The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.
Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders. The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.
Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War. Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold. For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.
For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever. If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games.
I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist. Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained. When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room. I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship. No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE).
Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.
Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace. They were there, and they we there to stay. As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist. It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.”
I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union. A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime. The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982. Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.
The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power. By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up. Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost). On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted. There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.
The result was a flood of anger and resentment. Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc. The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.
Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down. And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west. That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.
As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now. Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad. But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget. Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.