Monday, November 11, 2019

Nov. 9, 1989 - "Das Volk Siegt"

"The People Win"

That was a headline in the German newspaper, Der Spiegel, on Nov 9, 1989, as it pronounced the breaching of the Berlin Wall, also shown in the clip below, which is about two minutes of TV coverage of that incredible evening.

It caught everybody by surprise, despite months of building events across the Communist nations of Eastern Europe. But given that the breaching of the Wall was a surprise to the people who controlled it - basically a stupid mistake by them, an accident - perhaps we should not judge the surprise of ourselves and other people too harshly.

Earlier that year had seen the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in Communist China. Those protesters had picked up on the new policies of Glasnost ("openness") and Peristroika ("restructuring") being pushed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR since 1985/86 as he tried to salvage that failing system. But they'd also been encouraged by his visit and the relaxation of Chinese state media coverage that showed the student protests in China, as well as seeming support from Central Committee members like the reform-minded Hu Yaobang. And all of this amidst China's economic reforms that had sparked the economy - but also Chinese dreams of other freedoms.

Man vs. Tank near Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989

When all that got crushed beneath Chinese tanks in June the Western reaction was a mix of horror, disappointment, and shrugged shoulders at dashed expectations. This was how Communist regimes had always dealt with their enemies and this was why they survived.

Why would Eastern Europe and the USSR be any different? I can't think of a single person I knew or read in the 1980's who did not simply assume that these Communist nations would be with us for the rest of our lives.

As it happened there had been one man who had not thought that and luckily he was the most important one: US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). Years earlier, almost alone amidst the PhD's of geopolitical, military and economic experts who talked of "realism", if not the dead policy of detente, Reagan laid out his straight-forward philosophy of dealing with the USSR and its Eastern European minions during a 1981 discussion with his National Security Advisor, Richard Allen:
US President Ronald Reagan
“I’d like to tell you of my theory of the Cold War. Some people think that I am simplistic, but there is a fundamental difference between being simplistic and having simple answers to complex questions. So here's my strategy on the Cold War: 
we win, they lose."

Given the tensions of the day Reagan never said that in public. But it was an absolutely necessary idea in order to shake up an establishment that had, like the rest of us, grown used to the idea that Communist nations were forever.

Reagan could not have done it on his own. Despite their criticisms of him he had bi-partisan Democrat Party backing for massive military spending increases, plus sanctions and other pressures applied to the USSR and its allies. He had the quieter, practical support of many weighty Western European leaders. He had an even more hard line, anti-communist leader in Europe as his most important NATO ally, Margaret Thatcher.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
Karol Józef Wojtyła - aka Pope John Paul II 

He also had Pope John Paul, who had arrived with almost perfect timing into the office of Pope in 1978 from Poland, one of the key nations in the USSR's Eastern Bloc. He provided a huge moral counterweight to the usual propaganda efforts that tried to reduce the Cold War foes down to equal moral standing and the accompanying "who cares who wins?" attitude.

USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev
And ultimately Reagan got Mikhail Gorbachev as the leader of the USSR.

There's a push-pull aspect to this; without a Reagan a Gorbachev might never have become General Secretary, with his arguments to the Politburo that they had to change in order to survive against an increasingly powerful USA.

An unstated argument was that after decades of doddering old fools the Politburo also needed someone who could take on Reagan with a charm offensive.

The last certainly worked for a while. The Western MSM went gaga over this new Soviet leader: young, energetic, articulate, smart - and his glamorous wife Raisa, who was pulled into the media glare as a direct contrast to the Soviet past where leader's wives were hidden Babushkas. All this was contrasted endlessly by the MSM with Reagan's age and "stupidity". The scoffing comparisons were long and loud.

Reagan did not take this lying down however, and on June 12, 1987, in a famous speech given in front of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall, he pushed for something that would be a true mark of Soviet reform:

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. 
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

Many of Reagan's advisors fought tooth and nail against including that phrase, fearing it would just increase tensions - and for no good reason since it was such obvious nonsense. But Reagan himself insisted it be there. Once spoken, outside critics were harsher still, with more scoffing: typical political theatre they sniffed.

The irony is that without a Gorbachev, Reagan's strategy would have failed. Had there still been men who thought like Stalin and Lenin, willing to use any and all force to suppress and destroy their internal enemies, the USSR would likely still be with us today. Communist China did have such ruthless, brutal men and likely still does.

For all the talk of his reforms, the key point about Gorbachev, when it mattered in 1989, was that he was simply not willing to shoot down hundreds or thousands of East Europeans to allow the Soviet systems to survive, nor would he allow or enable Communist leaders like East Germany's Erich Honecker to do so, despite a huge presence of the Red Army in the Soviet satellite nations. It's a mirror-image of Reagan's simple strategy: for all the talk of Geo-political structural and material reasons, the ultimate factor was a simple unwillingness to continue a history of mass murder.

Ukranian peasants dying from Stalin's enforced starvation, Kharkiv, 1933: the Holodomor
The strange thing about the emotional letdown of the Tiananmen Square massacre, was that it was almost exactly then that change was seen in Eastern Europe. Important things had been happening since late 1988, but the first real signs that people were rising up against their Communist governments were not seen until mid-1989. Intimidated not one bit, they sensed that their rulers were exhausted by age, internal failures and the relentless pressure of a USA-led West, involving more than just the military aspects of NATO. Many of the leaders were very old and had been there for decades - which made Gorbachev look even better. And of course he'd made it clear that if they had problems with the people, they'd have to solve it without suppression. They might even have to talk to the Deplorables.

The pressure had been on in Poland since late 1988 when a revived Solidarity movement had first pushed for elections and then won them. As an example of the hardened arteries of the Communist governments, they foolishly had a law that allowed people to cross out names on the single party lists: people crossed out the names of 33 of 35 major Communist officials on the ballot, including the Prime Minister, so that even though Solidarity was allowed only 35% of the parliament (Sejm), it could form a new government. The election results came out on June 4 - the same day as Tiananmen.

Hungarian troops pull down the fence at the Austrian border
But it was actually Hungary that turned out to be the pivot for the collapse of East Euro Communism. In late 1988, its Communist government - clapped-out like all the others - actually began to convert from being a Communist Party to a Social Democratic one, and yielded some powers to an opposition eager for elections. Just as in Poland the government thought they could bully their way through an election: they failed - especially after a Communist Party leader told a crowd outside the parliament building:
“We continue to regard the undisturbed and balanced development of our relationship with our great neighbor, the Soviet Union, as being in our national interest.”  
The crowd booed the crap out of him. It was over.

More important was what the new Hungarian government did next.  In April 1989 they switched off the electricity on their border fence with Austria. In May they began pulling down sections of it.

It was at this point that Western TV began to notice what was going on. I remember watching this in disbelief. Naturally Hungarians began to pour across to buy stuff, but that wasn't the point. Hungarian reformer Imre Pozsgay said later:
“We were pretty sure that if hundreds of thousands of East Germans went to the West, the East German regime would fall, and in that case Czechoslovakia was also out.”
It was a strategy that looked outside Hungary; that understood defeating Communism permanently in Hungary meant destroying it across Eastern Europe, and that this was the way to do it.  It worked brilliantly. They did not tell the governments of East Germany or the USSR: the first they knew of it was when Austrian and then West German TV broadcast the news.

An East German Hungarian holiday - to Austria

Suddenly, thousands of East Germans decided they needed a summer holiday - and Hungary was the place to go.

The East German government was furious but the tide was now too great. TV showed extraordinary scenes of people rushing across the Austro-Hungarian border, many holing up in various Western embassies. These scenes sent a message like nothing else to date.

Protests grew larger in East Germany as everybody - government and people alike - became aware of the situation developing across all of Eastern Europe, with ever more fantastic TV images that held us enthralled. Could this really be happening? Honecker quit after almost twenty years as leader and handed over the reins of power to a chosen successor - another dull bureaucratic product of Communism who had no better idea how to cope in this new world. A gigantic protest of between 1/2 and 1 million people in East Berlin on November 4 forced the government's hand. On November 9 the East German Politburo decided to lift all travel bans - but quietly.

Yet the rot of Communist bureaucratic thinking had seeped in so deeply that they could not even do this competently. At the end of a routine daily press briefing at 7 pm, a Politburo spokesman, Günter Schabowski, made a low-key announcement of a change to written law, which would open only a small loophole to allow "disgruntled" people to leave. But Schabowski did not read it before the press conference:
“private trips abroad can be applied for.... and permits will be granted promptly. . . Permanent emigration is henceforth allowed across all border crossing points between East Germany and West Germany and West Berlin.... As I understand it, it goes into effect immediately, without delay”


Hundreds of thousands of people in both East and West Berlin saw that press conference, and it was rapidly re-broadcast from the West Berlin TV stations. Word spread even faster.

All border crossings had to mean the Wall as well. Thousands of Germans - from both sides of the Berlin divide - descended on the Wall that night. As West Berlin reporters covered it live they reported bewildered guards who had no idea what to do and who had no instructions. 

East German Guards holding back the tide.
At several border crossing points, East Berliners began shouting at the armed guards, demanding they open the gates and shove aside barbed wire obstacles, telling them that they could check with the bosses: the order had come from a Politburo member.

After brief and non-violent struggles the guards relented and the crowds poured across, to be met by TV reporters and West Berliners, relatives in many cases.

Again, these were TV scenes that were simply beyond belief to those of us who had grown up with the endless, brutal reality of these Communist societies.

As more hours passed, people with picks and hammers began to turn up, climbing on top of the wall and starting to destroy it throughout the day of November 10 and the days beyond. The guards looked on hopelessly: no instructions again. Shooting escapees was one thing - but this? As a final example of the stupidity of the East German Communist government, their Foreign Minister later wrote:
"We did not suspect that the opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end of the Republic."
They hung on for a while longer but were powerless as their own citizens ignored them and members of the military, police and even Stasi simply quit and went home to look for other work. Negotiations on reunification of the two Germany's began.

In Bulgaria the Communist rulers went quietly the day after the Wall came down. Prime Minister Todor Zhikov, a living Stalinist who had been in the office since 1954, quit. The Bulgarian Communist Party shut itself down soon after.

Czechoslovakia followed a week after the Wall opened and Vaclav Havel, who at the beginning of the year had been in jail for his human rights activism, was elected as the new president in December.

In Romania, the Ceausescu's lasted another month, before an organised TV appearance to boost morale had to be shut down in seconds as the crowd began booing and whistling. The stunned look on Ceausescu's dull, aged face said it all. He and his wife were shot on Christmas Day.

US President George H W Bush
President George Bush acquitted himself better than I expected, especially considering that it caught him and the US government - especially the CIA and other intelligence services - as completely by surprise as it had the rest of us.

Both he and Reagan played it all very low-key, very subdued. There was no need to rub Gorbachev's nose in it. They knew they had won and they had to avoid inflaming the situation while hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were still stationed in all those Eastern European countries. Slow and steady de-escalation and removal of them was needed and Bush handled that very well.

They were the last Presidents following on from Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and even Carter, who had pushed back against Communism, with a host of millions who supported the struggle. Reagan and Bush also knew better than most that while cracking the Berlin Wall open in 1989 had been bloodless, the Cold War had not. While World War III never went hot along the main battle lines in Europe, the battles on the fringes in places like Korea, Vietnam, El Salvador, Greece, Angola, Afghanistan and dozens of other nations were expensive, wearying and filled with the deaths of military and civilian alike.

Yet despite the risk and strain, America had not quit and walked away - or at least the majority of Americans didn't. The Western Europeans and others did their part: but without the USA's leadership over decades it would have been a losing effort.

The palpable joy of November 9 overwhelmed even the jailers and their propagandists, and stunned into silence their usually vocal Marxist sympathizers in the West. The deep unpopularity of the Communist regimes revealed by the peoples of Eastern Europe in 1989 was an embarrassment to moderate Left-Wingers and valueless social scientists in the West who had treated, even feted, these nations as stable and legitimate forms of governance with solid economies and healthy societies. They had regularly preached the moral equivalency of the U.S. and the USSR. And of course at times they had simply dropped the pretense and fingered the U.S. as the "fascist state" and global oppressor; the jailer, the warmonger, the threat to world peace.

November 9, 1989 revealed the Big Lie. The steady revelations of economic, political, military, moral, economic and ecological failure were shocking. For the hard line Western Marxists who had sympathized with and excused these regimes, it was a faith-shaking crisis. The pictures and TV coverage of ordinary people could not be spun or denied. They didn't even have the heart to claim it was all a CIA plot. For the most part all these groups shut up - for once.

The failure was total - but the Far Left would slowly recover even from such an identity crisis. Before twenty years had passed one could hear again the old attacks on the West, on democracy and free enterprise, and the USA as a "Capital-Fascist" state - but now driven by theories of Post-Modernism and Post-Colonialism that preserved some elements of Marxist analysis. Not too much though: the revealed scars of Marxist stupidity still showed too fresh. People would laugh!

New Years Eve, December 31, 1989 - Berlin Wall
A mate of mine went to the New Year's Eve celebrations at the Berlin Wall on December 31st, 1989. He said he had to be there and I know many other Kiwis who felt the same. He still describes it as the greatest party he's ever been to.

It would take another two years for the USSR to suffer the same fate as Eastern Europe. The difference was that now we knew it was coming. It's a sad fact that Gorbachev is held in contempt today by his fellow Russians for letting an empire collapse and a superpower be humiliated. History will be kinder to him.

Nov. 9, 1989, was a great victory for liberty and freedom, one of the greatest such days in history. But it would not have been possible without America and American perseverance. America carried the burden of leadership. America's active defense kept hope alive for decades - the hope that empowered Eastern Europe's oppressed to finally rise up against their oppressors and overthrow them.


Roj Blake said...

The most accurate part of your article is the headline. The rest? Not so good. I know the Right Mytholgise St Ronald, but credit where credit is due.

Sure, Reagan read out a speech written for him at The Brandenburg Gate. Easy place to get a platform as West Berlin was under the American thumb. Maybe Reagan decided against giving a speech in Tiananmen Square, although that would have been far braver and a true mark of his commitment to freedom. So why didn't he?

It wasn't Reagan, Thatcher, Gorbachev and all the other onlookers as history was made. It was the people, rising up, and working for their common good. Without the communal action of The People, the change would not have come.

And as far as "winning the Cold War", why does the USA still maintain 36 Army, 1 Marine, and four Air Force bases in Germany? Who are they "defending" against what perceived enemy? The USSR is gone, yet Germany is still occupied.

Whilst the East Germans have benefited from an increase in freedom, their Russian compatriots have not. Russia has descended into a kleptocracy, almost indistinguishable from the Stalinist Kleptocracy that preceded it.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In even better news for those of us who value true political freedom, Brazil’s former President Lula has been released from prison.

I'm sure you remember him. He's the fellow who lifted the lives of so many of his fellow Brazilians that the Thugs of The Right had to have him jailed so they could steal an election. You know, the usual way Right-Wing Thugs come to power, either through electoral fraud or violence. Sometimes a combination of both.

“They did not imprison a man. They tried to kill an idea,” he said. “Brazil did not improve, Brazil got worse. The people are going hungry. The people are unemployed. The people do not have formal jobs. People are working for Uber – they’re riding bikes to deliver pizzas.”

Tom Hunter said...

It was the people, rising up, and working for their common good. Without the communal action of The People, the change would not have come.

Yes, I figured that would be your take on the matter, with your eternal optimism about communes and grassroots organising. It also ties in with recent historicism that gives the back of the hand to the Great Man theory of history - which I admit was overstated - but trashes individual leaders (whether political, religious or intellectual) as being of no account compared to the great waves of The People's History.

And of course that's exactly what Obama was yakking about on the 20th anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, when he said that people on both sides had risen up and joined together to overthrow the wall.

Just like that! Easy Peasy.

That extreme is just as stupid as focusing entirely on Great Men. And it's refuted by the examples I gave in comparing Communist Eastern Europe to Communist China.

As I said in the post, if the USSR had not been led by Gorbachev but some unreconstructed Stalinist, the people of Eastern Europe would have been crushed, just as the people of Tianamen Square were, no matter how much "will" and "solidarity" they had.

And it also required the application of massive amounts of pressure over decades by the Democratic West, led by the USA to get to that point where Communist states were so weakened and useless that they could be overthrown by "People Power.

But without that external factor any grass-roots People's Revolution would have been crushed.

So, for example, any suggestions for how the Chinese people are going to rise up against their Communist Masters all on their own - assuming you want that to happen anyway? No external pressures from the rest of the world are needed?

Tom Hunter said...

why does the USA still maintain 36 Army, 1 Marine, and four Air Force bases in Germany? Who are they "defending" against what perceived enemy? The USSR is gone, yet Germany is still occupied.


So you are a supporter of President Trump?

Good boy!

Tom Hunter said...

Russia has descended into a kleptocracy, almost indistinguishable from the Stalinist Kleptocracy that preceded it.

Also true but that should not prevent us celebrating the end of Communism in Russia either. Apart from a small fringe, not even Russians regret that, although they're still pissed about the whole loss-of-empire thing. And as bad as the Kleptocracy is now is does not even come close to the horrors of Stalinism - as any "Pure Communist" or Anarchist should acknowledge, since the power of the state is not being weilded in all areas of life now.

You're super concerned about the power of the state, no?

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Oh I've been saying for years now that Putin is just another Czar in a long line of them. It seems to be a psychological or cultural bug with the Russian people that they love The Strong Man, irrespective of whatever political system they have. The best we can hope for is sufficient democracy to limit future Czars from using the full power of the state.

But again - that still does not justify not destroying Communism in the USSR, or elsewhere.

Wiley Trout said...

The two greatest events of my lifetime have been the fall of the Wall and the moon landings. Both, in their own way the triumph of people (and I include Gorby) over seemingly insurmountable odds. 1946 to whenever I shuffle off I doubt that I will witness anything greater.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Roj's beloved 'people power' seems not to have achieved much in Venezuela either..

Tom Hunter said...

I forgot to address this bit of Roj's argument....
Maybe Reagan decided against giving a speech in Tiananmen Square, although that would have been far braver and a true mark of his commitment to freedom. So why didn't he?

Ummm.... this is a serious question rather than just another free-form rant?

Ok - I'll treat it as the former and answer it.

As you point out, West Berlin was controlled by a nation allied to the USA - West Germany. So naturally they could give Reagan a platform to speak and gladly did so.

Whereas - Fun Fact here - Tiananmen Square was controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and I don't think they'd have had any interest in allowing Mr Reagan giving a speech like that in 1987 or 1989 or ever!

That answer your question?

RosscoWlg said...

Especially for Roojie

"Every Socialist utopia is only 1 more execution away from perfection."

Unattributed but someone must have said it

Anonymous said...

Another good post thanks Tom.

We were in London at the time. As you said we couldn’t believe the wall was coming down. When we visited Berlin in July 1990 we went to see the remains of the wall, but there was nothing but grass. The wall had been removed. As you say something we had grown up with and considered solid, Just gone. It was a heady time.

Sadly it wasn’t the outbreak of peace we all hoped for. Whilst touring Europe we watched media coverage of the build up to the first Gulf war.


Anonymous said...

Another good post Tom, and a very positive one, however, the events you have mentioned were unfortunately an exception, rather than the rule.
One mustn't forget the tens of millions of civilians killed by the Governments of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, etc, otherwise we have learned nothing.


Tom Hunter said...

Thanks folks

I didn't get to visit Europe until 1994 and when we went to Berln all that saw of the Wall was the preserved Checkpoint Charlie crossing - with a golden Statue of Liberty beside it. We heard that you could find bits of the still-intact wall around the city if you looked but we didn't have the time.

And apparently there are pieces all over the world now, including around Germany, but I can't seem to find any that are on their original site.

Of course the joke is that it often feels like we're drifting into that world anyway - who needs the Stasi when you've got Facebook. 😅