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Drake Bennett: How historians are looking deeper at the fall of the Berlin Wall

Historians in the News




[Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.]

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall earlier this week, the news was filled with images of that epoch-ending night, and of the equally historic events that led up to and followed it. Those images, for the most part, are of crowds: strikers in Poland, the multitudes at the reburial of Hungary’s former prime minister Imre Nagy (executed in 1958 on orders from Moscow), the throngs in Prague chanting “Havel to the Castle,” the massed hecklers in Bucharest who forced Nicolae Ceausescu to try unsuccessfully to flee - and, of course, the thousands of East and West Germans who gathered restively at the Berlin Wall’s checkpoints on the night of Nov. 9 and flooded through when they opened...

... It’s hardly surprising that this is the narrative that has taken hold. It’s a stirring idea, and a powerful one, comforting in the role it accords oppressed people to rise up and make their own fate. And the crowds in the streets are what the world saw at the time. But in the intervening two decades, as the participants themselves have written their memoirs, as transcripts and memos have been declassified, and as documents have emerged from behind the former Iron Curtain, many historians have begun to emphasize a different account. In this telling, it’s not the marching of the crowds on the street that made the difference, but something less visible: the unprecedented inaction and acquiescence of those at the top. In country after country, leaders responded to open challenges to their power by essentially giving in.

“People power,” in other words, didn’t end the Cold War, not alone. And the extent to which the popular understanding of those revolutionary months centers on the masses in the streets suggests that we may have learned the wrong lesson from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Especially here in the United States, where rioting mobs helped spark the American Revolution and marchers spurred the Civil Rights movement, there is a particular faith in the power of taking it to the streets, and it was possible to see echoes of those American movements when mass protests erupted in Eastern Europe, or at various times in countries like Ukraine, Lebanon, Burma, the Philippines, or, most recently, Iran. But, historians say, what ultimately matters in authoritarian regimes is the resolve of those at the top, and that imposes stark limits on the power of the people.

It’s not just a question for Cold War scholars to debate. Misunderstanding the potential of popular protest can have tragic results, leading today’s dissidents, whether they’re in the Arab world or Southeast Asia or elsewhere, to risk life and limb in situations where there’s little prospect of success - where, unlike in Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, the leadership is firmly committed to doing whatever it takes to maintain the status quo...

... Today, some historians are looking in more depth at what it was that changed in the minds of the communist leaders - especially Mikhail Gorbachev, whose refusal to lend Soviet support to any crackdown forced the hand of those Eastern European governments more reluctant to change. This analysis, in which the Cold War ended not because of the many but the few, suggests that, for all the longer-term economic and political currents that shaped it, the end of the Cold War wasn’t a historical necessity. With a few different decisions, the events of 1989 might have unfolded very differently - or not at all, leaving the world frozen even today in a hostile superpower face-off. Rather than being a puzzle for historians, the end of the Cold War could still be a distant ambition of policymakers.

“There were so many points at which the whole process could have been interrupted by relatively small changes,” says Kramer. “It easily could have happened that the Cold War wouldn’t have eased much at all.”

In nearly every historian’s account, the central figure in the end of the Cold War is Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan may have disturbed the status quo with his bellicose rhetoric, and West Germany’s Helmut Kohl may have seized the initiative on uniting the two Germanys soon after the wall came down, but it was Gorbachev who bore the most responsibility, by steadfastly refusing to act as the dominos in communist Eastern Europe fell...

... In recent years, historians have suggested other factors, as well. Vladislav Zubok, a Soviet historian and, like Hitchcock, a professor at Temple, argues that Gorbachev was simply overwhelmed with problems closer to home - the perilous state of the Soviet economy, unrest in the Baltics - and had little time for Eastern Europe. James Sheehan of Stanford argues that Gorbachev fell in love with the idea that the Soviet Union might find a place, culturally and economically, in the steadily integrating community of Western European nations, and therefore had little interest in playing the role of Eastern Europe’s brute enforcer...
Read entire article at Boston.com

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