Book Review: Victor Sebestyen: Revolution 1989

Now I’m old enough to read about history I lived through! Iwas in relatively free, politically-stable Britain during the East and central European revolutions of 1989, but I well remember the sense of excitement, almost disbelief. The old certainties (well, they seemed old to someone who wasn’t even born till the Second World War had ended) had collapsed. The “Iron curtain” had broken like a rusty sheet of corrugated iron. Being a History graduate, the analogy with the revolutions of 1848 seemed compelling to me – when the old order crumbled in one place, it promptly came under intolerable pressure somewhere else – but the 1848 revolutions were for the most part no more successful than the “Prague Spring”.

I subscribed to “Marxism Today” in those days. I’m not a Marxist, but the magazine’s last flowering was radically revisionist and it fascinated me to get used to political thought from such different roots to mine. In “Marxism Today” the collapse of the old Communist order was covered sympathetically and knowledgeably by wise and skilled writers such as Neil Ascherson. But I was busy in those years and it was often two or three months before I got round to reading the magazine. By then I could often tell if their predictions about the changes in the East were right or not, events moved so fast.

I knew there would be a downside and that some new democracies would struggle or fail, but I also knew how thoroughly people had been repressed.

Victor Sebestyen’s book, then, brings back memories. He conveys the contagious rush of events well and has clearly done his research. The book is well-written with humour as well as drama – instance his description of the East German Stasi files: “Most of the information was mind-numbingly boring…(he quotes from a report from an agent):

“Rathenow then crossed the street and ordered a sausage¬† at a stand. The following conversation took place.

RATHENOW: A sausage, please.

VENDOR: With or without a roll?

RATHENOW: With, please.

VENDOR: And mustard?

RATHENOW: Yes, please.

Further exchanges did not take place.”

Sebestyan is a journalist, albeit an East European expert and of Hungarian origin. A historian writing the same book might have included a bit more analysis alongside the narrative, a discussion of the role of TV, of what contacts existed between Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents, of the role of universities in both propping up and undermining the regimes, of the social origins of dissidents and of security employees and so on. I would have been interested in that too.

It’s a good read, though. I can’t say I couldn’t put it down, but I kept on wanting to pick it up again, despite knowing the ending.