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The Fall of the Berlin Wall
The history books, the political polemics, and economic and the geopolitical analyses of the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union fill shelves with cruel crimes committed for the party and proletariat under the dreaded regimes of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. The end of the empire, however, was humiliatingly public, glowing on millions of television screens as sledgehammers tore chunks out of the Berlin Wall.
The end of the end began in 1985 with the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev and a new generation of Soviet leaders born after Stalin and his paranoid terrors had died. Ironically, the penultimate cause of the collapse was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, where it fought a hopeless war for nearly a decade, which that almost crushed its economy to a halt and, like the Vietnam war, called into question national leadership and purpose. The presidency passed from a rather incompetent Jimmy Carter to Ronald Regan, who had no appetite for further appeasement with the Kremlin. Historian Paul Johnson argues that the tremendous losses in Afghanistan left the Soviet Union incapable of facing President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and the new leadership in Moscow realized that their imperial ventures had caused the Soviet economy to rust (History of the American People 928-29).
“For our internal progress,” Gorbachev said in 1987, “we need normal international relations.” The Soviets had to catch up to the rising prosperity and technological advances of Europe and North America. The Soviet Union had to concentrate on domestic development and promote international peace whenever possible. However, it could only accomplish such a goal by giving up any global ambitions. Therefore, as Paul Johnson and other historians point out, Gorbachev abandoned the traditional Soviet anti-western orientation. He wanted to integrate the Soviet Union into the main currents of modern life and that meant democracy, free enterprise and a market economy.
He gave the Soviet Union and the World two slogans:perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Perestroika held out the promise of reorganizing the state and society. For example, individual initiative would be revived and there would be emphasis on technology and a higher standard of living. Glasnost was the corrective held up to Stalinist excesses. Openness would permit the open discussion of the nation’s problems and it would rid public thinking of propaganda and lies.
Soviet pseudo-history, pilloried in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, tapered off. New histories published archival material on the Stalinist purges and the Great Terror.
In Gorbachev’s way of thinking, the Russian Communist Party was to serve as the vanguard of perestroika and stimulate civic activity and responsibility. In 1990, the Supreme Soviet elected Gorbachev as the country’s president for a term of five years. At the time, Gorbachev was still the leader of the increasingly unpopular Communist Party. Economic changes accompanied these political reforms. Industrial enterprise was encouraged which in turn would foster private initiative and loosed the stranglehold of decades of central planning. By 1990, Gorbachev was cautiously promoting a market economy including the individual’s right to possess private property. Religious freedoms were restored and in 1988, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its 1000th anniversary. Meanwhile, contacts with the outside world, especially the west, began to intensify. However, all this seemingly good stuff — especially from the western perspective — had its downside as well. For instance, glasnost released decades of bitterness which had accumulated over the fifty years of Stalinist repression and terror. Perestroika and glasnost also revealed the widespread ecological damage the Soviets had caused on the environment. Gorbachev’s reforms also polarized opinion in ways that even Gorbachev and his stalwart supporters could never have foreseen.
In an effort to preserve unity by compromise, Gorbachev entered a bitter quarrel with his more radical rival, Boris Yeltsin. The weakening of traditional Soviet authority and the release of “history” brought about by the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, in the end, brought disunity. Meanwhile, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians all demanded independence which in turn set off similar demands among Ukrainians, Georgians, Byelorussians, Armenians and the various peoples of central Asia. By the late 1980s, inter-ethnic violence had escalated. And in 1990, the Russian Republic, the largest republic of the Soviet Union, declared its limited independence under Yeltsin, and an Anti-Reform Russian Communist Party broke off from the reformist party faction led by Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, the transition to a market economy was too complex for ready and easy solutions. The production and distribution of consumer goods collapsed. Local governments hoarded essential commodities and the black market flourished as did the Russian Mafia. As journalist David Remnick has written:
the Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic Mafia the world has ever known. It guarded its monopoly on power with a sham consensus and constitution and backed it up with the force of the KGB and the Interior Ministry police. (Kreis, History Guide)
In October 1990, Gorbachev remarked, “unfortunately, our society is not ready for the procedures of a law-based state.” Oppressed generations lose high expectations and the Communist elite, hypothetically similar to the Guardians in Plato’s utopia had lost perspective. Grenville twists an old maxim that explains the myopia: “Absolute power not only corrupts, it blinds” (894).
Gorbachev’s own hammer blow for Eastern Europe, Harold Evans observes, was “to renounce Brezhnev’s imperial doctrine by which the Soviet Union had claimed the right to intervene in defense of its ideology in any Communist country” (American Century 655).
Outside the Soviet Union, perestroika and glasnost spread among people who were resentful of Soviet domination and worried about economic collapse. In 1989 and 1990, these people showed their dislike of communist leadership and demanded democratic reforms.
Poland took the lead. Here the population was traditionally anti-Russian. The Poles had long protested their country’s economic decline. Soviet assurance to assist and massive loans from western Europe brought no relief. The slightest relaxation of Soviet control only encouraged Polish nationalism, which had always been expressed with the support of the Roman Catholic Church. With the selection of Pope John Paul II in 1978, Polish nationalism surged ahead. In 1980, workers under the leadership of a electrician, Lech Walesa, succeeded in forming an independent labor union called Solidarity. Pressured by a series of strikes, the Polish government recognized Solidarity, despite threats of Soviet intervention. J.A.S. Grenville hits the truth squarely: “Masses lost their fear of the state” (894)
Significantly, the Christian Cross opposed the Soviet hammer and sickle. As nearly all observers assumed, Walesa enjoyed the hefty support of the Roman Catholic Church and from Polish Catholics in the United States that warrants amplification. Scholars and historians will debate for years to come the precise causes and historical forces that produced the sudden collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s. One matter not in dispute, however, will be the earth-shattering role played in the process by Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope.
Jack Kemp stresses the spiritual strength and personal prestige the Pope put behind the Solidarity, or freedom movement. From the day of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s election to the papacy in October 1978, Kemp observes, the Pope “began to shake the very foundations of communism” (Human Events). With a Polish Pope in Rome, the Polish church increased its resistance against communism. Pope John Paul II encouraged his fellow countryman, Lech Walesa, as Kemp reports, and Walesa eventually became president of Poland post-communism (Human Events).
After the crumbing of totalitarian communism, Pope John Paul II released a papal encyclical titled “Centesimus Annus” (1991), which explained within a Christian framework why communism had failed and from that failure drew lessons about social, political and economic organization. The papal encyclical urged people not to establish an ideological “heaven on Earth” but to maintain human dignity and social conditions conducive to each individual’s opportunity to achieve salvation of his soul. In short, the Pontiff placed individual freedom deeply within the core of Christian theology. In January 1989, Solidarity was legalized and the Communist Party retired.
In May 1989, Hungary abolished the communist bureaucracy. By year’s end there were more than fifty political parties. In East Germany, the upheaval in 1989 was even more momentous. East Germany had always been indispensable to Soviet Russia. Its industry was nationalized, its agriculture collectivized and its people regimented by the Communist Party. In June 1953, the workers of East Berlin staged an uprising. What followed as a steady exodus of skilled workers into West Germany. Three million people escaped before the East German government erected the infamous Berlin Wall in August 1961. The East Germans braved their lives to escape: they “voted with their feet.”
Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary soon followed suit and East and West Germany united in 1990. In the long and bitter Cold War, capitalism and freedom triumphed over communism and tyranny. Gorbachev and Yeltsin came along at the right time and faced the hidden facts of a long ruined system. American military and economic power made the Cold War too costly for the Soviet Union to press without smashing up.
Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Walesa, and the Pope helped cause the fall of communism, but none compared with the late President Ronald Regan and his “innocent audacity” (Evans 656) who called the Soviet Union an empire of Evil and threatened to bankrupt it with a “star wars” defense. The national and international causes of the fall of communism were rooted in economic, military, political, trade balances, and imperial illusions, but few can deny that the United States, for decade after decade, carried the brunt of containing a predatory system. Future historians may revive tentative conclusions, but one that seems to do justice to the fall comes from Harold Evans at the end of his The American Century:
History will go on unraveling the knot of circumstance, stratagem, chance, and personality. In the end, it is unlikely that no single brow will be able to claim the wreath of victory over a dangerous and depressing totalitarianism. But there can be no doubt that it was the American example, in its spiritual as well as its material beneficence, that in the long dark years was the torch of freedom all the world could see. (656)
Boyer, Paul S., ed. The Oxford Companion to United States
History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
Evans, Harold. The American Century. New York: Knopf, 1998.
“Fall of Communism.” U.S Department of State. December 8, 2005.
Grenville, J.A. S. A History of the World in the Twentieth
Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York:
Kemp, Jack. “How the Pope Helped Bring about the Fall of
Communism.” Human Events. Posted Apr 5, 2005.
Kreis, Steven. The History Guide. 1989: “The Walls Came Tumbling
Accessed Dec. 8, 2005.
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