Pravda on the Potomac: Wash. Post Book Review Tears down Reagan, Fall of Communism

Almost 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall fell symbolizing the collapse of communism in Europe, but one Washington Post book reviewer put a very different spin on that historical day.

In the Nov. 1 Washington Post, Gerard DeGroot, a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, wrote a review of three books about the fall of communism: “Tear Down This Wall,” by Romesh Ratnesar, “Uncivil Society,” by Stephen Kotkin and “There Is No Freedom Without Bread!” by Constantine Pleshakov.

DeGroot asked why communism really fell, downplayed the enormity of the role former President Ronald Reagan played and argued that these countries aren’t really better off with free markets.

DeGroot challenged the idea that America was responsible for ending communism in Eastern Bloc countries. He argued that the idea is something of a “neoconservative” dream.

“People are, however, messy,” DeGroot wrote. “They clutter up the precise narratives imposed upon the past. Now, 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, historians are competing to offer an explanation for the demise of communism. For some, it’s easier to think of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria as a bloc, manipulated and exploited by the Soviet Union and ultimately freed by the United States. That conception delights neoconservatives eager to extract parables to illuminate the present.”

And according to DeGroot, it wasn’t the Soviet Union imposing communism on the people, but a system arranged from within and that eventually caused the downfall. He also downplayed the historical significance of Reagan’s 1987 “Tear Down this Wall” speech.

“In truth, the stream metaphor is inappropriate because it suggests purpose and direction. Eastern Europe was not a single body traveling down one course, but a collection of thermal springs of varying size and volatility,” DeGroot wrote. “Communism was not imposed from above, but arranged from within. The regimes evolved differently and died distinctly. Poland experienced a long popular uprising, Czechoslovakia a short, sharp one. Hungary saw a polite palace coup, Bulgaria a nasty one. East Germany was chaos, Romania a bloody mess.”

But one of DeGroot’s most extraordinary claims was that those Eastern Bloc countries aren’t necessarily better off without communism.

“Today, the Czech Republic is a leading producer of pornography, while Sofia and Gdansk market themselves as destinations for stag weekends,” DeGroot wrote. “Half a million Poles live in Britain, causing the British jokingly (and not so jokingly) to complain that they should take their work ethic and go home. That's not quite the simple beauty that starry-eyed romantics in the West envisioned in 1989, but Eastern Europe wasn't simple then, and it isn't now.”

DeGroot’s economic criticism was misleading. Since the end of the Cold War, after a brief struggle making the transition from a state-controlled economy to a free market economy, the gross domestic product of Eastern European countries has expanded significantly – despite DeGroot’s ridicule.

Like this article? Sign up for “The Balance Sheet,” BMI’s weekly e-mail newsletter.