The opening of the Berlin Wall - 17 November 1989
In the forty odd years that these talks have been going, I don't remember a time when the political commentators of this country have been lost for words, at least lost for the proper superlative, to mark the shock and scale of the popular upheaval in Eastern Europe.
Many great names have been evoked of men who, in the past, suddenly or gradually turned the world upside down. Martin Luther. The French Revolutionists. Thomas Jefferson.
One writer, a temperamental sceptic if ever there was one, wrote, "In the 40 years since Soviet behaviour provoked a reluctant America to stop disarming, defence has got $10.4 trillion. It has been history's biggest bargain. It held the line while Jefferson's ideas sowed their wholesome disorder".
Well, in the morning after the euphoria, the pundits took over and we've already had a heavy dose of analysis and explanation. There are two ingenuous explanations that may not have been aired in your part of the world, and that are different from the predictable, automatic responses of professional liberals or conservatives.
Who ordered the opening of the Wall, and why?
One theory is that Gorbachev alone was responsible for firing the old regime in East Germany – that he's gambling on a united Germany that will invest heavily in the Soviet Union that will, in time, request the withdrawal of American troops. A Germany which, permitted by Russia to become a nuclear power, could, as the ally of the Soviet Union, keep in line any and all of the threatening rebels, like Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia.
The second theory, from a German historian with impressive credentials, is very different. It sees, in the opening of the Wall, a daring bluff. And one called by Mr Krenz who hopes to overwhelm Chancellor Kohl with an unmanageable flood of refugees which the Chancellor will eventually have to stop by revoking the Easterners right of automatic citizenship.
This presumes that Mr Krenz is determined to persuade the mass of his people to stay put and, with Mr. Gorbachev's ready approval, to repackage a legitimate government responsive to its people's needs.
In the coming weeks and months, the turn of events will doubtless throw up new theories. For the moment and for the great mass of Americans, the tumbling of the Wall was an occasion like the victory of the American Revolution. The end of an old regime to be celebrated with general rejoicing.
What we've been celebrating this time is the collapse, if not the death, of Communism, counting Albania, if at all, as an historical relic. I suggest, very gently, in the surrounding din of joy, that these hosannas may be premature, not unlike seeing in Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries the collapse of Christianity in England. Christianity was a faith powerful enough to have retained a hold on Europeans, the greats and the humble, for 1500 years and renouncing it in its established form by no means meant the end of it.
Democracy and Communism too are faiths. Very much younger, but both of them, I believe, are powerful enough not to succumb to the first counter-revolution. Faiths change their form and practice and we ought not to forget how drastically democracy has changed since the days of its early pretensions.
The American founding fathers, who abandoned six years of a chaotic confederacy to invent a new nation, had no intention of setting up a democracy. Indeed, in the first days of the convention that wrote the Constitution, George Washington reminded them that, of all forms of government, democracy is the least accounted by civilised nations.
Other leaders, notably James Madison and Alexander Hamilton concluded that, at best, democracy was only possible in a small spot, not in a large republic. So they moved on to found a republic of men of property. But many symptoms of democracy had already invaded the governments of the new states and a delegate from Massachusetts bemoaned the fact "as the source of the evils we experience".
Once the new nation got under way, and thanks to the radical Virginian known as "Mad Tom" Jefferson, the juices – what Hamilton called the poisons – of democracy began to seep into the lives of the common people who pushed over the mountains into the interior and took more and more of their government into their own hands.
Yet, democracy, as we know it, barely appeared before this century. Not until 1850 did adult males, white, of course, get the vote. It's only in the past 75 years that the United States Senate has been chosen by the voters, only since the 1920s have British and American women had the vote at all.
And today, American democracy is buffeted between two opposing forces – to get the government off our backs and to make the government more and more responsible for more and more people. For minorities, for the children of working women, for poor women wanting an abortion, for a health service that will cover everybody.
Communism also is a powerful faith. In the form the Soviet Union established it, it was maintained for the longest time, like Christianity, by torture, imprisonment for heresy, censorship. And in spite of the abundant and appalling Soviet record of suppression – from purged trials in the '30s to military oppression in Eastern Europe in the '50s and '60s and, at all times, censorship, the ubiquitous watchdog of the secret police, the denial of anything like free elections – in spite of all this, the original theory, the faith, from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, is surely still very powerful.
Whenever a western leader, usually an American president, lectured a Soviet general secretary about human rights, the general secretary – Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev – did not shuffle with the embarrassment we expected. Instead, they lectured us about fundamental human rights – a guaranteed home, a job, an education, medical care from the womb to the tomb.
I seriously questioned whether the peoples of Eastern Europe have been seething for years with demands for open elections and more individual liberty. May not the sudden explosion have been due to the grim, non-ideological fact – which has spurred many another revolution – that food was beginning to give out for too many people. No question that the televised scenes of hundreds of thousands of young families tumbling joyously across the borders and finally hacking away at the bastille of the Wall, have presented us with an exhilarating spectacle, a hallelujah chorus of the oppressed, yearning to be free.
In the months, maybe years, ahead, we shall learn what sort of freedom they had in mind. They may find themselves moving into democracies less perfect than they'd been led to believe. There will be much disillusion of young idealists who, delighted to find that they are free to speak their minds, travel where they please, pick their own job, elect their own governors, will find also that, as the Supreme Court pronounced, not too long ago, in ruling on child labour, that they are as free to work 12 hours a day as their employers are free to hire them.
How many of the spirited young, looking for those famous streets paved with gold, will find them paved with crack? How many of the new emigrants will exchange a bare safe home for a tenement in a neighbourhood racked with crime?
For all of us who do crave the collapse of Communism, it was sobering to hear from the current western hero, Mr Gorbachev, that it is, quote "useless to shout about victory in the Cold War and the collapse of this or that social system. This", he told the French Foreign Minister, "is no time to gloat or believe that whatever inevitably will follow on the tumult is the exporting of capitalism".
It can not have been bluster on his part to maintain that Communism is alive and changing, so that in a sudden remarkable change of emphasis, the west shouldn't get too excited about breaking up the Warsaw Pact or reunifying Germany.
Interesting, that while we've been emphasising trade and free speech and markets, he should have reverted to the defence of the east. It was a reminder that, however desperate is his domestic economy, the Soviet defence budget is only now beginning to shave its massive percentage of the national product. And the billions in military aid still pour into Cuba and Nicaragua.
If we in the west uncomfortably feel once more the old fear of Germany as the dominant power in Europe, the Russian leaders have never forgotten their nine million casualties in the First World War, 14 millions in the second.
No doubt we shall all cool off, remembering in the meantime those similar jubilant scenes on the nights in India, in Africa, in Indonesia when the flag of the old imperial ruler went down and the flag of the new independent republic went up, to the crackle of fireworks, the chanting of anthems and the full-throated cry of Uhuru – freedom!
Within a year or two, more than half of them were rent by murderous civil wars or under the rule of a dictator. Yet, it must be said, that the East European tumult does signify a counter-revolution at least. And that somebody started it.
So it was a happy, a moving, coincidence that the night the Wall came down, the President of the United States was awarding the Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian honour, to the man who, eight years ago, sparked the new revolution. Usually the trigger man has been a defiant monk or a cloistered philosopher or a scholar brooding in a public library.
This time it was an electrician. President Bush hung the shining medal round the cherubic neck of Lech Walesa.
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