World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Padriac Kenney, 1989: Democractic Revolutions at the Cold War's End: A Brief History with Documents. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010. Pp. xii + 196. $14.95 (paper)


     The revolutions of 1989 are one of those years in history—similar to 1848 and 1968—where a global understanding of causes, events, players, and consequences is perhaps obvious, but even imperative to unravel similarities, differences, and influences in an incredibly significant year of reform, revolution, and hope when millions of people took to the streets to make changes in their countries. This short book should soon be a focus for anyone interested in understanding and teaching about these comparative issues. As a high school teacher of contemporary history, I hope to persuade my department head to order this spectacular book. It is a good read, not the least because Kenney makes clear how forces governing global revolutions were intertwined and offers intriguing case studies to illuminate that process.

     Kenney begins with a succinct (twenty page) overview of connections to prior revolutions—most importantly that of 1968—and places these revolutionary changes, as well as the counterrevolutionary ones, in global and generational context by looking at the role of political activists and the different methods that they used to achieve their goals and the opposition that they met by their respective government leaders. Kenney is well read in terms of the events of 1989 and of the dynamic of revolutions themselves. He correctly cites the variety of influences of these collective revolutions: cultural values, ideas, leaders, movements, politics, and technologies.

     Kenney then examines individual movement leaders in terms of the spread of their beliefs, not only in the context of ideas, but also of the global events of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In so doing he is careful to place these ideas in terms of a reform of capitalism and/or communism, not as has sometimes been done in the popular press, as a repudiation of socialism. Many of these leaders and supporters were socialists. Kenny demonstrates this through short readings from Czech Vaclav Havel from 1978, Chinese Wei Jingsheng from 1978, South African Desmond Tutu from 1980, Iranian Mehdi Bazargan from 1983, Chilean Julieta Kirkwood from 1983, Burmese Aung San Suu Kyi from 1988, and Russian Mikhail Gorbachev from 1987.

     Kenney carefully deconstructs these revolutions through six case studies: Poland, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa, Ukraine, and, finally, China, which serves as the counter example where the end was not as positive as it was in the other five situations (that is the bulk of the book: 120 pages). He supports his arguments with four documents per case (except for Poland where he cites five) each of which is prefaced by a short and useful overview, as well as questions to consider as one reads or discusses them, such as why these particular activists choose political activism. He reveals similarities in the first five cases, as well as transnational influences.

     Kenney concludes with a chronology from 1968–1995 and ten general/global questions. These questions address issues such as causes, the role of supporters, symbols, philosophies, the ability of activists to compromise with government leaders, outside influences, the role of non-violence, the speed of revolution, comparisons with earlier revolutions of the 20th century, and consequences of revolutionary action in the 21st century. He also provides a short bibliography. By placing all of the revolutions discussed in broad historical context as well as contemporary global ones, this book will become a superb tool for teaching and learning about these fascinating years. My only criticism of the book is that Kenney (or his publisher) has included only five illustrations: one for Poland, one for the Philippines, and three for Chile; the visual learners among us (that is at least a quarter of us!) would have benefited from more graphic illustrations of the similarities and differences among the revolutions that he discusses.

James A. Diskant teaches at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, MA; he is World History Connected's editor for Pioneering New Classroom Approaches. He can be contacted at


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2010 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use