PERHAPS it was the surprise factor, more than anything else, that accounted for the spontaneous outbreak of euphoria. The vast majority of those who had grown up – or grown old – on either side of the Berlin Wall accepted it as an indelible feature of their lives.
Even those who fantasized by night about a barrier-free Berlin were always aware in the back of their minds that when they woke up in the morning, it would still be there. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
By most accounts, it was an unauthorized announcement by a mid-level East German ruling party apparatchik 20 years ago this week that led Berliners to assume that the gates at Checkpoint Charlie had been flung open. Evidently, a decision had indeed been taken to relax controls at the Cold War’s symbolic frontier, but not with immediate effect. The party official’s erroneous declaration, however, translated into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Things could still have gone horribly wrong beyond that point. What if the border guards, out of deeply ingrained habit, had opened fire instead of standing aside? Chances are the course of history would not have changed direction in the slightly longer run, but it’s possible that Germans would, on November 9, have been compelled to commemorate a 9/11 of their own – perhaps an echo of the Tiananmen Square tragedy that had, earlier that year, put paid to Chinese aspirations for a variant of perestroika.
Instead, that is, of Monday’s celebrations, presided over by a woman who, as a young scientist, was among the East Germans who walked into West Berlin on that historic night two decades ago. Among Angela Merkel’s guests this week was Nicolas Sarkozy, who posted pictures on Facebook that show him chipping away at the Berlin Wall.
Merkel also played host to a pair of considerably more momentous European figures: Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Walesa. The latter’s Solidarity movement in Poland undoubtedly played a significant role through much of the 1980s in transforming popular perceptions of Eastern Europe. But it was, above all, Gorbachev who, upon taking over as the secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, paved the way for the transformation that followed.
“On the day I became Soviet leader in March 1985,” he recalls in a recent interview with the editor of the American weekly The Nation, “I had a special meeting with the leaders of the Warsaw Pact countries, and told them: ‘You are independent. You are responsible for your policies, we are responsible for ours. We will not intervene in your affairs, I promise you.’ And we did not intervene, not once, not even when they later asked us to.”
It is perfectly possible that he was, at the time, not taken at his word. There was a tradition, after all, of Soviet leaders not saying quite what they meant. The fact that Gorbachev was decidedly younger than his recent predecessors was insufficient cause for presupposing that his mentality would be markedly different.
In nominating him for the topmost post in the USSR, Andrei Gromyko had remarked that behind Mikhail Sergeyevich’s disarming smile lay teeth of steel. Fortuitously, and not for the first time, Mr Nyet – as Gromyko was dubbed by some of his sparring partners during his seemingly interminable tenure as Soviet foreign minister – turned out to be gravely mistaken.
Had Gorbachev decided simply to carry on from where Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko had left off, chances are that the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc would have stayed intact for several years longer, and that attempts to overturn the status quo may well have been characterised by considerable bloodshed and waves of repression, on a pattern not far removed from the experiences of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Intriguingly, in 1989 and the years that followed, significant violence occurred only in states that could not seriously be described as Soviet satellites: Josip Broz Tito and Nicolae Ceausescu prided themselves on their independence from the Kremlin. The balkanization of Yugoslavia may anyhow have proved unavoidable but, ironically, chances are the bloody denouement in Romania could have been averted had Bucharest been as beholden to Moscow as its neighbours.
It is not exactly uncommon, meanwhile, for the events of 1989 to be deployed in the defence of spurious conclusions. For instance, it’s a popular misconception among neoconservatives that Ronald Reagan’s hawkishness played a crucial role in the demise of East European communism. In fact, it was not his and Margaret Thatcher’s visceral anti-communism but their willingness to engage with Gorbachev and respond to his overtures that facilitated the landmark changes that followed.
Twenty years on, it’s reasonably clear that by no means all the consequences of 1989 have been uniformly pleasant. After long years, in most cases, of political decrepitude and economic stagnation, few objected to the wholesale relegation of “already existing socialism” and its replacement with raw capitalism. The consequent pain could initially be dismissed as the birth pangs of a new order. Since then, some of the dismay has coagulated into a somewhat more coherent form of regret.
Nostalgia for the communist past – known as Ostlogie in the context of eastern Germany – does not generally encompass a longing for Securitate or Stasi-style surveillance or victimization by the thought police (and, mind you, variations on that practice persist in countries that never came within cooee of communism), but it invariably stretches to such verities as free education, healthcare and childcare.
Could the longing for freedom have been satisfied without an unrestrained embrace of the so-called free market (and, in many cases, its godfathers)? A more sensible transformation would have been considerably likelier in 1956 or 1968. By 1989, it was perhaps too late to hold out the prospect of “socialism with a human face”. It wasn’t the end of history, though – merely the beginning of a new phase. And Mikhail Gorbachev was undoubtedly right in allowing it to unfold.