US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov at a Summit in Geneva, Switzerland, November 1985. Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library via Wikimedia
For Europe, this is a year of important 30th anniversaries which anyone who believes in freedom should care about. In 1989, the political order which had defined the continent since the end of the Second World War, an order that seemed to be set in stone, or at least Soviet concrete, fell apart. Across Eastern Europe, millions of people were pushing against communism and the pressure they created helped bring about its eventual collapse.
Whatever factors historians might identify as significant in communism’s fall, and there were many, it is undeniable that the courage and determination of huge numbers of ordinary people was key. We should honour them, especially while many are still alive. Memorialising dead heroes is important but thanking living ones is better.
Communism’s ending was a lengthy process over many years; but 1989 was the year it all accelerated. To those in the West who like me had grown up in the Cold War and followed politics, the events of ’89 were stunning. The Soviet Union, an immense and brutal superpower we thought would be there for ever, was beginning to crumble away. Its confidence and belief that it was entitled to dominate its subject nations, both its constituent republics and its external satellites ironically known as ‘People’s Democracies’, unravelled. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, heir to Lenin and all the others in an unpleasant series of tyrants, proclaimed that each country in the Soviet Bloc should be free to choose its own path.
The Hungarian Communist Party renounced its ‘leading role’ in society, effectively ending its dictatorship. November saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall with the announcement from East Germany’s government that its citizens were now free to cross into the West at will. Czechoslovakia started its ‘Velvet Revolution’. In December, Romania’s population rose against Nicolae Ceausescu’s grim dictatorship. Hundreds lost their lives.
And this is just cherry-picking some of the more obvious events. We should loudly celebrate all of them and the people involved. But that wonderful year is not attracting the attention it deserves.
Perhaps these events are rather difficult for many in our liberal establishment to honour. On the broad Left, in the media, academia and among our self-appointed intelligentsia, were many who disliked old-fashioned Soviet communism. They thought they had an alternative to offer in less authoritarian forms of socialism. They couldn’t understand that the former victims of communism wanted something completely different. The newly liberated peoples weren’t binning hard-line Leninism to opt for a lighter version of Marx, or the social vision of the New Statesman. They wanted free market capitalism and consumerism instead.
Of course, this is to talk in generalities – the tens of millions of former Soviet-bloc citizens in their respective countries were not a uniform mass with identical political opinions. But they still collectively proved to be a massive disappointment to the western Left. They were even more upset when former communist countries including Poland, Hungary and the Baltic republics joined Nato, taking shelter behind American strength. To steal a phrase that historically minded socialists are fond of, the world turned upside down.
How could the Left now defend their claims that Nato and the Warsaw Pact were jointly to blame for the Cold War? That both sides were equally guilty and aggressive?
And in an emphatic two-fingered gesture to the Left in general, many Eastern Europeans adopted as a symbol of their liberation American President Ronald Reagan. Leftists in the 1980s – and I guiltily put up my own hand here – had seen Reagan as a fraudulent clown, a bad Hollywood actor who got lucky, and a simple-minded warmonger. We had our own very low opinion of the Soviet Union, but we still sniggered at Reagan’s claim that it was an ‘evil empire’. Well, we were wrong. It was an evil empire and Reagan’s refusal to be intimidated by its power, and his willingness to apply western technical and financial superiority to outface the Soviets militarily, were hugely important in the ending of communism.
As Mikhail Gorbachev put it – and who would know better? – Reagan made “an enormous contribution to creating the conditions for ending the Cold War . . . Perhaps even the decisive contribution.”
In consequence, Reagan is a hero to many in the old Soviet bloc. There are Reagan statues in Tbilisi in Georgia, Ploiesti in Romania, Warsaw and Budapest, as well as streets galore named for him. Something that will stick in the throat of many a Guardian reader. Nor will they like the wider admiration for America and the belief that whatever its faults, whatever justifiable criticisms we might have, America is still owed a tremendous debt for its role in securing and defending freedom.
But we barely get to hear that story. Perhaps we’re supposed to forget it all; the mass rejection of collectivism and the popular desire for political, economic, social and religious freedom. There are many who don’t like being reminded that huge numbers once actively struggled to join our western way of life; that our society contains much that is worth fighting for. The Left cannot accept that those they dismiss as reactionary, from Reagan to Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II among many others, were proved by history to have been on the side of the people.
So while the BBC is happy to celebrate many significant 30th anniversaries, along with some frivolous ones, I’m not expecting too much about Europe escaping from Communist tyranny. Neither am I expecting recognition to be shown to those many people, famous and unknown, who showed resolution and strength, took enormous risks or made great sacrifices, for the freedom of Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, we should remember them.
Ollie Wright left school at 16 and recently gained a First Class Honours degree at the UK's Open University. Republished with permission from The Conservative Woman.