Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Year That Changed the World

Michael Meyer's The Year That Changed the World:  The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall (2009) goes beyond Berlin to look at regime changes throughout eastern Europe during the year 1989.   As a Newsweek bureau head, Meyer has written a book for popular consumption, giving us many eyewitness accounts of events on the street and elsewhere.
He reports on the famous demonstration in Leipzig, East Germany, where the throngs in the street changed from the acceptable chant "Wir sind das Volk!" to "Wir sind ein Volk!"  Meyer translates these slogans as "We are the people!" and "We are one people!"  Though Meyer does not stress the fact, the German demonstrators by proclaiming themselves ein Volk were making an ethnic affirmation.  By the shift of a grammatical article, they overthrew the Marxist worldview.
Furthermore, it is interesting to consider that in German, in addition to das Volk, there is der Poebel, which Cassell's German-English dictionary translates as "mob, populace, rabble."  In English, we have been sold on using the term "the people," almost to the exclusion of "the folk."   Indeed, folk survives, seemingly, only in folk culture or folk music, two areas which the political left has appropriated for its own purposes.
In John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), the Jewish leftist liberationist Myrna Minkoff goes to the Library of Congress, transcribes the lyrics to folk songs which are deposited there in the archives, and then proceeds to tour the country, singing those songs to working people.  Far from being of working class origins herself, she gets it precisely backwards.  Toole's Myrna Minkoff, of course, is a not too distorted caricature of the kind of New Leftists who swarmed over the university campuses during the 1960s and 1970s.
Meyer suggests that the regime change in Rumania was really only a coup d'etat.  The personality cult which was built up around the Rumanian dictator Ceausescu was, of course, nothing new to Marxist regimes.   What one must wonder about is why it occurs at all in regimes which deny the influence of the individual as a force in history.  A similar paradox exists in the ostensibly Marxist country of North Korea where the ruler inherited his position from his father and has designated his son as his successor.
Meyer's views of the regime change in Poland are unremarkable, but most compelling is his thesis that the liberation of eastern Europe began with reformers in the leadership of Hungary.  Regarding the first Hungarian revolt, I particularly recommend David Irving's Uprising!  One Nation's Nightmare: Hungary 1956 (1981).


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