This originally appeared in Investors Business Daily on November 8, 2009, under the title “20 Years After the Fall.”
By Dan McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor
Twenty years ago, late on a Thursday evening in Berlin, the cement and concertina-wire symbol of the Cold War was breached, inadvertently opened by a botched answer of a flustered East German Communist Party apparatchik.
Announcing a loosening in border-crossing policy, he was peppered with questions on when the change would take effect.
“Immediately,” he said, shuffling his notes. “Without delay.” “Also in Berlin?” presses a reporter. “Yes, yes,” comes the response.
Reporters rush to file; word is broadcast over Western media stations on the channels no East German is allowed to watch, but everyone does. The streets fill as people head for the Wall.
The rest, as they say, is history: Bewildered East Germans step past the feared Grenztruppen border guards, their rifles shouldered and dogs at bay, across the death strips and into West Berlin.
Growing more confident, some straddle the Wall, improvising implements to chip away chunks of cement, while still others wander deeper into the Western zone, looking for vegetable vendors where bananas might be bought — every day, and not just on Christmas. If all proved a dream, let some at least bring back from their walk in the West a piece of forbidden fruit.
The fact of the Wall’s fall is captured in the news clips rebroadcast today. Its cause and consequences took much longer to unpack — in some ways, we are doing so still.
Witness the small library of new books that marks today’s commemoration, 20 years after. Some subscribe to the “great man” theory of history (apologies to Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher), others to what we can call the “chaos theory,” capturing the mosaic of micro-actions that brought the Wall down.
On the one end stands Ronald Reagan’s Jericho riff at the Brandenburg Gate; at the other, the squabble to claim credit as the unidentified reporter whose shouted question — “also in Berlin?” — toppled the Wall.
Somewhere in the middle — closer to the center of events, and perhaps closer also to the truth — stand Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl and George H.W. Bush. Each of them would abjure the megaphone in favor of constant confidential communications to manage the Cold War’s last crisis to its peaceful conclusion.
No one in those first moments knew whether the East German government and its Soviet overlords would meet the Berlin breach with an iron fist or velvet glove. The events of Nov. 9, 1989 were fraught with contingency. The events we now wrap in a celebratory glow evoked the ghosts of 1956 and 1968 — or even nearer in time, Tiananmen Square just five months earlier.
White House reporters swarmed into the Oval Office in a different mood. In a press conference taking place at 10:30 p.m. German time, the press corps pushed the American president to show more elation, asking whether he would treat Gorbachev differently, now that “your side is winning.”
Unbeknownst to the press, the president had received word from Gorbachev that out-of-control demonstrations could result in “unforeseen consequences.”
Reached recently by telephone in Kennebunkport, President Bush recalled his frame of mind at that critical moment: “I knew that “dancing on the wall’ . . . would be totally counterproductive. Gorbachev has subsequently confirmed that — to me.”
Twenty years ago, the dominoes fell democracy’s way. And yet some in Europe — including heroes of the Revolutions of ’89 — are not dancing even today.
This past summer, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and dozens more of the region’s human rights activists wrote in an Open Letter to the Obama Administration: “There is . . . nervousness in our capitals. . . . At times we have the impression that U.S. policy was so successful that many American officials have now concluded that our region is fixed once and for all and that they could ‘check the box’ and move on.”
No one believes we will wake one morning to see the return of the Wall, in Berlin or anywhere else in Europe. Yet evidence of Russia’s resurgence is no less real: Russia’s leader speaks of recovering his nation’s “sphere of privilege interest” – a locution first heard in 1939 as Hitler and Stalin’s men set about the cynical slicing up of Central and Eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe embraces NATO and the European Union — even as many nations exist in near-total dependence on Russian energy to heat their homes and power their businesses. Moscow bullies Poland and the Czech Republic for their interest in U.S. missile defense and engages in missile-flexing, speculating that perhaps the time has come to revisit its “no first use” nuclear doctrine.
The Wall may be gone, but lines are being redrawn in ways that suggest the gains of 1989 are under threat and in question.
Today is a time to celebrate, to be sure. But let it also be a time to recover a saving sense of the contingency at the core of every crisis: a reminder that the hopeful course history took the night of November 9 was neither as firm nor as fixed as our memories might wish it to be. Nor, 20 years after the Fall, is the future of a Europe whole and free.
Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources. The views expressed here are his own.