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PRAGUE — A quiz for history buffs. Twenty years ago — on June 4, 1989 — three events shaped a fateful year. Which do you remember most vividly, and which most changed the world?: (a) the bloody denouement of the protests on Tiananmen Square; (b) the death of Iran’s revolutionary cleric, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini; and (c) the Polish elections.

Few would answer (c). The victory of the famed opposition trade-union movement, Solidarity, in Eastern Europe’s first free election since 1946 was eclipsed by the violent crackdown in Beijing and Khomeini’s tumultuous passing. Yet no single event did more to bring down communism in Europe — and thus to reshape the postwar international order.

The next few months will bring all sorts of commemorations of communism’s end, particularly of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. To many, it was a glorious moment, emblematic of the West’s victory in the Cold War, and one that seemed to come out of the blue. But if you watched the Eastern Bloc’s disintegration from the ground, you would know that the process was far longer and more complex than most people realize.

The Polish election was a point of no return, the moment when forces for change became irreversible. They gathered momentum after a summer of labor strikes, when Poland’s communist chief, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, concluded that the country’s economic troubles were too grim to face alone. Why not enlist the help of Poland’s opposition, he reasoned, if not to solve the problems, then at least to share the blame for them?

And so, after six months of bargaining, a historic deal was struck. Poland would hold free and fair parliamentary elections, and Solidarity would compete. It never occurred to the ruling communists (or to Solidarity) that they might lose. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine being driven from power altogether. Yet that is what happened.

In retrospect, it is astonishing that there should have been any doubt. Solidarity’s campaign was all chutzpah. An iconic campaign poster captured the public mood: a picture of a gunslinging Gary Cooper as the sheriff in the classic western “High Noon.”

June 4 was the day of reckoning in Dodge City East. On that bright Sunday morning, as spring turned to summer, voters wasted little time in dispatching Poland’s communists to the abattoir.

On their dying day, Poland’s communists managed one last perversity, an unwitting act of utter self-humiliation. They devised an electoral system whereby Poles would not vote for candidates of their choice, but would cross out those they did not want — which is to say, each and every communist.

Everywhere you looked, people were excising hated autocrats. Here, at long last, was Poland’s long-awaited popular uprising, revenge for December 1980, when Jaruzelski declared martial law, banned Solidarity, and threw its leaders in jail. Revolution by deletion! The pen, at last mightier than the sword, became a weapon of glorious retribution, wielded with style. Some voters slashed their ballots boldly, decapitating the old regime with flourishing strokes. Others savored the moment, perhaps puffing a cigarette as they reveled in this or that deletion. “Oh yes, he jailed my cousin.” Pfft! “Oh, that sponging apparatchik, living high on our penury.” Pfft! Pfft!

By contrast, the communists’ campaign was all but invisible. In all of Warsaw, only a couple government candidates bothered to put up posters. Most counted on the party’s media monopoly to carry their message, such as it was: “Vote Lezek, a good communist.”

To their credit, the regime accepted its inevitable loss with remarkable grace. At 3 p.m. on the day after the vote, Jaruzelski summoned top party officials. “Our defeat is total,” he told them. “A political solution will have to be found.” By that, he meant no violence and no doctoring the ballot count. The communists would live with the result.

Twenty years later, I remain mystified. Those of us covering Eastern Europe knew that Solidarity would win. We knew, too, that its peaceful victory would be a lesson for the rest of the bloc. For anticommunists everywhere, the Polish election was extraordinarily encouraging. Thanks to Poland, what only days before had seemed impossible was, suddenly, possible.

There were other signs. In May, Hungarian reformers began tearing down the fence along their border with Austria — a hole in the Iron Curtain. In Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a “Common European House” and repudiated the interventionist Brezhnev Doctrine.

Yet when the Berlin Wall tumbled down, experts and world leaders alike were unanimous. “We never saw it coming,” they confessed. The Cold War had lasted so long that change seemed unimaginable until freedom burst forth.

Michael Meyer, Newsweek’s bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe in 1989, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Year That Changed the World.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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