Day By Day

Monday, November 09, 2009

This Day In History -- The Wall Came Tumbling Down

Today is the strangely titled "Chaos Never Dies Day". Supposedly it is a day to contemplate all the random turmoil that characterizes modern existence. I like that. The central conceit of modern culture is that the seeming randomness of life results from the operation of deep, fundamental processes that trained "experts" can discern, understand, and control, and by so doing remove risk, turmoil, and unpredictability from our existence. Clearly the experts have failed, but that doesn't keep them from trying to control everything and everyone -- if we let them.

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the most inspiring days of modern times -- the day the Berlin Wall fell. On this day in 1989 the East German government [GDR], responding to increasing levels of domestic protest and pressure from the West, proclaimed that all citizens were now free to visit West Berlin. Immediately people by the hundreds of thousands swarmed the wall from both sides to celebrate their new freedom and to begin the long process of dismantling the Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of communist oppression. Most people alive today are too young to remember that glorious day when freedom reigned, but those of us who had lived through the Cold War well remember the day the hated Wall came down. I started to assemble a series of links commemorating this wonderful event, but the guys over at the Chronicle of Higher Education had already done so, much better than I could. Here is the fruit of their labor as presented on Arts and Letters Daily [my favorite site on the web, check it out].
Schabowski shrugged and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down ... A night never to forget ... J├╝rgen Ritter took his camera along the Death Strip ... Daniel Johnson was there, and asked Schabowski a crucial question ... Some Ossis would bring back the GDR, if they could: no surprise there ... Whom do we credit? CIA? Dissidents? Ronald Reagan? There was no single cause ... Some walls remain in the mind ... It was Reagan and Gorbachev ... Hour by hour, history was being made ... Germans still grope to understand what happened ... The fall of the Wall was years in the making ... “Victor, what are you doing here? It’s midnight and you live in East Berlin” ... Berlin today is “poor but sexy” ... For West Berliners, the world suddenly had no edge ... After collapse, jubilation, fear, and uncertainty ... The Wall made for many great escapes ... No, it was not about bananas ... At the Bornholmer bridge, a vast tide of people, in tears, stunned ... Life will never be the same, say East Germans ... visiting U.S. presidents have left an outsize footprint on Berlin ... There have been missed opportunities ... The Stasi destroyed the most ordinary trust between people ... There was life beyond the gray cement certainties of Stalinism ... Not all lands in the East are doing well today ... Angela Merkel was excited, but still stayed in the sauna

Long-term consequences of 1989 are only now starting to emerge. They belong to a history that could not be written till now ... The East simply committed suicide ... Helmut Kohl was a shrewd player of the events ... Events of 1989 unfolded in a crazy blur ... Mrs. Thatcher had other plans for Germany ... America was caught off guard

1989 was the biggest year in world history since 1945. It changed everything, says Timothy Garton Ash ... The Soviet Union, observes Josef Joffe, was the first empire ever to die in its bed ... A tyranny set in stone, writes Roger Kimball ... It was never a foregone conclusion, Anne Applebaum insists ... Berlin was the centerpiece of the Cold War, Fred Kaplan reminds us ... The end of the only world I ever knew, says Stefan Theil ... Gorbachev only wanted to the door an inch or two, writes George Jonas, but the wind caught it ... First U.S. envoy to united Germany was Robert Kimmit ... Communism took power away from the people, says Boris Johnson, but they took it back ... A Polish view from Adam Michnik ... Realists wrongly thought only war could defeat the Soviet Union, says James Carroll ... Communism had to die, says Rupert Cornwall ... The Wall showed Kennedy’s weakness, says Donald Kagan ... the world changed, says Victor Sebestyen, on that wonderful night in Berlin ... I promised the Warsaw Pact countries not to intervene in their affairs, says Mikhail Gorbachev ... The world turns, but it should not forget, writes Conrad Black ... Communism was a dark comedy for Guy Sorman ... The will of the people, says James Baker is the final arbiter ... Gorbachev’s reforms, like those of some Tsars, came too late, says Mitchell Cohen ... It’s good Gorbachev was weak, says Lech Walesa ... A grotesque tyranny, says Doug Bandow ... The GDR made citizens into prisoners, writes Henry Kissinger ... The Left wanted to pretend nothing had happened, writes John Vinocur ... For Robert Fulford Communism was a great con game ... Reagan’s speech was crucial, argues James Mann ... Intellectual walls remain, says Roger Scruton ... One of history’s finest moments, says Matt Welch ... Where is Russia today? asks Jonathan Brent ... The spoils of victory did not go to the U.S., argues Andrew Rawnsley, so much as to Europe ... NYT Op-Ed editors asked nine poets to remember the Fall of the Wall.
The picture at the head of this post depicts the Berlin Wall as it was in 1985. The wall itself has been decorated with anti-communist graffiti. Behind it is the "killing zone" where machine gunners would mow down refugees seeking to escape to the West. It was heavily mined, yet thousands upon thousands of people braved the guns and mines in a mad dash for freedom. We should never forget them. The people walking inside the killing zone are a cleanup crew of East Germans. It was popular in those days for West Berliners to throw their trash and waste over the wall to show their contempt for communism, so every day the East Germans had to clean up the mess.

And here's another thing we should never forget -- an American President who dared to identify and stand up to the cosmic evil of communism and to tell the Soviet leader, "Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall".

And a few other notable events:

On this day in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte seized control in revolutionary France and proclaimed himself "First Consul" [in effect, dictator]. The French experiment in republican government had failed. Many scholars argue that Napoleon created the first totalitarian state, upon which more recent tyrannies were modeled.

And on this day in 1900 Czarist Russia, which in many ways would qualify as a totalitarian state, completes its conquest of Manchuria. Within four years Japan will respond by invading Russia and the great Twentieth Century conflict -- what Prof. Naill Ferguson calls "The War Of The World" will have commenced.

And on this day in 1938 another totalitarian regime, Nazi Germany, launched attacks on Jewish citizens throughout the country. This is remembered as the Kristallnacht, the "Night of Shattered Glass".

There are so many other things to commemorate on this day -- the abdication of the Kaiser [1918]; Hitler's "Beer Hall Putsch" [1923]; Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox [1865]; Imperial Japan invades Shanghai [1935]; the opening of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, the first such institution in North America [1821]; Jack the Ripper concludes his killing spree, so far as we know [1888].

So much history, so little time....