All in All, No More Bricks in the Wall (with apologies to Pink Floyd)
I first saw the Berlin Wall in March 1976, when I arrived for a semester’s study at Stanford’s overseas program there. As an international relations major interested in security affairs, I wanted to see the Cold War “up close and personal,” and what better place to do it than the divided city that was the ...
I first saw the Berlin Wall in March 1976, when I arrived for a semester’s study at Stanford’s overseas program there. As an international relations major interested in security affairs, I wanted to see the Cold War “up close and personal,” and what better place to do it than the divided city that was the site of numerous Soviet-American confrontations?
It was an education, especially for a rather naive kid from California who had never been outside the United States. Foreigners could visit East Berlin relatively easily by then, yet crossing at Checkpoint Charlie was always a somewhat forbidding experience. The lines to cross were often long and tedious, the border guards sullen and arbitrary, and I always seemed to be the person they wanted to take into the back room for an extra search and a lot of questions.
The Wall itself was an ugly thing: a concrete scar across a once-great city, complete with barbed wire, guard towers, and checkpoints. It was both an iconic symbol of division but also something very real and tangible. It divided families, stifled dreams, and sometimes killed people. Some 5,000 people reportedly tried to get across the Wall while it stood, and a hundred or more died in the attempt.
Like other barriers that divide human beings, the Wall was also a confession of failure. Had the communist vision been a success, there would have been no need for Wall to keep people in. It was an education in itself to live in West Berlin and to visit the East; whatever the failings of liberal capitalism might be, it was palpably superior to life on the Other Side. West Berlin seemed a bit like Oz — a vibrant, lively, and decidedly materialistic city, filled with cafes, stores, students, dogs (and a lot of elderly people too), but East Berlin was a bit like Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas: drab, monochromatic, and obviously much poorer. And by most accounts, East Germany worked better than the rest of the Soviet empire did.
What lessons do I draw from the Wall, its history, and its eventual destruction? Here are five.
First, although the Wall was an affront to human freedom, it also made a signal contribution to global stability. Berlin had been a flash point for international politics in 1948, 1958, and again in 1961, largely because Germany’s fate remained uncertain so long as the DDR continued to lose people to the economic miracle in the West. As Marc Trachtenberg pointed out some years ago, the erection of the Wall completed the Cold War division of Europe and dampened security competition there significantly.
The second lesson is that containment worked. The Wall eventually came down because the Soviet Union collapsed without a superpower war, and Eastern Europe was liberated peacefully. As Kennan had foreseen, the Western system was in fact superior to the communist order on numerous dimensions, which meant that patient forbearance made more sense than a strategy of “rollback” or preventive war. We might have brought the wall down sooner by starting a big war, but fortunately leaders on both sides understood how foolish that would have been. There’s a lesson there for those trigger-happy folks who think preventive action is the best way to deal with threats, even dangers that far less ominous than the Soviet Union was.
Third, if containment worked, the fall of the Berlin Wall was a vivid reminder that empires don’t. The history of the 20th century is littered with the corpses of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, Dutch, and Soviet empires — none of whom could withstand the corrosive solvent of modern nationalism. Once the desire for national self-determination had the opportunity to express itself, the Soviet empire collapsed with remarkable swiftness.
Fourth, the destruction of the Wall-and indeed, the collapse of the entire Soviet order-teaches that revolutionary upheavals are nearly impossible to forecast with any precision. As Timur Kuran and others have shown, an individual’s willingness to rebel is a form of private information that cannot be reliably known in advance, especially in an authoritarian society where repression is a real possibility. As a result, seemingly minor events can suddenly induce rapid contagion effects that even the participants themselves did not anticipate. Although a few observers recognized that the Soviet order was in trouble, hardly anyone believed it could collapse as quickly as it did or that Germany would reunify in a few years. The real lesson, however, is that although dramatic political change does occur from time to time, it rarely does so accordingly to anyone’s timetable. The moral: Don’t base your policy towards an adversary on the assumption that its rulers are on their last legs. Maybe they are, but maybe not, and nobody really knows.
Fifth and last, the fall of the Wall highlights the critical role of the individual in history. I’m a big believer in the importance of large structural forces — the changing distribution of power, economic growth rates, demographic trends, and even evolving normative understandings — but history sometimes turns on an individuals’s ideas and initiatives. As I see it, it wasn’t Reagan’s saying “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” that led to it being broken into a million pieces (and then sold off, in a wonderful symbol of capitalist triumph), it was the fact that Gorbachev listened and was already thinking along similar lines. Had Andropov or Chernenko been younger or in better health, the Wall would have remained standing well into the 1990s, and we would not be celebrating anything today.
So as we congratulate ourselves for winning the Cold War and congratulate Germans on the destruction of a hated symbol of division, let us also reserve a word of thanks for those on the other side who also helped make that destruction possible.
GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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