Jeffrey Simpson: Why we celebrate the fall of the Wall

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeffrey Simpson is The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist.]

In June of 1989, five months before the Berlin Wall collapsed, the West German chancellor's foreign policy adviser told a visiting journalist: No, there was no chance of East Germany imploding for a very long time.

True, signs of discontent were popping up in Hungary and Poland, but East Germany would remain faithful to the Soviet Union and to its own Stalinist-inspired system.

The head of the East European section of the foreign ministry reported a similar take: Nothing would happen in East Germany. At lunch, a young member of the Bundestag from the liberal Free Democratic Party who had recently returned from a conference in East Berlin, said: No, nothing was on the horizon over there.

If the West Germans, with their intelligence agencies trained on East Germany in particular and Eastern Europe in general and with all their family and linguistic links, did not know what was coming, no wonder the collapse of the Wall, the East German regime and the Warsaw Pact caught everyone else by surprise.

Today, through the lens of historical hindsight, what happened seems preordained: a terrible system of government and a wrong-headed system of economics collapsing on themselves. But at the time, or at least just before the time, not many people believed or dared to hope that the landscape of Europe would or could change so rapidly – and peacefully.

A continent scarred by war and divided by barbed wire has now been unified for two decades. In a world of continuing turmoil, instability and terrorism, with its leading country beset by enormous problems of its own making, with shifts of economic and political power occurring, what a wonderful celebration we can allow ourselves on this 20th anniversary.

Those who had travelled in the old Eastern Europe, as students or as foreign correspondents, did not think it likely that Europe would be united in their time.

Those who had seen martial law in Poland or passed through Checkpoint Charlie into the dimly lit streets of central East Berlin or had witnessed the awful grimness of Bulgaria, the megalomania of the Romanian dictator and the terrible drabness of the Soviet Union (where the arrival of toothpaste or soap in a store would set off a stampede) blinked in amazement, as did those West German “experts” when the unthinkable unfolded.

In Paris, François Mitterrand fretted, for it had been another famous Frenchman who said he loved Germany so much that he wanted two of them. But the sage leader understood which way history would move, and went with the flow. In London, however, Margaret Thatcher stormed and raged and worried about the “Germans” and what their unification would mean.

By contrast, the North American leaders of the day – George H. W. Bush (the elder, wiser one) and Brian Mulroney – took advice, saw the future and applauded. Had the Americans said No – they were being urged to adopt that position by Mrs. Thatcher – events would not have unfolded as swiftly and smoothly as they did.

We on this comfortable continent, removed by an ocean from Europe, owe such a debt to the intellectual leaders and their brave followers in the dissident movements, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia...

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