The Berlin Wall: Twenty years after the fall

The fall of the wall was the product of “countless individual choices at key moments,” statesmanship, diplomacy, and even a bit of human folly.

“It was almost enough to make one believe in destiny,” said Michael Meyer in the Chicago Tribune. When the Berlin Wall fell on that unforgettable November night in 1989, “astounded East Germans surged in a human sea to the crossing points to the West,” and it seemed like the inevitable triumph of freedom over tyranny. But the fall of the wall was the product of “countless individual choices at key moments” and even of human folly. East Germany had decided that day to allow its citizens to travel abroad with permission, but when a functionary misread a press release and announced that people were free to leave “immediately,” thousands poured into the streets and tore down the wall. Who knew that night was just the start? said Christopher Hitchens in In just a little over two years, the tyrannies of Eastern Europe collapsed, Germany reunified, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. In the end, the shoddy lie that was communism could no longer sustain the illusion that its citizens’ harsh, impoverished lives were better than those in the West. And so, 20 years ago this week, “peoples so long forced to hold their tongues and hold their breath all exhaled at the same moment and blew the old order away.”

That victory had many fathers—Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Pope John Paul II, to name a few, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Chief among them, perhaps, was Ronald Reagan, “who believed the job of Western statesmanship was not simply to contain the Soviet bloc, but to bury it.” That statesmanship was vital, said James Mann in the Los Angeles Times. But Reagan didn’t defeat the Soviets just by rattling the American saber and declaring, “Tear down this wall!” Over the “bitter denunciations” of right-wing Republicans, he engaged in real diplomacy with Gorbachev, creating a thaw in five face-to-face meetings that allowed the Cold War to end in a tidal wave of liberty, and not a mushroom cloud.

Perversely enough, the West actually misses the Cold War, said Gregory Rodriguez, also in the Los Angeles Times. Our opposition to communism once defined us as clearly as our freedoms did, and made capitalism seem more benign than it does after, say, the collapse of a bubble. “Without the stark divide between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ we miss that absolute certainty as to who we are and what we stand for.” We also miss ducking and covering from a true “existential threat,” said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Life was more vivid, more inspiring when the Soviets had 10,000 nuclear warheads pointed at us, and hundreds of millions of people in a dozen communist nations were taught that history would culminate in the West’s destruction. Today, as “real totalitarianism recedes in history’s rearview mirror,” the Right tries to fill the void by vastly inflating the danger posed by al Qaida, Kim Jong Il, and Iran, while the Left conjures up existential threats in global warming, runaway capitalism, and Dick Cheney.

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Sorry to spoil the illusion, said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, but none of today’s dangers match the Cold War for “gravity, drama, and urgency.” For four decades, we woke every day to a world that could quite literally be obliterated in nuclear hellfire by the push of a few buttons in Moscow and Washington. We should be grateful, and not nostalgic, that the “long twilight struggle” is over. “Once was enough. Wasn’t it?”

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