The most surprising thing about the Cold War is that it did not end in hot war. No such prolonged (and often bitter) dispute between Great Powers had ever ended so peacefully. Less than a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War could still be terrifying. Kristina Spohr begins her book with NATO’s biennial Wintex war game early in 1989, which presented participants with the following scenario: ‘economic crisis in the Soviet Union … A Stalinist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev … Mobilization across the whole Eastern bloc’, leading to ‘limited nuclear war’ in Germany. Wintex 1989 was the last nightmare of the Cold War, too much even for the West German playing the role of NATO commander-in-chief, who refused to launch a second nuclear strike and caused the exercise to be aborted.
Over the course of the year, people on the streets and in polling stations formed a revolutionary wave that brought to an end both the Soviet bloc and the Cold War. With every success, culminating in East Germans flooding across the Berlin Wall in November, their confidence increased. But, as Spohr’s gripping and compelling account concludes, peaceful ‘revolution from below’ owed much to ‘revolution from above’.
All previous Soviet leaders of the Cold War era would have used the Red Army to shore up the Soviet bloc – this is what Khrushchev had done in Budapest in 1956 and Brezhnev in Prague in 1968. Gorbachev made a peaceful end to the Cold War possible