Brad Abrams: What are your personal memories of 1989?
I won a Fulbright in 1988 and was supposed to go to Prague in September of 1989 but I was having a paper published and had some other obligations at the University so I ended up asking if I could come in January of 1990 and, of course, in between all the momentous events happened and I was, you know, watching them on TV like everybody else was and everybody was very sad for me because I missed the revolution. So I watched ’89 on TV just like everyone else did and I ended up going to Prague in September of 1990.
I was focused mainly on what was happening in Czechoslovakia. It seemed so natural and yet so remarkable and it was this balance between the almost surreal and the obvious that struck me at the time.
I don’t think anyone could avoid feeling the elation at the Berlin Wall coming down. I mean, that is just such a classic moment. It was important not just because it meant the end of the communist regime in Eastern Germany but it signaled the end of the division of Europe. There was the tangible material symbol of a divided continent being pushed down by people on both sides.
For the Czech case, I think there are two or three that really struck me. I mean, obviously Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek on the balcony of the Svobodne slovo building with, you know, hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square jangling their keys. More prosaically but probably more importantly was seeing the results of the general strike on the 24th of November which because the concern was that the workers would not come along with these dissident artists, intellectuals, drama figures, the students, that the workers wouldn’t come along, but they came out in tremendous numbers.
One was the tape of that news conference where it was announced that East Germans could travel to West Germany and the look of shock and confusion on the part of that police major, I believe, he was when he was confronted with the question. It was clear he had no direct understanding from above what he should say if this question comes up and he says, I guess so, I guess they can go. The look of confusion on his face just symbolized to me that the regime was in too deep of water to get itself out.
Also the images of all the East Germans who were at the West German Embassy in Prague, camped out leaving their Trabis littering the streets of Prague. I still don’t know today why the regime decided to allow these people in. They were stopping them at the border for days and days and then they decided to let them in and I think that was a fatal miscalculation.