The Berlin Wall @25, Take 2

FWIW, here are some excerpts of my account of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the larger currents around it from the Epilogue of The Age of Reagan, picking up right in the middle. One part of this at the end—that revolutionary politics are over—is clearly incorrect, though the “crisis on the Left” bit remains more true than ever:

The material and structural factors [of the end of the Cold War] are not to be dismissed, but “structuralist” explanations of the collapse of Communism are similar to “structuralist” literary criticism—both choke the life out of the story and ignore the essential, soul-moving dimensions of the matter. That the collapse of Communism in each of the Captive Nations played out in a distinct manner demonstrates this. . .

Throughout the fall protests in East German cities were growing, reaching a climax on November 4, when a million people took to the streets of East Berlin. East Germany’s aging tyrant, Erich Honecker, stepped down in October after Gorbachev came through down and showed him the back of his hand, but it was too late for the regime to save itself. In the face of the mounting exodus of its citizens and unprecedented public protests in East German cities (50,000 turned out in Leipzig on October 9, and half million flooded the streets of East Berlin on November 4), on November 9 the Politburo quietly decided to lift all travel restrictions. At the end of a routine daily press briefing at 7 pm, a Politburo spokesman made a low-key announcement that “private trips abroad can be applied for, and permits will be granted promptly. . . Permanent emigration is henceforth allowed across all border crossing points between East Germany and West Germany and West Berlin.” What’s this?!

Within hours thousands of Germans from both sides of the Berlin divide descended on the Wall, where bewildered guards didn’t know what to do. Soon people with picks and hammers climbed atop the wall and started its destruction. “We did not suspect,” the East German foreign minister wrote, “that the opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end of the Republic.” . . .

Wall 3 copyThe abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall caught the West by surprise. At the White House, President Bush was wary of inflaming a potentially unstable situation and issued a statement so low-key it made people wonder if he was on valium. “You don’t seem elated,” Leslie Stahl said to Bush. “I’m not an emotional kind of guy,” Bush replied. With the time difference between Europe and the U.S., the American news media scrambled to catch up to the story. Naturally the TV news shows began looping Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall!” ABC News reached Ronald Reagan at home in Los Angeles, and he agreed to go on ABC’s PrimeTime Live, where he appeared to be as astonished as everyone else. Sam Donaldson asked Reagan, “Did you think it would come this soon?” Reagan, subdued throughout the interview, replied, “I didn’t know when it would come, but I’m an eternal optimist, and I believed with all my heart that it was in the future.” Like Bush, Reagan didn’t wish to embarrass or humiliate Gorbachev, so Reagan denied to Donaldson that he’d ever directly spoken to Gorbachev about the Wall, though we know from subsequent transcripts that he did.

Mostly Reagan repeated some of his better known public themes from his Cold War diplomacy (“trust, but verify”), but he did take a mild shot at his critics: “Contrary to what some critics have said, I never believed that we should just assume that everything was going to be all right.” Asked to revisit his “evil empire” comment, Reagan said,” I have to tell you—I said that on purpose. . . I believe the Soviet Union needed to see and hear what we felt about them. They needed to be aware that we were realists.” A nice turn, suggesting that it was the anti-Communist “ideologues” who were the true realists all along. Prompted to revisit his 1982 prediction that Communism was headed to the “ash heap of history,” Reagan ended the interview with the short observation: “People have had time in some 70-odd years since the Communist revolution to see that Communism has had its chance, and it doesn’t work.”

But it was the end of more than a 20th century story. Some of the East German protestors in the streets of Leipzig in early November carried banners that read, “1789-1989.” The storming of the Bastille in 1789 could be said to have marked the beginning of utopian revolutionary politics; now the storming of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked its end. As Timothy Garton Ash observed, “Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French revolution of 1789 as ‘the left.’”

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