The Fall of the Wall, 30 Years Later

The fall of the Berlin Wall on this day 30 years ago was the most spectacular moment of the end of the Cold War, but in fact only represented the mid-point in the “last sad chapter” of this bizarre story, as Ronald Reagan once put it.  The occasion of remembering the last day of the Wall is a fitting time to recall the broader sweep of events that surrounded it.

The specter that haunted America’s containment policy during the Cold War was the “domino theory”—the idea that one nation after another would succumb to Communist aggression or revolution.  In 1989 the domino theory came true in reverse—nearly the entire Communist world fell almost in the blink of an eye.  In 1983 Leszek Kolakowski had written that “Certainly in Poland or Czechoslovakia (or in Hungary) Communism would fall apart within days without the Soviet threat.”  The Captive Nations of Eastern Europe decided to test to Gorbachev’s pronouncement, made late in 1988, that the Brezhnev Doctrine was well and truly over.  The Communist regimes didn’t have a chance.

The final collapse began in 1988 in Poland, where the revival of Solidarity led the demoralized Communist government to miscalculate.  A series of effective general strikes and other agitation prompted the ruling Communists to enter formal negotiations—the “Round Table” talks—with Solidarity.  Solidarity wanted one thing above all: real elections.  While the Soviet Union talked of having contested elections within the Communist Party structure, in Poland the strength of Solidarity meant that elections had to permit the participation of the opposition.  Grudgingly General Jaruzelski agreed to a deal calling for opposition candidates to fill 35 percent of the seats in the crucial lower house of a bicameral legislature (the Sejm), but allowing all 100 seats of a new Senate to be freely contested.  The Communists thought they would win quick elections against an unorganized opposition.  They underestimated both their unpopularity and the spontaneous organizing ability of Solidarity, which swept 99 of the 100 Senate seats, and captured virtually all of the 35 percent of the opposition seats in the Sejm.  But a wrinkle in the Polish election law dealt an additional devastating blow to the ruling Communists.  Voters were allowed to cross off names from the single-candidate lists, and any candidate receiving less than 50 percent of votes cast was ineligible for office.  In massive numbers Polish voters crossed out the names of 33 of 35 major Communist officials on the ballot, including the prime minister.  Solidarity ended up forming the new government; while Jaruzelski remained president for the time being, the first non-Communist prime minister of Poland took office in August.

The Polish election took place on June 4, and as the landslide results were coming in that evening the news arrived from Beijing of the bloody crackdown of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.  Here was a reminder—and a puzzle—of dictatorial systems.  Since the late 1970s China enjoyed a reptutation as a liberalizing Communist nation, but was now reverting to the same kind of violent repression the Soviets used in 1953, 1956, and 1968.  But there was little prospect of such a course succeeding again in 1989. Historian Mark Kramer commented on this extraordinary spectacle: “History offers no previous instances in which revolutionary political and social change of this magnitude transpired with almost no violence.” What explains the different courses of the Soviet bloc and China?

Here we come face to face with the fundamental reason for the collapse of European Communism.  For all of the sophisticated “structural” and “materialist” analyses of the Communist world, it comes down to the simple fact that the European Communist rulers—most of them anyway—lost the will to shoot their own people in large numbers. (Not so the Chinese.) This might seem an inevitable consequence of the loss of belief in the Marxist ideology of class struggle, but the will to power of rulers has never been dependent on ideology, and it might have turned out differently.  As Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin puts it his concise book Armageddon Averted, the Soviet Union “was lethargically stable, and could have continued muddling on for quite some time.”  Moreover, Kotkin argues,

although it had been destabilized by romantic idealism, the Soviet system still commanded a larger and more powerful military and repressive apparatus than any state in history.  It had more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy or blackmail the world, and a vast storehouse of chemical and biological weapons, with all requisite delivery systems. . .  [W]ith the horrid example of much smaller Yugoslavia’s catastrophic break-up right next door, one shudders to think of the manipulative wars, indeed the nuclear, chemical, or biological Armageddon, that could have accompanied the Soviet collapse.

Kotkin concludes: “The greatest surprise of the Soviet collapse was not that it happened—though that was shocking enough—but the absence of an all-consuming conflagration.”

The material and structural factors 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.

From Poland the next domino to fall was Hungary.  A combination of a disheartened Communist Party leadership and a confident opposition movement that prompted growing public protests against the regime culminated in an agreement in September for full and free parliamentary elections.  As in Poland the Communists hoped to hang on through the same divide and rule strategy, and after some backing and filling a new constitution was proclaimed in October.  A crystallizing moment occurred when, during the public announcement of the new constitution, a Communist Party leader told the crowd assembled outside the parliament building: “We continue to regard the undisturbed and balanced development of our relationship with our great neighbor, the Soviet Union, as being in our national interest.”  The crowd erupted in boos and whistles.  It was over.

Hungary embarked on a strategy that started other dominoes falling in quick succession.  Hungary’s reformers knew that they faced great hazards during the transitional phase, and they feared that another 1956-style military crackdown might be in store, perhaps from East Germany, whose Stalinist leadership under Erich Honecker never sympathized with Gorbachev’s program.  The Hungarians decided on a bold stroke.  They opened their border with Austria, and stopped detaining East Germans who transited through Hungary en route to Austria.  A back door around the Berlin Wall had opened up, and thousands were pouring through.  The Hungarians did not inform the Soviet Union or East Germany in advance.  “We were pretty sure,” Hungarian reformer Imre Pozsgay said later, “that if hundreds of thousands of East Germans went to the West, the East German regime would fall, and in that case Czechoslovakia was also out.”

They were right.  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 town 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.”

In Bulgaria the Communist rulers went quietly the day after the Wall came down.  In the face of rising popular opposition, Prime Minister Todor Zhikov, an unreconstructed Stalinist who had been in the office since 1954, resigned in November.  The Party Central Committee forced him out (having apparently consulted with Moscow), announced plans for competitive elections, and in effect abolished the Communist Party.

In less than a week Czechoslovakia started a quick journey down the same road.  A series of general strikes and huge public protests following the killing of a student protestor (later revealed to have been a secret police infiltrator) on November 17 led the ruling Communists to capitulate by the end of the month without further bloodshed, announcing that a coalition government would be formed and election held the following year.  Non-Communists dominated the new cabinet that was formed in December, and the national assembly elevated Vaclav Havel, who at the beginning of 1989 was in jail for his human rights activism, as the new president.

Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu lasted another month.  Ceausescu attempted to hold onto power the old-fashioned dictator way, having openly admired the Chinese solution to the Tiananmen Square problem.  He and his wife ended up with a bullet in their heads on Christmas Day.

The story of the end of Communism in the Soviet Union—and the formal breakup of the Union—was more protracted.  Gorbachev resorted for force to put down a drive to independence by the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, and a coup attempt against Gorbachev in 1991 led to some nervous moments all around.  Eventually his rival Boris Yeltsin swept him away in free elections. Yeltsin finished what Gorbachev haltingly began.  One of Yeltsin’s first acts as president was to slash defense spending by 80 percent.  Yeltsin cashiered more than 500 generals, and the number of men under arms in Russia was cut from 2.7 million to 1.2 million.  The Soviet Union had spent roughly a quarter of its GDP on defense in the 1980s; by 1999, Russian spending for defense was down to 2.3 percent of GDP.  In accordance with the START Treaty finally reached with the U.S. in 1990, the number of nuclear warheads in the Russian arsenal declined from more than 10,000 in 1990 to under 4,500 today.  In 1991 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous Doomsday Clock was reset at 17 minutes to midnight, down from 3 in 1984—the farthest it had been since its invention early in the nuclear age.

Even Nicaragua succumbed.  The Sandinistas, faced with renewed American and regional pressure and the withdrawal of Soviet subsidies, agreed to free elections in 1990.  Between their bully apparatus and the disorganization of the opposition, they expected to win; the CIA expected them to win, too.  They were crushed in a landslide.  Before long the scholarly journal Problems of Communism had to change it name to Problems of Post-Communism, akin to the Wall Street Journal becoming a bankruptcy journal.  In 2007 Gorbachev turned up in expensive full color ads in the Sunday New York Times touting Louis Vuitton luggage from the comfort of his limousine driving past a fragment of the Berlin Wall.  A Las Vegas casino reportedly offered Gorbachev millions to be a greeter.  While he declined that offer, he did appear in a Pizza Hut ad.

The abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall caught the West by surprise.  At the White House, President George H.W. 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 had.

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.’”  The deep unpopularity of the Communist regimes revealed by the peoples of Eastern Europe in 1989 was an embarrassment to moderate liberals and value-free social scientists who regarded these nations as stable and legitimate forms of governance, and it was a source of faith-shaking crisis for the far left that openly sympathized with these regimes.  On the intellectual level the death of revolutionary socialism has found a successor in “post-modern” philosophy that preserves some aspects of decayed Marxism.  But its obscurity limits its power to convince, and as such is unlikely to advance beyond the barricades of academic English departments. Those artificial intellectual walls will take longer to come down.

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