During the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Mikhail Gorbachev ventured so far as to claim that “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.” Gorbachev no doubt understands that the West is reluctant to confront Russia and, therefore, resistant to recognizing the reality that the Chekists running the Kremlin did not see themselves as having “lost” the Cold War, but as merely having suffered a setback.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna l December 1, 2014
How much has changed in Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall?
In the West, the “fall” of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 functions as a powerful symbol of the implosion of communism and the end of the Cold War; in Germany it is celebrated as the watershed initiating German reunification. The wall – which the East German communist propaganda apparatus called the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” – was built by the Soviet puppet regime of the “German Democratic Republic” in 1961, primarily to halt the mass exodus of East Germans to the West. The wall was thus a reminder of the real nature of the communist bloc, which was essentially one giant Gulag – stretching from the heart of Europe all the way to the Sea of Japan – and that Marxist-Leninist regimes could not remain in power without terror, coercion, and intimidating border fortifications to prevent the slaves from “voting with their feet” and escaping from the “Socialist Paradise.”
The Berlin Wall also represented the Yalta betrayal and the subsequent division of Europe into two zones following the Second World War: a free Western Europe benefiting from the American protective umbrella, and a captive Central and Eastern Europe under the Soviet jackboot. The barrier cutting Berlin in half was a deep wound, and the scar has yet to heal completely.
The images of crowds of German “wall peckers” chipping and smashing away at the hated barrier dividing their homeland became probably the most popular symbol of the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War because of their highly evocative and dramatic character. The “fall” of the wall was a perfect TV broadcast moment. This should not obscure the fact that this exciting event was the culmination of a long, painful, and costly struggle, both in the international arena and within the Soviet Bloc.
The pilgrimages and inspiring speeches of Pope John Paul II – an anti-communist churchman from Poland, a nation with a long history of resistance to Russian/Soviet communist (and German) invasions and occupations – and the bold integrated strategy of President Ronald Reagan – who wanted to “win” the Cold War and wasn’t afraid to speak the truth about the pure, undiluted evil that was communism – were the artillery barrage that softened up the Bolshevik positions. In contrast to the claims made by quite a few popular leftist academics and liberal Soviet “experts” during the 1970s and 80s, the Pontiff and the U.S. President possessed enough wisdom and common sense to understand that most of the people forced to live under totalitarian Marxist-Leninist regimes (an entire “school” of “revisionist” historians in the West continues to claim that the “totalitarian paradigm,” which pointed out similarities between communism and Nazism, was mere “Cold War rhetoric”) hated their red slave masters and that the communist system – being diametrically opposed to nature and reality – was rotting and cannibalizing itself. All that was required was a multi-pronged strategy targeting its weak spots, and some courage and political will.
We should also not forget that the downfall of the Soviet Bloc was precipitated by the rise of Solidarity in Poland in 1980, i.e. nine years before the “fall” of the Berlin Wall. Pope John Paul II and President Reagan supported this mass national liberation movement, which functioned officially as a trade union because of the allegedly “proletarian” nature of the communist system. Although the Soviet puppet dictatorship of Gen. Jaruzelski in Warsaw cracked down on Solidarity, the proverbial “Genie” had escaped from the bottle and began shaking other Central and Eastern Europeans out of their hopeless apathy. A now declassified 1983 CIA report showed that social discontent was growing even in the Soviet Union, not only among the captive nationalities but even among ethnic Russians. The Poles demonstrated that resistance was not futile, and Reagan demonstrated that America backed the freedom fighters. By the time the American president delivered his famous Brandenburg Gate Address in June 1987, asking Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the Gulag Empire was crumbling. In June 1989, the Polish opposition won an overwhelming victory over the communists, despite the rigged nature of the parliamentary election. In this context, the “fall” of the Berlin Wall was icing on the cake.
While many positive changes have occurred in Central and Eastern Europe in the past twenty five years, a realist would also notice that quite a few necessary changes – such as effective decommunization (as opposed to the toothless version in Poland, for example) – did not happen. There are also obvious cases of regression, such as the rise to power in Russia of KGB thug Vladimir Putin, and his efforts to restore the old Evil Empire in some modified “Eurasianist” form.
In fact, during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall, in Berlin, Mikhail Gorbachev ventured so far as to claim that “the world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.” Not surprisingly, the last tyrant-in-chief of the Evil Empire pinned the blame for this “new Cold War” on American “euphoria and triumphalism” and the West’s alleged unwillingness to establish good ties with Russian officials after 1991. This is, of course, a transparent attempt to manipulate Western public opinion, softened by decades of domestic peace and prosperity, and lulled into complacency by Fukuyama’s “end of history” paradigm (ideological struggles are over, “market democracy” has won!). Gorbachev no doubt understands that the West is reluctant to confront Russia and, therefore, resistant to recognizing the reality that the Chekists running the Kremlin did not see themselves as having “lost” the Cold War, but as merely having suffered a setback. Putin and his milieu simply bided their time to regain lost ground and avenge themselves on “triumphalist” America and her friends. Once they smelled weakness, they struck!
A comparison of the Soviet pattern of aggression during the détente period (the 1970s) with the post-Soviet one during the “reset” era – starting with the invasion of Georgia in August 2008, including the highly-suspicious Smolensk Crash of April 2010, and culminating in the present undeclared war against Ukraine – once again suggests the veracity of George Santayana’s best-known maxim: “those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.”
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.