Michael Meyer: 20 Years After the Cold War's End

Erich Honecker could not have guessed he was presiding at his last real May Day. It was May 1, 1989, and the aging overlord of the German Democratic Republic stood atop a reviewing stand in East Berlin before a sea of marching soldiers and flag-waving communist youth. The sun shone, and a soft breeze ruffled his fluffy, grandfatherly white hair. Regimes across the East bloc were holding their annual salute to Marxism and military might. But a blow was coming that would finally smash that empire.

In the next few months there will be all sorts of commemorations of communism's end, particularly of the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. To Americans it was a glorious moment, emblematic of the West's victory in the Cold War. But if you watched the East bloc's disintegration from the ground, as I did, you know that the process was far longer and more complex than many people realize. Most modern histories pay little notice to the bold plot that set the whole thing in motion and would ultimately redraw the map of Europe.

As Honecker luxuriated in a cloudless May Day, Miklós Németh trudged through a sullen rain 400 miles away in Budapest. Responding to rising discontent, Hungary's ruling communists had canceled their parade in favor of a People's Picnic. As prime minister, Németh had no choice but to attend—the proverbial skunk at a lawn party. The reform-minded economist stood in the chilly drizzle and listened as the Communist Party boss, a former typesetter named Károly Grósz, castigated him for his progressive policies. Németh, Grósz said in scathing tones, wanted to wreck the country with democracy and free elections—free markets and capitalism, too. Grósz all but spat upon him, Németh would later recall. "This may be your day," the prime minister told the party boss as they went their separate ways. "But my day is not far off!"

He spoke the truth. The next day, on May 2, Németh and his government did the unthinkable: they cut a hole in the Iron Curtain. Németh and fellow reformers had been planning it for months, almost from the time they took office in December 1988. Days before, they had invited the international media to the border with Austria for a "special event." And there, as TV cameras rolled, they proclaimed that the electric fence running the length of the frontier was an "anachronism." Hungarian soldiers with giant wire-cutters broke open a stretch of barbed wire that for four decades had divided East from West.

"What are those Hungarians up to!" Honecker shouted in a Politburo meeting the following morning. The answer was obvious. Within weeks, East Germans would be setting out on summer trips, and Hungary was a favorite destination. The country's "goulash economics," mixing Marxist industrial planning with a measure of free enterprise, provided things unavailable almost anywhere else in the grit-gray Soviet-bloc East: nice restaurants, ample food and good wine. For Honecker, the news was a nightmare straight from 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built to stop East Germans from fleeing to the West. Németh's assault on the fence was an open invitation to East Germans to head south on "vacation"—and head west via Hungary's open border.

That's what happened. All that summer, East Germans fled their country in growing numbers. In June, the Hungarians restaged their snipping of the fence, this time with the two countries' foreign ministers ceremoniously doing the cutting. The conspirators shuttled secretly between Vienna and Bonn, consulting with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and others on the next steps. On Aug. 19 there was a gathering billed as "the Pan-European Picnic," where hundreds of East German tourists poured out through a new hole in the fence. The next month, the Hungarians jettisoned such charades altogether and simply threw open the gates. NEWSWEEK headlined it "The Great Escape": a mass exodus that would set the stage for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Twenty years later, I remain mystified. "We never saw it coming," many experts confessed. And yet the signs had been there, from May Day and before, like the creaking and cracking of a snowpack before an avalanche. The Cold War had lasted so long that change seemed unimaginable. But freedom burst into flower at last.