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Twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall fell. In one of modern history’s most miraculous occurrences, communism imploded–and not with a bang, but with a whimper. Now two of the foremost scholars of East European and Soviet affairs, Stephen Kotkin and Jan T. Gross, drawing upon two decades of reflection, revisit this crash. In a crisp, concise, unsentimental narrative, they employ three case studies–East Germany, Romania, and Poland–to illuminate what led Communist regimes to surrender, or to be swept away in political bank runs. This is less a story of dissidents, so-called civil society, than of the bankruptcy of a ruling class–communism’s establishment, or “uncivil society.” The Communists borrowed from the West like drunken sailors to buy mass consumer goods, then were unable to pay back the hard-currency debts and so borrowed even more. In Eastern Europe, communism came to resemble a Ponzi scheme, one whose implosion carries enduring lessons. From East Germany’s pseudotechnocracy to Romania’s megalomaniacal dystopia, from Communist Poland’s cult of Mary to the Kremlin’s surprise restraint, Kotkin and Gross pull back the curtain on the fraud and decadence that cashiered the would-be alternative to the market and democracy, an outcome that opened up to a deeper global integration that has proved destabilizing.
In 1989, all East European Soviet "satellites" abruptly broke free, triggering a similar breakup inside the U.S.S.R. In this addition to the Modern Library Chronicles series, Princeton history professors Kotkin (Armageddon Averted) and Gross (Neighbors) deliver a perceptive account of how this happened. They deny that freedom-loving citizens ("civil society") led the transformation, pointing out that, except in Poland, no organized opposition existed. The only true establishment was the "incompetent, blinkered, and ultimately bankrupt" Communist system an uncivil society. Even in private, all awaited the collapse of capitalism and increasingly focused on the moral superiority of socialism in the face of the unnerving economic superiority of the West. In 1989 the bottom fell out. Polish leaders agreed to a quasi-free election, which unexpectedly voted them out; faced with peaceful demonstrations and a mass exodus of citizens, East German leaders resigned. Except for a bloody attempt to stave off the inevitable in Romania, all satellite governments peacefully dissolved, often with comic-opera ineptness. Combining scholarship with sparkling prose, the authors recount a thoroughly satisfying historical struggle in which the good guys won. 16 pages of b&w photos; maps.