Thirty years ago today, Germans took a hammer to the Berlin Wall. They struck a fatal blow to Soviet communism, too.
Soon the U.S.S.R. dissolved, newly independent Eastern European nations tilted toward the West, and East and West Germany united to become a peaceful, prosperous force for good in the world.
The fall of the wall “was an earthshaking, secular event in the 20th century; I mean it’s literally like our 1776 in America and 1789 in France, except there was no bloodshed,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for the United States and Europe.
“I think it was literally a moment of amazing grace, and I mean that in the theological sense, which is that for my generation of 20-somethings it was an undeserved gift,” she said.
Freedom from Communist domination was indeed a gift, given mostly by gutty Germans themselves — as well as other East Europeans with the grit to defy despots in their national capitals and by extension, the Kremlin.
“It was one of those rare occasions where people stuck with it against all realistic expectations and said, ‘This is a goal, a dream worthy of pursuit, and it may not seem realistic now but we’re not giving it up,’ ” Stelzenmüller said.
But beyond people power, she added, there were individuals with global power, including one in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, who Stelzenmüller said “was under highly suspicious surveillance from the apparatchiks in his own government.”
Among other leaders of continental consequence were Pope John Paul II and his fellow Pole Lech Walesa, as well as Czech dissident Václav Havel. And there were a succession of U.S. presidents who, on a bipartisan basis, resolutely resisted Soviet domination — especially the two who served during that decisive decade, Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Reagan’s rhetoric — especially his commanding “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech — is most noted now, but the steady statesmanship of Bush was also truly crucial, not just in showing Western resolve, but in managing U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations, too.
“The fact is that among the three Western allies it was Washington, in the person of George H.W. Bush, that led the push toward support for unification from start to finish,” Jackson Janes, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said via e-mail.
Noting the hesitance of London and Paris, Janes said that Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, gained European consensus amid bipartisan congressional support.
Janes’ Berlin-based colleague, Vice President Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, said in an e-mail that while Reagan’s words had no practical effect, they were still “visionary and highly symbolic. It also represented the ongoing effort by the United States, actually by both political parties, not to accept the existence of the wall, the whole Iron Curtain, the curtailment of individual freedom in a large part of Europe. In addition to all of the West’s military efforts, that was what kept the pressure on the Soviets up. Therefore, the U.S. effort was indispensable.”
Thirty years hence those heady days, another Russian ruler, Vladimir Putin, is challenging the West anew. But whether the U.S. will remain indispensable is not quite clear because cohesion among NATO nations is fraying.
Indeed, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a provocative Economist interview this week.
And it’s not just international, but internal tension that the West should worry about. An unabated wave of populism has aspects of fascism in some countries, including Germany, where this week Dresden declared a “Nazi emergency,” a mostly symbolic measure after a rise in “right-wing extremist, racist” activity, according to a local city councilor.
Indeed, a deep divide still exists between eastern and western portions of Germany. And elsewhere in countries like Hungary, Poland and some others, illiberal regimes have replaced the more democratic models that emerged in the post-Cold War era.
The West — and the U.S. in particular — should support international institutions like the European Union and NATO, and speak with a clear, consistent voice against Putin’s provocations and the denigration of democracy within some European countries.
Sure, there were words this week from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who returned to Germany, where he was deployed as part of NATO forces, to say, “We have a duty, each of us, to defend what was so hard-won. And we have to do it together, because doing it alone is impossible.”
And yet his boss, President Donald Trump, has openly questioned the very vehicles of Western resolve that helped topple the wall.
“The Trump administration has sent conflicting and confusing messages to European allies and to Russia,” wrote Janes. “Instead of encouraging a consensus on common challenges, he had characterized Europe as a ‘foe,’ supported the Brexit initiative and courted those in Europe who represent antagonistic forces toward the E.U. such as in Budapest and Warsaw.”
Wrote Kleine-Brockhoff: “Today we live in confused times. The U.S. seems to have two Russia policies — one that embraces and one that keeps its distance from the authoritarian leadership of the country. And it has two policies on the European Union and NATO. One that attacks and undermines both institutions and one that strengthens them.”
This duality dilutes the appeal of the Western alternative, said Thomas E. Graham, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“When Russian people look at the West today, they don’t look at societies that know what they are doing, that are competent, that are successful, so we are not providing a model to Russia that they would want to emulate,” Graham said.
“What we have done over the past few years,” he added, “is to squander some of the opportunities to build a more unified and prosperous Europe and a better functioning transatlantic community that would have been advantageous to the United States.”
America and its Western allies should not squander this gift — this “amazing grace.” Indeed, invoking the hymn, what once was lost can be found again, but it will take the unity and purpose that led to that “earthshaking, secular event” remembered today in Berlin and beyond.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.