How the East Was Really Won

I ungrudgingly grant Ronald Reagan his modest (yes, modest) role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sometimes, geopolitics is as simple as a schoolyard game of chicken, and Reagan played a keen game of chicken as he built up the U.S. military (although at immense cost to the country's fiscal health and social infrastructure). And then -- this is the part his conservative hagiographers prefer to leave out -- he changed course, seeing in Mikhail Gorbachev a partner and even ally while his neoconservative amen-corner was still drunk on Evil Empire rhetoric.

So fair enough. But there is a specific, fact-based narrative of the collapse of the East that Westerners -- in particular, Americans, who reflexively assume that everything that happens everywhere must surely happen because of something America did -- tend to overlook, especially in weeks like this one. In this narrative, Reagan is emphatically not "the man who ended the Cold War." The man who ended the Cold War, for my money, is Gyula Horn.

Gyula Horn was no American president, no member of the Soviet Politburo, no captain of international commerce. He was, rather modestly, the foreign minister of Hungary in the summer of 1989.

During the Warsaw Pact years, many Easterners took their vacations in Hungary. In particular, German families rent by the Cold War would often meet up there for a week or two and then repatriate. The presence of so many Westerners created an obviously delicate situation in which many Easterners were tempted to flee with their relatives through neighboring Austria; for years, then, security along the Austrian-Hungarian had been as tight as anywhere in the East.

But Hungary, in the wake of certain reformist developments in the East throughout the 1980s, was a different place by 1989; there was a vibrant anti-communist -- one might even say, if one dares, "liberal" -- culture centering around figures like the dissident writers Miklos Haraszti and György Konrád. And then, through one of those acts of historical alchemy for which there is little rational accounting, with thousands of East Germans in the country in late August 1989, something happened.

Hungarian border guards started letting a few East Germans pass into Austria, then cutting holes in the barbed wire. Word quickly spread, and East Germans flocked to Hungary for their chance to head into the West. In short order, Hungary had a full-fledged refugee crisis on its hands.

Enter Gyula Horn. Hungary at this point was bound by two clashing treaties -- one with East Germany, which forbade the Magyar state from permitting East Germans to cross into the West; and another international human-rights accord Hungary had signed pledging humane treatment of refugees. And Horn, on September 10, made his fateful decision: He decided that Hungary would honor its international commitment. He abrogated the treaty with East Berlin. Suddenly, East Germans were flocking into Austria through Hungary by the thousands.

Well, that was it. Within weeks, the refugee crisis spread to East Germany itself, first to Leipzig (if you're old enough, you remember the nightly news footage of hundreds of cars lined up at Leipzig checkpoints, drivers frantically honking their horns in celebration), and then to Berlin. Soon enough, the Berlin Wall came down. That was the end of the East. It took until 1991 for the Soviet Union to close up shop officially, but it was clear by the fall of 1989 that the Communist era was over. And the end began not on Pennsylvania Avenue, but at the Austria-Hungary border.

Were those border guards thinking of Ronald Reagan as they cut that barbed wire? Was Horn infused with the great man's spirit as he made his world-changing decision? Alas, there exists little evidence that the answer to either of these questions is yes. Instead, as Horn said: "There was no other way. We had to look for the humanist solution, no matter what sort of conflict might arise. It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events." The "humanist solution." As Reagan and his admirers devoted considerable energy to denunciations of humanism throughout the 1980s, Horn's explanation of his brave action does not sound, to my ear, very Reagan-like at all.

This version of the collapse of the East is, I'd wager, not one you've read in the last few days. Or, for that matter, the last few years. The American right has gone to Herculean lengths to cement the Reagan mythology and the story line that puts Reagan at the center of communism's collapse has taken firm hold. Arguing against it is tough work. The eminent historian John Patrick Diggins did precisely that in TAP's December 2003 issue; far from expressing the values of Western conservatism, Diggins wrote, "the Eastern European forces of freedom that courageously took to the streets to overthrow communism... represented the three great antagonists of conservatism: the youth culture, the intellectuals of the '60s generation, and the laboring classes that still favored Solidarity over individualism."

He is exactly right. It is not an argument, admittedly, that will have its day this week or next, or even anytime in the near future. But it is one well worth remembering, this week especially.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor.