Pictures speak louder than words: the destruction of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, provides an exact date for the end of the Soviet Empire and its Communist ideology. One year earlier, I had visited Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, who would become president of a liberated Poland in 1990. Walesa predicted the end of the USSR, attributing it to Mikhail Gorbachev’s relative pacificism. From the moment that Gorbachev refrained, in 1988, from giving the order to fire on the rebellious Latvians, and on the East Germans, who were fleeing their country through Hungary, the Soviet Empire’s fate was sealed, Walesa said. Still, as I recall, the obstreperous labor leader lived in fear of Russian military reaction.
It was the fall of the Berlin Wall that made collapse inevitable. Alerted to what was happening a few days in advance, I hurried to Berlin with the late philosopher André Glucksmann, an emblematic anti-Marxist figure (and occasional City Journal contributor), and a team from French television. What we saw in the days leading up to November 9 were East German citizens going back and forth over the wall. They were crossing it out of curiosity, quite surprised that the police had disappeared. Many went shopping in the West and then came back home to the East. This is when Glucksmann had the strange idea to deliver bananas to East Berlin. We observed that the Ossies, as they were called, were especially enthusiastic banana-buyers, since the fruit was nowhere to be found in the East. Glucksmann, who had some influence, called on Western humanitarian organizations to deliver bananas en masse. The next day, the East Germans discovered that it was easier to destroy the wall with picks than to climb it. And Glucksmann had no trouble distributing bananas, an unforgettable image: freedom was as simple as that, without any big words or lyrical flights, a lesson for high-flying philosophers.
The fall of the Berlin Wall thus taught us, if we had not already understood, that Communist ideology was a bluff concocted for Western intellectuals and other suckers. The Soviet Union was founded on Communism only in appearance. Since its forced birth in 1917, it was nothing more than a dictatorship based on fear. What Walesa understood applies to all totalitarian regimes, from Syria to Cuba and from China to North Korea. What is surprising is that it took the destruction of the wall to make this clear.
Shouldn’t we have understood the hollowness of the Soviet system from the moment the wall went up in 1961? If the Soviet Empire had been founded on an ideology, a belief, a hope for a better society, it would not have been necessary to build a wall, surrounded by barbed wire and explosive mines, to prevent East Germans from leaving. The wall had no other significance than to evoke and reinforce fear in the subjects of the empire and among Communist leaders themselves; if they had once believed their Marxist vulgate, the wall proved, starting in 1961, that they no longer believed it. Neither did Stalin in the 1930s, since his essential contribution to the Soviet system (and later, by contagion, the Chinese and the Cuban experiments in inhumanity) was to institutionalize fear, with prison camps, phony trials, arbitrary arrests, and the denunciation of everyone by everyone.
I once asked Walesa, doubtless one of the best practical analysts of the Soviet system—he has the advantage of being an electrician, not a philosopher; and note that the most famous of Chinese democrats, Wei Jinsheng, in exile in the United States, is also an electrician—if Poland, under Russian domination from 1939 to 1990, had ever numbered among its officially Communist leaders a single “believer” in Marxism. “Not a single one,” Walesa answered, and added: “if such a one had ever been found out in Solidarity, he would have been kicked out immediately.”
Communism has been an actual belief primarily in free countries. We are familiar with the quibbling of Marxist intellectuals in Europe and in America; for them, the Russian, Chinese, and Cuban regimes are betrayals of the Marxist ideal. The Russians, you see, are too Russian, the Chinese too Chinese, and the Cubans too lackadaisical. Communism only works, it seems, where it is not applied.
Thirty years after the wall came down, some believe that the event has not lived up to its promise. Well—explain that to the Poles, the Baltic peoples, and the Ukrainians! Another quarrel also divides historians: did the wall fall, or was it destroyed—and if destroyed, by whom? By heroes seeking freedom, by brave people seeking bananas, by the preaching of Pope John Paul II, by the prescient 1987 speech of Ronald Reagan in Berlin—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”? As often happens in history, major events grow out of multiple influences. But of all these factors, the most improbable was Gorbachev’s instructing his troops, “Don’t shoot.” He thought that he was reinventing socialism with a human face. The Soviet Empire was destroyed by the only one of its leaders who believed that real socialism could exist without fear—a fatal, fortunate error.
Photo: Public Domain/Flickr