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Why the Berlin Wall endured

Several months after the Berlin Wall was breached -- 20 years ago today -- I stood at what remained of the wall with my teenage son and watched a stylishly dressed woman in a fur coat whack away at the thing with a hammer and a chisel. The wall then was a scarred mess. But on the western side -- East Berlin still existed -- my 18-year-old son was trying to figure out how it was possible that people had written graffiti all over the thing for decades and yet had not had the wit or the courage to simply chisel the wall into rubble. I had been to the wall a couple of times before, yet the question had not occurred to me. Finally, I said to him, “I think it’s because we, too, believed in the Wall. We believed.”

Ronald Regan did not believe.

I am not an across-the-board admirer of Reagan. I think he encouraged the American delusion in infinite natural resources, in the uselessness of conservation and in a general, mindless optimism that always left me pessimistic. But when it came to the Soviet Union and the aptly-named Evil Empire it constructed and maintained in Central and Eastern Europe, Reagan was not only right, he saw what too many others did not: It was destined to collapse.

To a degree that now seems astounding, Reagan’s views about communism and the Soviet Union were once considered downright nutty. When on June 12, 1987 he stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and told the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” Reagan was criticized as reckless. The wall, his critics said, was not coming down and there was no point in upsetting the Russians. They, after all, were a super power, too.

In confess I was one of those who gasped at Reagan’s temerity. I had grown up with the Soviet empire as a reality and Reagan, of course, had not. He was old enough to remember just how Russia extended its empire through the raw use of force -- murder and torture and prison and exile, brutality on a scale that a weary world hoped had ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany.

What’s more, Reagan had broken with leftists who continued to see in Russia and communism the hope -- the forlorn and by then quite mad hope -- that the system could be reformed so that it really could offer an alternative to selfish rapacious capitalism.

Reagan had no ideological or emotional stake in proving the virtues of socialism -- especially Soviet-style socialism -- and he saw the Soviet Union for what it was: an archaic, inefficient, stumbling goon of a country. He simply would not accept its continued existence -- and he was right.

As many times as I passed through the wall at Checkpoint Charlie, I never looked back and took a mental picture of something that was destined to collapse. I thought of it as something permanent -- it and East Berlin, the United States and the Soviet Union. This world had balance, symmetry. This is why the wall endured as long as it did. It was kept up not by cement but by a mindset. We believed.

By Richard Cohen  | November 9, 2009; 9:54 AM ET
Categories:  Cohen  | Tags:  Richard Cohen  
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Next: A wall falls in Baghdad

Comments

"What’s more, Reagan had broken with leftists who continued to see in Russia and communism the hope -- the forlorn and by then quite mad hope -- that the system could be reformed so that it really could offer an alternative to selfish rapacious capitalism."

This is the key point that many who want to remove Reagan from the capstone of the collapse of Communism forget. They always were breathless to embrace detente or peaceful coexistence, blithely ignoring the human misery that system engendered.

They also, in the present trouble with capitalism, forget that the communist system collapsed more thoroughly 20 years earlier and fundamentally undermined the economic theories of the left.

Posted by: edbyronadams | November 9, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Reagan's views were nutty. If you have enough nutty views chance will win you an odd vindication or two. He was the ultimate example of style over substance.

Posted by: pdiana | November 9, 2009 10:39 AM | Report abuse

...

the Wall!!

hope Cohn's son visited the Wall Israel erected in Palestine.....

There are many walls...many walls before I sleep.

Posted by: wrock76taolcom | November 9, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I find a certain, almost nauseating, double standard in those who are of the ilk that demand "hope and change" amongst their own, but feel no will or apparent interest in pursuing much more fundamental and necessary change among the more egregious violators of basic human rights. The most telling part of the Berlin Wall and German borders was always which direction the guns were being pointed, and by whom.

Posted by: LNER4472 | November 9, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

So, Rickie, if an optimistic person is cause for you to become pessimistic, how does that make the optimist inferior? And, does, as I would suspect, a pessimistic person also make you pessimistic?

In short, perhaps you should receive some professional help before writing anymore essays. Dr. Phil could probably help you to understand how your negative feelings say nothing about the person you are opposed to and everything on your on state of mind.

Posted by: Cdgaman | November 9, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

So, Rickie, if an optimistic person is cause for you to become pessimistic, how does that make the optimist inferior? And, does, as I would suspect, a pessimistic person also make you pessimistic?

In short, perhaps you should receive some professional help before writing anymore essays. Dr. Phil could probably help you to understand how your negative feelings say nothing about the person you are opposed to and everything on your on state of mind.

Posted by: Cdgaman | November 9, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

Saint Ronald the Reagan was a stupid man with a sunny disposition and a jaundiced view of Communism and the U.S. Government. He's the one who derided the idea of Medicare as the first step down a slippery slope toward Socialized Medicine, in which the U.S. Government would be empowered to dictate where physicians could practice the art and science of medicine. Now seniors say "Keep your gummint hands off my Medicare." they hate it so much. Just because the government accepts premium payments and processes medical claims does not mean the government necessarily will put its jackbooted foot on the necks of some class of persons. That's a choice left up to Congress. Our elected representatives. Did Reagan single-handedly bring down the Soviet Union? Well, he helped. But the Soviet system of pervasive coercion, suppression of free enterprise, and a centrally planned economy are on the face of it not practicable over the long term, no matter how strongly one believes in "temporary" pain on the way to a Worker's Paradise. Soviet ideology shares a lot with Republican ideology. Lots of zeal. No evidence to back it up. Just orthodoxy along the lines of "America: Love It or Leave It." A shining city on the hill. A thousand points of light. Great gobs of money in the bank accounts of the undeserving few. Have I got a job for YOU! Great perks! Fantastic compensation! Bonuses for wrecking the U.S. economy. No jail time!

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | November 9, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Ohe Cohen's teenager was Soooo right.

Had we just listened to that Jewish genius, the wall would've fallen years earlier.

The West Germans only needed to hit it with a hammer.

Posted by: whistling | November 9, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

In fact, as late as 1982,

the zionist WOLFOWITZ, then at the State Department in the policy section maintained

that the THE GREATEST THREAT TO THE WORLD WAS THE REUNIVIFICATION OF GERMANY.

Which is why it's so surprising that every
one of the "columnists" at the Post, neocons and zionists all, have had to weigh in this morning on how great the fall of the wall was. Change of heart by the faithful, I guess.

Posted by: whistling | November 9, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

In fact, as late as 1982,

the zionist WOLFOWITZ, then at the State Department in the policy section maintained

that the THE GREATEST THREAT TO THE WORLD WAS THE REUNIVIFICATION OF GERMANY.

Which is why it's so surprising that every
one of the "columnists" at the Post, neocons and zionists all, have had to weigh in this morning on how great the fall of the wall was. Change of heart by the faithful, I guess.

Posted by: whistling | November 9, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I love how whenever a Democrat commentator dares to breathe a word of praise for something a Republican may have done, they first feel the need to include a laundry list of their grievous differences with that individual. A compliment or praise with caveats attached is fairly puny.

I have been to the wall in Israel - One graffiti artists posted 'Wall of Tears'. I believe in the continued existence of Israel and that we must support her with all our might but I don't agree that creating ghettos is the answer. You would think that Jewish people of any group would shudder at creating ghettos!

Posted by: Georgetowner1 | November 9, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

I visited West-Berlin in Summer 1989. You could watch East-German TV from West-Berlin. It was astounding. The Hungarians had just allowed a multitude of East Germans to cross into Austria: the flood gates were open. On East-German TV, this event was treated as a foot note. I asked myself how a government could endure that doesn't take seriously such a predicament. They knew there were protests going on throughout their country, but they choose not to address them, or discuss them in public. I had the feeling already then, that the death bells were tolling. I was surprised, however that it came so early. I had given them until spring 1990 until the roof would be caving in.
It was also predictable that the Soviet Union would collaps. The Europeans knew it. I remember a visit from colleague from Norway who had led a delegation urging the US government to help stabilize the Soviet Union. The Reagan/Bush administration thought it better to let it crash. However, you cannot let a regulative entity as big as the Soviet Union just disappear: a vacuum followed, similar to the time after the collaps of the Western Roman Empire, followed by the dark ages.
What we see now in criminal activity from various East Europen groupings, run-away problems in the Middle East, or even the rise of global terrorism, it resulted from the disappearance of the Soviet Union.
As Krushtshew had once sait to President Kennedy (metaphorically): "You take care of your Germans; we take care of ours".
The Soviet Union took care, however one might interpret this, of their sphere of influence, and kept problems in check.
Reagan's policies were entirely shortsighted.

Posted by: flyer | November 9, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

“My 18-year-old son was trying to figure out how it was possible that people had written graffiti all over the thing for decades and yet had not had the wit or the courage to simply chisel the wall into rubble. I had been to the wall a couple of times before, yet the question had not occurred to me. Finally, I said to him, “I think it’s because we, too, believed in the Wall. We believed.”

Full disclosure: as a West Berliner, I was too wimpy to even write graffiti on the wall.

It may seem incredible: but the truth is that it was dangerous even to write graffiti on the wall. To approach the wall from the Western side, you had to enter what was in fact legally East German territory. East German police could and did arrest people who tried to paint slogans on the wall. I remember walking on the strip by the wall (without a spray can or a paint brush) and having police from the Western side warn me: officially, I had entered East Germany, and if I got arrested for violating the boarder, there was nothing anyone could do. If you believed the older folks (I didn’t), they might even shoot you.

Hey, you may not realize, but back in the late seventies, early eighties, those who put graffiti on the wall sure had a lot of courage, and believe it or not, some of them did get arrested and did spend time in prison in East Germany. No fun, that.

Some days after the wall came down, with CNN around the corner and all, I actually went down to the wall to get my little chunk of it. We merrily chipped away at it with a bunch of other people, and then, someone shouted and everyone ran for it. Why? We were being approached by a group of heavily armed East German boarder guards, and damn it, even then, we were scarred sh*tless. And you know what? I think you would have been, too.

Posted by: tomato1 | November 9, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Danke tomate1-
Just like LNER said- it was always a matter of who was pointing the guns, and at whom, that never let you forget why you were there.

It was built inside DDR territory, and they did patrol. While some of the Wall was only a few feet into DDR territory, some areas (like Lennedreieck) were big enough to host a circus on. Sei kein Idiot!

From a former Berlin Brigade soldier-

Posted by: matthanne1 | November 9, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

"What’s more, Reagan had broken with leftists who continued to see in Russia and communism the hope -- the forlorn and by then quite mad hope -- that the system could be reformed so that it really could offer an alternative to selfish rapacious capitalism."

What a stupid statement. Reagan broke with leftists who believed that Russian communism was a viable alternative to selfish rapacious capitalism? Cohen, Reagan never aligned himself with leftists at all, and by 1980, there weren't any thinking leftists remaining who believed that Russian communism was any more than a mafia dictatorship, which it had been since the takeover back in the 1920s. The only people left in the US who believed in communism as a solution were the same kind of people who today join in the right-wing militas and prepare themselves for the day the black helicopters descend on their neighborhoods.

Cohen, you gasped at Reagan's "tear down this wall" speech....are you a simpleton? Anyone could have demanded the same, and many did over the years. You give Reagan too much credit. The truth is that the USSR was collapsing from within and Reagan knew it, he just didn't tell the US public. The breakup of the USSR and the fall of Communist party was unevitable, and predestined. That you thought it was enduring and forever reveals your own inability to conceive change. No wonder you kept supporting Bush even after years of evidence that he was a nincompoop....you are one also!

Posted by: Chagasman | November 9, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

"We believed in the Wall." ....That's quite an amazing statement. Did you also believe in Auschwitz? Did you also believe in the Gulags?
Do you also believe in Islamic jihadism? Do you believe in the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear bomb? Do you believe in New Black Panther Party voter intimidation?

Posted by: chatard | November 9, 2009 10:01 PM | Report abuse

Democrats want re-erected
Walls that Berliners rejected;
For they need a redoubt
To be sure to wall out
Lieberman since he defected.

News Short n' Sweet by JFD8
http://twitter.com/JFD8

Posted by: jd121 | November 9, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

Could this be any more revisionist?

"Reagan was not only right, he saw what too many others did not: It was destined to collapse."

Hardly. Reagan thought the Soviet Union was a source of never-ending danger to the United States. That's why he engaged in his ruinously expensive defense buildup, and why he wanted to start an even more expensive space-based missile defense system.

"When on June 12, 1987 he stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and told the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev to 'tear down this wall,' Reagan was criticized as reckless."

Bullscheisse. Aside from American conservatives, it was considered to be empty rhetoric from an empty-headed president.

Posted by: rashomon | November 9, 2009 11:51 PM | Report abuse

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