The Shrug That Changed the World
History - World Released - Nov 23, 2014
If you weren't paying close attention, the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 came as a complete surprise. If you weren't paying close attention, you'd believe it came as the result of Ronald Reagan's famous exhortation when visiting Berlin in 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" You'd believe it was American resoluteness that brought the Soviet Union to its knees and ended the Cold War. Only that was not the case as it turns out.
Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer WAS paying close attention: he was in Eastern Europe the Summer and Fall leading up to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and his behind-the-scenes reporting of what really happened makes for informative and fascinating story-telling.
Meyer couldn't believe his good fortune when Newsweek asked him to cover Eastern Europe in the summer of 1988. He sensed change was afoot and like everyone else was stunned when change--world shaking change--came a year later and at lightning speed. From the outside, it appeared Eastern Europe's long-repressed citizens, deeply frustrated by poverty, lack of freedom, and corrupt leadership, rose up en masse and overthrew their communist overloads. It makes for an inspiring story, but like many inspiring stories, it's not entirely accurate. Change would not have been possible had not Mikhail Gorbachev become general secretary of the communist party in 1985, and relaxed the Soviet grip on Eastern Bloc countries. When that happened, the Cold War began to thaw.
The thaw was felt first in Hungary, by a small band of party leaders (East European buccaneers, Meyer calls them) who saw their chance to end communism and free their fellow countrymen, not only in Hungary but across the East bloc. "In a conspiracy worthy of the most contrived Cold War spy thriller," writes Meyer, "they deliberately took aim at the Berlin Wall--and more than any others, it was they who brought it down. Theirs is the great untold story of 1989."
It took guts. At first they tested the water with talk of relaxing Soviet policies in their country, knowing full well it could mean the secret police knocking at their door in the middle of the night, being arrested and never seen again. When that didn't happen, they asked Gorbachev to remove the Soviet nuclear missiles in their country. Then they talked of opening a gate in the fence that separated communist Hungary from democratic Austria. When Moscow failed to respond, they opened the gate. Then, incredibly, East Germans vacationing in Hungary began exiting to the West through the gate. When Moscow still did nothing, East Germans by the thousands entered Hungary and escaped to freedom.
In Poland, meanwhile, free elections ousted the communist old guard, much to their dismay. They had permitted free elections believing Polish citizens would never dream of dispensing with communism and all it offered: jobs, rent control, free education, and free hospitalization. It was the other half of the equation they hadn't considered: citizens waiting eight hours in food lines, runaway inflation, decaying infrastructure (including backed-up toilets), fouled air and water, and, oh yes, corrupt leadership that ate well, dressed expensively, and rode in chauffeured Volvo limousines (while the average working people--proletarians--drove cramped, underpowered, noisy, air-polluting junk-boxes known as Trabants).
With Moscow strangely silent, in East Germany, the communists sensed the end might be near. The hard-liners continued appealing to Moscow for help, but none was forthcoming. With East Berliners fleeing by the thousands to Hungary and freedom, the city became a ghost town. Only the unskilled stayed behind. Hospitals no longer had doctors, schools no longer had teachers, and factories no longer had trained workers. Communist authorities then considered opening a gate in the Berlin Wall, provided East German citizens applied in advance, had the necessary papers properly stamped and signed, and agreed to return. When word got out that the Berlin Wall might open, crowds gathered in the streets near the Wall. At first there were only a few, then hundreds, then thousands, repeatedly chanting, "Open the gates!" On the night of November 9, 1989, the growing crisis threatened to get out of hand. Panicky calls flew from checkpoints up and down the Wall to the Interior Ministry, to no avail. Officials then dialed the Politburo, but no one answered. When rumors began to circulate that a gate had opened further to the north, the commanding officer shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, Why not? It was the shrug that changed the world.
"Open up!" he ordered, and the gates swung open. In that moment, at precisely 11:17 p.m., the Berlin Wall was no more. One month later, when Czechoslovakia ousted its communists leaders from government, in what was called "The Velvet Revolution," the Iron Curtain was no more, too.
"Mikhail Gorbachev deserves much of the credit," writes Meyer. "He was the geopolitical demiurge, the prime mover that set all else in motion. Without him, the history of Eastern Europe and the end of communism would have been vastly different." Meyer gives credit to George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) for showing restraint. "He avoided rubbing Moscow's face in it . . . and went out of his way to engage America's erstwhile enemy in the responsible management of the Cold War's end, most masterfully in negotiating German reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from central Europe." Military withdrawal included removal of nuclear weapons from Hungary.
Meyer is not as charitable with George W. Bush (Bush 43). Bush 43's team totally misread the meaning of what had happened, believing the Soviet collapse was as a result of pressure from the West. "The push to collapse came less from the outside than from within. Once the containing pressure of the Soviet system was lifted by Mikhail Gorbachev, they essentially imploded," Meyer writes. "Mistaking cause and effect was the single most critical misreading of the lesson of 1989, and tragically costly. For it was a straight line from the fantasy of Cold War victory to the invasion of Iraq. Convinced that freedom could be won there as easily as it was in Eastern Europe, and that it need only confront the tyrant, the Bush administration scarcely bothered to plan for the aftermath of the war. . . . The result was a loss of lives and fortune that will heavily weigh for decades to come."
For more, read Meyer's book, “The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall.” No doubt, historians will be turning to it for decades to come.