1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, Mary Elise Sarotte, Princeton University Press, Pp 321 (HB), price not mentioned
A wall collapsed in Berlin in 1989 and the sound is still echoing throughout Europe. The political significance of the wall that broke can be gauged by the fact that Barack Obama used it as the backdrop for his first speech abroad as a Democratic nominee in 2008.
Berlin Wall was not mere geographical boundary. It represented the economic, social, political and the development paths of two sides, a people divided as war booty — West Germany that was part of Europe, dominated by America, and the East part of the Soviet Bloc.
The book 1989: the Struggle to Create Post-cold War Europe by Mary Elise Sarotte looks at how the Berlin Wall collapsed not from the planned strategy of various nations but from the weight of discontent of the people, with a little help from the media. The moments before the breaking of the Wall are interesting, amusing and of course almost fictional. According to the book, there was a news conference by Gunter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo and its spokesperson on November 9, 1989. As the news conference dragged on, the journalists were getting stiff with boredom. Almost at the end of an hour, a journalist asked a question about travel relaxation between the East and West Germany. Schabowski, who had received a set of papers on the issue just before arriving at the press conference, gave a series of inherent replies, which had phrases like ‘draft a travel law,’ ‘take out a passage’ ‘leaving the GDR’ ‘possibly for every citizen’ and ‘exit via border crossings.’ He was surprised to see that almost all the journalists had suddenly sat up. One shouted “When does that go into force?” Schabowski said “Excuse me?” another shouted “Immediately?” As the spokesman shuffled through the papers, other insistently shouted “immediately?” A visibly irritated Schabowski uttered the phrase “immediately, right away.”
Within minutes the media conference hall cleared and within a short while news was flashing around the globe. In less than an hour, mob started building up around the gates along the Berlin Wall demanding passage. In the prevailing confusion, the security guards who had received no orders opened the gates.
The book goes on to unfold the behind-the-curtain drama that took place after the Wall collapse. Both UK and the US opposed the unification. Margaret Thatcher was more open. According to the book, “she explained to Gorbachev that he should pay no attention to any polite public comments made by NATO leaders calling for a united Germany. Britain and Western Europe are not interested in the unification of Germany.”
Around this time, a lot more things were happening. Soviets were withdrawing from Afghanistan, the ruling Poland authorities agreed to “round-table” negotiations with Solidarity Union, and Hungary had legalised independent parties.
The unification created a kind of tug-of-war between the Soviet model and the pre-fabricated economic model of the West. In the end it is the West pre-fab model that won. The united Germany joined the NATO and the European Community.
Mary Elise Sarotte in her book concludes “the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent struggle to re-create order in post-Cold War Europe represent truly major turning points in modern history…it is equally essential to understand the legacy of the failings of 1989-90: the speed with which it happened resulted in imperfect choices and costly consequences.” Sarotte is professor of international relations at University of Southern California and has authored books. This book sets the record straight on several issues, popularly misconceptions and exposes the truth behind the positions of the major players. It is a valuable book that helps understand the international political power play.
(Princeton University Press 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jeresy, 08 540)