When I was a teenager I studied German in school for six years, eventually acquiring a good proficiency (sadly long lost because of lack of training). In those days, when the Cold War was going on with no end in sight, radio was a popular propaganda tool for for both communist dictatorships and democratic governments. In Europe, medium wave broadcasts had good regional coverage and were easy to pick with the AM receivers everyone owned. I trained my German by listening to stations in both the BRD and the DDR. The western stations were hipper and had better music, whereas the eastern stations had weird, and thereby amusing, newsreports. It was like hearing of a fairy-tale country, in which everyone was happy under the benevolent leadership of the One Party, also known as “the vanguard of the working class”. It is still puzzling why the communist regimes spent so much effort presenting a phony picture of their lands that nobody would believe.
In 1986, matters started to change. A surprisingly decent man, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the dictator of the Soviet Union and initiated serious political change. The consequences would be far greater than anyone could imagine at that time. What he did not understand, and what a lot of westerners did not pay attention to at that time, was that the system he administered could not really be reformed. It was too rigid, too dependent on the powers and vested interests of small groups, like the party elite, the security apparatus and the senior military, to avoid cracking under the strains of reform. It could only work — poorly, too — in one way, unlike the dynamic democracies of the west, which possess the powers of reform, restructuring and recovery.
In 1989, when Hungary started to make far-reaching freedom reforms, the effects rippled all over eastern Europe. It was an exciting autumn, the events unfolding week by week. Today’s date, November 9th, stands as a symbol for the liberation of the communist countries because the opening of the Berlin Wall was so mediagenique. One place, one major change, easy to report from by western journalists. But the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, where the Old Guard just gave in, and the bloody December coup-d’etat in Bucharest were equally significant moments of change. At the end of the year, the old oppressive system had crumbled from the Elbe to the Black Sea.
It is hard to recollect today exactly what I felt and thought 22 years ago. Joy, for sure, because I knew this was the end of the Cold War Era and the birth of a better Europe. Lenin’s despotic creation, the Soviet Union, was approaching its end. And two years later, in the autumn of 1991, it broke apart once and for all from the internal strains unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms. (All the King’s horses and all the King’s men, could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.) The collapse was probably an unintentional side-effect of his ambitions.
My children were born many years after November 9, 1989. I am glad that they will never have to experience the fearful shadow of nuclear deterrence, nor hear the ludicrous propaganda output from behind the Iron Curtain, nor be drafted to defend our democracy from communist aggression. But I teach them what life was like in those pre-1989 days, so that they will be able to better cherish the liberties they take for granted: the freedom of speech, the freedom of belief, the freedom from fear. I will also teach them how important it is to struggle for justice and a better society in the face of darkness. Oppressors can be defeated in the long term, even though at a given moment the odds may seem poor and the risks great — Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa showed us how.