Accidental and Quiet Heroes

I very much enjoyed this book review by Gerard DeGroot published in Sunday’s Washington Post on Michael Meyer’s new book on the fall of the Berlin Wall.  It never fails to impress me how much our ideas about this recent period in history continue to inform (or more aptly, misinform) our understanding of contemporary politics and relations with Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union.  Apparently Michael Meyer’s book pokes some holes in the traditional hero myths, and points to the accidental and chaotic nature of how all these world-changing events spun out of control.  Very interesting and thoughtful stuff here.

The events themselves were played out by a cast of thousands in Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Bucharest. There was no script; this was an improvisational drama conceived by Camus, with help from Kafka and Molière. The Soviet Union came to the realization that its empire was no longer affordable. Like other imperial powers, it cut and ran, leaving colonial subjects to sort things out for themselves. Chaos naturally resulted.

Hidden deep in this brilliant book is the perfect phrase: Events wereshaped by “the logic of human messiness.” The regimes in Eastern Europewere destroyed not by monolithic force, but by myriad human beingsreacting impulsively to the freedom of possibility. Watching from afar,we saw what seemed like neat little dominoes falling. In fact, whathappened was as capricious, and messy, as a tornado.

“Our leaders all wear a uniform mask and declare identical phrases,”the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel told Meyer in October 1989. “Perhapsat the moment of history, the masks will fall, and it is only at thatmoment that we know who is who. . . . we may be surprised to find thatthe masks concealed an intelligent face.” Meyer unmasks someintelligent faces, unlikely heroes who, at the moment of history, actedwisely. Chief among them was Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, acommunist who decided that communism did not work and quietly conspiredto destroy it. In contrast to Czechoslovakia and East Germany,Hungary’s revolution was a coup carried out by a few sensible men.