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the wall’s fall

Wednesday 18 November, 2009

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted this event THE LEGACY OF 1989 which was a trip for me.  I lived in Germany for 2 years up until a year before the Berlin Wall fell, so this topic was near & dear to my heart.  Here’s what they had to say:

Archie Brown:  Gorbachev let Central Europe follow the Sinatra doctrine & “do it its own way” which led to change.  350,000 Soviet troops stayed in their barracks on 9 Nov.  Had they been roused, history would be very different.

J.D. Bindenagel:  Gorbachev gave a speech in December, 1988 which spelled out glasnost & perestroika, which presaged future events.  The biggest question was “Would the Soviets intervene?”  At a diplomatic reception the night the wall fell, no 1 had a clue what would happen that night.  Egon Krenz changed the travel laws on 6 Nov. which contributed greatly to the change.  No one could understand a particular DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik-German Democratic Republic) statement.  Tom Brokaw posed the question, “Is the Berlin Wall open?”  The answer came back, “Yes,” but visas were still needed, which were supposed to have been started to be administered on 10 Nov.  Then the question became, “Would guards defend the checkpoint?”  That night the checkpoint was simply overwhelmed.

Kori Schake:  She did not report that the DDR would change when working in security for the US government.  To provide a frame of reference, Helmut Kohl was in a race against the clock to unify Germany.  He positioned it as better for the USSR, while being a good deal for Germany in a short period of time.  He was dismissive of central European fears, but approached the Russians differently.  There were 3 policy issues:

  1. James Baker made it a prerequisite for a reunified Germany  to be a NATO member-the Germans would trade anything to unify
  2. a European Union-wide centric strategy was necessary to prevent fears of creating an overbearing Germany again
  3. exchanging west German Deutschmarks on a 1-to-1 basis for east German Reichsmarks “assured parity” in a statement of political equality.

Q&A

Boris Yeltsin wasted many opportunities post-reunification.

The Germans are still timid in some foreign relations.

Vladimir Putin was in the DDR embassy the night the wall fell & described it as the worst night of his life.  He was prepared to call in the troops.  Kohl was pushing because DDR citizens were marching in Hungary & elsewhere.  Actual unification talks didn’t begin until the following February, but change was so fast it was like watching video on fast-forward.  The choice was simply between funding a bankrupt DDR or go counter to glasnost & perestroika.

Margaret Thatcher was actually opposed to German reunification because she was suspicious of the Germans.

The panelists differed on the role economics played in the upheaval.  Bindenagel said it was critical in driving people to leave because they saw no future.  Keeping currencies on par kept the Ossies in the East.  Schake cited the deeply corrupt & repressive regime as bigger reasons than economics for the change.  Brown thought lack of freedom was the most important motivator for change.

My take:  Given my history in Germany, I freely admit I’m biased in placing these events in historical context.  The Poles claim their strikes for Solidarity in the early 198o’s set the table for these changes, but they were so far removed, they’re not as significant.  You could argue the ratchet effect on Russia was even bigger, but that didn’t happen as dramatically.  On a longer time horizon, I don’t think there’s any question the Soviet economic system was breaking down, so change was inevitable.  But the singular event of the wall falling created the impetus for the whole system to come down.  Regardless of how you see it, these events 9 November, 1989 changed the world for the better, & it was the long reviled Germans who initiated it.  Hats off to them.

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