Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Empires Die

I've written before in these pages about the fall of the Soviet Union, and referred to Yegor Gaidar's provocative thesis about the long-term economic causes of Soviet decline. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of communist power in Eastern Europe, and one of the most significant, if more obscure, episodes in that narrative of collapse occurred twenty years ago today.

As Michael Meyer recounts in his Slate Magazine article "The Wink That Changed the World," by the summer of 1989 the communist regime in Hungary had pursued more far-reaching reforms than any of its neighbors, drafting a new liberal constitution and planning multi-party elections. (The party also gave Imre Nagy, leader of Hungary's 1956 revolution, a formal reinterment and state funeral, and began cutting down the border fence with non-communist Austria.) Alarmed and outraged, the party bosses of the other Warsaw Pact nations scheduled an emergency summit in Bucharest, where they angrily denounced the Hungarian premier, a 40-year-old economist named Miklos Nemeth, as a traitor to the socialist cause.

Fearing a repeat of the Russian invasion that destroyed Hungary's 1956 revolution, Nemeth turned to look at the man who held everyone's leash, Mikhail Gorbachev. To his surprise, Gorbachev seemed ready to laugh out loud at his blustering satraps. He and Nemeth, Gorbachev's expressions implied, were on the same page, and old-guard communists like Erich Honneker were not. Realizing that the Soviet Union had no intention of intervening in Hungary's internal affairs (not that it could afford to do so), Nemeth went home and doubled down on his party's radical reforms. Hungary removed the hammer and sickle from its flag, and on September 10th fully opened the border with Austria, which allowed East Germans - who could travel freely to Hungary - to escape to the West. The Berlin Wall, which the Hungarian government's decision rendered obsolete, fell less than two months later. (See also Patrick Brogan, The Captive Nations [New York, 1990], 140-142.)

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