Magazine article The New Yorker

November 9th

Magazine article The New Yorker

November 9th

Article excerpt

Germany observes no official holiday on November 9th, the day when, twenty years ago, crowds of stunned, delirious East Germans breached the Berlin Wall. This is because November 9th is also the date on which Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, in 1918, two days before Germany's defeat in the First World War. On November 9, 1923, Hitler attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic, in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. In 1938, November 9th was the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi gangs attacked Jews and their property across Germany and Austria, foreshadowing the genocide to come. The German calendar is appropriately inconvenient: nothing good is conserved without the active remembrance of something bad. The British writer Timothy Garton Ash has called 1989 the best year in European history. It delivered the Continent from its worst century--the new democratic European unity that began in 1989 was built on fifty million graves.

The chain reaction of nonviolent civic movements in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia seemed like a miracle at the time, and it still does. Anyone who grew up knowing nothing but the Cold War could scarcely imagine that the world wasn't eternally locked in permafrost. No Hegelian teleology predetermined that Communism would be left on the ash heap of history. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his essay "The End of History?," in which he predicted "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." This proved far too optimistic for the post-Cold War world, and even in Central Europe, where liberal democracy did emerge, the dramatic events that brought it about were messier and chancier than the dreams of neo-conservative philosophers.

The wall came down not because Ronald Reagan stood up and demanded it but because on the evening of November 9th, at a televised press conference in East Berlin, a Party hack named Gunter Schabowski flubbed a question about the regime's new, liberalized travel regulations. Asked when they took effect, Schabowski shrugged, scratched his head, checked some papers, and said, "Immediately," sending thousands of East Berliners to the wall in a human tide that the German Democratic Republic could not control. Soldiers and Stasi agents didn't shoot into the crowd, but things could easily have gone otherwise.

The revolutions of 1989 were made possible by a multiplicity of conditions: the courage of East Bloc dissidents and the hundreds of thousands of fellow-citizens who finally joined them; American support for the dissident movements and containment of the Soviet Union; the disastrous economies of the Communist countries; the loss of confidence among ruling-party elites; the crucial forbearance of Mikhail Gorbachev. For Europe's Communist regimes to disappear so suddenly and bloodlessly (Romania was a different story), everything had to fall into place, above and below, within and without. Such circumstances are improbably rare, and they can't be mechanically replicated by the laws of history or by divine design or by universal human aspiration. A false lesson drawn from 1989 involves a kind of shallow eschatology of totalitarianism: this is how it always happens--the people rise up, the regime withers and dies, peace and democracy reign. The chaos that followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was in part a consequence of this thinking. In planning the postwar period in Iraq, George W. Bush and some of his advisers had 1989 in mind--"like Eastern Europe with Arabs," as one official put it. …

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