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Book by Sebestyen Victor
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Part One: COLD WAR
ONE: THE WORKERS' STATE
They ran to us shouting,
A cut finger doesn't hurt.'
But they felt pain.
They lost faith.
—Adam Wazyk, 'Poem for Adults'
Three years after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 , the German Democratic Republic's ruling regime devised an unorthodox but lucrative business scheme to earn convertible currency from the West. It started trading in human beings. Officials from the East offered to release political prisoners to West Germany in return for a fee. The traffic began on a small scale, a handful at a time. The first few were prominent dissidents, 'troublemakers' whom the East Germans did not mind packing off into exile. Within a few years it became a well oiled business with an infrastructure of its own. A few days before each sale the prisoners were taken to a special, highly secret, jail in Karl Marx Stadt (now Chemnitz) run by the GDR's intelligence service, the Stasi. A fleet of buses had been built by a West German contractor just for the purpose of ferrying this precious cargo. The vehicles were fitted with revolving number plates—East German for the return trip from the prison to the border and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) registrations for the time they were in West Germany. Around twice a week groups of ten or so would be driven, early in the morning, to a border post near the city of Jena, where, unusually, they would be waved through by guards without any document searches. They would be in the FRG by lunchtime, on the road to Hanover.
Over the years around 34,000 people were 'sold' in this way and the trade was sensitive to free-market economic laws. In the mid-1960s the price per head was around DM 40,000; by the mid-1980s, inflation and hard bargaining by the East had pushed that up to more than DM 100,000. The GDR soon saw it as away of maximising income. The state made nothing from people who legally applied for visas to see their relatives in the West. So the police arrested thousands of them on trumped-up charges, called them 'political prisoners' and promptly sold them to West Germany. Egon Bahr, for many years the administrator who handled the sensitive business on West Germany's side, said it was clear to him that 'it was part of the GDR's general budget'. Usually payments were made in hard cash, but on occasion the East received bartered goods. In one year, as part of the agreement, the GDR was sent shiploads of bananas, a luxury item in the East at the time, extremely hard to obtain in the shops of Berlin, Leipzigor Dresden. According to one of the most senior East German economists, this 'business venture' netted his massively indebted nation a total of around DM 8 billion. It was the kind of sum without which the country could not survive.
The trade depended on conditions of high secrecy; it depended on a quiescent population in East Germany desperate to leave the country; and it depended on a regime cynical enough to believe it could sell and buy citizens at will. The sales were never officially admitted by the GDR. The Authorities of course recognised that it was not the best advertisement for life in the countries that Erich Honecker, East Germany's supreme leader then and for more than two decades, liked to say operated 'actually existingsocialism'.
It was socialism as the Soviet Union saw it, imposed at gunpoint on a half-dozen states that did not want it. The empire Joseph Stalin built after World War Two extended as far as the Russian armies reached in the final onslaught against the Nazis in the spring of 1945. There was no other logic to it. By agreement with the Allies at Yalta, the Soviets were essentially allowed to do what they liked in their 'sphere of influence'. Stalin treated the entire region as one vast dominion, barely recognising any national identities in countries of extremely diverse cultures. The Red Tsar in Moscow imposed as his consuls in Prague, Warsaw and Sofia his own henchmen, whose prime loyalty was to the USSR and then to a Communist ideology. They were chosen for their unswerving allegiance to him. Most of them had spent fifteen or twenty years in exile in Russia and had taken Soviet citizenship. They had lost contact with the lands of their birth. The Soviet Union had given them shelter and a cause to believe in. Most were from countries where Communist Party membership had been illegal between the wars and they had spent long periods in jail. When they returned on Stalin's instructions after the war, they were not going home. They went to Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland as representatives of a foreign power, to serve the interests of the Soviet Union. They knew what was expected of them: they were to build a socialist imperium in Central and Eastern Europe, with barely any deviation permitted from the Stalinist model. These countries in 1945 had important things in common: they were overrun and occupied by the Red Army and Stalin was about to transform them utterly in his image. Otherwise there were substantial differences, occasionally antagonisms, between them.
The Soviet attempt to turn the region into a stable,reliable and monolithic whole would be a hard task. There was some idealism to begin with. The majority of people who had endured the Nazi occupation were simply relieved the war was over. The experience of the 1920s and 1930s had turned many Central Europeans into socialists, though never anything like as many as the Communists imagined. Only in one country, Hungary, did Stalin permit a genuinely fair election. In November 1945 the Party won 17 per cent of the vote, and the centre right parties received 56 per cent. The Soviets insisted on a coalition government, while the power of the police and 'state security' was placed in the hands of the Communists. In Czechoslovakia there had been a large industrial working class during the 1920s and 1930s; immediately after the war the Communists were supported by about 35 per cent of the voters. But if democracy would not give them power, the Soviets were determined to take it — one way or another. Using a mixture of bribery, intimidation, deceit and, finally, terror, within three years the Soviets had asserted full control over their new colonies. All other political parties were abolished by the end of 1948, or subsumed into the Communist Party and ceased to exist independently.
The occupation had been accompanied by atrocities from Russian troops who had seen some of the most brutal fighting in the war. It will never be known exactly how many women were raped in Germany, Hungary or Poland after the Soviet 'liberation', but the number certainly ran into hundreds of thousands. Desperate, conquered, exhausted, most people were prepared to put up with the new reality as long as a few improvements came along. Some of these countries were massively unjust peasant societies where serfdom had been abolished less than a century earlier. In large parts of Romania, agriculture had barely changed since medieval times. Generally, they lagged behind Western Europe. The Communists promised to transform all this, eradicate the injustices, start from scratch and build a dynamic new commonwealth of equals through rapid development.
For a while it worked. Immediate postwar reconstruction was as fast as in the Western half of Europe. But it started from an extremely low base of devastation and destruction. While in Britain there was still food rationing until the early 1950s, Czechoslovakia and Romania began exporting food fairly soon after the end of the war. The new regimes were given some praise for getting bridges and city centres rebuilt, transport links running again. Initially, at least, peasants were handed small pockets of land taken from the vast latifundia estates that stretched through tracts of Eastern Europe. Then the land was taken away again in a rush to organise great collective farms owned by the state. Any enthusiasm there may once have been did not last beyond the purges of the last insane years of Stalin's life.
The Communists had eliminated or cowed into submission their real enemies soon after the war. Opposition politicians were murdered en masse, Church leaders were intimidated into silence and on occasion collaboration. The bourgeoisie had their homes dispossessed and artists were told by commissars of culture what kind of music or painting or literature would henceforth be permitted. All businesses employing more than a handful of people were nationalised and in some countries — Bulgaria for example — no one other than the state was allowed to be an employer of any kind.
Relations between East and West had reached freezing point soon after the war-accelerated by Winston Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech in Fulton, Missouri, in 1946.Then, in the winter of 1948-9, a Cold War broke out within the socialist bloc. A leader in one of the 'liberated territories' dared to challenge Moscow. During the war Josip Broz Tito had been a partisan leader in Yugoslavia's struggle against the Nazis, earning respect, and material support, from anti-Communists. He established a Marxist dictatorship in Belgrade but resisted Yugoslavia's descent into the slave status of his Central and East European neighbours. He identified various paths towards socialism, declared himself a 'national Communist' and saw the future for his country as 'nonaligned'. All this was heresy in the eyes of Stalin, who once boasted 'I could smash Tito with a snap of my fingers.' It proved to be not quite so easy. Stalin thought he could afford to show no crack in Communist solidarity in case it was exploited by the West. Tito's defiance could not go unpunished. Anyone in the empire inclined to show sympathy with the Yugoslavs had to be crushed. Stalin organised a campaign against the 'nest of Titoist Trotskyite spies' throughout the satellite states which for the next few years convulsed all of Eastern Europe as Communists devoured their own children in an orgy of bloodshed.
Famous names who had been hailed in the Bolshevik pantheon as heroes sudde...
U.S. Praise for Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire
“Vivid personal glimpses and striking details . . . Victor Sebestyen’s book is full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative.”
—Timothy Garton Ash, The New York Review of Books
“A sturdy examination of events that led to the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. . . Sebestyen’s episodic, skillfully narrated account . . . [is] a well-crafted, constantly revealing study of the world-altering changes of recent history.”
“Sebestyen’s brilliantly written narrative unfolds in brief, gripping episodes . . . A must-have accounting.”
—Andrew Bast, Newsweek
“In the last few months, numerous books have come out that attempt to synthesize the compelling story of the fall of communism, but Revolution 1989 comes closest to being the essential volume. Sebestyen’s elegant narrative lays out in crisp episodes what was happening in Russia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan throughout the tumultuous 1980s. His portrait of Gorbachev is particularly sharp—and asks us to reconsider the Soviet leader’s surprising role 20 years ago. As a refugee from Hungary in 1956, Sebestyen brings a personal touch to these historic moments.”
—The Daily Beast
. . . and from the UK:
“Sebestyen’s strength is his sharp focus and racy prose . . . Here is history written like a Greek tragedy . . .”
—Michael Binyon, The Times (London)
“Victor Sebestyen’s vivid, panoramic work is a fine account . . . The writing is taut, the scene-setting dramatic, giving the book an almost cinematic feel.”
—Adam LeBor, The Sunday Times (London)
“Pacy and vivid . . . [Sebestyen] is a thoroughly professional writer with a gift not only for exposition but also evocation.”
—Anthony Howard, The Daily Telegraph
“A compelling and illuminating account of a great drama in the history of our times which showed once again that ordinary men and women really can change the world.”
—Jonathan Dimbleby, The Mail on Sunday
“Revolution 1989 is a lucid primer on the background to, and events of, that magical year. Sebestyen’s narrative is clear, entertaining, and sure-footed.”
—Angus Macqueen, The Guardian
“It’s a complex story spanning many countries, but this exciting yet deeply researched work brings it impressively to life . . . Compelling.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Observer
“A rollicking mix of high drama and sordid reality . . . spiced with telling quotations.”
“A thrilling read . . . Sebestyen is good at sketching the leading players but he also succinctly conveys what life was like for ordinary citizens.”
—Christopher Sylvester, Daily Express
“Victor Sebestyen brilliantly pulls together the events that led to the fall of the Soviet empire . . .”
—Richard Beeston, The Spectator
“The tale fair rips along . . . A solid piece of storytelling of an exhilarating and enspiriting moment of history.”
—Misha Glenny, Evening Standard
“Revolution 1989 is a superbly written and impressively documented chronicle of the year John Paul II described as an annus mirabilis . . . A vivid portrait.”
—Vladimir Tismaneanu, The Times Literary Supplement
“Sharp focus and racy prose capture the events and decisions that fed into the growing turmoil across Eastern Europe as the East German regime crumbled.”
—The Times (London) “We’re Reading” section
“Sebestyen has made an excellent job of organising his disparate material, so that the reader can recapture, with the same sense of bafflement and elation, the events that made the Europe we live in—and after twenty years he can add understanding too.”
—Michael Fry, Scotland on Sunday
“Sebestyen has got the pace and the balance just right.”
“Sebestyen’s record of the 1980s is a compelling, page-turning read . . . a precise, step-by-step account of the high politics and the big-name political players in the years between the August 1980 strikes in Gdansk and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall nine years later.”
—Denis MacShane, Tribune
“A digestible and colourful history of that miraculous year.”
and for Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
“A small masterpiece that should be read and treasured by all who value mankind’s eternal quest for freedom.”
–New York Post
“Excellent . . . A gripping, detailed reconstruction.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“A fast-paced journalistic narrative built scene by scene, moving deftly among the key players . . . Steeped in detail.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“Sebestyen is excellent at bringing to life the revolutionary movement. Personalities leap from his pages.”
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Description du livre Pantheon, 2009. Hardcover. Etat : New. Etat de la jaquette : New. 1st Edition. For more than 40 years after the Second World War the Iron Curtain divided Europe physically, with 300 km of walls and barbed wire fences; ideologically, between communism and capitalism; psychologically, between people imprisoned under totalitarian dictatorships and their neighbours enjoying democratic freedoms; and militarily, by two mighty, distrustful power blocs, still fighting the cold war. East-West rivalry and a cruelly divided continent seemed to be unalterable facts of life. Few statesmen, diplomats, soldiers or thinkers imagined these certainties would change in their lifetimes. At the start of 1989, ten European nations were still Soviet vassal states. By the end of the year, one after another, they had thrown off communism, declared national independence, and embarked on the road to democracy. One of history's most brutal empires was on its knees. Poets who had been languishing in jails became vice presidents. When the Berlin Wall fell on a chilly November night it seemed as though the open wounds of the cruel twentieth century would at last begin to heal. The Year of Revolutions appeared as a beacon of hope for oppressed people elsewhere who dared to dream that they too could free themselves. In a dizzying few months of almost entirely peaceful revolutions the people's will triumphed over tyranny. An entire way of life was swept away along with a half dozen incompetent, corrupt and at times vicious dictatorships. It happened with little violence, apart from a few days in Romania. Now, twenty years on, Victor Sebestyen reassesses this decisive moment in modern history. N° de réf. du vendeur 010162
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