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12 March 2009

1989 The year of the crowd

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley introduces a special issue on the year that saw the Berlin Wall co

By Jason Cowley

In July 1989 I graduated from university, and then, shortly afterwards, during that unusually warm and settled summer, set off to travel across Europe by train. The plan was to head east; something was stirring behind the Iron Curtain and I wanted to find out more about what was going on. On one journey I got as far as the Czechoslovakian border, only to be hauled off a train for not having a visa or any other official right of entry. I was kept in detention for a couple of hours in an austere and desolate room – as austere and desolate as the nation states the communists had created – before being bundled back on a train and returned to Vienna.

That year – the year of the crowd, as we call it in this special issue – there was a profound sense, for the first time in my lifetime, that the Cold War was coming to an end; that communist totalitarianism was collapsing. Also obvious was the imminent demise of entire political eras, with Europe’s ageing dictators being toppled from within: Honecker, Zhivkov, Ceausescu and, eventually, Jaruzelski.

Worldwide, it was the year of the restless crowd. There were the rebellious crowds massing in the great cities of central and eastern Europe, their collective and heroic agitation for change precipitating the breach in November of the Berlin Wall. There were the crowds of courageous students, workers’ groups and democracy campaigners in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, their aspirations so murderously suppressed by state dictatorship. (Here, the Chinese Communist Party responded with extreme violence; on 4 June tanks smashed into the square and many thousands of people died.) There were the crowds of frenzied mourners at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral in Tehran. There were the smaller crowds of marchers and book burners in Bradford, Yorkshire, inflamed by Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, their outrage a portent of a new kind of conflict between political Islam and liberal western imperialism (or

Jihad v McWorld, as it would later be caricatured). There was, too, the crowd at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, where, on a warm spring day in April, 96 people were crushed to death on the terraces as they gathered for an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Towards the end of 1989 the American policy thinker and teleological historian Francis Fukuyama published his celebrated essay in which he declared that we in the west had reached the end of history, and were entering a period of rest as we worked together towards the universal goal of progress and world peace. For Fukuyama, history (by which he meant history as a battle between rival, world-transforming ideologies, not the innumerable small details and events of the everyday) had ended because the universal movement towards the realisation of human potential had found its ultimate expression in liberal democracy and

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free-market capitalism as the only legitimate models for government. The essay was an exercise in wishful utopianism, but it was also characteristic of the more general mood of western triumphalism.

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And yet nothing was certain; this feeling of being in suspension, of not knowing what would happen next, of living at the end of one world-historic era while waiting for another to begin – this sense, more personally, of having graduated and now to be on the cusp of adulthood at just this moment of quickening change: the feeling was heady. It felt as if the world was indeed in motion, not quite spinning out of control but in new and strange ways; a world turning, breaking apart and re-forming, a world in flux. l

Jason Cowley’s memoir about the end of the Eighties, “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football”, is published next month by Simon & Schuster (£14.99)