On Saturday, Germany will mark the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest and grimmest construction projects in history — the building of the Berlin Wall. Photographs of the wall, which overnight brutally severed streets, rail lines and families, have been on display in front of Berlin government buildings for several months. On Saturday, the memorial events will last all day and include a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the victims of the former communist East German government.
The 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, in 2009, attracted a lot more attention in the U.S. It was a victory we like to claim, especially triumphalist conservatives. It seemed to vindicate Ronald Reagan’s assertive approach toward the Soviet Union — the Reagan who in perhaps the most iconic moment of his presidency demanded at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
But the right has constructed a bogus version of history. The toppling of the wall in 1989 had little to do with Reagan, and even less to do with bellicose confrontation.
In the actual event, it was something of a fluke — the result of miscommunication between East German leaders and border guards who unilaterally decided to let easterners and westerners move freely across the border. In broader terms, it was diplomatic caution that helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet empire. In retrospect, for all its tragedy and hatefulness, the Berlin Wall was something of a geopolitical blessing in disguise.
The Cold War is often depicted as an era of stability, but Berlin was a flash point that Soviet and Western leaders feared could trigger atomic war. The Soviet Union regarded Berlin as its personal prize: At an enormous cost in lives, the Red Army had single-handedly liberated Berlin from the Nazis in 1945. Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered American and British troops to hold back and was content to let the Soviets absorb the brunt of the attack.
After the war in Europe ended, Josef Stalin, Harry Truman and Clement Attlee met in Potsdam, outside Berlin, where they formally divided their conquered territory into what would become East and West Germany. Berlin, an island in the eastern sector, was also divided. Once the Cold War began, Stalin tried to starve the west side of the city with a blockade that lasted 11 months in 1948 and 1949. Truman responded with the Berlin airlift, and West Berlin became a powerful symbol of Western resolve.
But Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who called the continued existence of West Berlin a “bone in my throat,” was determined to solve the problem. He made a variety of bloodcurdling threats about the possibility of nuclear war over Berlin and bullied the inexperienced President John F. Kennedy when they met in Vienna in June 1961. “He savaged me,” Kennedy acknowledged privately.
The stakes could not have been higher. Khrushchev and East German leader Walter Ulbricht faced a potential catastrophe: Tens of thousands of East Germans were voting with their feet, heading for the western sector and especially West Berlin. Khrushchev signed off on Ulbricht’s plan to create a national prison in the form of a wall, a sinister but effective solution — and not one that the Western powers were prepared to challenge.
On the contrary, Kennedy had it right when he warned his aides, “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.” Even the patriarchal West German leader at the time, Konrad Adenauer, acceded, focusing not on the East but on closer ties with France and America. Only Willy Brandt, the youthful mayor of West Berlin in the early 1960s, pushed hard against the divide, ultimately enunciating a policy of detente with the East as the only way to bring about unification of the two Germanys.
As the socialist German chancellor in the 1970s, Brandt presided over “change through closeness.” A web of economic and other ties were established between East and West Germany. Relatives from East and West were allowed to contact one another. Brandt also reached out to the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union to show genuine repentance for Nazi war crimes. Every subsequent German leader followed Brandt’s path.
The wall forced West Germans to face reality: The U.S. wasn’t going to war over the Berlin Wall; East Germany wasn’t going away; and trying to isolate it would only strengthen the hand of communist hard-liners. The shrewder policy was to encourage as much contact as possible with the West. The more East Germany was exposed to the West, the more it was coaxed out of its communist shell. The idea promulgated by the Eastern hard-liners, that West Germany was a military threat on the order of Nazi Germany, became increasingly implausible. Ultimately, detente amounted to a liberation policy.
Absent Brandt’s insistence on detente, a new generation in the Kremlin, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, would never have had the confidence to allow East Germany to reunite with the West. Instead, they might well have clung to the vision of West Germany as a hotbed of revanchist Nazis that Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s generation saw.
Germany and the U.S. have drawn widely varying conclusions from the fall of the wall. German political leaders believe that diplomacy is the key to the spread of democracy, which is why Germany opposed the Iraq war and abstained from endorsing NATO’s Libya venture.
Obviously, there are times when military action is imperative. But the true lesson of the Berlin Wall is that reaching out to the East did not amount, as conservatives constantly claimed, to a policy of appeasement. The wall created the stability between the superpowers that was the precondition for the peaceful demise of communism several decades later. The rollback of communist Eastern Europe that conservatives championed occurred mainly because of diplomacy.
Had the West followed the right’s advice and tried to bludgeon the Soviets into submission, the Berlin Wall might be standing today.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.