Twenty years ago, like scores of millions of others, I watched in delight as the Berlin Wall came down. A huge crowd stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate, waving the flag of the Federal Republic and singing the current words of the country’s stirring national anthem, composed by Haydn. This piece is still better known outside Germany as “Deutschland über alles,” but now extols peace, unity, and freedom.
It was a rare, seismic event, and it produced a kaleidoscopic variety of perspectives on Germany, Europe, and the whole world. For Germany, it was clear that the imposture of the Democratic Republic (East Germany), an artificial creation of Stalin’s Red Army in 1945, was over. It was like watching a fly after a blast of insecticide, buzzing furiously about, in denial that it was about to drop down dead.
I remembered the aftermath of the popular unrest in 1948 and 1953, of East German dictator Walther Ulbricht’s assertion that the “State had lost confidence in the people,” prompting disillusioned Communist writer Bertolt Brecht to ask if the regime intended to choose another population to misrule.
Like all who lived through the Cold War, I saw the steady departure of huge numbers of East Germans to the West, through Berlin, and Khrushchev’s construction of the wall in 1962, the first “national” physical enclosure to keep a population in rather than invaders out. And I watched the agony of fugitives being murdered by the East German police as they tried to cross over the wall, and the immense demonstrations on the western side, with swaying masses locking arms and singing the mournful and moving German dirge, “Once I Had a Comrade.”
What the Americans had mockingly called “the Pankow regime” had been backed into announcing the opening of the wall. Ulbricht’s successor, the equally leaden Erich Honecker, when sacked by his central committee as the state crumbled, dutifully voted for his own dismissal and censure to preserve unity. His successor, Egon Krenz, bustled purposefully around, explaining how much East Germany had to teach West Germany: “In [East Germany], we don’t have to take our car keys out of the ignition when we park our cars.”
All Germans were aware of the ability of totalitarian police to discourage street crime, and also of the limitations of East Germany’s absurd little plywood, 40-mph national car, the Trabant. (When they strayed unsuspectingly out onto the Federal Republic’s unlimited-speed autobahns, the Trabants were regularly run down, and over, by the mighty Porsches and Mercedes and BMWs of the west.)
The only becoming face of East Germany was that of the graceful and beautiful figure-skating champion, Katarina Witt, the poster girl of the Communist government, who often concluded her performances by reclining on the ice, on her side, an allegory of female allure. She was much indulged by the regime, but carefully monitored, with officials listening pruriently to bugged recordings of the highlights of her allegedly energetic but quite conventional sex life.
In the only place where heavily armed Soviet and American soldiers had faced each other in the Cold War, at the world-famous Berlin checkpoints, there was now an immense flow of traffic, and thousands of people tearing down the wall, as U.S. leaders from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan long had demanded. Now its relics could join the other nearby alluvia of previous German states, like the rings of a tree: Frederick the Great’s Brandenburg Gate; Bismarck’s Reichstag; the pretentious Hohenzollern Lutheran cathedral, with implausibly heroic tombs of deceased infant princes; a few stark, Teutonic, Albert Speer exemplars of Hitler’s pre-nascent Germania (the Fuehrer Bunker remains, sealed, the subject of intense controversy); and Stalin’s grotesquely large socialist-realist Soviet embassy.
All these heirlooms of Germany’s unsuccessful search for responsible government are jumbled together in half a square mile, and they would be joined by the magnificent monuments of a reunited Germany: the brilliantly restored (by British architect Norman Foster) Reichstag; the immense but benign, white chancellery; and, soon, the restored Schloss of the Wilhelmine emperors.
These chronological layers of Germany’s terribly disturbed history express the truisms that Germany was too late unified (centuries after France, Britain, and Russia), had always been ambiguous about whether it was an eastern- or western-facing country, and could not assure its own security without destabilizing its neighbors.
Twenty years ago, Communism itself was crumbling along with these deep-seated German politial neuroses. Part of the Hungarian border was opened. Romania’s Ceausescu was publicly booed, fled his palace in a helicopter, and was hunted down by his former collaborators; he and his wife were finally executed by one of history’s largest firing squads, so eager and numerous were the volunteers for it.
In Prague, students conducted large sit-ins and occupations of the universities and public places, and read out some of the most lapidary works of Jefferson and Lincoln. Poland was already under martial law and committed to elections that were sure to send the Communists packing (these being the elections Stalin had promised at Yalta 44 years before). Soon, Poland would join NATO and the European Economic Community, finally fulfilling the decision of Britain, France, and Canada to go to war to defend Poland when it was attacked by Hitler and Stalin in 1939.
The eastern border of the Western World would not be a German border. Germany would be encased in the West. The Cold War, and in a sense the Second World War, would end in a mighty and bloodless triumph of democracy, and, more or less, market economics.
I lived in Britain then, and though not a Eurofederalist, I did not doubt the sincerity of German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s formulation: “A European Germany and not a German Europe.” After 40 years of professing to seek the reunification of Germany, the British and French governments (led by Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand) fell to lobbying Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev not to allow it to happen. But it was soon clear that Gorbachev was powerless to stop it, and the United States, unlike the U.K. and France, had no fear of a united Germany. President Bush (senior) and his agile secretary of state, James Baker, worked skillfully with Chancellor Kohl, and turned the Open Skies meeting at Ottawa into a German-reunification meeting.
All this was easily foreseeable, even inevitable, 20 years ago. What was not so clear was that the Soviet Union would itself disintegrate, and that the emergent era of one overwhelmingly powerful country in the world would be such a fragile vacuum.
The spirit of reconciliation and relief that rippled out from the Brandenburg Gate uplifted the world. I assumed that the United States, at the supreme coruscation of its history, would have a long, successful, and benign eminence in the world. In these 20 years, it has come close to fumbling, but has not forfeited, its status, unique in the world since the Roman Empire. It will presumably recover its balance, if not its dominance. America was there when civilization needed it, and when only America could lead. Twenty years ago, almost the whole world was grateful to America.
The world turns, but it should not forget.
– Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at email@example.com. This article is reprinted from Canada’s National Post with the author’s permission.