East-West tension defined the Cold War, but its legacy is the victory of hope over fear
The Cold War began to end 10 years ago, not with any great decision grandly proclaimed but with a hapless official spokesman fumbling his lines. On Nov. 9, 1989, Gunter Schabowski, Berlin district secretary for the ruling East German Communist Party, was supposed to announce a decision by his bosses to allow a limited and controlled flow of East Germans through the Berlin Wall, to take effect the next day. This concession would, they hoped, relieve the pressures on the German Democratic Republic that had been mounting throughout the summer and fall, as Mikhail Gorbachev made it increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would no longer prop up its fellow Marxist-Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe. Schabowski slipped up on a detail, however, telling a televised press conference that the new rules were to take effect "immediately, without delay."
Within hours, excited East Berliners had overwhelmed the border guards, forced open the crossing points, and surged into West Berlin, forbidden territory for as long as most of them could remember. Soon they were dancing on top of the wall, chipping away at it with hammers and crowbars, and then quite literally toppling it with bulldozers and backhoes. The very symbol of a continent divided for almost half a century--indeed of a world so divided--came tumbling down, almost overnight.
Nobody on either side had anticipated this: The wall had seemed as permanent a fixture of the Berlin landscape as the Cold War had appeared to be within the post-World War II international system. That such a forbidding structure proved so fragile surprised everyone. But even then, few who witnessed the wall's collapse would have guessed what was soon to come: that the division of Germany would disappear within a year, or that in just over two years the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist.
Today we take for granted what astonished us then: We assume, far more easily than we should, that the process that began with the opening of the Berlin Wall and ended with the Soviet Union's essentially peaceful breakup could only have happened in the way that it did. History works like that: Our view of the past is so much clearer than our vision of the future that we tend to forget that the past once had a future, and that it was just as opaque to those who lived through it as our own future is for us today. My college students were between 8 and 11 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. They've known only a pitifully weak Russia that cannot keep its borders secure, its military intact, its economy afloat, or its prime ministers in office. How, they wonder, could such a country have ever caused Americans and their allies to fear for their future?
I suggest, as an answer, a short time- machine trip. Set the dial first for November 1989, the anniversary we're commemorating, to get a sense of the unexpectedness of what happened and of the euphoria it produced. Then go back in 10-year intervals from that event. A very different picture emerges.