Opinion: The day after the Wall fell


NEW YORK — As the attention of the world's media turns to Berlin, where 20 years ago East Germans freely crossed the Berlin Wall for the first time, few have paid attention to what happened the day after. Back then no one could envision that the period of limbo between Nov. 10, 1989 and Oct. 3, 1990, when German was reunified, would go as smoothly as it did. Germans, their neighbors, friends and rivals all had their fears. What were they, and did they come to pass?

Berlin Wall anniversary

Germans, East and West:

1989: West Germans largely supported unification, but many were concerned about the unreconstructed nature of Easterners (i.e., they’d been told that they were innocent of the Nazi’s crimes, since, as communists, they were Nazi victims). West Germans also feared that Chancellor Helmut Kohl was hiding the true economic costs of absorbing the East, which he was. In East Germany, euphoria over the fall of the Wall did not necessarily reflect a desire to recreate a united Germany. To paraphrase the Czech writer Milan Kundera, living in the East was less like jail than being in a zoo — true, citizens were kept behind bars, but by and large the zookeeper showed up every day with food, too. Many East Germans had real concerns about the rougher edges of capitalism.

2009: Today, most Germans (polls indicate) are thankful to the U.S. for its support during reunification and are increasingly at ease with themselves as both an economic and political powerhouse. Germany today is evolving away from the constraints imposed after World War II, though Germans continue to tread lightly in international affairs relative to their country’s size, particularly in the Middle East. Germans remain enormously skeptical of military force in world affairs — a byproduct of post-war Allied re-education that has led them, in the early 21st century, to be increasingly wary of joining U.S.-led crusades abroad.

Germans economically are more convinced than ever that their approach to social and economic questions is the model for the world. While their economy may well be too export-dependent, domestically Germans appear unlikely, even under the new center-right coalition of Angela Merkel, to liberalize labor markets or tolerate serious social spending cuts, even during a recession. They remain relatively thrifty, too, and won’t likely account for much of the rebalancing needed to rescue the world from the collapse of American consumerism.

(West) Germany’s NATO Allies:

1989: It is no exaggeration to say that reunification might not have taken place but for the support of George H.W. Bush. France and Britain opposed reunification for fear of resurgent German nationalism and Germany’s economic might, as well as worries that West Germany’s NATO commitment might be watered down. The extent of Margaret Thatcher’s duplicity on this issue, recently uncovered by the scholar Timothy Garten Ash, has shocked many of her supporters.

The United States, the driving force behind reunification, shared British and French concerns that a united Germany might ultimately become what Stalin and Khrushchev spent decades trying to attain: a neutral state open to Moscow’s influence that could, possibly, be lured away from NATO and denuded of U.S. bases. But the first Bush administration determined the potential rewards of a stable, democratic Germany at the center of Europe to outweigh those risks. (The best account of those days published recently is an interview with Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, in the German magazine Der Spiegel).

2009: Looking at Germany today, Britain and the U.S. see little evidence of the worst fears of British and French nationalists. Yet all three do worry that, even under a center-right government like Angela Merkel’s, Germany will continue to pull Europe leftward toward outright neutrality. This particularly worries the former Soviet satellites of Central and Eastern Europe. U.S. and British policymakers will seek to prevent Germany’s pacifism from becoming non-interventionist and isolationist. France, meanwhile, sees its relative power within the EU waning as Germany continues to grow in size and economic weight. After French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election there was talk that Franco-German ties might cool. Now Paris understands that, while it must keep Brussels close, it must keep Berlin closer.

Other European Communist Countries:

1989: Communists in Central and Eastern Europe — still known as the Warsaw Pact at the time — hoped to use the specter of a united German state to rebuild support for the notion of Soviet troops on their soil. But the pro-democracy unrest in Leipzig and other East German cities that preceded the toppling of the wall was a bell tolling for all the communist parties of the region. While true poll numbers don’t exist, events suggest that large majorities of the citizens of all the Warsaw Pact countries felt much more empowered than threatened by the toppling of the East German communist establishment. Most moved quickly thereafter to topple their own. (See GlobalPost's chronology of communism in Europe.)

Czechoslovakia’s government had special concerns: the Sudeten Germans expelled from their native region after World War II. This displaced group had formed a powerful force in West German politics and began immediately agitating for a return to their homeland. The issue, with its echoes of 1938, was overdone in the press, but a real concern in Prague.

The Polish government, already in the hands of Solidarity at the time, saw events in Germany as a culmination of pro-democracy agitation they had started in the early 1980s in the shipyards of Gdansk. As with the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Polish communists, and many Polish right-wing nationalists, trumpeted paranoid fears about Germany reclaiming the region called Silesia and what used to be called Eastern Prussia (the northern Polish Baltic coastline), all of which were once part of the Reich. Kohl’s government played a savvy diplomatic game, and did its best to quiet noisy nationalists inside its own borders on the question of the “lost territories,” too.

2009: The Czechs, Poles and other eastern European neighbors of the united Germany gained new factories and trade, and many work within Germany. Yet their governments are increasingly concerned about the chummy ties that the united Germany has forged with Moscow. While the new Merkel coalition will be a bit more skeptical of Moscow, and alleviate Central and Eastern European concerns a bit in the process, the specter of Yalta and Munich — i.e., that the independence of eastern European countries isn’t worth the blood of westerners — hangs over the region. The more Germany appears to prioritize ties with Russia, the less secure its eastern neighbors will feel from Russian mischief, especially with the U.S. seemingly in relative decline.

Russia, with its natural gas leverage on the EU, has achieved what Soviet leaders never could with the Red Army: a Germany openly worried about angering Moscow.

The USSR/Russia

1989: The Soviet Union, obviously in disarray, had mixed feelings about the fall of the wall. The East Germany regime, as dictatorial as any in its sphere of influence, had become an embarrassment and a huge economic drain. However, Soviet military planners also feared that reunification was the beginning of the end of their eastern “buffer zone” — a strategic imperative in Russian military thinking since Napoleon. As it happened, the USSR had bigger problems. Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, deserves a lot of credit for setting in motion the events which led to the Wall falling, and he seems to have applauded the decision in Berlin to let East Germans pass through. But he certainly never expected that the last act in the drama would be the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

2009: Today’s Russians, evidenced by their high opinion of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, share their leaders’ opinion that the collapse of the USSR was a national tragedy. Few pine for the Cold War per se, but Russians still regard the zone of countries between Germany’s border and their own as a “buffer zone” or bulwark against (from their view) an aggressive western NATO alliance.

Stoking that slightly twisted view of reality is a Putin specialty. Just this month, Russia held military exercises based on a ridiculous scenario: a “rising” of ethnic Poles in western Belarus (territory which had been part of pre-1939 Poland) followed by invasions of Russia by Lithuanian and Polish elite troops. If Gorbachev suffered from fantasy by thinking the Wall could fall without his own house tumbling down, these recent exercises and many other actions suggest the Kremlin’s addiction to fantasy remains firmly in place 20 years later.

 Jews, Turks and Other Minorities:

1989: Groups representing Jews and Turks were terrified at the sudden resurgence of the Far Right in West and East Germany after the wall fell. After the wall fell, deadly assaults and arson attacks on homes housing foreign workers — mostly Turkish in the West, a mix of Vietnamese, North Korean and Africans in the East — became weekly events. But Germany’s culpability for the Holocaust remained undiluted, and, if anything, the sweeping away of the East German government destroyed the dangerous lie that because East Germany was “communist,” its people were innocent of wartime crimes.

2009: The worst fears of Turks and Jews about reunification proved unfounded, and Germany today is one of the most liberal societies on earth. The new Merkel coalition will be slightly less amenable to Turkish EU membership, but is unlikely to block it. On Israel, Merkel is likely to feel freer to speak out about Mideast diplomacy since it was her former Social Democrat partners who tended to skew very pro-Palestinian. However, there is little to gain in that theater for a German leader, and beyond Germany’s efforts to talk Iran away from nuclear arms, the Mideast is likely to remain a place where Germans keep a low profile for decades to come. In the end, Germany has done more to own up to its wartime behavior than most nations, whether they were Allied or Axis, during World War II. The very fact that Germany is now reunited is testament to this fact.


1989: For China, the revolutions of Eastern Europe stood as a double lesson. Having just crushed its own native pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, the collapse of East Germany’s communist regime appeared to indicate to Chinese hardliners that the use of force had, after all, saved the People’s Republic. Yet by 1989, China already had built a significant momentum toward market capitalism, thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Even on many social issues, China compared favorably with the East German police state. The dual lesson, then, was to continue economic reforms as a way to defuse social anxiety, while cracking down hard on political dissent.

2009: By and large, the Communist Party of China still applies those same lessons. Recent unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang brought violent confrontation with the regime. Political dissidents, whether they protest atrocious environmental conditions, religious repression or the lack of democracy, are jailed and harassed. The regime in Beijing, meanwhile, has turned Deng’s “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” into a full-blown global competitor to western-style liberal market capitalism. Gorbachev’s failure at restructuring — perestroika — in the Soviet Union and the USSR’s collapse provided additional evidence for China that adding political rights — glasnost — would be the kiss of death for a party trying to maintain a monopoly on political power. Presumably nothing China has seen from the former communist states of eastern Europe has convinced them otherwise.

Michael Moran was based in Germany for RFE/RL from April 1990-May 1993.