Monday, November 9, 2009

Berlin

Ross Douthat mourns the lack of celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall.

There will be speeches and celebrations to mark this anniversary, but not as many as the day deserves. (Barack Obama couldn’t even fit a visit to Berlin into his schedule.) By rights, the Ninth of November should be a holiday across the Western world, celebrated with the kind of pomp and spectacle reserved for our own Independence Day.

Never has liberation come to so many people all at once — to Eastern Europe’s millions, released from decades of bondage; to the world, freed from the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; and to the democratic West, victorious after a century of ideological struggle.

Never has so great a revolution been accomplished so swiftly and so peacefully, by ordinary men and women rather than utopians with guns.

Twenty years later, we still haven’t come to terms with the scope of our deliverance. Francis Fukuyama famously described the post-Communist era as “the end of history.” By this, he didn’t mean the end of events — wars and famines, financial panics and terrorist bombings. He meant the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

I think there are several reasons why the anniversary is not getting more play here. In the first place, the Cold War had become something of an anachronism even before the opening of the Wall, and as far as we were concerned, it was the stuff of spy novels and the rantings of the John Birch Society. The last time the Soviet Union had acted in an overt manner to crush rebellion behind the Iron Curtain had been the tanks rolling into Prague in 1968. They had already begun to show their paper-thin veneer of toughness with the response to the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 and their inability to control their client states. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, it was clear that the only thing that was keeping it functioning on a daily basis was the rhetoric of its geriatric leaders playing off the anti-communism rhetoric we kept feeding them (see: Cuba). Ronald Reagan may have called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” but it was an empire that couldn’t make soap.

That’s not to minimize the brutality and the denial of basic rights that existed behind the Wall. Those impediments to liberty are the hallmarks of rulers who know they are keeping their people oppressed and live in constant fear of being overthrown, so the weaker they got, the more repressive and petty they became. What was amazing was the lack of revenge exacted by the people as the dictatorships collapsed. With the notable exception of Romania, the people of Eastern Europe did not visit on their former leaders the oppression and torture they had endured; it was as if they realized that they were better than their past, that nothing would be gained by vengeance, and they knew what a tough road they had ahead of them to rebuild their nations after decades of war and oppression.

So perhaps the reason we’re not making a bigger deal out of the anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall is because it did not come after a brutal and bloody struggle. No shots were fired; after weeks of peaceful protests without repression from the state — a sign of impending capitulation itself — an East German bureaucrat mistakenly announced the lifting of visa requirements and the dreaded VoPos of East Germany stood meekly aside as the Trabants trundled through Checkpoint Charlie to the rhythm of rock music and dancing teenagers. What had been the stuff of James Bond and John Le Carre became Woodstock.

The Cold War didn’t end with a bang or a whimper; it was more like a sigh of relief that it was over. Like recovery after a hurricane, we were glad that it had passed but daunted by the task of cleaning up after. And it would be unseemly to remind the survivors of how grateful they should be that they made it through with what they had.

(Footnote: Mr. Douthat takes a parenthetical swipe at Barack Obama for not visiting Berlin to honor the moment. Maybe he’s forgotten that quiet little visit Mr. Obama made to Berlin in 2008.)