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Lee Edwards: Learn from ’89, year of contrasts

It was a year of triumph and tragedy.

It was the year the Berlin Wall fell – and joyful Berliners drank champagne and danced on top of the Brandenburg Gate.

It was the year that Vaclav Havel was jailed in February for participating in human rights protests and was elected president of Czechoslovakia in December.

It was the year that the once-outlawed trade union Solidarity won an overwhelming victory in Poland – the Soviet bloc’s first free elections in 40 years.

It was the year that Imre Nagy, who had led the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, was moved from an unmarked grave and given a hero’s burial in Budapest.

It was the year that, after mass demonstrations in Bucharest, Romanian despot Nicolae Ceaucescu met his deserved fatal fate.

Communism, the dark tyranny that controlled more than 40 nations and claimed the lives of an estimated 100 million victims during the 20th century, suddenly collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe without a shot being fired.

In just two years – from 1989 to 1991 – the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Marxism-Leninism was dumped on the ash heap of history. But, alas, not everywhere.

1989 was also the year that millions of pro-democracy Chinese demonstrated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, challenging the authority of the communist leadership. Their six-week-long occupation of the square culminated in the erection in early June of a 33-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty, nicknamed the “Goddess of Democracy.”

Even as Western journalists were saying that “in the image contest, the big guys cannot win,” the government was preparing for a contest it knew it could win – a contest of raw power.

Units of the People’s Liberation Army launched their attack early Sunday morning, June 4. Tanks ran over tents, crushing protesters to death while soldiers fired their automatic weapons into the crowds in and around the square.

When the massacre was over, the Chinese government announced that just 300 people were killed, most of them soldiers. Chinese authorities later lowered the figure to 200. But the BBC and other Western media outlets estimated that as many as several thousand Chinese died during the several days of fighting. One student group cited Chinese Red Cross officials as stating there were an estimated 3,600 deaths.

There are other tragic anniversaries in 2009 that should be recognized.

It is the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro seizing power in Cuba and establishing a totalitarian regime that still clings to power.

It is the 70th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that led to the Soviet occupation and enslavement of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

It is the 34th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the capture of South Vietnam by the communists.

This coming year, filled with the best and worst of human action, offers a special opportunity for governments, nongovernmental organizations and the general public to examine why communism collapsed so precipitously in Eastern and Central Europe and then the Soviet Union, and why it persists in China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos. The examination could affect how soon the 1.4 billion people who live under communism – and not by their choice – at last join their brothers and sisters in freedom.

Lee Edwards is distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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