Saturday, November 7, 2009

Berlin Wall's end in 1989: It was not inevitable

The Berlin wall's fall was not inevitable
When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always. - Mahatma Gandhi

The non-violent implosion of the East Bloc was not inevitable. Although Gandhi is correct in his observation that tyrants and murderers always depart the timing and means of their end are determined by human action guided by free will.
There was never a guarantee that the Soviet empire would end peacefully, and predictions taken through the prism of the history of the 20th century promised apocalypse. Adolph Hitler's departure from power was amid ruins and tens of millions of victims and a suicide in 1945. Josef Stalin departed power dying of a stroke and delayed treatment with tens of millions of victims and a totalitarian state intact eight years later. Uprisings in Poland, Hungary in 1956 following Stalin's death and Czechloslovakia in 1968 met with military invasion, mass repression, and death. The world would first witness the building of the Berlin Wall in August of1961 and then come to the brink of nuclear holocaust in October of 1962 with the Cuban missile crisis.The Soviet Union would continue on until 1991 with Kruschev, Breshnev, Andropov, Chernenkov, and the last Gorbachev maintaining the totalitarian state.

Many experts and academics among them Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, John Kenneth Galbraith, noted sovietologist Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, and the Nobel laureate in economics Paul Samuelson in the 1980s believed that the Soviet empire was there to stay and competitive with the West. The press on the ground in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was also reporting that the system was here to stay. For example, New York Times journalist Ferdinand Protzman in the May 15, 1989 Business Day section reported that “East Germany is the Communist world’s vaunted economic success story, hailed as proof that hard work, discipline and thrift can translate Karl Marx’s theories into reality.”

What happened? Why were so many bright people so wrong? Perhaps it was the lack of understanding about the basis of power. Gandhi rightly observed that "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love." In addition to punishment and love there is also self-interest which although inferior to love is superior to punishment or the threat of force. In other words Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were both right that free market systems were superior to communist centralized planning in generating a stronger economy which also meant the basis for a more powerful military that the Soviet Union could not compete with, but that was true of the previous seventy years. What changed?

A reawakening of conscience

Today activists speak of blogs, twitter, and skype but back then it was Samizdat underground publications challenging the official version of events. There had been an armed resistance in many of these countries and it had been brutally crushed, but then when political violence was no longer an option and individuals had to look elsewhere and found the power of the powerless. In October of 1978 Czech playwrite Vaclav Havel wrote an essay titled The Power of the Powerless which I think explains what happened in 1989, and in which no small part he ended up playing an important role.
This essay had a profound impact throughout Eastern Europe. The English translator of this essay describes in an introduction to The Power of the Powerless what Zbygniew Bujak, a Solidarity activist, told him:

"This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR [the Polish Workers' Defense Committee], we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways? Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later-in August 198o-it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay."
Pope John Paul II in 1995 addressing the United Nations spoke of what achieved this change: taking the risk of freedom. In Havel's 1978 essay he concludes with a question: "[W]hether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?" In 1989 the peoples of Eastern Europe answered the question and risked everything and in the process won their freedom.

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