Hungary threw open the gates to freedom and the West. Tens of thousands of people surged across the suddenly unguarded border. Scenes of jubilation, of families reunited after decades of captivity in Eastern Europe, flashed around the world. Newsweek's cover dubbed it the "Great Escape." From one day to the next, Americans awoke to a startling new reality. Suddenly, it was possible to imagine the unimaginable: the fall of the Iron Curtain and an end to the Cold War.

The coming months will see a crescendo of 20th anniversary commemorations of communism's final days, culminating on Nov. 9, the night the Berlin Wall came down. For many, Americans especially, the fall of the wall was a glorious moment, emblematic of the West's victory in the Cold War. "We won!"

Yet if you watched the East Bloc's disintegration from the ground, as I did over that fateful year, you saw it as more ambiguous. The founding fiction of our Cold War "triumph" -- that it validated decades of containment and militarist confrontation -- gives way to a more nuanced appreciation of the other forces that were at work. Among them: the actions of others, often unnoticed by the rest of the world. The Great Escape made history. But the real story, largely untold, is how it came to pass.

Every great event has its hidden turning points. Victory in World War II, some say, hinged on Operation Fortitude, Britain's legendary gambit to fool Hitler into thinking the Allied invasion of 1944 would come near Calais rather than the beaches of Normandy. Similarly, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War had their roots, in part, in a bold gamble that unfolded, all but invisibly, one fine summer day in 1989 on the Austrian-Hungarian frontier.

The date was Aug. 19. The place: Sopron, a sleepy provincial town in western Hungary. Even in such a backwater, the winds of change were blowing. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev was at work, shaking up the old Soviet sphere. In Poland, the famous trade union known as Solidarity faced off against its communist masters.

Closer to home, in Hungary itself, a new generation of reform-minded communists had taken charge. Almost overnight, they wrote a U.S.-style constitution and began speaking openly of a free press, free markets and free elections. Emboldened, a small group of local Sopron activists decided to celebrate the new spirit. Their modest aim: put up some tents, hire a brass band and let the beer and good vibes flow. One of the organizers came up with an especially inspired idea -- to briefly open a gate through the barbed-wire frontier to Austria, allowing people to casually stroll back and forth across the border for the first time in four decades. They called it the Pan-European Picnic...
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Arnold Shcherban - 9/17/2009

<Victory in World War II, some say, hinged on Operation Fortitude, Britain's legendary gambit to fool Hitler into thinking the Allied invasion of 1944 would come near Calais rather than the beaches of Normandy.>
I like that "some say" stipulation, giving the author an escape from the ethical responsibility for obvious ownership of the same self-serving opinion. The opinion (that actually has become an axiom in Western culture) based on denial of the Soviet Union's major contribution to victory over Nazi Germany that at the end of 1944 had become too visible and, therefore, predictable.