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1989 may have been the best year in history

The peaceful overthrow of communism was not inevitable, and Europe just happened to be incredibly lucky. So said British historian Timothy Garton Ash and Danish minister Per Stig Møller

It is hard to think of another year in which so much that could have gone wrong actually turned out so well.

See the article ’89 was a new type of revolution’ here.

This is the claim made by British historian and Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash, a key witness and interpreter of the events that unfolded in the year ’89 – actually the years 89-91.

He is, of course, referring to the downfall of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

See the video of Timothy Garton Ash speaking at the conference here.

»I challenge anyone here to come up with a better example. 1989 was the best year in European history,« says Timothy Garton Ash.

A slip that changed everything

The occasion is a panel discussion in the University of Copenhagen’s Ceremonial Hall Monday with Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig Møller and Prorector Lykke Friis. November ‘89, twenty years ago, was when the Berlin wall was opened following a slip of the tongue by spokesman for the East German politburo Günter Schabowski at a press conference.

At the end of a long press release, he happened to mention that East Germans would be allowed to travel directly to West Germany. When questioned, ruffling his papers, he said that the order, as far as he knew, was effectively immediately.

Within an inch of the use of force

Hundreds of thousands of East Germans flocked to the border crossings, as guards stood by incredulous, but without firing a shot.

Speaking of earlier demonstrations in Leipzig, Timothy Garton Ash, says that »we now know from the archives, that we came within an inch of the East German authorities using force« .

Minister of Foreign Affairs Per Stig Møller, has himself written several works on politics and history. The biggest lesson to be taken from the events of 1989, according to him, is that the events were not inevitable.

Warns against complacency

An inevitability that is, to use a term by Prorector Lykke Friis, ‘retrospective determinism’.

»The events unfolded to their happy conclusion of an undivided Europe. But the events happened by choice and not by necessity,« say Per Stig Møller .

He warns against »complacency towards history«, and warns against the claims like those of political theorist Francis Fukuyama after the downfall of communism, that the victory of liberal democracy was inevitable.

Doubt is European, and protects us

Being European is to insist on a sense of doubt, he reminds us. This doubt should also include an uncertainty about the inevitability and security of our liberal institutions.

»Doubt protects us from a false sense of security, history tells us that when we are relaxed, we are actually in a state of danger,« says Per Stig Møller, giving examples of the Europe of 1914, when no-one could conceive of the coming war, and the events of 9/11 2001.