Remembering 1989

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Mass_on_the_street_1989In all of the column inches, radio interviews, television series (thanks George Lee) and film festivals (thanks IFI) to commemorate the events of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, something has been bugging me. Isn’t it all just a little, well, quiet? Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’ll be as sick of hearing about it as you are in a couple of weeks. It’s just that instead of the wave of coverage we’re experiencing, I’d expected a tsunami.

Listening to Matthias Middell from the University of Leipzig speak at a seminar in the Humanities Institute of Ireland, UCD, last Thursday (5 November), the reason why became readily apparent. It’s because we’re not quite sure what 1989 is, what it means, and whether it was even a revolution. Berlin may dominate our thoughts, but are we that sure about events in Budapest, Prague, Bucharest, or Warsaw? And does anyone have any idea what, if anything, happened in Sofia? Ukraine’s revolution arrived only in 2004, Georgia’s and Kyrgyzstan’s the following year.

The debate in Germany is instructive. When, that country’s public and intellectuals have been asking, did the events begin that we remember as ‘1989’? In September with the protests on the streets of Leipzig? November and the fall of the Berlin Wall? December and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s efforts to unify Germany? When did the revolution end? Do we include 1990 and German reunification or extend it to 1993 when the last of the East German structures of local administration were dismantled? Was it, Social Democrats ask, even a revolution, or simply a ‘portrayed’ one, since the goal of the original demonstrators was not unification with West Germany but change in their own society. Some argue for the term ‘colonised’ revolution as a more appropriate one since its goals were later expropriated by outside leaders. Still others have used what Middell termed the ‘Stalinist’ argument: that 1989 was not a revolution since no new social structure came into being.

Middell, who is currently leading a project to document the global history of 1989, has begun challenging some of those preconceptions. His model, borrowed from previous research on 1789 and 1848, examines 1989 as a ‘critical juncture’ in world history. Its potential size is mind-blowing. It has to stop somewhere, he answered to one question in Thursday’s session, but only at the moon. He pointed to events outside eastern and central Europe that helped define that ‘global moment’: the end of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty and the rise of the BGP in India, the renunciation of Marxism in Mozambique, multi-racial demonstrations in South Africa, and upheaval in El Salvador, Brazil and Colombia. Events in Iran in the late 1970s, too, the changing fortunes of the US and USSR in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and the Chinese decision to re-formulate its economic relationship with the US in 1982, were all stitched into the broader tapestry.

The bigger the idea got, the more questions it raised. How to link all the threads of 1989 together? What, if anything, can explain the convergence of events in a space of twelve months? If 1989 was part of an ending of some kind, the end of what: a crisis for communism, capitalism or both? Was it the beginning or the end of a process of change? And – the biggest question of all – how to write such a history?

Can it even be done? We’ll see.

Photograph from 1989 Libertate Roumanie, photographs collected by Denoel Paris.

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