Reflections on the ‘Revolution’ of 1989

West Berlin citizens atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, November 10, 1989. (Reuters)
Its roots go back two centuries. Can we learn from this history in shaping the years ahead?

Robert Conquest, the great tabulator and eulogist of Communism’s victims, wrote that “over the past century the human race has survived experiences that, to put it mildly, should have been instructive.” The passage of time, and its attrition in mortality and memory, wear down our ability to learn from those experiences. I am a member of the generation that was just old enough to experience the final decade of the Cold War. I remember watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on a console TV as a kid in rural Texas and thinking how brave those young Germans were.

When we think of the legacy of 1989, that’s what we think of first: the people. The human beings who escaped the banality and brutality of totalitarianism and lived to see a new day. These last, living remnants of the last homicidal creed of the 20th century. People like Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Milan Kundera. It is of course natural that we would think of the human face of 1989 first and most because it bore out most vividly the costs of Communism and the triumphs of liberation from it.

1989 as bookend to 1789
For this reason, the events of 1989 are chiefly remembered for their political effects. Collectivist systems that had ruled the lives, pocketbooks, and thoughts of 100 million people for half a century were suddenly gone. The euphoria that this produced was probably the greatest moment of spontaneous societal upheaval in Europe since the revolutions of 1848. Thus 1989 is often talked about as a revolution. This is somewhat misleading.

However momentous the changes of 1989 may have been in human terms, in constitutional terms they embodied the restoration of a Western legal and civic order to lands from which it had been uprooted. In many cases, such as Czechoslovakia, this had taken the form most recently of the constitutional republics created at Versailles, whose democratically elected governments had been subverted by Stalin to install his so-called “people’s democracies.” But the roots of ordered liberty in Central Europe go much deeper. Germans, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians could all to varying degrees look back to ancient constitutional traditions. Western culture and political civilization had thrived for centuries in many of these lands before the arrival of Stalin’s tanks.

In this sense, 1989 was a restoration. It marked the undoing of an earlier revolution whose proximate origins lay in 1917 in St. Petersburg but whose deeper source lay exactly two centuries earlier than 1989, with the onset of the French Revolution. This was an altogether different lineage of revolution than that which we Americans are accustomed to talking about in our own revolution. Drawing a distinction between these two moments — 1776 and 1789 — is not a minor or pedantic thing; it is fundamental to understanding the proper legacy of 1989 in our own time.

The years 1776 and 1789 were antithetical in the objects they sought and in the means they employed. The object of 1776 was the preservation of the accumulated rights of Englishmen — rights that were grounded in natural law and had been recognized by custom and prescription but suspended by an innovating king: rights of petition and assembly, right to redress of grievances in Parliament rather than the King in Council. Violence was a tool of last resort for the revolutionaries of 1776. They took up arms reluctantly and waged limited war for limited objects — the rights of specific people in a specific place.

By contrast, the object of 1789 was the dismantling of public order in favor of abstract concepts. Those concepts were: Liberty in its most permissive form, as a license to reject all constraints of society, convention, or law; and equality in its most radically leveling form — not, as Edmund Burke noted, “the true moral equality of mankind,” but “that monstrous fiction” of assured happiness and station without regard to rights, merit, or industry. The tool of choice was terror, savagely and indiscriminately applied: terror to shock, cull, and cow, to clear the way for experiments on “natural” man, as Rousseau had envisioned him. In short, utopia.

It is in the quest for utopia that we see the roots not only of Bolshevism but of its ideological cousin, National Socialism, and the various other cognate isms of the 20th century. All these creeds shared a preoccupation with the perfectibility of man, whether by mean of class struggle or by soil and blood. 1989 was the bookend to 1789. It brought to a close, at least in Europe, the two centuries of violent utopianism that had been set loose in France and spread to Russia and on to Asia and Latin America. If, as Churchill wrote, the act of sending Lenin by train into Russia had been like sending a plague bacillus by sealed truck, then 1989 was the moment at which this bacillus, having been quarantined, finally ran its course. A tally of its victims would probably exceed 100 million.

The political legacy of 1989 must therefore be understood not only institutionally, in the change it brought to systems of government, but in the lives of those humans who were spared the continuing effects of this bacillus. How many people are alive today who would otherwise have suffered at the hands of the secret police or been shot while trying to swim the Morava River at night, or bludgeoned to death in street protests in Warsaw or Prague? How many free elections have been held that otherwise would have not occurred, how many businesses have been founded and flourished that otherwise would have not existed, how many people have never known censorship or the dull monotony of standing in a bread line?

1989 as fulfillment of 1979
For this reason, we must think of the legacy of 1989 not only in political but in moral terms. Bolshevism followed in the footsteps of the French Reign of Terror by waging war on the human spirit. It attacked traditional faith with a zeal that exceeded its hatred of any other social force or institution. Lenin once commented to the Russian novelist Maxim Gorky: “Every religious idea, every idea of God, even flirting with the idea of God, is unutterable vileness.” He used the full apparatus of state terror to snuff out this “vileness”: torture, execution, deportation, forced labor.

Why? Because Communism itself was a secular faith, built around the shrine of reason. It could brook no competitors for the allegiance of souls. Anything already on the slate had to be removed, if necessary by force.

But I think there is another reason. Soviet Communism was evil. Whatever noble ideals many today may wish to impute to the origins of Marxism, it was quickly twisted into a quest for power that subordinated human life to perverted ends. It saw in churches and synagogues and the human conscience a “salt and light” that was simply hateful to it, ideologically and spiritually.

And yet communities of faith remained alive throughout the Communist era. It was to these persecuted remnants that John Paul II addressed his famous speech in Warsaw in 1979, when he said that faith “cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography.” And that to attempt to do so is to commit “an act against man.”

What John Paul II was describing was a force greater than Communism, greater than history itself. When he called on Poles to keep alive the seed of faith — in “churches, universities, libraries, in prayer, service to the sick, and even in the act of suffering” — he was knowingly and implicitly hitting at the very taproot of Soviet power. He was also answering the countless voices within the West itself who were apologists for Communism, who had idolized its ideology and trivialized its crimes. It was this moral clarity that laid the foundation for Reagan to later say that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” The moral component to this fight, which had so often been missing before, presented a challenge to the Soviet state every bit as lethal as the military buildup that Reagan would eventually undertake to bring about its demise.

The moral legacy of 1989 is that it was the fulfillment of 1979. The “seed of faith” that John Paul II described had never been fully uprooted. Faith triumphed not only in the sense that it fostered allegiances that, by their very nature, were in opposition to the state, but in the deeper sense that light prevailed over darkness in high places. How many people today, across the lands of the former Communist bloc, have been able to worship, pray, think, and dissent freely, to experience the joy of a Christmas mass or Passover, to develop free consciences that otherwise would have been suppressed? How would the world look different if those thoughts and prayers and poems had never occurred?

In this, too, we see a restoration: A return to the heart of Europe of the moral civilization that had existed for millennia and in which Communism had always been a transient and alien presence.

1989 as remedy to 1871
Finally, there is the geopolitical legacy of 1989. We are accustomed to thinking of it as the end of a half-century Cold War, which of course it was. It brought a happier, second settling to the question of how that half of Europe that American, British, and French armies didn’t fully reach after Normandy would be governed. But it was something more than that. What 1989 made possible was a durable solution to the problem that had made those armies at Normandy necessary to begin with. That organizing problem of Europe was the German Question.

For centuries, order in Europe had been maintained through a local balance of power. When any one power grew too strong, the others would form a coalition to prevent it from achieving hegemony. Two things made this possible. One was the fact that political power at the center of Europe was divided. The old Holy Roman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire were federative structures built on mixed constitutions. They were defensive in nature and prevented the military resources of Europe’s industrially rich heartland from being organized for offensive purposes. The second ingredient was British sea power. Any time a continental state threatened to achieve domination, Britain could throw its weight in the scales and restore the balance. It was this combination that had defeated Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon.

With the unification of Germany in 1871, this old balance broke down completely. The history of the 20th century is the history of efforts to restore that balance and sustainably address the German Question. We came up with three answers to that question, in the post-war settlements of 1919, 1945, and 1989. The first of these, at Versailles in 1919, tried to solve the problem by creating a tier of independent democratic states in the space between Germany and Russia. German observers at the time called these countries Saisonstaaten — seasonal states, that enjoyed a moment of life but were militarily indefensible. Having helped to midwife these states into existence, America retreated from European affairs. The resulting security vacuums created the conditions for World War II.

A generation later, at Yalta in 1945, we attempted to solve the German question not by buffers but by partition. We divided Germany and Europe into two armed camps. This formula succeeded better than that of Versailles for one reason: America stayed in Europe and built permanent military bases. We founded NATO and encouraged the recovery and unification of Europe to oppose Communism. The post-1945 order avoided the security vacuums that had come after 1919. But the stability it brought was fragile and came at a steep cost in escalatory standoffs, proxy wars, and the freedom of half of Germany and all of the independent Central European states we had created in 1919.

In summary, 1919 brought freedom without stability, and 1945 brought a kind of stability without freedom. The achievement of 1989 was that it brought both stability and freedom for the entire European continent. It was the first European order since the events of 1871 to allow a unified, free Germany to exist alongside independent neighbors within a stable balance of power and federating Europe.

Here too we see elements of restoration. The events of 1989 restored to Europe the territorial and legal attributes of a Western system of states that it had possessed in prior centuries. This is important to remember, not least because it exposes the fiction, still repeated in Kremlin propaganda today, that most if not all of the European territories from which the Soviet forces decamped after 1989 had historically been part of a Russian sphere of influence. That is not the case. In both civilizational and geopolitical terms, these countries were returning home to a Europe they had never willingly left.

The former captive nations of Central Europe have now outlived their interwar predecessors by a decade. The world has gone for 75 years without great-power war — an astonishing record that exceeds in length the long peace that followed the Congress of Vienna.

Where do things stand now?
None of this was the result of the blind structural forces of Marxist theory. The legacies of 1989 that I have described came about because of specific actions taken by specific men and women: strategists, diplomats, soldiers, dissidents, poets, clergy.

  • The political legacy is the result of a diligent preservation, over many generations, of the Western civic order of divided government, ordered liberty, and free enterprise.
  • The moral legacy arose from the conviction that the West is a civilizational and cultural, as opposed to merely material, force in the world, and from an unwillingness to see the human spirit subjugated by collectivism.
  • The geopolitical legacy is the by-product of a long-term strategy that organized Western society, economy, and alliances for protracted struggle.

Today’s generation is the beneficiary of all these legacies. The past 30 years have been a time of great prosperity and security: the spread of free systems of government; long stretches of economic growth; no great-power war; more freedom and wealth for more people than at any time in human history.

This is a blessing, but peace breeds apathy. That seems to be especially true of democracies. Churchill said of Britain after the First World War, “We were so glutted with victory that in our folly we threw it away.” The modern West was also glutted with victory after 1989. We didn’t repeat the mistakes of Versailles. But there is no shortage of folly that has taken hold in the Western world in the last 30 years.

There was the geopolitical folly of thinking that history ended when Communism did. After 1989, America faced no peer competitors and had seemingly limitless resources. This encouraged the view that we were entering a world in which history in any meaningful sense was over, and that geopolitics had therefore ended, perhaps permanently.

There is the political folly of thinking that, in such a setting, statism in some form should be a model for organizing Western society. The proven formula of ordered liberty rooted in accumulated freedoms and divided government is no longer sufficient; we need a paternalistic state to realize man’s potential. You see this mentality, in both its nationalist and progressive forms, appearing across the Western world. Given the well-documented failures and ravages of the isms of the 20th century, it’s astonishing that these ideas could again be in vogue, as if the idea behind it were right and only the past execution was flawed.

And there is the moral folly that a just society can be built without the cultivation of civic virtue among its citizens. The mediating institutions that de Tocqueville saw as the basis for democracy — things such as the family, friends, church, business, civil society — are deeply eroded. And in their place, a fragmenting of the body politic into antagonistic groups, and causes that clamor for the favors of an interventionist state.

None of these things is particularly new. What is noteworthy, I think, is that they grew more pronounced in the greenhouse-like conditions of the post–Cold War era, in which there was no external threat to focus and discipline our ways of thinking.

But that is changing. Today it is obvious that history did not end in 1989. Russia did not go the way we expected after Communism’s collapse, of accepting liberal institutions and reconciling itself to the West’s rules. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia is a militarily sophisticated and politically extroverted power capable of invading neighbors and projecting power into further regions.

China did not integrate into Western institutions in the way we expected. It abused the West’s openness to build up its military and seek the things that empires throughout history have sought: resources, territory, and prestige. China’s defense budget has increased 750 percent in the past decade. It’s emerging as full-spectrum peer competitor with a technological and economic potential that the Soviets could never have dreamed of.

The challenge from these states is not just geopolitical, it’s also ideological. It is true that neither of them extols a universal ideology in the way the Soviet Union did. But both are led by authoritarian regimes that see in “state capitalism” a hybrid model that harnesses many of the attributes of market growth to political repression and control. Putin’s government is a brutal kleptocracy under which human rights have suffered more than at any time since Brezhnev signed the Helsinki Final Act. The Chinese government has not grown less repressive in the period since Tiananmen; it engages in the systematic repression of political dissent and ethnic and religious minorities — as we are witnessing among the Uyghurs and in Hong Kong.

The Russian and Chinese models are attractive to many countries around the world. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Putin has provided political and material support to strongmen across the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on the premise that the Western model of democracy and markets has failed. In Central and Eastern Europe, both China and Russia have used corruption to make deep inroads into the politics and economies of many of the very countries that we worked for decades to free from Moscow. Similar patterns are playing out in the Western Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

It is evident that we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a protracted struggle for the 21st century. The moment is, perhaps, a little like the late 1940s, when it first became obvious to people like George Marshall and Konrad Adenauer that we were entering a long competition that would not be resolved quickly. That generation responded by formulating long-term strategies to contain Soviet power and organize the combined economic, political, and moral energies of the West behind a shared goal.

I see reasons to be optimistic that the West will eventually prove itself equal to today’s challenge as well. There is a growing recognition that great-power competition is back. And a greater willingness to take that competition seriously and match our resources to new priorities, as we see in the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy.

We have finally begun to confront head-on the threat that Communist China poses to Western security. That begins in the economic realm, by preventing Beijing’s use of extractive trade policies to gain long-term technological and national-security advantages against us. In parallel, we have begun to shift our defense planning and investment to deal with big-power competition, and are at long last beginning to look at the future of innovation through the lens of strategic competition.

But as in the time of Adenauer and Marshall, our success will ultimately depend on how effective we are at unifying Western economies and societies behind a shared goal. Our chief diplomatic task must be to strengthen alliances, which from antiquity have been the West’s chief competitive advantage against authoritarian rivals. At the same time we have to see that a superficial political unity like that of recent years that is not undergirded by material strength will not lead to stronger alliances. We will not be able to face Russia and China without a more equitable sharing of benefits and burdens between America and Europe than we have become accustomed to in the post-1989 era, but also a willingness to compete much more vigorously for positive influence in those parts of Europe and Asia that are most vulnerable to our rivals.

The West would not have succeeded in the contests of the 20th century had our peoples not seen themselves as part of a something worth defending. That mentality is badly in need of renewed cultivation today. As Jean-François Revel once observed, “democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it.” Today our young people are routinely told that the West is uniquely iniquitous among the world’s civilizations and the source of history’s wrongs. It should therefore not surprise us when our young people denigrate Washington and Jefferson while idolizing Lenin and Mao, or when our politicians, corporations, and entertainers struggle to find a moral basis upon which to denounce even the most heinous of crimes committed by our rivals.

In both America and Europe, we need to find a renewed sense of civic duty built around the recognition that the West as a political civilization is under threat and worth defending. And in the United States, the seat of Western power and ideals, we must work at remaining an e pluribus unum and not descend into the competing antagonisms of an ex uno plures.

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from an address the author delivered to the Triumph of Liberty Conference of the Victims of Communism Foundation on November 8, 2019.

A. Wess Mitchell — Mr. Mitchell is a principal at the Marathon Initiative and formerly served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. His most recent book is The Grand Strategy of the Habsburg Empire.


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