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Revolutions Of '89: 'At The Moment Of Crisis, Nobody Was At Home'

Michael Meyer: "The most dramatic moment was when I really woke up to what was happening in the East and its potential to literally change the world."
Michael Meyer: "The most dramatic moment was when I really woke up to what was happening in the East and its potential to literally change the world."

As "Newsweek's" bureau chief for Germany, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, American journalist Michael Meyer was a professional observer of the revolutionary wave that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in 1989.

Two decades later, Meyer gave a breathtaking account of those events in his recently published book, "The Year That Changed The World -- The Untold Story behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall." Meyer recalls some of the milestone moments of the 1989 revolutions in an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc.

RFE/RL: You took up your job in Eastern Europe in the spring of 1988, about a year before the beginning of the upheaval. When did you first begin to realize the magnitude of the changes that were being set in motion?

Michael Meyer:
People sometimes ask me what the most dramatic event of the year was for me, thinking, oh, it must be witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall from East Berlin. In fact, the most dramatic moment was when I really woke up to what was happening in the East and its potential to literally change the world. And that was on a trip to Budapest in December or late November 1988.

A new government, of Gorbachev-style communist reformers had taken power just weeks earlier. I spoke with the entire communist leadership from [Prime Minister Miklos] Nemeth on down. The most remarkable conversation I had was with the Justice Minister, Kalman Kulcsar. He was writing a new constitution, and I wanted to talk to him and, you know, I expected the classic justice minister from a communist regime: thick-necked, not very well educated. And this guy was this roly-poly, jovial, friendly, and well-read man, and the things he said...this communist justice minister was saying the most un-communist things.

He was talking about a free election, and I said: "Well, what happens if you lose?" And he said: "We stand down, Mr. Meyer, just like any other normal political party." And I laughed, and he said, "Well, Mr. Meyer, don't you believe me?" And I said no. Then he laughed, and pulled open a pamphlet and said, "Mr. Meyer, what do you think this is? A copy of the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill Of Rights." And he said, "Mark my words, this will be ours in nine months." And that's when I realized that these guys were serious. And that's the moment that I realized that huge events were under way that would change our world.

RFE/RL: Economically, communism was bankrupt by 1989. Eastern European countries were borrowing heavily from the West to keep the shelves relatively full, with the exception of Romania, where the shelves stayed bare. The USSR could not keep up with America in a new arms race, its economy was shrinking, oil prices were down. But was economics alone what pushed things over the edge? Some argue that the collapse of communism resembled the “boiling frog” experiment, where a frog placed in cold water being gradually heated will fail to notice the change in temperature and allow itself to boil. Did Gorbachev turn up the fire under his own pot?

I was very, very frightened, and I wasn't on the front line, and I was protected of course by "Newsweek."

Meyer: I think that's a terribly good and intelligent analogy. In fact I used it myself when I first met [Hungarian Prime Minister] Miklos Nemeth in December 1988, and he said Gorbachev has taken the lid of a boiling pot and he could not put it back on. The question is, did the leadership feel the water heating? And, I think they did not. I know from my own conversations with Gorbachev and from Nemeth's conversations with him that he recounted to me that Gorbachev had no idea that this would lead to the collapse of communism. He thought communism was eminently perfectible.

RFE/RL: Historians tend to agree in general that in Poland, the regime collapsed under organized pressure applied from the opposition massed around Solidarity and supported by the Catholic Church -- while in Hungary the change came from within the Communist Party itself. In Czechoslovakia, the pressure came from the people, who nevertheless got organized very fast under the guidance of a personality such as Vaclav Havel. In your view, was communism brought down by revolution or by evolution?

Particularly we Americans, we have a myth that the people rose up in Eastern Europe and change came from below. But in fact, in many places, it came from above as well. In Hungary, you had this ferment within the [Communist Party], particularly among the young members. Everyone was debating democracy, the phrase they were using was deep democracy and what's the balance between political freedom and state control of the economy. And every time they had to make a choice they went for individual freedom.

Change was in the air. In Poland, everybody was a member of Solidarity, even members of the Communist Party. Solidarity ceased to be the opposition, it ceased to be merely a trade union. Solidarity was a description for an entire society that spanned all ranks and all political persuasions. You had [high ranking] Communist Party members whose spouses were members of the party and who agreed with almost everything that Solidarity would say. And even [General Wojciech] Jaruzelski himself, he was the man who proposed elections.

It wasn't Solidarity who proposed them. He was the one who proposed the roundtable [with the opposition]. You had a sense that things weren't working, and that you had to take matters into your own hands because leadership was no longer coming from Moscow. And, you're right, it wasn't only economics.

Residents of Bucharest look on as fighting between the Securitate and the army continues on December 24, 1989.

RFE/RL: In Romania, people used to say that the Ceausescu regime, however repressive, would have been tolerable if only some more food and heating were available. But the violence of the regime change shocked everyone, and two decades later there is still controversy about how it was possible for such a seemingly docile people to rise up so violently. Was it an insiders’ putsch, or was it a Moscow-orchestrated coup? Or, maybe, a little bit of both?

Well, there you put your finger on it. A little bit of everything, would be my answer, and not only in Romania, but elsewhere. Timothy Garton Ash, the brilliant historian, even coined a term to sum up what you're talking about, revolution versus evolution, he called that "refolution," a combination of revolution and evolution, or you know, reform from within.

In Romania, it was very instant -- in Timisoara, I think, there was a bona fide uprising, inspired by the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, inspired by the Velvet Revolution taking place not far away. Of course, Timisoara was right on the border with Hungary and so the border was more porous, there was a greater sense of what was happening elsewhere. People rose up, and the regime tried to crush it.

[Communist dictator] Nicolae Ceausescu gave explicit instructions to his generals there to shed blood -- and they did. But once it spread to Bucharest, something very different happened. There were students in Palace Square, and elsewhere, particularly around the university who were genuinely rising up. On the other hand, the evidence seems to be pretty convincing that the [provisional government of the] National Salvation Front became a front in many ways for the Securitate and others to work a well-hidden coup d'etat.

RFE/RL: For all the drama unfolding almost everywhere in Eastern Europe, the most iconic moment of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall seems to have come out of a blunder by a top East German official, Gunter Schabowski. He apparently had a slip of the tongue at a November 9 news conference, misinterpreting the date on a paper given to him by his party boss, Egon Krenz, and inadvertently saying that free but state-supervised travel to the West would come into force immediately -- “ab sofort" -- as he put it, instead of the next day. Those words set in motion a human tidal wave heading for the wall. You were in East Berlin that evening, what happened next?

Schabowski went home, others went to their mistresses, some of the leadership went to the opera, and at the moment of the regime's existential crisis nobody was at home. And not having instructions, the border guard at Bornholmer Strasse [crossing] threw open the gates. I was [on the Eastern side of the] Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, watching the captain of the border guards there as he shrugged just like Schabowski had shrugged, as if to say, "Well, okey-dokey." Open it up, he said, and history was written. And so the wall came down.

Romania did not have a peaceful revolution

But imagine, as [Horst Freitag], the German consul [to New York] was telling me the other day, imagine what would have happened had the wall opened subject to the rules and regulations of the regime. The regime would have been the heroes, they would have won the applause, the scene would have been of orderly East Germans lining up, getting their stempel [stamp] in their passports, applying for the visa and, in an orderly way, visiting the West. The consul told me it is possible that the Berlin Wall would not have come down the way it did, certainly, that maybe change would have come by evolution rather than revolution, and he said that maybe today there'd still be an East Germany.

RFE/RL: Newly released documents indicate that Britain and France were not eager for German reunification. Many politicians in West Germany, too, were much too enchanted with their own Ostpolitik rapprochement with East Germany to think seriously of reunification. Were Western leaders overtaken by events, just like Gorbachev, or even more than him? How about the United States’ position?

From January through July 1989 the [new] United States [administration of President George H. W. Bush] froze its relations with the East. They were doing reviews that never seemed to come through, and it wasn't until George Bush himself visited Poland and Hungary in July of 1989 that American policy suddenly turned.

A staffer, one of George Bush's senior staffers, told me recently that this was a moment of awakening -- George Bush personally going to see for himself. And from then on, American policy turned on a dime, and it went from being a little bit like "asleep at the wheel" if you will -- or, in Adam Michnik's famous phrase, "sleepwalking through history," to being incredibly engaged, incredibly far-sighted, to managing the process of German unification, with a statesmanship that was nothing less than brilliant.

And you rightly say that [British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher particularly did not want to see German unification. [French President Francois] Mitterand did not either, although Bush very clearly took charge of that process, and without American leadership probably Germany would not have been unified.

RFE/RL: To Central and East Europeans, the fall of the wall marked the ending of a surprisingly peaceful revolution. But the truth is, it wasn’t like that from the beginning, and the ending was particularly gruesome. While Budapest, Berlin, and Prague were celebrating, Timisoara and Bucharest were bleeding. What are your memories?

Twenty years later we sometimes forget the extraordinary drama of these events. We didn't know how it was going to turn out. It took incredible courage to face the police in these countries. I was very, very frightened, and I wasn't on the front line, and I was protected of course by "Newsweek."

Other people didn't have that. So when you turned out on the streets of Prague, or Dresden, or Leipzig -- particularly in Leipzig, on October 9 -- you were quite literally taking your life in your hands. In Romania, I remember standing in a cemetery on New Year's Eve and watching a man -- this wasn't a young person, this was a man in his 50s -- and the snow was falling on his open casket, frozen, and... and snowflakes were gathering on his eyelids and my heart broke... and up to this day I'm having trouble speaking about this... because, as you say, there was a street party going on in Prague, the Velvet Revolution was America's, Europe's, the world's favorite revolution. Vaclav Havel, actors, dancing in the street, no violence. But in Romania, it was very different, and that was the prelude to the terror of Yugoslavia.

RFE/RL: Throughout 1989, it seems that you were present wherever and whenever something was happening. If you had to pick one place, one event that left its mark upon you, what would you choose?

The history of one was the history of all. The history of all was the history of each. The most remarkable moment for me, and there were many -- I've mentioned a couple, the conversation with Kalman Kulcsar when he was waving the U.S. Constitution and Bill Of Rights over his head, or the burial of that poor man with a bullet hole in his forehead, shot by a sniper, in the cemetery in Bucharest, buried in the snow -- but for me there was a moment of sheer happiness and that's a good point on which to close this interview, because it's simply the most beautiful moment in my life and I doubt I will ever see anything this beautiful again.

That was a rally at Letna Stadium on the hills above Prague, again, the snow falling, and Havel giving a rousing speech and people, the hundreds of thousands of people there had formed a human chain, and hand in hand, one by one, they wound down from the stadium through the beautiful hills of Prague, down through Mala Strana, the old section of Prague, the cobblestoned streets, the lamps casting halos in this falling snow, nobody speaking, people jingling their keys, which was a symbol of the Velvet Revolution.

Jingling as in bells, jingling as in alarm clock, jingling as in "your time is up" and they went all the way from the stadium, hand in hand, to Wenceslas Square, where it all began, dividing this beautiful city in half. A row of people holding hands, quietly in the falling snow, forcing people to choose, you are either with the people, or you're against them.

It was the beauty of the moment, the beauty of the choice and the sheer physical beauty of the city and the people and the snow and the overwhelming gentleness of the moment. That was the moment for me.

Revolutions Of '89

When The Wall Came Down
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.

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