Viewed from a distance, random chaos can take on the semblance of logical patterns, and events that spring from accidents can be portrayed as inevitable. In his book, Michael Meyer reveals "the logic of human messiness" at the center of that history-making year, 1989, when the haphazard unravelling of the communist states was encapsulated by the misunderstanding that prompted the fall of the Berlin Wall: a confused spokesman at a press conference stated that people were free to travel to the West “ab sofort” immediately.
The great gift of this book is the first-hand familiarity that comes from the author’s stint as Newsweek’s correspondent in Germany, central Europe, and the Balkans during the years immediately prior to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. We follow him from Budapest to Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, and Moscow as he chases stories and attends off-the-record meetings where he interviews and captures with the economical pen of a portraitist such key crucial players as Vaclav Havel and “unlikeable” Lech Walesa. There is an unforgettable portrayal of Ceausescu, each detail illuminating the psychology of a dictator. After an hour’s wait, Ceausescu shuffles in, “wearing woven plastic shoes and a baggy grey suit, and offered a moist weak palm. His people feared this man as Satan. They referred to him simply as ‘He’.”
The title’s boast of “untold story” is partially justified by the unprecedented attention given to the quiet contributions of Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth and his secret cooperation with the West German authorities in opening the Austrian/Hungarian border in the summer of 1989, allowing hundreds of East Germans to take the long route out. Meyer recounts each movement of defectors as if he was reporting on a surreal sporting event, a “maelstrom of calculated confusion”. At the end of the night, lines of abandoned Trabants those derided cars now nostalgic symbols of the GDR were left behind, unclaimed.
The choice of narrator here adds another dimension to the narrative. Ed Sala’s weathered voice recalls a cross between John Wayne and Donald Rumsfeld, an ironic choice given Meyer’s argument against the neocons’ retroactive adoption of 1989 as something other than what it was. If not quite an apt choice then, Sala is a fundamentally enjoyable voice to listen to, and his solid delivery is rich with personality. Even his slight awkwardness with non-English word is endearingly authentic. Sala’s seniority also lends authority to Meyer’s concluding message, that “we live as much as what we believed happened to us, as by what actually did”. Dafydd Phillips
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" President Ronald Reagan's famous exhortation when visiting Berlin in 1987 has long been widely cited as the clarion call that brought the Cold War to an end. The United States won, so this version of history goes, because Ronald Reagan stood firm against the USSR; American resoluteness brought the evil empire to its knees. Michael Meyer, who was there at the time as a Newsweek bureau chief, begs to differ.
In this extraordinarily compelling account of the revolutions that roiled Eastern Europe in 1989, Meyer shows that American intransigence was only one of many factors that provoked world-shaking change. He draws together breathtakingly vivid, on-the-ground accounts of the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, the stealth opening of the Hungarian border, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, and the collapse of the infamous wall in Berlin. But the most important events, Meyer contends, occurred secretly, in the heroic stands taken by individuals in the thick of the struggle - leaders such as poet and playwright Vaclav Havel in Prague; the Baltic shipwright Lech Walesa; the quietly determined reform prime minister in Budapest, Miklos Nemeth; and the man who privately realized that his empire was already lost and decided, with courage and intelligence, to let it go in peace, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary of the Communist party. Reporting for Newsweek from the frontlines in Eastern Europe, Meyer spoke to these players and countless others. Alongside their deliberate interventions were also the happenstance and human error of history that are always present when events accelerate to breakneck speed.
©2009 Michael Meyer; (P)2009 Tantor
"A coolheaded reconsideration of the revolutionary fervor that tore down the Iron Curtain in 1989.... Meyer 'liberates' the record with sagacity, precision, and remarkable clarity." (Kirkus)
Michael Meyer tells the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 from the European point of view. In the process, he challenges the conventional explanations for that occurance typically repeated in the States. The reader may not be comfortable with this perspective, but the book is valuable just as well. The reader benefits from the fact that Meyer describes events he witnessed during that year.
During the course of the book, Meyer takes jibes at the first George Bush which, for me, lapsed into cliches. That was a disappointment. In the last chapter of the book Meyer, speculates about the about the meaning of the fall of the wall. I don't mind an author taking a particular political view, but this section yielded no real insight for me. It read like the babble you hear from talking heads every night. I was hungry for more analysis or, even, thoughtful opnion. Overall, however, the book is full of insight, filled with interesting stories, and well worth the listener's time. Ed Sala's reading is very good.
I lived through the fall of the Berlin wall and thought I was paying attention but there is much in this book I didn't know or remember like the role Hungry played in the fall of communism. Fast moving, lots of information. A part of history we should never forget and we should remember correctly.
I enjoyed the personal observations of Mr. Meyer on events surrounding the crumbling of the iron curtain...but I found the monotone of the narrator distracting. I would also caution that the writing style of the Mr. Meyer is not for everyone...I personally find it a little annoying at times.
Anyone interested in Eastern European history or the end of the cold war will enjoy this inside view of the amazing events and courageous acts which led to the tumbling of first the iron curtain and then the Berlin wall. Who would have thought some obscure Hungarians were behind it all?
Meyer's book provides an often enthralling synopsis of the events that unfolded at the highest levels of Communist Eastern European governments at the end of the Cold War. Meyer was an on-location reporter at the time & the book reflects his embedded perspective on the events of the era. This is important to note -- Meyer emphasizes the actions undertaken by individual leaders and groups of leaders in the governments and resistance of Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Romania in his analysis. This differs from the types of analyses that might be provided by academics who would examine the broad, underlying forces that contributed to the demise of the Eastern European Communist dictatorships.
The book is at its best when recounting day-to-day events and decisions. For example, Meyer's account of the efforts of Hungarian Communist officials to use a picnic on the Hungarian-Austrian border to accelerate the Fall of the Berlin Wall is absolutely fascinating. Few individuals other than Meyer have the knowledge of the history & personalities required to do the story justice.
One of the book's central themes is that the U.S. government contributed most effectively to the positive outcomes of 1989 (i.e., the relatively low level of violence and the speed of the revolutions) by diplomatic support for reformers like Gorbachev rather than active destabilization or military intervention. Meyer contrasts this with the policies of the George W. Bush administration & takes care to highlight that many of W's most interventionist leaders (e.g., Cheney & Rice) were among the most wrong-headed of George W. H. Bush's advisors. The book is least interesting to me when drawing these parallels, which could be usefully left to the reader.
Sala reads like an exasperated Clint Eastwood, grunting & sighing distractingly throughout. He seems to massacre European names, butchering German most severely.
Overall, a very interesting topic and useful complement to Anna Funder's Stasiland.
Wholesome book but not something spectacular. Somewhere in the middle I got slightly bored. It became more interesting at the end. That is a pity that iron curtain did not fall a few decades earlier.
This is an excellent listen and spot on about how things were in 1989. The author also showed how the effects of 1989 still can be felt today...good and bad. This book should be a mandatory read or listen for every high school or college student.
Excellent Book written using first-hand expirience
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