I Saw The World Change In The Blink Of An Eye

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. 

Whatever.

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.

16 thoughts on “I Saw The World Change In The Blink Of An Eye

  1. Okay, I know you are a huge Bruce Springsten fan (as am I), but I have to say…listening to his concerts on Sirus radio….the poor guy is clueless. He may be a great muscian, but personally he reminds me of Sean Penn. His anti-Reagan rants in the 1980s…….they are worse than his anti-Bush rants of more recent times……this weekend they had a concert from 2004 where he prothisized for about 10 minutes on the evil of GWB. A guy who thought the USSR wasn’t so bad, is still trying to tell me who to vote for.

  2. Yep. No contest on that charge. My only real response; I care about Bruce’s stances on politics as much as I do Norm Coleman’s on music.

  3. Mitch, not to rail on you but let us not forget that Gorbechav played just as, if not a sigificantly more, critical role in the wall collapsing as well. His “Perstroyka” and “Glasnot” policies opened up the door and exposed how dire the situation was. The USSR fell without a single shot (okay a tank DID storm the Politbuoro but at least it didn’t shoot) and he willingly gave up power and allowed other parties to form and to have open, legitimate elections for the first time in Russian history. It could be argued that Russia would have been better off having him as prez to slowly dismantle things but Yeltsin the Drunk (I like the guy don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t the right guy for that time) won in a populist movement. Things could have gotten ugly but they didn’t, and oddly enough it was the people on the wrong side of the wall we have to thank for that.

  4. Don’t get me wrong; Gorbachev was valuable.

    But had Reagan not forced the Politburo’s hand, they’d have kept with a much harder line. After the death of ultra-hard-liner Andropov, they could have stayed with the hard line – but they knew it wasn’t going to get them anywhere against Reagan. Gorbachev is as much a result of Reagan as was anything else in the era.

  5. Once again Mitch I have to sort of disagree with you. Gorbachev saw Reagan as a formidable and respectable foe. If someone of Carter’s ilk was in the WH then he probably would have done something along the line of what Kruschev did at the UN in 1961 (taking his shoe off, slamming it down on the table while yelling “we will BURY you”) but there was definitely mutual respect there. Another 2 people that played key roles you forgot to mention were Thatcher (lord knows the UK needs someone like her as PM now, very badly) and Pope John Paul II (aka John Paul the Great). The Pope, being Polish, helped immensly with the uprising in 1980 and 1989 that was the precurser to the wall coming down. Plus I think God had had enough of communism, when Stalin refused to let Pius XII into Yalta by saying “how many divisions does the Pope have?” (meaning he had little to no military and political influence) it could be argued that by the mid-late 80’s the Eastern Bloc had vibrant Catholicism and gave people hope and something to believe in when the system slowly started to collapse around them. Can you say irony?

  6. MoN I’m not crediting him for the fall of the wall entirely I’m saying he played a key role. I think you misinterpreted me I credit “Gorbi” for the wall falling without any bloodshed. Is that not a fair assessment?

  7. Well played, MoN. Great post, Mitch. It seems like only yesterday that I was in Germany during the Polish Crisis wondering if I was ever going to see my family and friends again.

  8. credit “Gorbi” for the wall falling without any bloodshed.”

    Yep. Now we’re onto it.

    Andropov, faced with the collapse of Commie regines in Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltics and East Germany, would likely have sent in the Army – he’d already done it twice (he was involved in Budapest ’56, and he was a key figure behind the Prague Spring). It was this record that Jaruzelski was trying to pre-ept with his coup in ’81; as bad as Polish martial law was, it would have been worse with Soviets.

  9. Ben, you got your facts wrong. Way wrong! It was ONLY because of “Yeltsin the Drunk” that Gorbachev conceded power. That Drunk was on top of that tank that “stormed” the “other” White House, and upon which the army refused to fire. Gorbachev did not leave quietly – he was sent into an exile. “Perstroyka” and “Glasnot” (sic) did nothing of the sort you are saying. On the contrary, it showed what was possible without Big Brother watching over your shoulder – everybody already knew how dire their situation was. Gorbachev was a Politburo apparatchik, through and through – he would never have let Russia fall apart “quietly”.

    Gorbachev had no choice in the matter – the war was lost and he did everything possible to hang on to power at all costs, and that meant letting EE go while trying to appease the peasants at home. But, since USSR was bankrupt, he had no money left to pay for the forces keeping Empire together, and he was trounced. Peasants, led by Yeltsin, revolted. Make no mistake – Yeltsin was not the right man at the right time, he was THE man. Unlike one Vladimir Ulyanov, who literally stumbled onto a world stage. But that’s another story.

  10. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I just want to make sure the right people are given their dues and their contribution is not forgotten as history gets rewritten by the MSM.

    In retrospect, however, in historical perspective and context, I believe it would have been more “productive” to have a bloody revolution. I know it sounds macabre, and in no way shape or form do I wish death to anyone, but Blood is the price of freedom – always was, always will be. Unless it is spilled, people just don’t know how precious freedom actually is.

    Oh, and Happy Birthday, Marines! Semper Fi!

  11. “I believe it would have been more “productive” to have a bloody revolution”

    With the Russia is denigrating that still is on the table.

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