First Things | 10/1/1999 | Dan Hitchens
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It was like a graduation party. So says the historian Philipp Ther, who joined the protests in Prague’s Wenceslas Square during those momentous days of November 1989. “We had passed the test,” Ther writes. “The old authorities had no more to say; the world was our oyster. It seemed as if anything was possible.” In their memories of communism’s collapse, the revolutionaries of 1989 often describe the joy and relief, the instant brotherhood, the feeling of riding the wave of history.

Naturally, it didn’t last. In Berlin, where Ther travelled soon after, elation was followed by resentment, with West Germans muttering about the Easterners cramming the roads and emptying the supermarket shelves. Across Europe, meanwhile, the messiness of post-communist politics “engendered disenchantment and cynicism.”

Disillusionment - Sequel - Victory - Revolution - Hole

Disillusionment is the usual sequel to political victory, but 1989 especially seems like a revolution with a hole in it. The evil of communism is beyond words—the mass graves it filled, the lies it spread through the world—and we ought to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its defeat. It is more difficult to say what actually did the defeating.

Was 1989, for instance, about democracy? In a narrow sense, yes: The ballot box was an effective instrument for getting rid of the old system. But the word hints at something more: fraternity, solidarity, the collective will of “the people” asserting itself. And the reality, both before and after the revolution, was different. For one thing, that collective will was divided. To quote Tony Judt, another historian who saw the 1989 revolutions up close: “The balance varied from place to place but typically ‘the people’ included a mixture of reform communists, social democrats, liberal intellectuals, free-market economists, Catholic activists, trade unionists, pacifists, some unreconstructed Trotskyists and others besides.” Only a shared horror at the communist system was...
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