Genre on 1989: The Magic Lantern by Timothy Garton Ash

To understand the magnitude of the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th of November, 1989 and the implications it had on international politics and the way of life between East and West, there are some key literary pieces one should read before traveling to central and eastern Europe, for the topic on the differences between East and West is still being talked about to this day, which includes discussions on their nostalgia, the differences in development and modernization of the basic infrastructure in both regions and lastly, societal issues including income disparity, unemployment, violence and/or xenophobia and other issues.

The first book that came to mind, and one that I read prior to emigrating to Germany is a key piece by Timothy Garton Ash entitled „The Magic Lantern.“ This piece was written in 1990 and has been rewritten and edited many time since then. The book looks at the revolution of 1989, from the author’s point of view, in the capitals of the four countries behind the Iron Curtain: Poland, Hungary, German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia.

One has to keep the background information in mind. Mr. Ash had been behind the Iron Curtain as a student in East Berlin during the early 1980s, studying at Humboldt University, but was also at the Free University in West Berlin on the opposite side of the border. His experiences there can be found in the book „The File,“ which was published in 1997. In that book, he mentioned that he was under surveillance by the State Security Police (Stasi) while in the East.

In the Magic Lantern, Mr. Ash focused on the revolution that started on the grassroots level but later turned into an event that became known as the domino effect. For the grassroot part, the countries found sophisticated ways of pressuring their communist regimes to submit to their demands for peace and democracy. This included rallies by young people leading free democratic organizations, religious organizations and even groups that opposed the brutal regime. They were sophisticated based on lessons learned in the past, that demonstrations outright without creative back-up planning led to army forces of the Warsaw Pact to roll in and quash them, putting many key players behind these protests into prison. Some even died from being tortured by the countries security police forces in their respective countries. After the failures in East Berlin (1953), Budapest (1956), Prague (1968) and Warsaw (1983), the opposition needed time to retreat, replan, reenvision and reenact the movements in an attempt to put enough pressure on the regime until they finally conceded. In some cases, the leaders were pressured by Michail Gorbachev to allow the borders to reopen, thanks to his policies of Gastnost and Peristroika.

The end result of these grassroot movements came with free elections in Poland, the peaceful funeral of Nagy and the opening of the gates between Hungary and Austria, the Magic Lantern movement in Prague under Havel, and of course the peaceful demonstrations in East Germany, which culminated into the Fall of the Wall. Yet with these grassroot movements came the downfall that happened in sequential order. It started in Poland, then worked its way to Hungary. Once Honecker was removed and replaced by Egon Krenz, the Wall fell in East Germany. And lastly, the Czechs had their say and were granted freedom and democracy Velvet style. In each of the countries, it was only possible thanks to the pressure on the dictators to either step in and accept or step aside and resign. Ash, who was following the events live, documented the events through interviews, observations and collecting enough experience to later make him a journalist and later a scholar for Central and Eastern European Politics and History.

The Magic Lantern does answer a lot of questions about the motivations towards the movement to bring down the Berlin Wall and open the gate between East and West Germany, such as how the movement was started to begin with. Like in the other regimes, the SED Government under Erich Honecker was one of the most sophisticated but brutal regimes in history in terms of its infrastructure, law enforcement and education. Those who remained in East Germany had to submit to the policies of Communism, learning Russian and the ideals of Marx and Leninism. Christianity was suppressed as far as it could go. Those opposing Communism were either spied upon, imprisoned or in some cases, expelled by being sent to the West. There was systematic desegregation between those who support Communism and those against thanks in part to the role of the Stasi of documenting every move made by its citizens. Ash was one of those targeted during his visit, according to his book „The File.“ And if they were not killed in an attempt to flee over the border, they convened and found creative ways to „end the war,“ as one person mentioned in the Magic Lantern.

This „war“ was in reference to a perpetual war which started in 1939 with World War II, continued after the War ended in 1945 and Germany being a battlefield between the US and the Soviet Union until 1990.  If this was what one of the residents mentioned in the interview with Mr. Ash, then the war would be considered the longest in modern history. Mr. Ash fought his way back into East Germany in July 1989 and followed the events that unfolded afterwards, both there and beyond, seeing the stalwarth regime of Honecker crack at the foundations, as many East Germans fled to the West via Prague and Budapest going into Austria. It followed with peaceful demonstrations in Leipzig and spreading throughout the country. Gorbachev hinted to the Politburo that „Life punishes those who wait,“ resulting in Honecker’s removal and replacement with Krenz.

And the rest was history. Once the Wall fell, people celebrated and pushed for German Reunification, which happened 11 months later. Once the Wall fell, as Ash stated, the other countries toppled much quicker than thought. It even resulted in the break-up of the Soviet Union, which concluded at the end of 1991.

Ash’s book, The Magic Lantern, traces all of the events that marked that watershed. Once one dam broke, all the others followed, no matter how sturdy the dam was. And when all was finished, it was a fresh clean start for the region, painting it the way it should be. The Magic Lantern provides you some places in the capitals worth visiting, where the demonstrations took place. Many of them have been considered historic sites with tour guides being provided. The book is the best starting point to finding out the past of the countries and how they have been progressing ever since.

Ash’s book does raise one question that is affecting global society at present: Do we have another domino effect in the making and if so how? We did see it with the Trump effect, with Donald Trump winning the 2016 Presidential Elections with his far right stance. This influence has stoked far-right thinking and the strive to break away from international organizations, even with the European Union. Some countries have gone far right in their elections since then while other far-right countries have become stronger in countries still governed by the middle. However, with environmental issues coming to a head, and green movements growing everywhere, inspite denials from the likes of Trump, it makes a person wonder if the Greta Thunberg effect will create a revolution that will not only have a domino effect on the countries, but will set the world straight once and for all, just like in 1989. This question I hope will have answered, regardless of who’s willing to step up to the podium.

Author’s Note: More on Timothy Garton Ash, his life and works can be found here:


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