Remembering the Fall of the Wall

The Post’s Outlook section yesterday had four articles dealing with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two that look at Berlin then and now and very interesting but the other two essays show conflicting notions about history that are worth considering.

"How it went down" by Mary Elise Sarotte looks at the particulars of the night of November 9, 1989. We learn about an otherwise boring press conference by a member of the East German Politburo who, at its end, seems to indicate that the travel restrictions on East Germans going to the West have been removed effective immediately. This, according to Sarotte, was the key moment. The city had seen large crowds all week calling for reforms, and now they grew exponentially, and the guards, unsure of what to do, finally lifted the barriers. The Wall came down. Sarotte writes that it was important that this all happened at night when the communist leaders in Moscow were already in bed.


It is undoubtedly the case that the patterns in history are almost never apparent at the moment, only in the rear view mirror. Minor facts often do change the course of history in important ways. Nixon’s refusal to put on make-up before his first presidential debate with Kennedy strikes me as the kind of thing that is small but turns out to be big. But, Sarotte’s emphasis is over-kill. If the communist leaders in Moscow had determined to re-close the wall when they arose, things would have turned out differently. After all, the Prague spring of 1968 went on for longer than an overnight. It is interesting to know that the Wall was breached this way, rather than another way, but its days were numbered before that press conference began.

"Who killed communism? Look past the usual suspects," a book review by Gerard DeGroot of three recent books about the fall of communism. This is a really important essay because it does sketch the broad strokes but is also attentive to historical accidents. For example, DeGroot notes that many histories see Eastern Europeans as monolithic, "a bloc, manipulated and exploited by the Soviet Union" not because they were, but because it allows "neo-conservatives eager to extract parables" to make similarly facile claims today. This is a key point: History should stand in the way of facile argumentation. DeGroot notes that "The [Eastern European] regimes evolved differently and died distinctly. Poland experienced a long popular uprising, Czechoslovakia a short, sharp one. Hungary saw a polite palace coup, Bulgaria a nasty one. East Germany was chaos, Romania a bloody mess." Yet, all of them fell because all of them were sick. Economically, all had been propped up by Soviet subsidies, but the Soviet economy was in free fall, not because of the arms race begun by Ronald Reagan, but because anytime oil prices go way up and then collapse, oil-producing economies cannot withstand the shock and there is resultant political turmoil. DeGroot quotes two lines from Hemingway’s "The Sun Also Rises": "How did you go bankrupt?" "Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly."

We are still learning the lessons of the end of the Cold War. It is curious to me that DeGroot’s essay does not mention Pope John Paul II, yet it was the Pope who in many ways inspired the "long popular uprising" in Poland he does mention. That does not mean that Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan brought down communism. They didn’t. But, they played their part in different ways. John Paul II spoke of the artificiality of the division of Europe and, even more, of the human dignity the communist governments trampled. Reagan spoke of freedom, by which he meant something different from the Pope. Indeed, the capitalism Reagan promised and the West brought after the fall, has produced the kind of materialism against which the Pope argued all those years. It is now obvious that the chief protagonists in the drama, the Eastern European people themselves, may have chanted "We Want God" as the Pope’s motorcade drove by, but many of them also wanted DVDs and BMWs and liberal abortion laws.

I remember that November day when we learned of the breach of the wall. I remember, a little more than a month later, a concert in Berlin where Lenny Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when they changed the "Ode to Joy" of the final choral movement to an "Ode to Freedom," singing "freiheit" instead of "freude." And, of course, anyone alive that year remembers the Tiananmen massacre where things turned out differently. The anniversary of those events is an invitation to move from memory to history, from the anecdotal to the thematic (and back again!) and from the ideologically sanitized version to the messier truth. The fall of communism remains a great thing, even if recalling it today entails more ambivalence about the outcome than the heady, ennui-free days of 1989.


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