Bryan Caplan  

Remembering the Collapse of Communism

They Laughed at Me When I Said... The Tonkin Principle...
The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe is - and will probably remain - the most glorious political event of my life.  I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I missed the 20th anniversaries of the end of Communist rule in Poland (August 24) and  the opening of the Hungarian border (September 11).  Here's a list of all the other 20th anniversaries not to forget this year.  Highlights:

  • Nov. 9 - Berlin Wall and East German borders open.
  • Nov. 10 - Bulgaria's long-time communist dictator, Todor Zhivkov, removed by Politburo colleagues.
  • Dec. 25 - Ceausescus executed by firing squad.
  • Dec. 29 - Communist rule ends in Czechoslovakia after 41 years, with election of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel as president.
When I think about how quickly the world came to take these changes for granted - changes that liberated hundreds of millions and could easily have prevented World War III - it makes me sad.  But that's nothing compared to how happy I get when I remember how much we have to be grateful for.  Terrorism, global warming, whatever - it's all small potatoes compared to the totalitarian threat that crumbled before our eyes two decades ago.

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COMMENTS (12 to date)
razib writes:

yep. i try and think back to that too. i remember having discussions with my teacher in elementary school about the probabilities of nuclear holocaust, and our surprise (via scholastic news) that kids in the "eastern bloc" judged the likelihood lower that my own class. was that even for real???

Doc Merlin writes:

Sigh, no it isn't.

Millions and millions of people live in oppressive, socialist regimes in the middle east.

The scale might be a bit smaller, but its a very similar problem to the cold war and eastern europe, and how things were then.

IWantCookieNow writes:

But now Obama is reinstating that threat with his health care reform!

(Sorry, could not resist.)

SydB writes:

I was driving with my wife when the tanks were firing into the Russian white house. I said at the time "this could be very bad or very good."

Fortunately it turned out good.

It could have been very bad.

Bob Hawkins writes:

I did a postdoc in Washington, DC in 1985-87. "Captive Nations Day" was an annual event back then, when Polish-Americans, Slovak-Americans etc. would come to Washington and demonstrate, and give speeches about the day when Eastern Europe would be free. What I remember most was the dripping contempt of the coverage -- what there was -- in the local media, including particularly the Washington Post.

Kielbasa-eating yokels 1, Modern Enlightened Thought 0.

Ignacio writes:

I am from Chile and, at that time, we were a few months away from the end of Pinochet's government and free elections. There was still concern that socialists and communists would influence the next governments and maybe one day come back (Pinochet had kicked them out). So we were relieved when the wall fell and realized they would become small marginal groups.

(Yes, we have had "socialists" presidents since then, but even them are more pro-free market than any mainstream politician in the US; they even privatized the highways and airports!).

Robert Scarth writes:

I was 16 years old in 1989, growing up in a remote part of northern Scotland. It seemed like I spent that whole autumn glued to the TV watching the news; every day it seemed brought a literally revolutionary development. I experienced it all at second hand, but it still seemed incredibly exciting, I can only imagine the mixture of excitement and fear those East Germans, Czechs, Poles, and others must have felt as they dared to stand up to their oppressors. I remember the night the wall fell, I was watch the BBC's nightly news show Newsnight, the programme was coming from a studio in West Berlin that night and there was some panel discussion taking place about what might happen, when one of the reporters literally burst into the studio and thumped a brick down on the table and declared "that is a brick from the Berlin Wall!". Now that is a TV moment. It still brings tears to my eyes as I remember it.

English Professor writes:

I remember when Reagan said that Communism was headed for the dustbin of history. I thought, this will never happen. In fact, I told a friend that my beloved Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before Eastern Europe was liberated. HOW WRONG I WAS!

English Professor writes:

P.S. Thank you, Bryan, and keep it up. My students, most of whom are under 20, have little knowledge of the horrors of Communism.

8 writes:

I remember watching the Tiananmen demonstrations all weekend, I was all excited that the Chinese would be free and maybe then other countries would follow. Major bummer, but at least Eastern Europe turned out well.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Thank you, Bryan for reminding us. There are many historical events that we should not forget, like the Holocaust. European communism and its fall should be remembered. The real winners of the Cold War are the Czechs, Slovaks, East Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians.

Sorry things didn't turn out so well for the folks in the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Georgia, et cetera.

Orson writes:


What is tragic about that happy era is that the socialist calculation=impossible=communist failure isn't in the historiography of the Fall.

See for example Tony Judt's recent tome, a history of Europe. All the events are there, but not the underlying cause!

I complained during the 1990s to libertarian historian's that the battle wasn't over until and unless the complete accounting of the causes of communism's Fall entered the history books. It hasn't, and so with Obama, we don't remember - to out enormous collective cost.

Marx's history repeats - first as farce, then tragedy?

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