The worst part of the zeitgeist is the sense of inevitability. We just have that feeling that it will all go along the same or get worse. As in some combo of Friedrich vs. Hayek and Peter Rabbit: “Lippity, lippity, not very fast, down the road to serfdom.” After President Obama comes President Clinton. After “Race to the Top” or “No Child Left Behind” comes “Common Core.” After Chinese autocracy at home comes the expansion of Chinese autocracy into obscure corners of Africa.
But the political direction of nations can turn faster than we anticipate. To recall that, look not at Tiananmen Square, whose anniversary is marked this month, but rather at another country where something happened 25 years ago: Germany. The toppling of the Berlin Wall was a greater event even than Tiananmen. Tiananmen, after all, left the “one child” policy and most of the rest of the apparatus of China’s government in place. The opening of the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie forever changed the political configuration of a continent. A big Communist country became un-Communist and disappeared into another country. One of the globe’s most feared powers, Germany, was restored to its old imposing scale. The rest of Europe rearranged itself as well. Yet if you scrutinize reports of Germany from the seasons and months before November 9, and the evening when the guards let the East Berliners through, you’ll find scant portent of the transformation.
Indeed, many articles in the papers argued that it was all going the other way, away from reunification. “Despite New Stirrings, Dream of One Germany Fades,” read the May 14, 1989, headline in the New York Times story by Serge Schmemann. Schmemann allowed that the conservative Bild Zeitung, a West Berlin paper, had polled East Germans and found that 80 percent of them desired reunification of East and West. But Schmemann simultaneously noted that the Western newspaper’s poll of voters in Communist East Germany was “unofficial,” and he commented, snidely, that East Germans’ desire for change might rest on the rather suspicious fact they were “constantly reminded how much better and freer life is in the West.” (Yes.) The Times author laid more weight on a poll by the much-respected West German firm Wickert, which showed that 70 percent of West Germans believed the Wall would still stand in 2000.
Also in the Times, a month later, in June, West German author Peter Schneider suggested that West Germans, especially, had grown used to the Wall and might take comfort in having it around forever. “I have a hard time understanding why our neighbors are so afraid that we West Germans will seize the first opportunity to sell out the Western alliance in exchange for ‘reunification,’” Schneider wrote, placing reunification inside sneer quotes. Germans had no interest in the German question, Schneider insisted. That was June 25. Other reporters deployed elaborate metaphors to depict some kind of complicated and unfathomable Euro-architecture that necessitated near-forever German division. Other writers simply proffered opinion: “Go Slow on Germany,” admonished the senior pundit of the Herald Tribune, Flora Lewis, in September 1989, a time when the anti-regime protesters were already coming together weekly at the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig. A cultural report in the Times featured photos of the Berlin Wall that made it look as monumental and timeless as the Parthenon.
Just a few months after Lewis’s article, and six months to the day after Schneider’s report, on December 25, the Times’s own liebling, Leonard Bernstein himself, was already conducting a celebratory concert in the Schauspielhaus at the Gendarmenmarkt of newly liberated East Berlin.
The Times was not alone in its miscalculation. The change took us all, or at least all of us in the West, aback. What’s interesting is to consider is why the surprise was so great.
One reason was that West Germany feared Moscow. If West Germans, not to mention East Germans, called for reunification, then Russians Panzers would roll, or East German troops would rally, just as they had, say, in August 1961, when Walter Ulbricht and Moscow mobilized overnight. One can pardon the Germans this caution: They knew the thickness of the Kremlin Wall better than most Americans.
As a foreign correspondent, I covered many events in divided Germany, including the 750th birthday of the city of Berlin. Not one German, East or West, ever told me directly that the Wall had to come down. But the Germans did tell one another, in small protests, in encoded theatrical productions, and in writings that came to light only after the Wall came down. In this, the Germans, then, were like the Chinese businessmen today. A number of Chinese-born businessmen in the U.S. today hate the regime in Beijing with all their heart and complain to one another. But they know that if they proclaim their opinion loudly, they could hurt relatives, villages, or even whole cities at home. So they maintain a public silence.
But another reason for the 1989 shock was the general assumption here in the West that people don’t care about freedom. Westerners tend to take for granted as well that there is an ironclad distinction between materialism and freedom. But material goods — fresh bananas or Sony Walkmen or all the other foods and toys the East Germans coveted — do go with freedom. That is, we dismissed the East Germans as purely materialist and didn’t really listen to the them. Of course, a final reason for the shock was antipathy to Ronald Reagan. Because Reagan had said, “Tear down this wall,” it could not be torn down.
In fact, people, and not just East Germans, will act boldly and bravely if only they get a signal from the rest of us that their bravery is appreciated. This is relevant to our domestic doldrums. If the Wall in Berlin can come down, then, yes, a free-marketeer can be elected — or even a Republican. If a Wall in Berlin can come down, Governor Cuomo can seduce Mayor de Blasio into swearing off — forever — his attack on charter schools. If the Wall can come down, California can reverse course and cut its income tax. If the Wall can come down, Democrats and Republicans can pass immigration reform. But the greater significance of the Berlin story is for places such as China. If a Wall can come down in Berlin, China, too, can become freer. That work starts by listening hard not only to what the Chinese say to us, but to one another.
— Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.