Nov. 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Noel D. Cary, professor of German and European history, shares his thoughts on this historical event.
The Berlin Wall fell during my first semester of teaching at Holy Cross. During my job interview the previous spring, the dynamic chair of the history department, Professor William Green, asked what appeared to be an over-the-top question: What did I think the West Germans would do if Gorbachev offered to tear down the Wall in exchange for Germany abandoning the Western alliance? Some maneuver of that sort was just about the extent of what was even imaginable at the time.
What many people no longer remember is what a huge surprise all these events were. Nowadays, many students are inclined to think that the fall of communism was inevitable. That’s not at all how these events felt at the time. I remember driving home after a long day of teaching my first classes that autumn and hearing on the radio that the entire East German Politburo had just resigned. This was an absolutely electrifying event, an event that no one expected. 1989 was a year filled with such events, each one more surprising than the one before.
The speed of communism’s collapse sometimes misleads young people into thinking that the Cold War was not about anything real. The dogmatic ideological militancy of the communist movement, and the heavy price in human rights that it demanded from the human beings it affected, should warn us to think twice before accepting such a view. The death toll from self-consciously executed communist policies numbers conservatively in the tens of millions. Nevertheless, the anticommunist excesses that sometimes marked the Cold War seem to be better known among today’s students than do the far greater excesses of the communists. Most students know much more about McCarthyism than they do about the Cultural Revolution. Some confuse liberalism’s imperfections with communism’s norms. Knowing too that the infamous dominoes eventually fell in reverse, many people read the outcome back into the events and conclude by debunking the concerns of the contemporaries.
Historians, however, must always contextualize. When they do, what emerges is the combination of policies and people that made the fall of the Wall possible. It is a complex and contested story — far too complex and contested to be summarized here. Among its clearest lessons, however, is this one: Far from being inevitable, the fall of communism was a profile in the courage of those men and women who dared, in the words of the Czech dissident playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel, to deploy “the power of the powerless.”
Source: Holy Cross