Michael Meyer's "The Year That Changed The World" and the US Role in the Fall of European Communism

I’m just finishing reading a fascinating book, The Year That Changed The World: The Untold Story Behind The Fall of the Berlin Wall. The book chronicles the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, looking at Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, but also discussing Romania and the Czechs.

You come away appreciating the role of historical accidents and random events (like the accidental opening of the Berlin wall), mixed with the importance of determined individuals who knew their historical role, alongside wider systemic pressures. Pan-European Picnic? Awesome (though the wikipedia account really doesn’t do it justice).

Meyer portrays Reagan’s involvement as important, but more for his detente with Gorbachev than for his fiery rhetoric. Meyer paints Solidarity’s success in Poland as a mix of Gorbachev’s telegraphing his intention not to interfere, and the spectacularly bad judgment call of the Polish Communist Party to hold free and fair elections. He portrays Hungary’s opening of its border to Austria as a critical moment in 1989, the first domino of sorts, and gives most of the credit to its reformist Prime Minister, Miklós Németh and to Gorbachev himself.

I don’t have a good sense of how fair Meyer’s account is. I am too old to have learned this stuff in school (if it is even taught now), and too young to have been following it closely as it happened. I was shocked, for example, that Hungary’s Wikipedia page does not even mention Miklós Németh. Is that a terrible oversight, or an example of Meyer’s bias in making the man seem more important than he was?

I also wonder what evidence there is that Reagan’s increased military spending is what caused Gorbachev to initiate Glasnost and Perestroika in the first place. Meyer’s account isn’t much focused on those background pressures. His account makes it seem that even with the economic pressures resulting from the failed communist economies and the political pressures from the totalitarian repression, so much that happened was still a consequence of random chance and the determination of a handful of individuals.


Has anyone with more background knowledge read this book? Is it a generally fair account? What are the best arguments on behalf of the importance of Reagan and Bush in this?

I am old enough to remember every detail. It’s when I started taping (that was VCR days) the New Hour on PBS every day, so I could watch it when I got home from work. Opening the border from Hungary to Austria was so critical to the whole process. East Germans were pouring into Hungry and Austria to get to West Germany. It was so surreal to listen to the harrowing stories of people just leaving everything they had, jumping on a train, and making the crazy, circuitous route. And then a few weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell, and their friends could just stroll from East Berlin into West Berlin.

And then there was the time when Czechoslovakia erupted. All the while when this stuff was going on in East Germany, we were all saying… well, this is crazy shit in Germany, but it’ll never happen in Czechoslovakia-- which was considered the most hard line state in the Eastern Block.