November 9 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wrote this back on the twentieth anniversary; my opinion hasn’t changed much.
Let us give credit where it is due: to the Soviet and East German leadership, who could have responded to the Winds of Change by pulling a full-scale Tiananmen Square massacre (another event in that fateful year of 1989), but who chose not to. And let us give credit to the man who prompted the election of Mikhail Gorbachev in the first place: that amiable dunce Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 after Jimmy Carter wore out his welcome. Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher, ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviets on any number of fronts, and since the Soviets found they could not compete with this pressure, appointed Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985 in the hopes of reforming Communism so that they could compete. “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” became household words, and Reagan became much more willing to play ball with the Soviets in his second term. Even when the whole thing got ahead of Gorby (in Eastern Europe at any rate) he didn’t order a repeat of Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956, although he could very well have.
The fall of the Wall was significant on at least two levels – it represented the reunification of Germany, and was therefore deeply emotional to the Germans; for the rest of us it also represented the fall of the Iron Curtain (“from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”), the opening up of the east, and the beginning of the end of Communism as we knew it. As it turns out the Soviets’ Eastern European empire was its Achilles’ heel – for the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, et al. to throw off Communism was as much about rejecting Soviet influence as it was about ridding themselves of a corrupt and decayed system that wasn’t working anymore. The revolutions then spread to the SSRs, and finally to Moscow itself. There went Communism, and with it the Cold War, and with that the threat of nuclear war. Remember nuclear war? As portrayed in such classic movies as War Games or The Day After? We have forgotten the constant background worry about the possibility of this event, but I assure you it was always there.
I grew up in Canada, where it went absolutely without saying that Americans were stupid, that Reagan was stupid, that he saw the world in simplistic good-and-evil terms, and that he was needlessly provoking the Soviets and thus toying with the annihilation of the world. And indeed, let us not write history with the end in mind: the world could very well have ended up this way. But Reagan was vindicated, even if there was a great deal of contingency in the actual events, and probably deserves at least partial credit for the defeat of Communism, whatever the other flaws his administration may have been. Mainstream liberal opinion in the 1980s, if not indulgent of Communism, at least averred that we should seek to “live with” the Soviets and achieve a “balanced” political situation. After all, said Sting, don’t the Russians love their children too? But Reagan dared to state the obvious fact that the Soviet system was evil, and to imagine a world without it. And his vision came to pass! Incredible! (Of course we were far from absolutely good ourselves, but still, you must confess that Reagan was right on a certain level…)
With all due respect to one of my colleagues, the Berlin Wall was not a symbol of the Cold War as much as it was a symbol of Communism. (As George Jonas pointed out: no one sees the gate at Auschwitz as a symbol of the Second World War, but of Nazism.) This leads me to examine an invitation from another colleague to consider other walls and how we might take them down. Some walls serve a legitimate purpose. Consider the photos that our Belfast exchange student took of the Peace Wall separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods – Catholics and Protestants in Belfast do not get along, and do not want to get along, so what else can you do but separate them with a wall, on the principle that good fences make good neighbors? Similarly, the wall that the Israelis are building around the West Bank, or the wall that some people would like to build along the border with Mexico, or the walls that have surrounded important cities throughout most of human history – these are defensive walls, built to protect inhabitants from the predations of outsiders. Die Mauer was neither of these. It did not go up by mutual agreement, but was put up unilaterally by the East Germans – and although they called it an “anti-fascist rampart,” it was in fact a way of keeping their own people on the farm. It was parallel to a prison wall, a very Bad Thing indeed, and an obvious demonstration of the real nature of Communism. The world is a better place without it.