Nineteen eighty-nine was the biggest year in world history since 1945. In international politics, 1989 changed everything. It led to the end of communism in Europe, of the Soviet Union, the cold war and the short 20th century. It opened the door to German unification, a historically unprecedented European Union stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn, the enlargement of Nato, two decades of American supremacy, globalisation, and the rise of Asia. The one thing it did not change was human nature.
In 1989, Europeans proposed a new model of non-violent, velvet revolution, challenging the violent example of 1789, which for two centuries had been what most people thought of as "revolution". Instead of Jacobins and the guillotine, they offered people power and negotiations at a round table.
With Mikhail Gorbachev's breathtaking renunciation of the use of force (a luminous example of the importance of the individual in history), a nuclear-armed empire that had seemed to many Europeans as enduring and impregnable as the Alps, not least because it possessed those weapons of total annihilation, just softly and suddenly vanished. But then, as if this were all somehow too good to be true, 1989 also brought us Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie "“ firing the starting gun for another long struggle in Europe, even before the last one was really over.
Such years come only once or twice in a long lifetime. 2001, the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was another big one, of course, above all because it transformed the priorities of the US in the world, but it did not change as much as 1989 did. As the cold war had affected even the smallest African state, making it a potential pawn in the great chess game between east and west, so the end of the cold war affected everyone too. And places like Afghanistan were forgotten, neglected by Washington since they no longer mattered in a global contest with the now ex-Soviet Union. The mujahid had done his work; the mujahid could go. Except that a mujahid called Osama bin Laden had other ideas.
The epicentre of 1989 was Europe between the Rhine and the Urals, and it's there that most has changed. Every single one of Poland's neighbours today is new, different from what it was in 1989. In fact, many of the states and quite a few of the frontiers in eastern Europe are now more recent than those in Africa. And the lived experience of every man, woman and child has been transformed out of all recognition: nowhere more so than in the former German Democratic Republic, whose death warrant was written 20 years ago next Monday night, with the breaching of the Berlin wall.
So, closest to the ground, we have the stories of those individual human lives: of the young Czechs, Hungarians and east Germans, born in 1989, who are seizing and enjoying the chances of freedom, and of the many older, less well-placed people, who have had a rough time since, and are angry and disillusioned.
At the other extreme, we have the global dance of old and new superpowers. Potentially, there are now three of them: the US, China and the EU. The US is still the only genuine, three-dimensional superpower. When former presidents Gorbachev and George H W Bush got together with former chancellor Helmut Kohl in Berlin last week, Bush senior paid fulsome tribute to his friend "Mikhail". He could afford to be generous; after all, America won.
More accurately, the US emerged the winner, thanks partly to its own policies but also to the work of others. But it would be hard to argue that the US has used its subsequent two decades of supremacy very well "“ least of all, under Bush, son of Bush. The country has lived high on the hog, running up a pile of both household and national debt. It has not created a durable new international order. Now it has a wonderful president who wills that end, but probably no longer has the means.
China is the most unexpected winner of them all. Remember that when Gorbachev visited Beijing in the early summer of 1989 he had to be smuggled into the communist party leaders' Zhongnanhai compound through a side entrance, because so many protesters were filling Tiananmen square. China seemed to be on the brink of some kind of a velvet revolution of its own. But then came the 4 June massacre. A shudder reverberated across Eurasia, from Beijing to Berlin. China and Europe dramatically parted ways.
Traumatised both by the Tiananmen protests and by the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, China's communist party leaders systematically learned the lessons in order to avoid their European comrades' fate. Seizing the economic opportunities offered by globalisation, which itself was decisively catalysed by the end of European communism, they marched further down the road on which Deng Xiaoping (an individual to rank with Gorbachev in his impact on history) had launched them.
The result: a hybrid that can crudely be summarised as Leninist capitalism "“ something we simply did not imagine in 1989. And an emerging superpower with $2 trillion of reserves, holding the US in a financial half-nelson.
This is a fragile superpower, to be sure, with many internal tensions and contradictions, and too little freedom, but still a formidable competitor for western-style liberal democratic capitalism. Far more formidable, incidentally, than backward-looking, militant Islamism, which is a real threat but not a serious ideological competitor.
And then there is us: old Europe, where it all began. I have suggested before that 1989 was the best year in European history. That's a bold claim, and readers are invited to point to a better year. But two decades later, and in my darker moments, 1989 sometimes seems to me like the last, late flowering of a very aged rose. To be sure, we have done some big things since. We have enlarged the EU. We (or at least, some of us) have a single European currency. We have the largest economy in the world. On paper, Europe looks good. But the political reality is very different.
This is not the big-hearted Europe of which visionaries like Vaclav Havel dreamed in 1989. It is the Europe of the other Vaclav "“ Vaclav Klaus "“ signing the Lisbon treaty with gnashing teeth, after exacting some small, provincial concessions. It is the Europe of David Cameron, who, in the defensive, national narrowness of his European vision, is actually a rather representative contemporary European. (Churchill! Thou shouldst be living at this hour: Europe hath need of thee.) Sunk in the narcissism of minor difference, only half awake to the world of giants emerging around them, your average politician in France, Germany or Poland is little better.
So, 20 years on, the question before us Europeans is this: can we recapture some of the strategic boldness and historical imagination of 1989? Or shall we now leave it to others to shape the world, while we snuggle down, Hobbit-like, in our national holes, and pretend there are no giants yomping overhead?
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