It was twenty years ago today that the Berlin Wall fell.
It’s hard to remember at twenty years remove that it, and the Communism it represented, didn’t just get swept away in a wave of small-l liberal euphoria.
Dinesh D’Souza, in his excellent bio of Reagan, notes that between 1980 and 1983, the experts were united in their belief that the “Second World”, Communism, was here to stay. Make no mistake, people had recovered from the spell of Walter Duranty long enough to know that the Soviet system was cruel and corrupt gangster-run autocracy even worse than Chicago. The publication of The Gulag Archipelago and other releases from the samisdat media, and the flood of people who fled Germany from 1948 through 1961, popped the bubble of acceptability that had accompanied travesties like Stalin’s “Man of the Year” awards in 1939 and 1942, and Stalinism’s embrace by “intelligentsia” throughout the West (including the early version of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer/Labor Party). The stories of the thousands of heroic Soviet-bloc citizens who risked death and imprisonment fleeing their foetid, starving, lumpen homelands inspired many a young patriot in the day.
But while the bloom was long off the rose of western acceptance of Communism, the number of western intellectuals who seriously believed in 1980 that the decade would see the fall of the Berlin Wall and, in short order, communism itself would have fit in a single room at a Ramada Inn.
There had been resistance, of course; in Budapest and Gdansk in 1956, Prague in 1967, Gdansk again in ’71 – all put down with ruthless brutality by the authorities, including the Soviet military.
And so I’m not aware that anyone held out that much hope for change in 1979 – thirty years ago – when Lech Walesa, a young electrician in Gdansk, led a pro-democracy union strike in Gdansk. The movement had traction, of course – it swept Poland, and threatened to spin out of control; the Polish Army under General Wojciech Jaruzelski staged what amounted to a last-ditch military coup to bring down the government and declare martial law to quell the strikes, siccing “ZOMO” thugs (no, it’s not Polish for SEIU) on the protesters and strikers. Jaruzelski was reviled around the world for the action – although there is evidence that history has misjudged the General, that he acted as did many in the Polish Army, as a Polish patriot, to prevent a Soviet invasion, which would have been much, much worse).
And indeed, had the status quo ante held sway after 1980, nothing much would have happened.
But in 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan signalled an end to detente – the diplomatic legitimazion of the Soviet gangster regime. Reagan jacked up the rhetoric war, and the civil support for trade unionists behind the Iron Curtain (with considerable help from Margaret Thatcher, the Pope and, speaking of strange bedfellows, Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO), as well as building up the US military from its post-Vietnam nadir (although to be fair Jimmy Carter had realized the problem, and taken a few of the necessary high-level steps to start facilitating this). The rhetorical confrontation peaked at Reagan’s classic Brandenburg Gate speech in 1987…
…but the diplomatic war had reached its Battle of Stalingrad at the Rejkjavik conference the year before, when Reagan called Gorbachev’s bluff on intermediate-range nukes. Lily-livered pundits in the west flew into a panic, expecting mushroom clouds over London…
…but Gorbachev blinked. He realized the communist East could not outlast the free West. He accelerated the “liberalization” of the USSR and the Communist bloc – not to extinct it, initially, but to try to save it.
It was too late. The Poles tossed aside the commies, followed by the Czechs.
It didn’t go entirely without a fight, though. As the Baltic States – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – tried to follow neighboring Poland’s suit, Soviet soldiers attacked some demonstrations.
But in dizzyingly short order, the Communist Bloc, which had killed tens of millions of people in the previous seventy years (estimates range from 20 to 60 million) and floated on a sea of blood that dwarved even Hitler’s monumental crimes against humanity, fell, kicked to the curb in a sea of ebullient humanity.
The left never got it. Some of them had backed the wrong team. Others were so invested in the idea that capitalism and western-style liberty were obsolete that they couldn’t wrap their arms around the new reality.
Some believe that if western-style democracy and liberty were so cool, the nations left in the wake of the fall of The Wall should have been able to get up and run from the get-go. I distinctly remember Tom Brokaw, in 1992, describing Poland’s difficulties in changing from a command economy to free-enterprise. “Et wrold sheem thut Eesturrrn Yurp’s ukspurramunt in Kapetelezm hez FEHLED” (“it would seem Eastern Europe’s experiment in capitalism has failed“), he said, with no further comment, apparently seeking his own Waltern Cronkite “this war can not be won” moment, writing off three whole years of effort on Poland’s part. He was wrong, of course; Poland survived, and thrived. And while the road to prosperity has been difficult for some former Soviet counties (indeed, for Russia itself, which may or may not be socially amenable to small-L liberal goverment), most of Eastern Europe thrives today, free of prowling Black Marias and windowless trains in the dark for long enough that people are starting to forget what they meant.
Which must be an incredible blessing.
But Brokaw’s pronouncement, more than anything I can remember, started curing me of the habit of watching network news.
There are those who still say the whole fall of The Wall was Gorbachev’s idea – an idea that requires a preposterous suspension of disbelief, buying the notion that the Politburo – think Capi di Tutti Capi in Russian – would turn the Premiership over to anyone whose goal wasn’t the survival of the system.
My many friends and acquaintances and neighbors and co-workers over the past twenty years who fled to the West tell me that they and their people back home remember who their real friends are.
So – Fröhliche Zwanzigste Jahre der Freiheit, Deutschland. Und viele mehr.
May the rest of us remember.
At least better than our feckless current leadership does. Obama blew off the observance, just as he blew off Poland’s observance, six weeks ago, of the beginning on its soil of the greatest single cataclysm of human history.
Just as well. He’d probably deliver a heartfelt apology for the US having won.