8 Nov 2014

Berlin 1989 – the miracle that blinded us to the truth about revolution


Mine was a generation of journalists and politicians who came of political age with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

That tumultuous event – 25 years ago this weekend – shaped our worldview, giving us too much faith in the quasi-religious creed of human rights and an unrealistically optimistic view of revolution.

Our childhoods and early adult years were overshadowed by the Cold War. We could not imagine a world that was not finely balanced between the Soviet Union and the West, the only potential tipping point the terrifying possibility of nuclear war.

We thought the stable instability of the global system would last forever, so we campaigned for change within its limits.

For me and many others, human rights was our cause: we wrote letters to prisoners of conscience in the gulags of the Soviet Union and demonstrated against US-sponsored death squads in El Salvador.

After decades of stasis, change came faster than anyone could have dreamed.

Lech Walesa and Solidarity spearheaded change in Poland.


The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, led by the high priest of human rights, Vaclav Havel, seemed to happen overnight.

Suddenly the Wall was down, perestroika was leading to glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev was being usurped by Boris Yeltsin and the whole world had changed.

I haven’t even tried to get it in the right order, because events tumbled over each other and a producer on BBC World Service radio – as I was at the time – had to scramble to keep up, interviewing a dissident one day who might be president the next.

It was dizzying, exciting and largely bloodless. Then suddenly the revolutions were over, Eastern Europe had joined western Europe, communists were now consumers. The thrill of revolution had subsided into the day-to-day grind of democracy.

Ethnic wars, including the bloody conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, were a consequence of the end of the Cold War, but the countries that had undergone revolutions did not experience a violent fallout.

East Germany peacefully rejoined the west. Czechoslovakia divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia without a shot being fired.

Fast forward to 2011 when the same journalists and politicians, now middle-aged, were confronted by another series of revolutions, this time in the Arab world.

Protesters wave an Egyptian flag atop a street sign at Tahrir square in Cairo

One by one the dictatorships fell: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya. Our paradigm was set in 1989; we wanted Tahrir Square to be our second Berlin Wall. Through the prism of our previous experience we saw rainbows.

It was hard not to get caught up in the moment – all those young people throwing off their shackles, demonstrating for the right to be like us. It looked and felt like 1989.

But our experience distorted our understanding of the Middle East and of revolution itself. Rather than remembering the images of Germans tearing down the Wall, we should have been reading Crane Brinton’s classic 1938 text, The Anatomy of Revolution.

Analysing the 1640 English Revolution, and then the American, French and Russian revolutions, he observed four stages from the old order, through the moderate regime to radical extremism and eventually – much later – uneven, quieter times.

After the Berlin Wall came down, eastern Europe went straight to stage four, but the Middle East is mired in the third: radical extremism. One of Brinton’s phrases – Terror and Virtue – seems tailor-made for the kind of Islamist extremism we’re seeing battling for supremacy in Libya today.

Another, Centralization of Power in a Revolutionary Council Dominated by a Strong Man, could have been written about Egypt.

Those of us who were around 25 years ago, marvelling at the fall of the Berlin Wall, may think we  have long memories. But we don’t.

Our understanding was skewed by what we now can see was not a precedent for political change but a historical miracle.

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