Commentary

Opinion: How history's first draft got it wrong

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LONDON, U.K. — Please pay attention. I'm going to say this name only twice, once at the start of the piece and once at the end, but the name is enough to suggest the theme.

Francis Fukuyama.

Need I say more? Intentionally or not, by penning an essay called "The End of History" the year the Berlin Wall fell, this American academic defined the western view of the event. The original essay had a question mark at the end of its title, then it grew into a book and the question mark disappeared and an extra phrase was tacked on: "The End of History and the Last Man."

All because the wall came down, then the Soviet Union collapsed.

Berlin Wall anniversary

Great events inspire hubris of a grand order in academic historians and lay workers like us hacks who write history's rough draft. To look back at the writing and reporting in the first weeks after the Berlin Wall was breached is to be amazed at how the daily political concerns of the time produced grand theorizing.

An item from the Financial Times in 1989 reminds us that behind the glowering anti-communism of Margaret Thatcher lurked an old-fashioned imperialist. The FT carries an item quoting Thatcher as saying the peoples of eastern Europe needed to wait "10 or 15 years" before any maps were redrawn — as if it were for Britain to say how the little peoples of Europe should determine their future. Hard to imagine that having rhetorically struggled to free them from the Stalinist yoke, the Lady wanted to turn Poland and Czechoslovakia into the equivalent of displaced persons camps, but there you have it. Who knew what the collapse of communism in Germany meant?

Other political leaders had no idea either. U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev flew to Malta for a summit of equals just after the wall came down. Gorbachev would be gone in a year and Bush would be preparing for war with former American client Saddam Hussein. Believe me, neither man read those runes in the delirium in Berlin.

Their concern was managing Germany as if it was 1933. They were no different than the ordinary people of central Europe who were living the dream. Many of them were looking backward, as well. A reunited Germany was their central fear. History was not a linear process reaching its natural, evolutionary end. It was a loop and now people feared it was heading back in the direction from which it came. Poles were wary of Germans uniting and renewing their old expansionism. Turks in West Germany were wary of mass deportation as East Germans took their jobs.

At least one aspect of the mechanics of state terror remained in place. Reuters reported that 10,000 attack dogs were still kenneled in East Germany. They had been trained to kill people trying to escape and no one was sure what would happen with them.

Finding a big theme wasn't so easy. The commentariat echoing the confusion of political leaders were like Himalayan mountaineers trying to find secure purchase on an ice wall. John McCarron, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, wasn't the only commentator to write about a "peace dividend." The idea was worth a wager. Officials were already actively discussing the idea. "The wind is blowing in our direction," said the mayor of Phoenix, Ariz. They envisioned all that federal money going to fight the Cold War being funneled instead to America's run-down cities. Reports claimed America's Secretary of Defense had asked Pentagon number crunchers to find $180 billion in defense spending cuts now that the world was at peace. Oh, the secretary's name was Dick Cheney.

You get the picture: In 1989, nobody got the picture. It's easy to understand why a 10,000 word essay with a catchy title, "The End of History," published three months before the Wall came tumbling down, would emerge out of the miasma of commentary and put its stamp on the era.

Its central thesis, that we were witnessing "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government" seemed to fit the facts. There would be "events," of course, but the basic contest was over.

The root of history is the group. Early in history it was family, then the tribe, then the nation. It is not constrained by the passage of time. The group was, is and always will be. Religion or political beliefs are merely modes of group thinking. When the tension of the Cold War, which suppressed so many of the essential units, went away, suddenly all kinds of stuff mutated and re-emerged. Pan-Arabism morphed into pan-Islamism. National questions unresolved since the time of Metternich split apart Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Hutus slaughtered Tutsis. Arab Sudanese murdered African Sudanese. These are not merely "events" — this is the essence of history.

The curious thing about Francis Fukuyama's essay is that having put forward his flawed thesis his concluding paragraph is quite extraordinarily prophetic. It is worth meditating on 20 years later: "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." How very boring life without history will be, he writes, before concluding: "Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again."

Don't worry, man, history never went away.

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