Jeffrey A. Engel is Associate Professor and Evelyn and Ed F. Kruse ’49 Faculty Fellow at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He is also the editor of The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989, which takes a fresh look at how the leaders in four vital centers of world politics- the United States, the Soviet Union, Europe, and China- viewed the world in the aftermath of this momentous event. In honor of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened twenty years ago today, we have excerpted some of Engel’s words on the event.
…On November 9, the once unthinkable occurred: the Berlin Wall fell, not to a conquering army, but to the regime’s own citizens. First erected in 1961, the Wall symbolized the permanency of the Cold War divide. Dozens had lost their lives in the intervening years in vain attempts to cross its iron and wire in search of a better life on the other side. The Wall did more than divide East from West. It also made real the notion that Europe’s future offered two distinctly different paths: one socialist, the other capitalist. American presidents ritualistically travelled to the Wall when on European tours, using it as a backdrop to proclaim their personal opposition to tyranny. The images are iconic: John F. Kennedy stood above the newly constructed barrier in order to declare: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.'” A generation later, Ronald Reagan stood before the Wall in order to call for wholesale change behind it. “General Secretary Gorbachev,” Reagan thundered in 1987 (to the great dismay of his own state department, which loathed such fiery rhetoric and urged its removal form the president’s prepared text), “if you seek peace-if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe…come here to this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
For a generation of Communist leaders raised to believe that theirs was a particular claim to mankind’s future, the demise of the Wall and, more broadly, the erosion of the Soviet empire were traumatic blows indeed. “We will not change our positions, our values, or our thinking,” Gorbachev promised Reagan in 1985, “but we expect that with patience and wisdom we will find some ways toward solutions.” Four years later, Gorbachev was largely out of solutions to the problems that plagued him. With the Soviet Union’s empire in disarray, with the loss of the lands won at such great cost in the Great Patriotic War against Hitler’s Germany and subsequently ruled so tightly and at such investment, the society Gorbachev longed to preserve through transformation had lost its very reason for being. As Anatoly Chernyaev, one of Gorbachev’s closest advisers, admitted in the privacy of his diary: “The Berlin Wall has fallen. This entire era in the history of the socialist system is over…This is the end of the Yalta…the Stalinist legacy.”
European communism ended with a remarkable and surprising lack of violence. Any of the ruling regimes might have held tightly onto power in the face of rising popular unrest, employing violent measures and tactics well honed by frequent use over the previous decades… One ranking East German official admitted only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall that Honecker had composed orders for a “Chinese solution” to the protester problem. “It could have been worse than Beijing,” he said. When Chinese tanks rolled over and through Tiananmen, East German officials publicly praised the way Deng’s government had dealt firmly with its protesters. There was, Honecker warned in early October, as crowds began to rally against his regime, “a fundamental lesson to be learnt from the crushing of the counterrevolutionaries in Peking in June.” Even Honecker’s forced retirement at the hands of Egon Krenz and other East German party leaders later that month did not necessarily spell a nonviolent response to the protesters, who seemed to grow in number and volume with every passing week. As one leading West German commentator warned in response to the news that Krenz was now in charge: “On a trip to West Germany, during the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, he [Krenz] openly sided with the Chinese regime. So the safest bet is that Mr. Krenz is no Gorbachev.”
East German leaders were not alone in suggesting their state might retain power at any cost. Romania’s Nicola Ceausescu was certainly loath to cede power. The widespread violence that marked his ouster culminated with his execution. All of Eastern Europe might have gone down the violent path chose by Beijing and Bucharest. Certainly, Western leaders looked on with apprehension every time protesters turned out by the thousands in order to face down government security forces unsure of orders or the right path to take. As Kohl told Solidarity’s Lech Walesa-in a conversation emblematic of the way leaders across the once-formidable iron curtain worked together to forge a safe course through such unchartered waters-“if one shoots, everything would be over.”
Left unstated was Kohl’s implied realization that shooting might well erupt with little warning and to little surprise. Indeed, Czechoslovakia’s Communist government suffered a fatal blow on November 19, 1989, when rumors spread rapidly throughout Prague and the surrounding countryside that police had shot and killed a student protester. Such rumors proved false. But they were easily believed. Everyone expected such a violent showdown. When news of the supposed brutality passed not only by word of mouth but also by Radio Free Europe, crowds numbering in the tens of thousands quickly gathered, demanding an end to a regime that would kill its own children. “This it,” they chanted. “Now is the time.” As historian Gale Stokes concluded, “Within just seventy-two hours, the seemingly vertical Czechoslovak domino had entered its accelerating arc of fall.” On December 9, Gustav Husak resigned the presidency. The next day a coalition government of noncommunists took power. The national assembly unanimously elected the writer Václav Havel president of a new democratic regime on January 1. It was less than eight weeks after the Berlin Wall had been breached, and less than six weeks after protesters had peacefully forced the government’s submission following the rumor that one of their number had been shot.