Glasnost as Verb: To Open A Wall

Editor's Note: On Sunday, Nov. 9, Germany and the world marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This editorial on the implications of that historic occassion originally appeared in America on Nov. 25, 1989.

The week following Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin wall was officially opened, saw journalists and diplomats alike struggling to come up with superlatives adequate to the occasion and appropriate to their respective callings. Hedrick Smith, who has spent years reporting on the Soviet Union, thinks it will be regarded as "the day the Cold War ended." Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, tempering euphoria with a modicum of restraint, calls it merely the most historic day since the end of World War II. Now that we have all had a chance to pinch ourselves and rub our eyes, the momentous implications of Nov. 9 are coming clear.

Advertisement

Political. The speed and the force with which the topic of German reunification came rushing to the fore have been breathtaking and inevitable—the speed matched that of the wall's collapse, and the force came from the wall's having functioned as a symbol of artificial, enforced division. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl temporarily interrupted his trip to Poland, as historic as that was, to appear in Berlin and announce to the East Germans: "We're on your side. We are and remain one nation. We belong together." Willy Brandt, from the other side of West Germany's political spectrum, put it in a less oompah but still forceful way: "No one should act as if he knows in which concrete form the people in these two states will find a new relationship. But that they will find a relationship, that they will come together in freedom, that is the important point."

Not everyone is pleased at that prospect. Margaret Thatcher, whose party and Government have seemed content to live with a divided Ireland (in no rush, at any rate, to solve the "Irish question"), said predictably that any talk of German reunification was much too fast. Marc Tannenbaum, of the American Jewish Committee, while not wishing to be paranoid, as he said, could not refrain from mentioning at this time that certain jingoistic ex-Nazis were still running for office in West Germany, though the fairminded Mr. Tannenbaum would no doubt also admit that Germany is not the only land where jingoes stand for office.

Jürgen Ruhfus, the West German Ambassador to the United States, has sensibly and helpfully pointed out that the West German Constitution, dedicated in principle to the unification of the nation, nevertheless conceives this unity as a matter of self-determination by the East and West German peoples. Meaningful discussion of reunification must therefore await the free electoral process promised to the East Germans by their new leader Egon Krenz, and how the East German voters will ultimately come down on this question is not yet clear.

Economic. If the Western allies have not had to consider till now what their answer was to the "German question," neither did Bonn have to consider till now whether its offer of instant citizenship to any ethnic Germans arriving there from near or far was a sustainable policy. So long as East Germany was sealed off, the number of immigrants was manageable. With recent German immigrants numbering in the hundreds of thousands, however, and with the newly opened border suggesting that the sky may be the limit, Mr. Kohl must be a bit nervous. The good news about the Berlin wall arrived just as Mr. Kohl had begun his historic trip to Poland. He went there bearing, not gifts exactly, but $1.9 billion in credits that will help to take the chill off the Polish winter.

By opening its borders, East Germany's leaders are gambling that the pressure to flee, to get out while the getting's good, will be removed and that the state will be stabilized. The tremendous economic disparities between East and West Germany make this an arguable proposition, in the long run, but voices as various as those of George Bush and Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne are now urging the East Germans to stay where they are, "to change the system," as the Cardinal put it. No doubt Mr. Kohl hopes the same, so as not to have to wage an economic campaign on two fronts, propping up his faltering and newfound friends to the east while also providing for massive numbers of new citizens at home.

Cultural-Historic. On Nov. 12, the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Helmut Kohl went to Mass with Tadeusz Mazowiecki in a small town of Southwest Poland that used to belong to Germany. That extraordinary Mass on a Sunday of Ordinary Time is as fitting a symbol as any of the "coming home" of the Eastern European nations. They may have been under the Soviet boot for 40 years, but their fundamental cultural and historical affinities have been with the West. The Berlin uprising of 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Prague spring of 1968 and the rise of Solidarity in 1981 were all manifestations of this orientation yearning to breathe free.

Now that the former Soviet satellites are slipping into a different orbit, one that historically speaking is more natural to them, the Russians have started speaking of a "common European home." It is hard to know exactly what this romantic expression means, but it seems to be compounded of the following elements: 1) a Europe in which no nation, and especially not Germany, has hegemony; 2) a Europe in which borders remain as they now are and in which every nation, and especially East Germany, finds its place; 3) a Europe in which every nation, and especially the Soviet Union, gets to share in the economic well-being of the common home. It is the third of the above wishes that gives the West a way of bargaining with the Soviets in the future, just as surely as it has brought us to the present new openness.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
3 years 8 months ago
Interesting not one mention of the three people (except for a derogatory comment about one) who primarily made it happen. These were Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Says a lot about the American editors of the time than the event.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Why are there so many Catholics on the nation’s highest court?
Allyson EscobarJuly 18, 2018
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
Said with purpose and conviction, the Memorare can remind 20-somethings that we are not alone in our restlessness.
Allyson EscobarJuly 18, 2018
Jesus would have definitely taken his paid days of vacation—all of them.
Jack Bentz, S.J.July 18, 2018
Hasn’t the good Lord given someone to watch over you?
Terrance KleinJuly 18, 2018