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Can books about the fall of the Berlin Wall illuminate Egypt's protests?

January 28, 2011 |  3:30 pm

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In Egypt, protestors gathered in large demonstrations Friday, including Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, as riot police and armored vehicles began taking them on in the streets. "We are deeply concerned about the use of violence by Egyptian police and security forces against protesters, and we call on the Egyptian government to do everything in its power to restrain the security forces," Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a news conference at the State Department.

The demonstrations in Egypt did not begin in isolation. They were preceded immediately by demonstrations in Tunisia that ousted authoritarian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, and tens of thousands are protesting against oppression in Yemen. Some have begun to speak of an "Arab Spring," akin to the wave of protests that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and spread across Eastern Europe, bringing down one authoritarian government after another.

In 2009, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of those protests, a number of books were released addressing those events. Critic Carlin Romano looked at four of them: "The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall" by Michael Meyer, "Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment" by Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T. Gross, "There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism" by Constantine Pleshakov and "The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989," edited by Jeffrey A. Engel. Do those books have anything to teach us about how to understand what's going on in Tunisia, Yemen or Egypt? Romano wrote:

All these writers force us to ponder how Americans think about not only Europe, but the rest of the world today. With many news outlets reducing foreign coverage of anything but catastrophes and terrorism, Americans know less than ever about the routine life and politics of any nation in which we don't have troops. To be sure, the fascistic capitalism now operating in China and Russia challenges the inevitability of democracy's triumph over authoritarianism.

The books suggest how surprised Americans were by 1989's events. (The changes surprised Europeans too, but not to the same extent.) We'll keep being caught off balance -- in Europe, in Afghanistan, in Central America -- until we learn to pay attention as the rest of the world pays attention to us. Perhaps the virtue of anniversaries is that they enable us, a la Kierkegaard, to live forward while understanding backward. In an age of journalistic crisis, we need excellent, incisive nonfiction books more than ever to understand the world.

Since Internet connections in Egypt all but disappeared early Friday, making communications difficult, it will likely be some time before a clear picture of what is happening there emerges. But it does seem that there is something that 2011 shares with 1989 -- that world events are, again, surprising.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Egyptian protestors on an armored vehicle in Cairo, Egypt. Credit: Mohamed Omar / EPA

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