The day that transformed eastern Europe and shaped Vladimir Putin

The day that transformed eastern Europe and shaped Vladimir Putin
West German citizens gather at a newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz in November 1989. (Photo: US Department of Defence)

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall – and the collapse of the Soviet empire that built it. We revisit it through the eyes of Harald Jaeger, the border guard who allowed it to happen, as well as a young KGB officer, Vladimir Putin.

Thirty years ago, this week, on 9 November 1989, the guards at one of the boundary checkpoints that had split East and West Berlin for decades ceased keeping Germans from freely crossing between the two halves of the divided city. There was hope that this signified the end of an era, and the beginning of a new, freer, more humane, less repressive one instead. How did we get to that point? And what happened afterwards – looking backwards after nearly a third of a century.

By November 1989, the unravelling of the old order in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself was already very far along. However, few really knew how deeply – or how quickly – things would change.

A visitor with an umbrella is reflected in a puddle along the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany, 04 November 2019. The now German capital prepares for the celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Omer Messinger)

The current week’s Economist has written of the changes that came.

No empire in history has disintegrated as quickly or as bloodlessly as the Soviet one, in the remarkable year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. A period of carnage in Romania the following month was the only grisly counter-example. Yugoslavia, never a part of that empire, followed a tragically different path; but for the rest of central and eastern Europe, though clearly imperfect, the past 30 years have been a time of marvels.

Standards of living for most of the region’s peoples have vastly improved, and most of them know it. New polling by the Pew Research Centre shows that 81% of Poles, 78% of Czechs and 55% of Hungarians agree that this is the case. Only Bulgarians on balance take a gloomy view, with just 32% of them thinking that their standard of living has improved since 1989. Development has been patchy, but for every depopulating and ageing rustbelt in eastern Europe there is a booming industrial region, a tech cluster or a services centre desperate for more workers.”

And of the now united Germany, after the dramatic events after November 1989, that same publication has judged:

Less than a year later Germany was reunited, capping one of the most extraordinary stories in modern history. Not only had a communist dictatorship collapsed, releasing 16 million people from the fear of the Stasi (secret police) and the stultification of censorship. Unlike any other country ever freed from tyranny, the entire population of East Germany was given citizenship of a big, rich democracy. As a grand, if ill-fated gesture of welcome, the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, converted some of their worthless savings into hard currency at the preposterously generous exchange rate of one Deutschmark to one Ostmark.”

But for more than two generations, the stability and certainty of the East-West divide in Europe were understood to be comprehensive and virtually unchanging – even unchangeable. Such a stark division might be extremely hard on many lives in the East, economically, politically, socially, but this stable division of East and West (and much of the rest of the world by extension) had a real logic about it, given the shadow of the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, if another large-scale war were to break out. (Americans and Russians had learned that lesson as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, an encounter whose resolution made it possible for the first real nuclear testing and weapons limitations agreements to be signed.)

This division meant that the careers of regiments of specialists were made, East and West, in the military and defence industries, in government and diplomacy, among academics and think-tankers, even within commerce and banking. This largely came about through the understanding that this balance of nuclear terror and its paradoxical, resultant geopolitical stability had become a seemingly permanent feature of the contemporary world.

The division of Europe, essentially at the pre-agreed stop line of the allied forces at the end of World War II with the defeat of Nazi Germany, became the resulting division of occupied Germany into Russian, American, British, and French zones; and then that Germany’s larger division was echoed by a further division of Berlin into four zones of occupation. By the 1950s, the division of Europe along the boundary between the Russian zone of Germany and the three western zones, now East Germany and West Germany, respectively, and the Nato alliance (led by America) and the Warsaw Pact (corralled by the Soviet Union) had become a defining feature of Europe’s political landscape. A further trend was economic integration through the start of the European Economic Community in the West, a movement that eventually became the 28-member EU (although Britain now seems intent on leaving it).

Inevitably, in the East, efforts to alter the political landscape – those worker uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary and even a government-led one in Czechoslovakia – were met with Soviet tanks. The only real alterations to the balance came from the successful assertion of an existence outside the Warsaw Pact by Yugoslavia (largely because partisans had effectively liberated that country from the Third Reich rather than the Red Army), and by tiny Albania whose quirky leadership eventually chose to align itself with the far-off People’s Republic of China.

Instead of the reportage of actual open warfare in Europe, bookstore shelves sometimes carried vivid future-war novels that predicted a hot war in Central Europe. In these novels, the Red Army’s tanks poured through the open landscape of the Fulda Gap in central Germany, usually only stopped by extreme measures from Nato and America, and just short of an all-out nuclear exchange.

By the 1980s, though, several factors were pushing things away from this seemingly permanent balance. In Poland, a home-grown, widespread labour union-led opposition to the government became bolstered by the support of a Polish-born Roman Catholic pope to an overwhelmingly Catholic Polish population.

Meanwhile, the administration of US President Ronald Reagan chose to drive the Soviet Union’s economy into financial overstretch as it was forced to compete with a programme of expanded US military spending, defence research and development, and strident rhetorical exertion. Fortuitously for the Americans, Russian overreach in Afghanistan in support of its puppet government was countered and then defeated by Afghan insurgents, armed with ground-to-air American missiles that evened the odds significantly. This fighting helped make it increasingly clear that the Soviet Union was heading towards some very rough ground.

Within the Soviet Union itself, the new leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev came to recognise the dangerously sclerotic quality of Soviet government and economic management. In response, Gorbachev’s team set out the twinned policies of perestroika and glasnost – restructuring and transparency – in an increasingly desperate effort to stave off being overwhelmed by Western economic growth, innovativeness, and geopolitical pressure. But these policies also helped set off a chain of unintended events in Eastern Europe. The Polish experiment continued onwards, even as more modest reforms were filtering into some of the other Russian satellites in response to Gorbachev’s Soviet reforms.

Most significantly, however, was the eventual effect of the modest liberalisation and economic progress in East Germany once an old-line leader was deposed, coupled with the impact of the enticements and electronic seductions of West German radio and television on East German audiences. In the wake of growing numbers of would-be East German tourists and travellers circling through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Austria and into West Germany, the East German government wobbled and equivocated and, by late autumn 1989, something had to give.

A now-retired East German former border guard, Harald Jaeger, was the East German lieutenant colonel in charge at the Bornholmer Street crossing point. He recalled what happened in interviews on the 25th anniversary of those events. As he said: “I didn’t open the wall. The people who stood here, they did it. Their will was so great, there was no other alternative but to open the border.”

On that day, 9 November 1989, people had gathered at his Bornholmer Street post after hearing East German Politburo member Guenther Schabowski say — mistakenly, as it turned out – live, at an evening news conference, that the government’s decision was that all East Germans who wished to, would be allowed to cross into West Germany, effective immediately.

Schabowski was a member of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in East Germany, and part of the group that had forced the old East German leader, Erich Honecker, from power a month earlier, in the wake of mounting public pressure across the Soviet Bloc for reforms.

Jaeger recalled for interviewers that he had rushed from his dinner after hearing Schabowski speaking over the TV in his unit’s cafeteria. Once at the guards’ office, he tried to get clarity on what his guards were actually supposed to do. Jaeger remembered that he had been inculcated with the belief that the Berlin Wall was a “rampart against fascism and that when it was built on the 13th of August, 1961, I cheered”.

But on that November evening, Jaeger was confused. About a dozen and a half people had already arrived at Bornholmer Street just after Schabowski’s news conference. Waiting. And soon the crowd had grown to 10,000, as many started shouting, “Open the gate!”

Jaeger recalled, “I called Col. Ziegenhorn, who was my boss at the time, and he said: ‘You are calling me because of this nonsense?’”, adding that Ziegenhorn told him to send the people away. Jaeger’s calls to other government officials didn’t help, either. He says in an effort to lower the growing tension, he was told to let some of the rowdier people through, but to stamp their passports in a way that rendered them invalid if they tried to return home. But those who did cross just revved up the crowd further. Ultimately, despite orders not to let any more people through, at 11.30 pm, as Jaeger explained, “I ordered my guards to set aside all the controls, raise the barrier and allow all East Berliners to travel through.” He estimated that more than 20,000 East Berliners crossed into the West at Bornholmer Street. Some West Berliners even entered the east.

People doing the crossing hugged and kissed the border guards and handed them bottles of sparkling wine, Jaeger recalled. Several wedding parties from East Berlin moved their celebrations across the border, and a couple of brides even-handed the guards their wedding bouquets. Thereafter, Jaeger went home, knowing that “it” was all over.

National Public Radio reported on Jaeger’s subsequent circumstances, noting:

Reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 led to the dissolution of the East German border authority, and Jaeger found himself unemployed at age 47. He tried his hand at a number of businesses, including selling newspapers, but he says the ventures never took off. So he retired to a small town outside Berlin and spends his time giving interviews and travelling with his wife, Marga. He says they love to travel to countries they couldn’t go to before 1989, including Turkey for their 50th wedding anniversary. Jaeger says he has no regrets about what he did on the night of Nov. 9, 1989.”

Less than two months after the opening of the Berlin Wall, on Christmas Day (even before the formal reunification of East and West Germany that occurred on 3 October 1990), the legendary symphonic conductor Leonard Bernstein had led performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, The Choral, in what was the now-rapidly uniting city of Berlin. As the New York Times reported:

Leonard Bernstein transformed a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony today into an appeal for brotherhood as West and East Berliners mingled freely for the first Christmas in 28 years. ‘I am experiencing a historical moment, incomparable with others in my long, long life,’ the American conductor said during the nationally televised performance on Monday.

Mr. Bernstein conducted an international group of musicians in the Schauspielhaus. It was the high point of three days of performances that celebrated the end of the Berlin wall and the spread of political liberalisation throughout Eastern Europe. The Ninth Symphony was inspired by Schiller’s 18th-century poem Ode to Joy. In the concert, the conductor substituted the word ‘freedom’ for ‘joy’ in the chorus to reflect his personal message.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during an award ceremony marking the National Unity Day at the Kremlin in Moscow, on 4 November 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Evgenia Novozhenina / Pool)

Of course, not everyone was entirely pleased with those astonishing events in Germany. One of those was a young KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, assigned to a posting in Dresden, in the then-Democratic Republic of Germany, watching his predictable universe disintegrate before his eyes.

The BBC Magazine described Putin’s experiences, writing:

Anyone who wants to understand Vladimir Putin today needs to know the story of what happened to him on a dramatic night in East Germany a quarter of a century ago. It is 5 December 1989 in Dresden, a few weeks after the Berlin Wall has fallen. East German communism is dying on its feet, people power seems irresistible. Crowds storm the Dresden headquarters of the Stasi, the East German secret police, who suddenly seem helpless. Then a small group of demonstrators decides to head across the road, to a large house that is the local headquarters of the Soviet secret service, the KGB.

“ ‘The guard on the gate immediately rushed back into the house,’ recalls one of the group, Siegfried Dannath. But shortly afterwards ‘an officer emerged – quite small, agitated. He said to our group, “Don’t try to force your way into this property. My comrades are armed, and they’re authorised to use their weapons in an emergency.” ’

That persuaded the group to withdraw. But the KGB officer knew how dangerous the situation remained. He described later how he rang the headquarters of a Red Army tank unit to ask for protection. The answer he received was a devastating, life-changing shock. ‘We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,’ the voice at the other end replied. ‘And Moscow is silent.’ That phrase, ‘Moscow is silent’, has haunted this man ever since. Defiant yet helpless as the 1989 revolution swept over him, he has now himself become ‘Moscow’ – the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin…”

The experience taught him lessons he has never forgotten, gave him ideas for a model society, and shaped his ambitions for a powerful network and personal wealth. Above all, it left him with a huge anxiety about the frailty of political elites, and how easily they can be overthrown by the people. Putin had arrived in Dresden in the mid-1980s for his first foreign posting as a KGB agent…”

The BBC’s magazine went on to say:

Two weeks later there was more trauma for Putin as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived in the city. He made a speech that left German reunification looking inevitable, and Kohl praised Gorbachev, the man in Moscow who’d refused to send in the tanks, and he used patriotic language – words like Vaterland, or fatherland – that had been largely taboo in Germany since the war. Now they prompted an ecstatic response. It’s not known whether Putin was in that crowd – but as a KGB agent in Dresden he’d certainly have known all about it.”

Putin has been widely reported as saying that the breakup of the Soviet Union itself that came into effect on 26 December 1991 was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. But his first-hand experiences in the events surrounding the disappearance of East Germany and the crumbling of Russian suzerainty over most of Eastern Europe as well must surely have been as much of a shock to him – and an unexpected mega-paradigm shift to boot – as the collapse of his own nation shortly thereafter.

But within the corridors of power in the Western nations, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union came to an end with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall that had divided that city (and thus Germany as a whole), the collapse of the Soviet imperium in Eastern Europe, and then the very dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, a new optimism about the future quickly took hold and dug in deeply. Historian Francis Fukuyama authored a volume in 1992, entitled The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s book almost instantly became both an explanation and a self-fulfilling prophecy (albeit misleadingly) for the shape of global politics, post-collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fukuyama’s book’s title made a powerful allusion to Frederick Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and the potential for the benign rule of a society where humanity lives in peace, in harmony (even if it would be a bit boring). Fukuyama argued that, rather than Marx’s inevitable transformation of capitalism into socialism or communism, from now on, things were going to be very different.

Or, as Fukuyama himself had written:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Popularised (and more than a bit bastardised), Fukuyama’s argument generated a triumphalism in Western capitals and especially among elites that Western-style, liberal, rules-based economics and representative democracy were on their inevitable march towards global acceptance and a warm embrace almost everywhere. The new Russia had shucked off its outmoded economic authoritarianism and was – bumpily, to be sure – now headed the right way. Concurrently, the new China, now happily in thrall to Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “To be rich is glorious”, was similarly on the right track, eager to become a huge nation of “Crazy Rich Asians”.

In this new, post-Cold War reality of a unipolar world; amid much cheering and whistling (but not by absolutely everyone, everywhere, of course), an American-led globe was coming into focus – with a secular version of “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”. Pretty much everything else on the remaining “to-do list” of world problems was the tidying up of a few miscellaneous, albeit troublesome, bits and pieces around the world in some odd, retrograde corners.

Now, with over two decades of hindsight, it is possible to argue that at the hands of President George HW Bush, the implications of the Fukuyama thesis led to a UN-sanctioned, limited effort to solve one of those messy bits by expelling Saddam Hussein’s troops from their illegal occupation of Kuwait – but not marching into Baghdad to carry out a real regime change exercise. This kind of restraint showed that the emerging global order had both steel teeth and a sophisticated understanding of how to deal with the bullies, bad boys, and the unruly troublemakers.

Former US President George W Bush. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Peter Foley)

That president’s son and then president in the 2000s, George W Bush, however, operated with no such restraint. At the encouragement of advisers who had imbibed Fukuyama’s heady liquor but without reading any of the cautionary warning labels, he took up that dubious claim about weapons of mass destruction and thereby embarked on a successful invasion but a far less than stellar occupation of Iraq. And now, after more than a decade of American military engagement in three nations, it has found itself without any final, easy paths out of them – without allowing things to become even worse than they already were. That unthinking engagement, in turn, helped unleash a transnational wave of religiously grounded terror that plagues us now, but which simultaneously seems impossible to bring to an end.

Along the way, other developments also seem to have overtaken that Fukuyama-esque vision. Now fully a part of the global trading system, Chinese energy and drive have created an alternative to that democratic/liberal economic “end of history”. Harnessing public and private capital – together with political emasculation for a billion-plus people – the country’s leadership is delivering real growth and economic benefits to many hundreds of millions, and it seems to be an increasingly attractive option to many non-Chinese nations around the globe. (The residents of Hong Kong continue to disagree with the political half of that equation, of course, as do the Uighurs of northwestern China.)

The Russians, meanwhile, now have to deliver with his belief that the break-up of the Soviet Union was the most horrific event of the 20th century and that it is his mission to address this problem. That state is now focusing on a reassertion of its influence in Europe through soft (and hard) pressure on the states of its “near abroad” such as Ukraine, and the blandishments of plentiful natural gas to nations such as Germany. But, most especially, in the Near East, it has made a major commitment of military power in Syria to re-establish its heft in the region as the go-to power – made that much easier by an American president intent on letting the Russians, Turks, Syrians, Kurds, and others fight over that “sandy waste”, save for its modest oil reserves.

This year, 2019, has brought us a world where, on the one hand, Venezuela’s corrupt, incompetent leftist government of Nicolás Maduro has bankrupted a nation that holds one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves. But on the other, Latin America’s largest nation has cast aside a period of disorderly but democratic turmoil to elect someone – Jair Bolsonaro – whose nationalist, identity politics are firmly modelled in the style of people like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and, of course, America’s Donald Trump.

It may be useful to remember that the year after Fukuyama’s book was published, the late Samuel Huntington (Fukuyama’s academic mentor, just by the way) issued his own very different version of the future, in his widely read essay in Foreign Affairs, entitled The Clash of Civilisations. Expanding that into a full-length book. Huntington had argued that in the future, while of course there would still be wars, they would increasingly be fought not simply between countries, but between cultures, or “civilisations”, as he called them. Among other predictions, Huntington argued that Islamic extremism would become the biggest threat to world peace in the years ahead. Huntington’s darker vision now seems rather closer to the truth than Fukuyama’s own rosy view.

In fact, in the past year, Fukuyama has issued a new book, this time positing identity (and the resentment it both helps breed and feeds on further) as the key driver in the politics of our current world. Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the angry push for a Brexit in the UK, the rise of Germany’s Alternative for Germany party, the populist victory in Italy, Bolsonaro’s Brazilian victory, and the sudden rise of the yellow vests in France, all seem to be manifestations of the power of identity to overturn politics-as-usual and to force recognition of deep economic disparities. These movements draw their power from among the ranks of those who feel ignored, snubbed, slighted, and overtaken by the globalist swells and prophets or other more favoured ethnicities.

As I wrote in these pages at the beginning of this year:

(We) … now have a world in 2019 that is a very far cry from the vision set out by Francis Fukuyama in those heady days after the end of the Cold War. Aided and abetted by a raging, ignorant, incoherent American president, the unity of the West has been fractured, right along with angry trade disputes with most of America’s allies and neighbours, as well as leading partners such as China.

The European community of nations is in the midst of leadership challenges in most of its leading nations – as Europeans themselves now seem to doubt the inevitability that their community will go from strength to more strength in the years to come. And in the Near East, between the incompetence and incoherence of American leaders and policymakers, the eagerness for influence on the part of the Russians, and the struggle for leadership and/or military dominance being played out between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the sum of these may guarantee that future upheavals will spill over elsewhere – or be unable to be restrained.

Underneath all of these more immediate issues are some still-bigger ones. First is the continuing and perhaps unstoppable flow of economic, social and political refugees from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to safer, richer places. Then there is the ever-more-pressing immediacy of a need for global action to hold back or even try to rewind global climate change before the Earth suffers irrevocable harms…. [There is also] the need to find ways to accommodate the next industrial revolution, even as it offers great benefits but simultaneously threatens to eliminate millions of more routine, menial jobs, just as the world’s aspiring middle classes clamour for employment and the access to incomes that could move hundreds of millions of the poor into their respective national middle classes.”

History is never over, and Clio, the ancient goddess of history, still has many cards and tricks on us left to play. DM


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