Joshua Stanton: Berlin at 20 ... Neither Impossible Nor Inevitable





[Joshua Stanton, a former JAG officer, is an attorney in Washington, DC.]

A quote sometimes attributed to Trotsky is that “revolution is impossible until it is inevitable.” Not for the first or last time, Trotsky was wrong, and as the leader of a well-organized revolutionary movement who’d watched the Czar crush the rebellion of 1905, he certainly knew better. There is a tendency for events that were once chaotic, precarious, and ultimately consequential to seem inevitable once they’re chiseled into our tablets. Today, an equally dismissive approach suggests that those events were inevitable. In fact, they were neither.

The error of assuming impossibility is more forgivable. For me, the fall of The Wall is among a few of those “I remember where I was” moments. In Rapid City, South Dakota, that was a miserably cold day, and ironically, I was a driving a Chinese friend and fellow student to the grocery store. Yes, it was clear that discontent in the Warsaw Pact countries was rising. At the time, I was one who believed then that revolution was inevitable, though in retrospect, that belief seems difficult to support. Events in my friend’s country just months before had proven that the Warsaw Pact could also have survived through sheer brutality.

This parade rolled through East Berlin just a month before the wall fell. Look at the phalanxes of armor, the rogues’ gallery (at 1:15, complete with North Koreans) in the reviewing stand, and the smug confidence on Honnecker’s face. The only word that describes it is “invincible:”

When the moment of decision came, however, the same army that had been shooting down border crossers for years held its fire. Why? Had the soldiers opened fire, I don’t doubt that there would still be an East Germany, even without a Soviet Union to back it.

The case of Romania is more extraordinary, and even more illustrative of history’s tendency to pivot on the tempers and moods of individuals who find themselves at decisive places and times. On December 20, 1989, a reasonable conclusion might have been that an abortive uprising in the city of Timisoara, a city heavily populated by ethnic Hungarians, had been suppressed, and that Ceausescu’s security forces and party stood firmly behind him. Ceausescu stood on the balcony of his palace before a crowd of thousands, no doubt most of them hand-picked, bused-in loyalists, to flaunt his power:

We may never know why one angry man among thousands acted on his urge to shout blasphemous words at Europe’s most dreaded tyrant. When he cursed the tyrant, others in that crowd either overcame their fear or acted on their desperation. Look at the fear in Ceausescu’s eyes as grasps the significance of that instant, in which his loyalists turn to jeering rebels.

The Genius of the Danube was ushered through the back door leading toward the helipad.

All history is inevitable in hindsight, but what we accept as inevitable now would have been as empirically grounded as a horoscope if predicted the instant before it happened. We can say that people do not like to be deprived, oppressed, stifled, or abused, that inevitably, they will resent this, and that the resentment will build with time. But anyone who mistakes the inevitability of dissent with the inevitability that it will prevail should ask any survivor of Tienanmen Square, or any citizen of Rangoon, Lhasa, Pyongyang, or Tehran if that necessarily follows. To break free and live by their own will, people need courage. Sometimes, our encouragement is enough to give it to them. At other times, it isn’t...

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