The mood in the West at the beginning of the 1990s was so optimistic that the period was defined by a single provocative phrase: "The end of history." Historian Francis Fukuyama, at the time deputy director of the U.S. State Department's policy-planning staff, first used the line in an obscure 1989 essay, then expanded upon it in a book, "The End of History and the Last Man". Fukuyama argued that the forces of freedom had triumphed over Marxism with its legacy of war, revolution and totalitarian oppression. The result, he warned, could be an era so devoid of conflict and challenge as to be deadening. As TIME's Strobe Talbott (later U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) described Fukuyama's thesis in a 1992 essay: "Mankind is entering a state of grace and risking terminal boredom."
Europe certainly seemed to enter the '90s in a state of grace. It was a decade that began with the final failure of communism, dissolution of the Soviet Union, withdrawal of armies, destruction of nuclear weaponry, opening of borders and unparalleled prosperity.
Optimism was in the air, a confidence in the future not felt for a half-century. In Central Europe closed societies burst open with the promise of market economies and democratic government. The signing of the Maastricht Treaty created the prospect of a common European currency before the turn of the century. The World Wide Web created by a British scientist working in a European laboratory in Switzerland offered the promise of a burgeoning information age free from the blight of borders, suspicion and censorship.
The end of history, it appeared, was a lovely time to be alive.
Then, suddenly and perhaps predictably, history returned, and with much the same violence and vindictiveness that have made the previous decades of the 20th century so dismally memorable. Iraq launched an attack on Kuwait. It brought a massive response from the U.S.-led coalition that annihilated the Iraqi army in a lightning war. Yugoslavia came apart in an orgy of civil strife and "ethnic cleansing" that revived memories of Nazi genocide during World War II. Europe and its institutions NATO, the European Union, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe stood paralyzed amid slaughter.
For a few perilous days in August 1991, it seemed that the same might happen in the Soviet Union. A junta put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and announced a state of emergency. Defenders of democracy, led by Boris Yeltsin, barricaded themselves inside Moscow's White House, and the coup collapsed. The Soviet Union followed. Soon after, the Central Committee of the Communist Party itself disbanded. Result: freedom for the inmates of the Soviet prison of nations. Mapmakers struggled to redraw borders, and the U.N. made way for 17 new members.
Freedom did not necessarily bring peace. In the Caucasus, Georgia dissolved into civil war while Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over contested territory. Russia itself a vast multi-ethnic federation stretching from the Baltic to the Pacific seemed headed for further disintegration. Regions rebelled, some peacefully and some violently. Most violent was the republic of Chechnya, whose unilateral declaration of independence Moscow ultimately resisted in a bloody and winless war.
For many in Eastern Europe, war was only one bitter consequence of newly won freedom. Market reforms shuttered unproductive factories and even whole industries, creating widespread unemployment and sometimes runaway inflation. Health and welfare systems collapsed: in 1994 the typical Russian male could look forward to an average life-span of only 57 years, the worst prognosis in the industrialized world. Faced with such catastrophes, both public and personal, citizens began using their new voting right to turn back to the past. Communist parties popped up once again, with liberal-sounding new names but many of the same old faces. In 1995 Poles ousted the mercurial Lech Walesa from the presidency, replacing him with ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski. Former communists won high office in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary. Even in eastern Germany, prospering from unification, a renamed former Communist Party won seats in parliament. In Russia only a timely alliance between Yeltsin and popular ex-general Alexander Lebed helped defeat a revived Communist Party and its candidate, Gennadi Zyuganov, in last summer's presidential election.