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Doug Saunders

Two things that didn't end communism Add to ...

You will be seeing a lot of the Berlin Wall in the next two weeks, as the Nov. 9 anniversary of its 1989 collapse approaches.

Those pictures of happily drunk people chipping at the Wall will be joined by time-worn clips of crowds of heroic protesters in Berlin, Leipzig, Prague and Bucharest.

For most people, these scenes have become almost meaningless. The revolutionary icons of 1989 have transmogrified into the default clip-art backdrops of a world where "change" has become the default slogan of corporate mediocrity.

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But this 20th anniversary offers an important chance to demolish some of the myths that have overtaken this historic rupture.

Archie Brown, the Scottish historian of the Eastern Bloc known for his pioneering work with declassified Soviet archives, has just published a massive and significant work titled The Rise and Fall of Communism, full of lessons that are worth hearing today.

The primary myth is the one that holds that the West, and particularly Ronald Reagan's United States, caused the Communist bloc to collapse through a Cold War policy of confrontation and isolation.

By this account, Mr. Reagan drove the Eastern Bloc into unconditional surrender by declaring the Soviet Union an "evil empire" in 1983, madly escalating the nuclear-arms count, launching "Star Wars" missile-defence networks and shouting, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," in Berlin in 1987.

"This," Mr. Brown says, "is a kind of triumphalist view … which I think is very misleading."

In fact, there is now a near-consensus among historians that Mr. Reagan's policies not only failed to end the Cold War, but probably prolonged it for several years beyond its likely end date, by propelling the most reactionary Communists into power.

"The more belligerent the United States became, in terms of Reagan's rhetoric and in terms of arms buildup, the stronger the hard-liners became in Moscow," Mr. Brown says.

"Whenever the Cold War became colder, the most militant Communists, the KGB and the military-industrial complex within the Soviet Union became stronger."

In fact, the collapse of communism was probably made possible, and certainly rendered peaceful and non-violent, by quite another set of Western policies - the kinds of policies that are finally being revisited today as an alternative approach to such authoritarian governments as those of Iran, Myanmar and North Korea.

West German governments, starting with chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s, decided to meet the Communist East with engagement and aid, not confrontation.

These NeueOstpolitik ("new eastern policy") tactics provided targeted financial assistance and even bought hundreds of dissidents out of prison.

At the same time, the East European regimes had become linked to the West by borrowing tens of billions of dollars from petroleum-enriched banks. There was no talk of financial boycotts.

These two policies had an extraordinary effect. In public, Communist regimes were competing directly and aggressively with the market-oriented West. But behind the scenes, in places where it mattered, these regimes had become deeply dependent on the West.

Polish leader Edward Gierek spent the 1970s boasting that he would "build a second Poland" by doubling the country's gross domestic product in a decade - a mission he tried to accomplish through the heavily leveraged and high-risk use of Western debt.

By 1979, Poland owed $20-billion (U.S.), and the debt-service costs ate up 80 per cent of its export earnings. By 1989, Poland needed $2-billion in export earnings just to pay the interest on its debt, Hungary needed $1-billion, and debt to Western banks had reached $90-billion across the Warsaw Pact.

That money was used to support housing subsidies, food subsidies and artificial payroll enhancements that maintained an almost Western standard of living. The socialist economies, lacking any incentive to raise productivity or any punishment for business failure, could not possibly produce enough hard-currency export earnings to support that debt. By 1989, those governments knew they soon would have to raise prices, cut pay and/or begin harsh rationing to carry off the world's largest credit-crunch bailout.

Or they could fold.

This brings us to the second myth - that the end of communism was the result of grassroots pro-democracy and civil-society movements challenging the authority of the state.

This was at least partly true in East Germany - where protest emerged in the summer of 1989 as a new, truly challenging force (there had been fewer than 100 serious protesters in the whole country before that) - and in Romania, where people died by the hundreds facing down the army and pushing the dictator out of power.

But in Poland and Hungary, the Communist governments themselves initiated the change in 1989 - in Poland, for example, by setting up talks with the long-banned Solidarity union - even as their secret police beat and imprisoned dissidents.

In Czechoslovakia, a few days of relatively small protests led the whole regime to quit.

And in Russia, nothing at all would have happened if Mikhail Gorbachev hadn't set political change in motion.

This point is made in dramatic detail by the Princeton University historian Stephen Kotkin in his elegant new book Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment .

"In 1989," he writes, " 'civil society' [democracy movements]could not have shattered Soviet-style socialism for the simple reason that civil society in Eastern Europe did not then actually exist. The mostly small groups of dissidents, however important morally, could not have constituted any kind of society."

Prof. Kotkin concludes: "On the contrary, it was the establishment that brought down its own system."

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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