1990: Year Zero | A History Of My Lifetime

I’ve been on this planet for twenty six and a half years now. Recent events have made me realise that in that quarter century (just over) a heck of a lot has happened. So why not write about it? Why not write about all the things that have happened? Why not write a history of my own lifetime? So this is the start, 1990, the year I was born. Eighties kids scoff and laugh saying it was better to be born before the nineties but I naturally disagree. 1990 was extraordinary. Everything was up in the air and the world was changing. As you will see, a new era was dawning…

The wall comes down (from historytoday.com)

The end had already begun. In November of the previous year one of the most potent symbols of the Cold war had been brought down. The Berlin Wall, though only standing for a little less than thirty years, was the division between east and west that had defined the world since the Second World War. This was Winston’s Churchill’s Iron Curtain made reality, a vast and imposing concrete megalith dividing not just East from West Germany, but the whole world. As well as being an impenetrable barrier, a border, the wall was also a statement. It was a statement that said ‘Keep out. You won’t like it over here. You don’t want to cross me… At least not from this side!’ The wall was fear and the wall was terror. On the other side of it were the people the west had been persuaded to see as the enemy, the communists and soviets. It had been drilled into the public consciousness, not least by the media and by popular culture, that beyond the wall was a land of danger. Countless spy fictions had been written and still continue to be written of a place that was cruel and deadly, where secret police like the Stazi would imprison you, torture you and then take you outside to be shot. It wasn’t, people were informed, a place fit to live in.

And indeed it wasn’t. Life in East Germany, the GDR, was tough. There was no democracy, a stagnant economy, a lack of resources, constant state surveillance and if you wanted to get anywhere in life you had to prove yourself loyal to the start and to the party. The people were told by their government and their media that West Germany was a fascist state controlled by the beastly United States which wanted to destroy and enslave the people. This was one of the major excuses for building the wall in the first place. ‘We’re protecting you,’ the government claimed. ‘We’re doing this so the fascists over there don’t get you.’ If a person tried to leave, if someone tried to escape and was unfortunate enough to get caught, then they were killed. It was a similar story all over communist controlled Europe and from their perspective the western side of the divide was a paradise, a free and democratic land where everyone could be happy. The grass, as they say, is always greener on the other side.

Celebrations in Romania (from Wikimedia)

This bullshit wasn’t swallowed by everyone, it was swallowed by very few, and tensions in Eastern Europe had been simmering for a while. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not the first blow. 1989 also also saw revolutionary movements and uprisings in Romania, in Poland, Albania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria but the fall of the wall was one of the most dramatic and significant. The dismantling of the wall, the division between east and west made literal, was the signal to the world that for communism and for the Soviet Union it was all over. This, some would argue, was when the Cold War finally ended, when the forces of capitalism and democracy became triumphant. Following it, one by one, the former Soviet backed, communist states would fall like dominoes.

December of 1989 had seen a revolution in Romania, an event just as dramatic as the fall of the Berlin Wall. A protest against the deportation of Hungarian pastor Laszlo Tokes developed into a full scale, military supported riot and the eventual deposition and execution of leader Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas day. January 1st saw Poland withdraw from the Warsaw pact and the next year the country would hold its first entirely free and democratic election since 1945. 1990 also saw Lithuania and Estonia declare their independence and Bulgaria vote to end one party rule whilst at the same time capitalist society was starting to seep into the fabric of the east. On January 31st the biggest fast food chain in the world opened up shop in Moscow. It is estimated that on that first day alone, the first McDonalds in the Soviet Union served around 30000 people. They queued for miles and miles just to get their first taste of western, capitalist freedom. In October another McDonalds would open in mainland China. By the start of 1991 it was clear that there would be no going back to the days of communism and the Cold War.

Gorbachev (from NBC News)

The Soviet Union would of course fight back and attempt to salvage something from the collapse but what little they did do was without success. Demonstrations in Azerbaijan were put down with brutal force. At least 130 protestors were killed and around eight hundred injured when Soviet Troops, on the orders of Mikhail Gorbachev, occupied the capital city of Baku. This would, ultimately, backfire on the Soviet Union as the occupation would be seen as an aggressive move and it would eventually culminate in what they were trying to prevent in the first place, Azerbaijani independence. In Estonia a pro-soviet organisation, Intermovement, would attempt to seize power in an effort to prevent the break up but again they met with little success and were beaten back. For the most part, in 1990 at least, the USSR and communism would start to slip very quietly away. The following year would, however, see a lot more violence in one last ditch attempt to save the union.

Was life on the other side of the divide a bed of roses though? Far from it. The rest of the world was a violent, bloody place. It was more bloody and violent, at the time, than life on the other side. Despite the Cold War coming to an end there was almost certainly not going to be peace on earth any time soon. 1989 had ended with the US invasion of Panama and this would continue until the end of January. The U.S justified this invasion by saying that they were safeguarding the lives of U.S citizens after a number of clashes between U.S military and Panamanian forces as well as protecting the neutrality of the canal. The move was widely condemned, especially by the UN, with some countries claiming the invasion was nothing more than an excuse for regime change, that the U.S were only looking to depose General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, with whom relations had recently soured. Largely, however, the US got away with it without any significant or long lasting consequences.

US forces in Panama ( from nacla.org)

In many ways the invasion of Panama, labelled ‘Operation Just Cause’ was remarkably similar to the Suez crisis of 1956, in which a coalition of British, French and Israeli forces invaded Egypt in order to protect their interests in the Suez Canal and remove Egyptian president Abdel Nasser from power. Suez, however, had a very different outcome. Thanks to international condemnation the three aggressors were forced into a humiliating retreat. UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who by the time he took office was beyond his peak thanks to a major stomach ailment, was forced to resign and his reputation has never recovered. Interestingly the US, who thirty four years later would invade Panama for almost the same reasons, was one of the loudest voices issuing condemnation. However, because the US invasion of Panama succeeded (because they didn’t back down in the face of international condemnation like Britain, France and Israel did) it has gone down as a footnote in history rather than the military catastrophe that Suez is viewed as.

Both Panama and Suez are a clear example of the way US foreign policy had developed in the years since the Second World War. It had reared a ‘world police’ mentality, whereby if there was a problem, if they saw there was problem, they would either parachute in their troops or step in and correct it more diplomatically. This had happened most prominently with Korea and Vietnam and it was a policy that would continue throughout the nineties. It was a policy that was to backfire sooner or later however, and in one sense it had already done so in Vietnam. Whilst bruised by that conflict, the US government had not fully learned the lessons of Vietnam and so the stage was being set for a major backlash.

Saddam Hussein (from Washington Times)

There was a another conflict brewing in 1990, this time in the Middle East, and again the US would show their world police mentality. August saw the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein and like with the invasion of Panama this move was to be widely condemned. Unlike with the invasion of Panama this invasion was to have long lasting consequences, not only for Saddam but for the whole middle east and the rest of the world. It led first to economic sanctions against Iraq and then to the US led open conflict of the Gulf War, which would begin in 1991. The consequence of that war was that it began a lengthy process of regional destabilization in the middle east and quickly lead to the rise of Islamic terrorism. The Gulf War that began as a result of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait (which itself followed economic difficulties for the country after the Iran-Iraq war) were to become the opening stages of a conflict that still rages to this day. This latter conflict, for America’s world police policy, was to be a Waterloo.

And whilst a new wound was opening in the Middle East, a very old one was festering here in Britain. The issue of Ireland had been a thorny one since Victorian times, perhaps even earlier, and despite the southern parts of the country gaining independence in 1922 the north remained very much in British control. Of course, as all partitions tend to do, this caused resentment and division. One the one hand you had the mostly Catholic nationalists, seeking to leave the United Kingdom and join with the Republic of Ireland and on the other you had Protestant unionists, who were happy with the status quo. Conflict between these groups first flared up during the late sixties and matters were only made worse by the deployment of soldiers from the British mainland, soldiers who often acted in a fashion that was nothing short of brutal towards the local population. It became anarchy, not just for Northern Ireland but for mainland Britain as well.

A scene from Derry, Northern Ireland, in the seventies (from The Guardian)

The war in Northern Ireland had only become more intense since then and like the middle east today, peace was a distant dream. Today the area is thriving, home to international hit television series Game of Thrones, but back at the start of the 90s the prospect of filming a big budget spectacle there was next to impossible. Forget gratuitous fictional violence, it was all, sadly, too real. Clashes between Unionists, Republicans and the British troops were frequent and death was never far away. By the early seventies the violence had spilled over onto the mainland with bombings in Birmingham, Guildford, West Yorkshire and outside the Houses of Parliament in London. Even the royal family were not safe. The Queen’s cousin, Lord Mountbatten, and his family had all been killed by an IRA bomb in 1979. At the Tory party conference in Brighton during 1984 the provisional IRA bombed the hotel where the Prime Minister was staying. She escaped unharmed. Although times were not so extreme as at the height of the seventies, tensions were still high in 1990. The year saw the bombing of the London Stock Exchange and the assassination of MP for Eastbourne Ian Gow by members of the IRA. There was also, as if it needs saying, continuing violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

But the end for this brutal civil war was drawing closer. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Many of the British government and the Northern Irish on both sides of the fighting, were tired and behind the scenes ceasefire negotiations had been ongoing since the mid eighties. The trouble was that there were still extremists who were determined to keep on fighting, no matter what. As such it would be another eight long years of horrendous violence before it was ended by the Good Friday agreement of 1998. But even now there are still some in Northern Ireland who see the war as not being over and between Catholics and Protestants there are still many unresolved tensions.

Police during the Poll Tax Riots (from the Express)

A second conflict was tearing through Britain at the same time. Rather than raging for decades this was one created very recently by the Thatcher government themselves. The issue at the heart of it was an everyday one, taxes. Taxes may be one of the two certainties in life but nobody has ever liked them and this one, the community charge (dubbed as the poll tax) was incredibly unpopular. The intent was to replace the old system of rates, which levied a tax depending on the value of property, with a new system whereby every person would pay a fixed, flat rate. This new system was, the government claimed, fairer but the people of Britain didn’t see it that way. Instead of one household paying a nominal rate now everybody in the household would pay and most, especially those on lower incomes, hated the idea. There was a mass refusal to pay, demonstrations and finally rioting. The worst came in London on 31st March when a two hundred thousand strong group of protestors and police clashed in London, in particular around Trafalgar Square. Around 113 public and police officers were injured and there were 339 arrests.

The unpopularity of the tax was such that its introduction can be regarded as the one the worst decisions by a peacetime government in British history. Estimates place that 76%, over three quarters of the population, were against it. After it Margaret Thatcher’s popularity, and she had always been a divisive figure, plummeted to a nadir of 20%. Had she still been leader at the time of the next General Election then the odds are that she would have faced a catastrophic and humiliating defeat.

Thatcher leaves Downing Street (from The Times)

Even before the introduction of the tax the writing was on the wall. There was discontent within her own party. There had been a leadership contest the year before and although she won that with ease by the time November of 1990 rolled around there was no chance. With the country also entering into an economic recession, dissatisfaction over her domineering style of leadership and growing hostilities over her European policy, Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister was brought to a swift and dramatic end. Politics is a dirty game that few survive unscathed and after almost twelve years in power we can safely say that her time was overdue. First came the leadership contest, in which she won a first ballot over Michael Heseltine but not by enough to win outright. Then her remaining cabinet colleagues each gave her a very gentle but ultimately fatal stabbing. ‘You have our support,’ the told her, ‘but if you go in for this second ballot then you will lose.’ On the 28th November the era of Margaret Thatcher came to its conclusion. The Lady, as she once famously referred to herself, who had dominated the political scene for so long, took her final bow and left Downing Street.

Change was in the air. Not only was the Cold War over and the Soviet Union starting to collapse but Britain ended the year with a new Prime Minister in the form of John Major. In South Africa Nelson Mandela was freed after twenty seven years and new president F.W De Klerk was determined to roll back apartheid. This was momentous, but apart from the freeing of Mandela 1990 was a very quiet year on that front. The real excitement was soon to follow. And alongside all the political changes there was something else in the air, something else rapidly approaching from behind, a change that would spark nothing short of a revolution in the way we live our lives.

Tim Berners Lee at CERN (from CERN)

The CERN facility in Switzerland would later become famous as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest particle accelerator, but what has been forgotten is that one of the men working at CERN changed the world long before the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It wasn’t a discovery he made either, it was an invention. Computer Networking was nothing new but what British computer scientist Tim Berners Lee did was use the facilities at CERN to bring together several elements (TCP, Domain name systems, Hypertext) and in so doing radically altered global society. In terms of speed the World Wide Web, as he called his invention, spread ridiculously fast. Within ten years it was infiltrating every home. Then along came broadband and it began to filter out into the wider world before eventually going wireless. It took on a life of its own, taking over everything from shopping to television to gaming and to essays about the world in 1990. As Berners Lee was making his proposals and testing out his invention he could have had no idea just how radical it would be. Today most of us couldn’t live without it for it has fundamentally altered society in such a way that no other invention in the history of the world, not the automobile or the printing press or the steam engine, can compare. These other inventions have led to radical shifts in society but none had quite the same impact in so short a timescale. Nobody could have imagined that in less than fifteen years the world would have been irrevocably taken over. The thing is now so ubiquitous that internet access has been named as a fundamental human right. You can’t say that about the steam engine.

As 1990 began it was the end of an era and the start of something new. The Cold War was drawing to a close and the Soviet Union was beginning to collapse. Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister came to a dramatic conclusion, though Thatcherism itself was far from dead. Meanwhile the events that would forge the modern world were coming to life. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait would soon lead to the Gulf War and therein the rise of global terrorism and all the reactions that would bring. There was also the social revolution of the World Wide Web coming. As yet it was still little more than a glimmer in the eye of Tim Berners Lee but it would soon be in control of the world itself. Nobody could have predicted what lay in store over the decade ahead, but by the time the millennium came about 1990 would not look as though it were ten years before, it would look by comparison like a thousand years before. 1990 was an interesting year in world history by any standards but what was to come would be just as interesting, perhaps more so. The 90’s would be a tumultuous decade in which the world would be turned upside down and nothing would ever be the same again.

Having only just been born all of this passed me by. Had I somehow had any awareness I would have probably wanted to be unborn. What was going on with this world I had entered into? All around was chaos and things falling apart. It didn’t look to be a very nice place. Perhaps that was true on the surface, but the bubblings underneath would soon come through and that would be worth sticking around for. I had arrived, it turned out, at exactly the right moment.

March- 1990


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