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Are we talking enough about 1989?

Maybe it’s just because we’ve been discussing upcoming Berlin Wall-related content here at the office, but I find Matt Welch’s Reason cover essay, calling the 1989 defeat of communism in Europe, “the Unknown War” a little strange: November 1989 was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history, yet two ...

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TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY Yannick Pasquet (FILES) Picture taken on November 11, 1989 shows East Berliners gathering in front of the Berlin Wallas they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. During the summer of 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans fled the communist regime to a new life in the west. The Berlin concrete wall was built by the East German government on August 13, 1961 to seal off East Berlin from the part of the city occupied by the three main Western powers to prevent mass illegal immigration to the West. According to the "August 13 Association" which specializes in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people - 255 in Berlin alone - died, shot by East German border guards, attempting to flee to West Berlin or West Germany. The wall was opened 09 November 1989 and has been demolished since then. AFP PHOTO GERARD MALIE (Photo credit should read GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Maybe it’s just because we’ve been discussing upcoming Berlin Wall-related content here at the office, but I find Matt Welch’s Reason cover essay, calling the 1989 defeat of communism in Europe, “the Unknown War” a little strange:

November 1989 was the most liberating month of arguably the most liberating year in human history, yet two decades later the country that led the Cold War coalition against communism seems less interested than ever in commemorating, let alone processing the lessons from, the collapse of its longtime foe. At a time that fairly cries out for historical perspective about the follies of central planning, Americans are ignoring the fundamental conflict of the postwar world, and instead leapfrogging back to what Steve Forbes describes in this issue as the “Jurassic Park statism” of the 1930s (see “?‘The Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs,’?” page 42). There have been more Hollywood hagiographies of the revolutionary communist Che Guevara in the last five years than there have been studio pictures in the last two decades about the revolutionary anti-communists who dramatically toppled totalitarians from Tallin to Prague (see Tim Cavanaugh’s “Hollywood Comrades,” page 62). And what little general-nonfiction interest there is in the superpower struggle, as Michael C. Moynihan details on page 48 (“The Cold War Never Ended”), remains stuck in the same Reagan vs. Gorby frame that made the 1980s so intellectually shallow the first time around.

Sure, it might be nice to see a Hollywood blockbuster or two about the Gdansk shipyard strike (unfortunately for producers, Lech Walesa wasn’t quite as dashing as Che) but is there really a lack of end-of-cold-war awareness out there?

The “post-9/11 era” is only just starting to eclipse the “post-Cold War era” as foreign-affairs writing’s most ubiquitous cliche. (If you’re submitting to FP, please don’t start your piece with either of them.) Indeed much of the contemporary debate over globalization takes 1989 as a starting point. 

It seems to me that the images of 1989 — from Tiananmen to the fall of the wall — are just as, if not more iconic today than anything from 1968, which seems to be Welch’s nominee for history’s most overrated year. The tsunami of Berlin Wall media content that’s already starting to trickle out in advance of next week’s anniversary should drive that point home. As should German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s address to congress today in which she described how “the wall, barbed wire and orders to shoot limited my access to the free world” until 1989. How exactly is Welch proposing that we take this anniversary more seriously?

Welch’s larger point is that “Americans are ignoring the fundamental conflict of the postwar world” as more and more of the U.S. economy is nationalized. But while these trends might not be moving in the direction Welch likes, it seems odd to argue that the free-market vs. government-control dialectic is being “ignored” given the number of times Obama’s economic policies have been decried as socialist in the last year. 

GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images

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