Still the Iron Lady
Several weeks ago, the British press, led by the Times of London, reported “explosive” evidence from Soviet archives indicating that Margaret Thatcher—of all people!—had tried to keep the Berlin Wall from falling. Indeed, said the paper, she secretly urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “do what he could to stop it.” The Times based this revelation on Kremlin notes, still officially classified, of a Moscow meeting between Thatcher and Gorbachev in September 1989. These and many other documents were spirited out of Russia in 2003 by Pavel Stroilov, a researcher at the Gorbachev Foundation. MARGARET THATCHER WANTED BERLIN WALL TO STAY, reported the Australian. MR. GORBACHEV, KEEP THIS WALL UP! marveled The Economist, leading the article with a breathless “WHOA.” Andrew Sullivan titled his blog entry MARGARET THATCHER, SECRET DEFENDER OF SOVIET SECURITY, declaring the news “staggering.” But these are all mischaracterizations and misunderstandings of the Kremlin document; nothing about it is shocking in the least.
First of all, it is not clear that the document is an accurate record. I have spoken with Stroilov and believe that he is telling the truth—that he did indeed steal these papers from the Gorbachev Foundation, and that they are indeed classified Kremlin records. I am especially inclined to believe him because he is supported in this contention by the Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky and by the great Cold War spy Oleg Gordievsky, both of whom would be in a good position to recognize a fraud or a fantasist.
But the document itself stresses that at Thatcher’s request, the conversation in question was not recorded. It thus contains nothing more than a Kremlin apparatchik’s recollection of what she said. The Kremlin is not generally considered an unimpeachable source. As one commenter on the Times’s website remarked, “Please remember that manipulating transcripts is an old trick that got Stalin to power. Soviet records are about as accurate as a drunk man aiming at the toilet in the dark.” The Times also assumes that the Kremlin amanuensis correctly remembered Thatcher’s every word, that his translation preserved every nuance of her meaning, and that the document’s retranslation into English has done the same. There is no reason to accept all this uncritically.
But let’s say we do accept it. According to the transcript, Thatcher said two supposedly shocking things. One of them was, “The reunification of Germany is not in the interests of Britain and Western Europe.” (This is the translation from Russian offered by the Times; Stroilov endorses its accuracy.) But this isn’t news. We know very well that the last thing Thatcher wanted to see was a bigger, stronger Germany; even a divided Germany was about twice as much Germany as she would have liked. Her opinions on the subject contributed to her political downfall. She said so at the time, she said so in her memoirs, her friends have said so, her enemies have said so, and no one has ever suggested anything else.
The second thing Thatcher told Gorbachev, according to the transcript, was: “A destabilization of Eastern Europe and breakdown of the Warsaw Pact are also not in our interests.” Why might she have said this? Why not say instead, “We are fomenting the destruction of the Warsaw Pact in the hope of swiftly burying you?”
For the answer, recall that in September 1989, no one imagined that within two months, the Iron Curtain would dissolve without a drop of blood. Much more easily envisioned was a Soviet crackdown and a brutal bloodletting, which had happened, within living memory, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and which the Chinese had just perpetrated months before in Tiananmen Square. Reasonable observers were worried that East German leader Erich Honecker was about to massacre thousands of people on the streets of Leipzig and Dresden—a step for which Honecker was preparing by stockpiling body bags. It was equally reasonable to fear that Gorbachev was on the verge of sending in Soviet troops.
The transcript suggests that Thatcher’s goal was to reassure. A cop facing a panicked criminal with a loaded gun and a room full of hostages is surely better off saying, “We do not plan to kill you, so stay calm” than “We want you dead, so you better shoot your way out of here.” Thatcher’s goal, at such a meeting, would have been to buy time and do what she could to keep the Soviets from panicking. No responsible politician would have told Gorbachev that she was praying for the destruction of the Warsaw Pact, particularly at a private, high-level diplomatic meeting. It would have been an idiotic provocation.
The document in question is not difficult to consult: Stroilov is eager to share it with anyone who asks. Feel free to e-mail him, he says, at email@example.com. I did, and found him a fascinating correspondent, not least because it appears that he is sitting on some 50,000 stolen, unpublished, untranslated, top secret Kremlin papers that should be of considerable interest to the world. But the Thatcher document is not one of them. Nothing about it should change anyone’s views of Thatcher or of her role in the Cold War.
College professors occasionally have to acclimate themselves to the worldview of their new students. Kids in the class of 2013 have never lived without cell phones, cable television, or the Internet, for example. They don’t remember a time when Brett Favre didn’t play quarterback in the NFL and The Simpsons didn’t air in prime time. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City when they were three. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal hit when they were in first grade. The 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred when they were ten. And as hard as it is to fathom, college freshmen weren’t even born when the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. They have a reason not to remember the Wall’s collapse, then—but why have so many others forgotten?
For one thing, unlike the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11, the collapse of the Iron Curtain doesn’t elicit the “Where were you when . . .” question. The liberation of millions of Eastern Europeans from Communism—an indecent system that squashed freedom of movement, religion, and speech, precluded fair trials, and abrogated the right to chart one’s economic destiny—is more historically significant than a president’s death, a spaceship’s destruction, and even the most horrific terrorist attack on American soil. But Americans not only have a parochial memory (if it didn’t happen here, it didn’t happen); they also remember the traumatic over the glorious. The bad news about good news is that people don’t remember it that vividly.
Europe has moved on as well. There is no longer a wall to remember the Wall by. You can find sections of the Berlin Wall at the Reagan Presidential Library, at London’s Imperial War Museum, and on the banks of Seoul’s Cheonggye Stream, but locating it in Berlin may prove a challenge. Torn apart by souvenir seekers, ’89 revelers basking in the end of Eastern tyranny, and a unified German government ready to move forward, the Berlin Wall is out of sight and largely out of mind.
Further, the scribes who chronicle history as it happens didn’t unanimously applaud the events of 1989. Germans had rebelled not only against tyranny but also against the script that the Western media had written for them. The gleeful celebrations of the collapse of Eurocommunism undermined long-standing elite opinion that East and West were morally equivalent. They splattered egg on the face of those who insisted that Communism was here to stay. Worse still, the collapse of the Wall transformed an “amiable dunce” of a president into a prophet. “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate,” a prescient Ronald Reagan demanded at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Who, really, was “sleepwalking through history”?
Holding a grudge, many journalists shamefully perpetuated the myth that life under Communism hadn’t been so bad and that life under the new freedom wasn’t so good. “Ten months after the new Germany merged,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1991, “women in the eastern sector are coming to the stunning realization that, in many ways, democracy has set them back 40 years.” “In formerly communist Bulgaria,” anchorwoman Connie Chung informed CBS Evening News viewers in 1992, “the cost of freedom has been virtual economic disaster.” “In the old Soviet Union, you never saw faces like these—the poor, the homeless, and the desperation of the Russian winter,” Barbara Walters assured us on Nightline. For people who believe what they read in the newspaper or watch on the nightly news, the fall of the Berlin Wall might not seem so momentous.
Hollywood, normally a sucker for a happy ending, likewise didn’t find one in the Berlin Wall’s demise. A good jailbreak can make for a great film (see The Great Escape), and there were thousands of real-life great escapes across the rampart dividing Berlin. But the stories of these jail-breakers haven’t been told on the silver screen. True, a German film based in East Berlin, The Lives of Others, won an Academy Award in 2007. But two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hollywood has largely ignored the most important political development of the last half-century.
In 1989, history for once exceeded the unrealistic demands of the present, which expressed its gratitude by quickly forgetting the past. The cable news, fax machines, home computers, rapid wealth expansion, and democratization of air travel that characterized the 1980s made gratification more instant, faraway events more personal, and news faster-traveling. The fall of the Berlin Wall fulfilled the I-want-it-now zeitgeist, which soon enough moved on to other things. As Jesus Jones sang in “Right Here, Right Now,” the group’s top-ten ode to the startling events of 1989: “I saw the decade end waiting for the world to change at the blink of an eye / And if anything then there’s your sign of the times. . . . I was alive and I waited for this / Right here, right now.”
If college freshmen were to engage in a mental exercise similar to their professors’ and attempt to understand the world as their elders see it, they might want to start with the story of Chris Gueffroy, a 20-year-old East German who, not unlike many American college students, wanted to see the world beyond his neighborhood. When he tried to cross into West Berlin in February 1989, East German border guards shot him, an action for which their government commended them. Had Gueffroy crossed the border nine months later, he would be alive today.
For millions of Eastern Europeans, November 9, 1989 stands as the demarcation point between freedom and totalitarianism, optimism and despair, life and death. Chris Gueffroy lived his entire life on the wrong side of that demarcation point. Fortunately for students his age today, their lives have been spent on the right side of history—whether they realize it or not.
Miles to Go
I own a piece of the Wall. One of my most prized possessions is the undistinguished chunk of concrete that a journalist friend brought back for me after watching East and West German students and citizens pulverize, stone by stone, the century’s most enduring symbol of tyranny. The piece of gray rubble occupies a place of honor on my desk.
The 20th anniversary of the beginning of the end of Communism has, of course, prompted an outpouring of scholarly books, adding to the already vast literature on what Francis Fukuyama would unfortunately call the “end of history.” (His provocative, original book had perhaps the world’s most misleading title.) Despite the scholars’ work, however, much about the causes and social dynamics of the popular uprisings that triggered Communism’s collapse remains elusive, as Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in The New York Review of Books. Ash spent many thrilling hours among the ecstatic crowds of Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague, chronicling the protesters’ hopes, doubts, and fears. But even two decades later, he writes, what “moved these men and women to come out on the streets, especially in the early days, when it was not self-evidently safe to do so” remains both inspiring and profoundly mysterious.
Partly for that reason, it’s easy to forget how momentous an event the wall’s collapse was. While it was not an American victory, the wall’s demise owed much to American containment policy and to the president whom so many intellectuals love to hate: Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 dared Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” foreshadowing its collapse by only two years. The appeal of those words still resounds, oddly overshadowing his prediction at the end of the same speech: “This wall will fall,” he asserted. “For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” Reagan, a deeply underestimated president, called out the Communist system for what it was: an evil empire. Both he and his successor were wise enough not to interfere with its collapse.
The mass protests and political upheavals in Europe are especially impressive if we recall that 1989 is also the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which, Ash reminds us, occurred “on the very day of Poland’s breakthrough in a semifree election.” China, of course, was willing to do what East German and Russian rulers were not—shoot the protesters in mass numbers. After the events of 1989, the Chinese Communist Party carefully studied the lessons of the collapse of Communism in Europe, Ash writes, “to make sure it did not happen to them.” Today’s China, he concludes grimly, “is a result of that learning process.”
Two years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, I was touring some of the germ-weapons labs and giant production facilities that were scattered through the former empire. Moscow had violated the treaty banning such weapons before the ink on the signature line had dried. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens had lived in secret cities—behind high electrified walls—dedicated to the illicit creation and production of ever more lethal bacteria and viruses. The only word that came to mind to describe what I was seeing was “evil.”
But neither history nor evil ended with the disappearance of the wall or the Soviet Union. Communism has been relegated, appropriately, to the junkyard of discredited political movements—though China, North Korea, and a few others continue paying it lip service—but the world confronts new forms of evil. Militant Islamists, who pervert a great faith and practice repression and violence with godly faces, do not yet control a powerful, nuclearized state as the Communists did. But they do rule Iran, Sudan, and Gaza, and they vie for power in half a dozen Arab Muslim states. They, too, demand “submission,” this time in the name of God. They, too, are building walls—around their covert nuclear facilities, between the sexes, and to separate the anointed from the “infidels” who live in sin and ignorance. Israel has responded with its own wall, this one built to keep extremists out and its own population safe.
Militant Islam’s banner is green, not red, but its triumph would usher in a new era of intolerance and another civilizational struggle. Twenty years after the wall came down, the West has more history to make.
A Wall That Won’t Come Down
For ten years prior to 1989, I was in the habit of visiting Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in support of the fragile underground educational networks there. I was full of admiration for the people I met, but conscious of their powerlessness in the face of the Communist machine. By 1985, when I was arrested in Czechoslovakia as a result of my attempts to help the dissident community, I had lost hope that the situation would ever change, believed that I would never again see my friends there, and feared that the desire for freedom and national independence would eventually be extinguished entirely. I had observed at first hand the Communist Party’s policy of spreading suspicion and resentment and punishing all the normal forms of charity, civil association, and goodwill. It seemed unlikely that the spirit of freedom could survive such a policy, once the memory of any other form of politics had been finally lost.
I was as astonished as anyone by the events of 1989. In the spring of 1990, my friends invited me back to Brno, the town where I had been arrested, to deliver a lecture in the high court on the renewal of law. I felt the exhilarating presence all around me of real spiritual change. An opportunity existed to introduce free institutions, legal foundations, and civic initiatives into a society inoculated (as I thought) against the socialist disease. My lecture was printed and distributed legally, by the very same person—Jiří Müller—to whose illegal samizdat press I had taken equipment on the day of my arrest. And everybody seemed to be reading it and agreeing with its main ideas. For a brief moment, I allowed my pessimistic shield to drop.
My colleagues responded to these great events very differently. When the Berlin Wall came down, the politics and history departments of my college—Birkbeck College, at the University of London—called an emergency meeting to discuss how to understand what was happening. Though I was known to be acquainted with many who had led the protests and who were shaping the provisional governments, I was not asked to speak. Instead, two more reliable authorities were called upon to explain the unforeseen developments: Eric Hobsbawm, the Old Left historian, who was to remain a member of the British Communist Party until the moment when it finally dissolved itself in embarrassment; and Perry Anderson, founder of the New Left Review and guru of the liberationist movements of the 1960s. Both had supported the old Soviet order, Hobsbawm explicitly, Anderson by default. Neither had done anything coherent to help the Eastern European opposition, and neither knew a thing about the social and civic initiatives that had brought Communism to an end. But both were kosher: if there was a way to preserve the socialist project through this crisis, they would know.
For my leftist colleagues, in other words, the events were the occasion for a renewed debate, between Old Left and New, about the future of the socialist idea. That the changes in Eastern Europe contained a refutation of the Left, both Old and New, was an impermissible thought; that they marked a decisive break with socialism in all its forms, and a final end to the lies about the Soviet Union that the British socialist establishment had internalized, was an unmentionable one. People of goodwill were being called upon to “normalize” what had happened and to proceed as though nothing fundamental had changed.
In the event, the response of my left-wing colleagues was the right one. I, in my naivety, believed that a whole society could come to see the folly of the socialist idea, and by jettisoning a project that inevitably led to the expansion of the state and the destruction of civil society, would put liberty instead of equality at the top of its political agenda. It was not to be. As my colleagues illustrated, the socialist idea, once in place, is immovable. Of course, it will change its name and moderate its methods according to the spirit of the times. But in the modern world, there will always be a section of society—not necessarily the majority, but the one with which the intellectuals identify, and upon whose inertia they rely—that puts equality first and regards liberty as a dubious asset benefiting only the few. Within a few years, I had picked up my pessimistic shield again; I no longer believed that people would try to rescue civil society from the state, or that they would see law, institutions, and national culture as the foundations of a free and prosperous social order. The same spirit of resentment that had animated the Communist Party, both as a revolutionary movement and as a dictatorial power, had returned in softer forms. People voted for equality, so as to help themselves to assets and powers that they could not obtain through merely honest means.
It is true that a suspicion of Communism remains, and that young people from Eastern Europe have internalized, to a great extent, the experiences of deprivation and fear that their parents still recount to them. Hence they are more open to conservative ideas than their Western contemporaries; they have a vestigial sense of the seriousness of politics and the real cost of putting fanatics and nihilists in charge. They at least have learned this lesson; many of my colleagues have not. From Horkheimer and Adorno to Foucault, Deleuze, and Badiou, fanatics and nihilists continue to dominate the university curriculum, and there prevails in our universities today the same suspicion of power, property, hierarchy, and liberty that was in the ascendant twenty years ago, when my colleagues called an emergency meeting in order to keep the official illusions in place. And when, ten years ago, the Queen made Hobsbawm a “Companion of Honour” at Tony Blair’s request, I was forced to recognize that, as far as history goes, he, and not I, was on the winning side.
The End of an Illusion
We speak of “the fall of the Wall”—but the Berlin Wall did not fall on November 9, 1989; it was destroyed, and its destruction was deliberate and laborious, since the East Germans had only rudimentary tools. They brought the concrete down one hammer-blow at a time. I was there to witness the liberated East Germans rushing to supermarkets in West Berlin, soon to return to their homes loaded with goods that they could not find on the Communist side, diapers and bananas in particular. (As Bertolt Brecht wrote in his Threepenny Opera, “First grub, then morals.”) The Wall’s destruction was thus not instantaneous, contrary to what “the fall of the Wall” suggests: Berlin was not Jericho. Nor was it clear from the outset that East Germany had disappeared, that the Soviet Union would soon follow, or that Communist ideology had lost its influence. The fall of the Soviet dictatorship, like the fall of the wall, proceeded slowly; it would not have been accomplished without the visionary insight of Helmut Kohl in Germany, George H. W. Bush in the United States, and Boris Yeltsin in Russia. Thanks to these three, Europe’s Cold War division between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations was eradicated, and the USSR passed into history.
Such outcomes were not at all taken for granted when the Wall first came down. Soviet and Eastern European leaders, and even such Western leaders as François Mitterrand, hoped that the destruction of the Wall might prepare the way for a new socialism with a human face—a Third Way, neither capitalist nor Communist. Without the Wall, might not Communism become legitimate and democratic? Mikhail Gorbachev took comfort in this mythical idea until the democrat Boris Yeltsin put it to rest. In Poland, Communist apparatchiks held out similar hopes: some Catholic leaders in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Protestant ones in Germany, rallied to the Third Way until John Paul II, with lucidity if not enthusiasm, accepted the fact that only a market economy could lift Eastern Europe out of poverty.
It thus took two years of intellectual controversy, diplomatic manipulation, and hasty conversions to bury both hard-line Communism and “Communism with a human face,” along with the Soviet Union itself, beneath the ruins of the Wall. At the end of these two years, the people directly affected and their leaders were finally ready to admit that there had always been but one brand of Communism—that no “ideal” form, distinct from what had been experienced in history, was possible. Communism was not another path to economic development. It was not a “popular” democracy as opposed to “bourgeois” democracy. Communism had never been anything other than a military occupation: no guns, no Communism. Nobody not in the pay of the state would willingly live under its rule. The destruction of the Wall became possible only when it became clear that the police would not shoot. They refrained, not from humanitarian motives, but because Gorbachev had decided that neither the Soviet Union nor its satellites would fire on civilians any longer. This reversal had begun in the spring of 1989, in Latvia, when Gorbachev ordered his troops not to fight against the independence movement there. Was he a pacifist, or a humanist, or simply weak? More likely, he simply had not grasped the basis of his own power. Unlike Yeltsin and the hard-liners of his own Party, Gorbachev lived under the illusion of a humane, legitimate, and effective Communism.
But let us remember, in defense of Gorbachev and many others, that history makes sense only after the fact. The end of the Berlin Wall and of Soviet communism, which now have the air of inevitability, were in fact unforeseeable and obeyed no historical necessity. Those who tried looking into the future got things flat-out wrong: East German president Eric Honecker had declared earlier in 1989 that the Wall would be standing in 100 years, a view immediately seconded by the leader of the West German Social Democrats, Gerhard Schröder. No doubt a kind of mystical inspiration was necessary to foresee events truly, as in the case of Ronald Reagan, who dared to tell Gorbachev to tear down the wall in 1987. Reagan was convinced that he would be heard by Providence, if not by the Soviet Communist Party.
Prophecy is a risky business, but over the last 20 years, the facts have supported Francis Fukuyama’s much-maligned hypothesis concerning the End of History. Fukuyama did not write that there would be no more history, but that history would henceforth be defined with respect to a single model: democratic capitalism. And this has been the case: for better or worse, in times of growth and in times of crisis, political reflection, the science of economics, and democratic choices have all operated within the single paradigm of democratic capitalism. That some try to escape this paradigm and that some might manage to invent substitute ideologies is in the nature of things: Fukuyama understood that the quest for the absolute, however unreasonable, would never succumb to the principle of reality. Today—in Germany, across Eastern Europe, and in Russia—the intelligentsia remain dissatisfied by capitalism, not because they miss the Wall but because they envision a more perfect society.
There are others who miss the Wall for reasons they cannot avow, owing to their nostalgia for an essentially Franco-German Europe that, before 1989, seemed to offer an alternative to American power, a third force between the USSR and the United States. But the newly reunified Europe, its Cold War divisions eradicated with the Wall’s demise, put an end to that idea. The new Europe has proven to be more market-friendly and pro-American than the Franco-German couple ever was. The European Union has become a vast free-trade area, an amorphous cultural configuration more like the old Ottoman Empire than the neutral third force of which De Gaulle and Mitterrand dreamed. The Wall’s collapse may have cost the old Europe something in power and coherence, but it has expanded the scope of peace and common prosperity. On the whole, Europeans are better off.
The fact that so many waited until 1989 to conclude that Communist ideology was never anything but window dressing for military occupation indicates a certain stupidity in the East as well as the West. The true nature of Communism should have been universally obvious, not at the Wall’s destruction, but as soon as it was built, in August 1961. History is scattered with walls and fences, but these have never had any other purpose than to prevent barbarians from invading. A wall to prevent people from leaving was without precedent. The Berlin Wall, moreover, was supposed to prevent people from fleeing a supposedly ideal society for an allegedly despicable capitalism. The goal was as incongruous as the arguments used to justify it: in 1961, Communist leaders spoke of protecting Communist purity from capitalist pollution. How could Westerners have believed, after 1961, that a Communism without the Red Army to back it up could be an alternative to capitalism? And this confusion was not limited to the Left: in the 1960s, Raymond Aron, philosophically a friend of the free market but temperamentally pessimistic, envisioned a “convergence” between Communist and free-market economic systems.
It’s now acceptable to see the Communist illusion in the West as a kind of religious faith that made it impervious to reality. Fair enough. However, this view underestimates the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda, as well as the role of political and intellectual complicity and of financial corruption in the excessive love that Europe’s leftist intelligentsia felt for the USSR. It also overlooks the fact that enthusiasm for the USSR was inseparable from another negative passion, one that still infects the European intelligentsia: anti-Americanism.
Perhaps Communism never existed except in the imagination and the desires of those who did not live under its rule. In 1990, Lech Walesa, then the leader of the Solidarity union in Gdansk, assured me that he had never met a single Polish Communist: “Opportunists, yes, and apparatchiks too, but not a single Communist!” Walesa’s ironic and profound observation applied to the whole Soviet world, just as it applies today to the people confined in China and in North Korea. Let us remember that not all walls have been torn down: Chinese, North Koreans, Cubans, and Vietnamese are still not free to leave their Communist paradises. These walls are not made of concrete: the control of borders and the censorship of the Internet are more sophisticated alternatives to the primitive Berlin Wall. But the principle is the same: imprisonment remains essential to every Communist regime. One might argue that walls separate Israel and the West Bank, as well as Mexico and the United States. These walls are indeed regrettable, but their function is security, not ideology. Only the Berlin Wall, and the barriers that still resemble it, are ideological symbols.
The ultimate choice for humanity is thus the following: to live in a capitalist “hell,” but with the right to leave, or in a Communist “paradise,” but compelled to remain there. Dante himself never imagined such a Comedy.