Politics & Policy

Tumbling Down

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first installment in a five-part series excerpted from William F. Buckley Jr.’s The Fall of the Berlin Wall. The first installment is here.


I came to Berlin as a city that figured in any direct way in my life late, in 1983, when I undertook to write a novel about the rise of the wall. In the book, I took a few liberties with history but none that got in the way of the basic drama of the day in August 1961 when the wall started growing up as if it had for one thousand years been fed by geological and vegetable growths now bursting forth. That, looking back, is what the wall seemed: an outcropping of parthenogenic substance, just–rising, a fortress to keep East Germany’s legions in the fold.

Of course the wall was very much man-made, and the details are all in this book. The critical detail for my novel (The Story of Henri Tod) was the warning given by First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to Walter Ulbricht, the ruler of the German Democratic Republic. What Khrushchev said was: We Soviets are willing to risk giving the impression that we are prepared to use force against the West; what we are not willing to risk is a major engagement with the West. This meant, in the view of some who studied the rise of the wall, that if a show of U.S. tanks had challenged the wall-builders–had run down the barbed-wire stakeouts–Soviet tanks would not have moved forward to counter this assertion of joint occupation rights in Berlin. Henri Tod, the heroic resistance leader in my novel, was all set to do exactly that: move forward a couple of U.S. tanks, diverted from the armory by young German patriot engineers. But reality moved in, aborting the enterprise while my CIA agent, Blackford Oakes, was tied up in a cellar. What a fancy! But the best fancies work–would have worked, if you had just closed your eyes for a minute and let truth and justice and liberty move the chess pieces.

Well, the wall went up, and, as history shows, the reaction of the West was pretty dead, acquiescent. We came to know that John Kennedy and Harold Macmillan and Charles de Gaulle were actually relieved. They had feared that Khrushchev’s bluster, which had been raging all that year, threatened something worse than merely closing down traffic from East Berlin to West Berlin. They feared the Soviets would threaten West Berlin itself.

The suspense one might then have anticipated–How long will the wall last?–was itself deadened. There was little life in the movement to free East Berlin. I attended occasional gatherings of the Captive Nations organization in New York City, which would now and then bring in a man or woman from Europe to remind as many Americans as could be got to hear the story about life in Berlin, like life elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The talk was vivid of the privations of Berliners, but not of any forthcoming relief.

In 1970 I found myself with credentials sufficient to effect a visit and presented myself at Checkpoint Charlie. I had been appointed to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Information with warrants to go anywhere I wished to go, in fulfillment of obligations to advise the United States Information Agency. I submitted to the formalities of passage. My diplomatic passport was useful, but the Vopos (the East German police) stalled me for a full twenty minutes in the little compound, a way of saying that although formal diplomatic concessions were being made, there was no reason for the visitor not to feel the heavy heel of the commanding entity, the German Democratic Republic. I don’t conceal that I thought the Germans who were enforcing the laws appeared especially well qualified to do so, in the square-set resolution of their heads, the grimness of their expressions, and their disembodied attention to bureaucratic duty. I never met a live Nazi, but I was experiencing treatment by sons of Nazis who had been very much alive 25 years earlier.

I wrote about my visit to Berlin and from time to time about Berlin as what always seemed a very conspicuous linchpin to that enslaved region of the postwar world. What I never did was reason fruitfully to what exactly would be required to bring the wall down. I am glad I did not attempt to do this, because I would not have been able to write with anything like the authority now made possible, thanks to the work of so many historians and journalists and diplomats who have told their stories.

I write that the Berlin Wall came down owing to the finally undeniable spirit of East German dissenters. That’s true. But they were helped along by the final, liberating equivocation of the Communist overlords. No doubt there are still last-ditch East Berlin Communists, in their fifties and sixties and seventies, who nourish their own forlorn fancies, notably that if Moscow had not lost its will . . . Yes, and if the dissenters had been more forcefully contained, not only in Berlin, but also in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Sofia. The fall of the wall was a vindication also of the West, especially of such Westerners as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, because the West maintained an iron echelon, way back then, that the Kremlin could not ignore in devising workable strategic movements.

In my novel, the young protagonist actually works for Walter Ulbricht, because he is a 21-year-old nephew for whose orphanage Ulbricht had direct responsibility. Young Caspar and his girlfriend, Claudia, happen on a deserted railroad car in the forest of abandoned cars in a mammoth Berlin train station. This one, unrecognized by the guards on routine duty in the great yard, was special. It was Adolf Hitler’s private railroad car, and in it Caspar and Claudia nurse the wounded Henri Tod. And there they plot the diversion of three U.S. tanks for the Sunday the wall will go up, the date and hour known to the nephew of Walter Ulbricht, who clocks in every day to do his clerical work.

Less than one hour after midnight on August 13, 1961, cross-border traffic is halted, the East German army rolls down Unter den Linden, and the young plotters are bloodily executed. They would sleep 28 years before the wall came down, rising then with so many others in the community of the dead, to take heart that history had turned, finally, in their favor. Ilya Ehrenburg wrote that when all the world is surfaced over in concrete, one day a blade of grass will sprout up. This happened in Berlin on November 9, 1989.

–WFB, Stamford, Connecticut, June 20, 2003

The Wall Came Tumbling Down

A generation had elapsed between President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” in 1963 and President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in 1987. One year and a half after Reagan made his mythogenic plea, he left office, and the wall was still standing. The day before George H. W. Bush’s inauguration, East German Secretary-General Erich Honecker reaffirmed his commitment to the wall. Outgoing Secretary of State George Shultz had designated the wall as the “acid test” of Eastern Europe’s progress toward human rights. Honecker defiantly replied: “It will stand in fifty or a hundred years.”

Bravado notwithstanding, the Iron Curtain was fraying. In the spring of 1988, Janos Kadar had been forced to resign as general secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (i.e., Communist) Party, although he had sponsored liberal reforms. The new general secretary, Karoly Grosz, shot ahead, permitting opposition groups to operate openly and exploring the possibility of multi-party elections.

In November 1988, Margaret Thatcher visited Warsaw. Poland was still under martial law, and Solidarity still illegal. When Mrs. Thatcher, at a state dinner, called for “personal and political liberty” as the only way to solve Poland’s economic problems, President Wojciech Jaruzelski reacted sharply. “Words,” he said, “are the cheapest goods on the world market.” But his representatives were already meeting with Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders.

In East Germany itself, there was little liberalization and little popular ferment. To be sure, there were traces of moderation. In November 1987, the regime rescinded the Grepos’ (border guards’) shoot-to-kill orders (orders the regime had denied were ever issued). But there was nothing in the way of organic reform–Honecker scorned perestroika, insisting that it would be counterproductive in the Democratic Republic of Germany.

As for the citizens of East Germany, they made do with what was called “nightly emigration.” West German television broadcasts could be seen nearly everywhere in the GDR, giving viewers a familiarity with Western news, habits, and diversions that was almost unique behind the Iron Curtain. But vicarious participation in the affairs of the West served as a political sedative rather than a stimulant. Honecker’s citizenry remained among the most docile in the satellite world, more like the servile Bulgaria and Romania than like the restive Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

* * *

While Moscow’s Eastern European empire destabilized, Mikhail Gorbachev had plenty to worry about at home. He had known when he came to power, in March 1985, that he was inheriting an economy that was no better off than it had been 21 years before, when Nikita Khrushchev was ousted. Gorbachev was also inheriting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Casualties there were heavy, and popular morale was eroding.

The Reagan Administration’s efforts, under National Security Decision Directive 75, to develop an anti-missile program had been scoffed at–”Star Wars” was not a friendly nickname. But the program had been launched, and Gorbachev was hard-pressed. He couldn’t simply ignore it. So he took it on with his own anti-missile defense program, in what quickly became a huge state enterprise, threatening to bankrupt the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In December 1987, he signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Reagan, an effort at cutting the costs of the arms race. In the last year of the Reagan Administration, Gorbachev attempted to capitalize on the relaxations generated by that treaty, calling for a “common European home.”

At a state dinner in Yugoslavia in March 1988, he laid out his vision of a new Europe: “I have said it once and I will say it again. We are interested in eliminating the divisions of Europe. What we need is an honest and effective policy of good-neighborliness. . . . Economic alliances and cooperation and the gradual advancement towards a common European market are the vital prerequisites for the peaceful future of Europe.” (Mrs. Thatcher would reply on her visit to Warsaw eight months later, nicely exploiting the wall: “President Gorbachev had spoken of building a common European house. But the only wall so far erected is the Berlin Wall, which divides and separates.”)

On top of his other problems, Gorbachev faced outbreaks of nationalism within the Soviet Union itself. In June 1988, Christian Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave within the Muslim-dominated Azerbaizhani Republic, complained to the Kremlin of ill treatment by the local government. The adjoining Armenian Republic proposed nothing less than an annexation of the enclave. This was the very first time, Western observers clucked, that there had been an open territorial dispute between two Soviet republics. But it was only the first of many unprecedented events that summer. A month later in Lithuania, a group calling itself the Initiative Group in Support of Perestroika held a rally at which speakers called, no less, for a popular referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh. The People’s Front of Estonia, a nationalist political group, was suddenly accorded official recognition by the Estonian Republic, with Moscow’s tacit acceptance. And in the third of the Baltic nations, Latvia, the writers’ union asked that the republic be declared a “sovereign state.” Never mind the paradox, a sovereign state within a sovereign state: it was the first time an official organization in a Soviet republic had made such a licentious call. As the dispute between the Armenians and the Azerbaizhanis erupted into violent clashes, the Supreme Soviet approved a decree giving the security forces broad authority to suppress demonstrations and to arrest suspected agitators. There was nothing unexpected in the decree itself. But it was breathtaking to learn that 31 members of the 1,500-man Supreme Soviet had voted nay and 26 had abstained. This was the first time that a decree of that body was other than unanimous.

In May, Gorbachev had announced that a special Party conference would take place the following month. On June 28 the All-Union Conference of the Soviet Communist Party convened in Moscow, the first such conference with representatives from every part of the country since 1941. Gorbachev’s three-and-a-half-hour opening address ranged from his program for economic reform to the need for religious freedom and equality for women. But the most striking passage was his call for a radical restructuring of the central government, with a strong president and a Congress of People’s Deputies. Gorbachev declared: “The people demand total democracy, full-blooded democracy with no reservations. There can be no compromise.” Granted, by “democracy” he didn’t mean anything recognizable as that in the West. Only the Communist Party would be permitted to participate in elections, Gorbachev explained, and only Party members would be eligible to run for the new Congress. “A multi-party system–two parties, three parties–it is all rubbish,” he would later tell a Kremlin gathering. “At first [it is] one or two parties on class grounds, then 120 on national grounds, then international. All that is thrown at us by irresponsible people.” But there was progress. His plan called for 1,500 of the Congress’s 2,250 seats to be filled through secret-ballot voting by ordinary citizens; the rest of the deputies would be appointed by local trade unions and Party organizations. None of them would be appointed by the Kremlin.

The enthusiasm of Gorbachev’s colleagues, at home and in Eastern Europe, was not unqualified. Of the satellite regimes, Hungary alone responded positively. The GDR’s news agency concentrated on the economic aspects of the speech, arguing that Gorbachev had nothing to teach East Germany, whose economy was the healthiest in the Eastern Bloc. Yes, but an ice age behind West Germany’s.

In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet voted to go ahead with this stage of Gorbachev’s perestroika.


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