The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall, by Michael Meyer, New York: Scribner, 272 pages, $26
The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War, by James Mann, New York: Viking, 416 pages, $27.95
We don’t know the exact hierarchy of motives, but it is certain that Chris Gueffroy was willing to leave his family and friends to avoid conscription into the army. Considering the associated risks, it’s likely that the 20-year-old was also strongly motivated to escape the stultifying sameness, the needless poverty, the cultural black hole that was his homeland. In his passport photo, he wore a small hoop earring, an act of nonconformity in a country that prized conformity above all else. But Gueffroy’s passport was yet another worthless possession, for he had the great misfortune of being born into a walled nation, a country that brutally enforced a ban on travel to “nonfraternal” states.
On February 6, 1989, Gueffroy and a friend attempted to escape from East Berlin by scaling die Mauer—the wall that separated communist east from capitalist west. They didn’t make it far. After tripping an alarm, Gueffroy was shot 10 times by border guards and died instantly. His accomplice was shot in the foot but survived, only to be put on trial and sentenced to three years in prison for “attempted illegal border-crossing in the first degree.”
Twenty years ago this month, and nine months after the murder of Gueffroy, the Berlin Wall, that monument to the barbarism of the Soviet experiment, was finally breached. The countries held captive by Moscow began their long road to economic and cultural recovery, and to reunification with liberal Europe. But in the West, where Cold War divisions defined politics and society for 40 years, the moment was not greeted as a welcome opportunity for intellectual reconciliation, for fact-checking decades of exaggerations and misperceptions. Instead, then as now, despite the overwhelming volume of new data and the exhilaration of hundreds of millions finding freedom, the battle to control the Cold War narrative raged on unabated. Reagan haters and Reagan hagiographers, Sovietophiles and anti-communists, isolationists and Atlanticists, digested this massive moment in history, then carried on as if nothing much had changed. A new flurry of books timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of communism’s collapse reinforces the point that the Cold War will never truly be settled by the side that won.
It is bizarre to revisit pre-1989 journalism and punditry on Soviet communism. The suffering of the bit players, those pitiable citizens stranded behind the Iron Curtain, was largely ignored in favor of larger political goals. If Ronald Reagan believed the Kremlin to be the beating heart of an “evil empire,” many of his angriest critics believed, then Moscow couldn’t be all bad. Writing in The Nation in 1984, historian Stephen F. Cohen hissed that, in a perfect world, “fairness would not allow us to defame a nation that has suffered and achieved so much.”
Although uniformly anti-Soviet, some conservatives too were guilty of a Cold War–induced moral blindness, defending authoritarian governments in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Iberia as bulwarks against communist expansion. Columnist Pat Buchanan celebrated the authoritarian leaders Augusto Pinochet of Chile and Francisco Franco of Spain as “soldier-patriots” and referred quaintly to the racist regime in South Africa as the “Boer Republic.” Others accused America’s most anti-Soviet president of impuissance. As early as 1983, neoconservative writer Norman Podhoretz proclaimed that Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union amounted to “appeasement by any other name.”
When the whole rotten experiment suddenly failed, eventually bringing to an end not just Moscow’s Warsaw Pact client governments but the proxy civil wars it fought in the Third World, instead of engaging in overdue self-criticism many commentators clung to shopworn shibboleths. In 1990 the academic Peter Marcuse, also writing in The Nation, bizarrely claimed that East Germany “had never sent dissidents to gulags and rarely to jail” and expressed outrage that the “goal of the German authorities is the simple integration of East into West without reflection,” instead of heeding the pleas of the intellectual class who were at work on a more humane, less Russian brand of socialism.
The weeks and months following the fall of the Wall saw relentless worries, from left and right, about the corrosive influence of Western capitalism, consumerism, and commercial television on the untainted comrades of the Ost. The “prospect of rampant consumerism,” CBS News reported in July 1990, “has East Germany’s newly elected Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Lother De Mozier, worried.” By 1993 Ukrainian National Self Defense, a right-wing populist movement that loathed Russian power, was rallying against the “Americanization of Ukraine through Coca-Cola culture.” Even the famously anti-communist Pope John Paul II warned that “the Western countries run the risk of seeing this collapse of Communism as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make necessary corrections in that system.”
When the “shock” of capitalism didn’t jump-start the moribund economies of the East within a calendar year, many in the Western news media declared the entire project dead on arrival. In 1990 ABC Evening News told viewers that East Germany was already a “victim of an overdose of capitalism.” In Southeast Poland, CBS reported, “the transition from communism to capitalism is making more people more miserable every day.” Every new election, even in firmly Western-oriented countries such as Hungary and Poland, was greeted with scare stories about backsliding into communism, lurching into neo-Nazism, or both. Even some of the early 20th-anniversary retrospectives last summer trotted out the same familiar story lines, exponential gains in freedom and prosperity notwithstanding.
With the proliferation of “Old Hopes Replaced by New Fears” stories, the long-running intellectual battle over the Cold War retreated into the halls of academia, where the newly (and, it turned out, briefly) opened Soviet archives further undermined the accepted narratives about Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, I.F. Stone, and scores of other causes célèbres of the anti-anti-communists. Western intellectuals were more interested in Francis Fuku-yama’s contention that we were witnessing “the end of history” than in who was most responsible for bringing that history to an alleged close.
But when that debate began to revive, it took up right where it left off in the 1980s: at the feet of the decade’s most controversial figure, Ronald Reagan. To his legion of critics, Reagan was an unalloyed Cold Warrior, recklessly dragging America toward the precipice of nuclear confrontation and taking the credit that rightfully belonged to reform Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This school of interpretation was influential enough that the anti-communist commentator Arnold Beichman, writing in Policy Review in 2002, accused liberal academics and pundits of “trying to write President Reagan out of history.” But after the Berlin Wall fell, the pendulum swung the other way. Reagan’s loyal foot soldiers have persistently argued, with some degree of success, that the inspirational rhetoric of the 40th president, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, “won the Cold War without firing a shot.”
No phrase is more associated with Reagan’s presidency—and his lifelong crusade against communism—than his 1987 exhortation that Gorbachev, if he really believed in freedom, would come to Berlin and “tear down this wall.” Reagan’s national security adviser, Colin Powell, thought the line needlessly provocative; the State Department cautioned against “condemn[ing] the East too harshly.” The day after the speech, which would become Reagan’s most famous, Washington Post foreign policy columnist Jim Hoagland derided it as a “meaningless taunt” that history would surely ignore. Reagan’s acolytes, on the other hand, would strenuously argue that the speech was, if not directly responsible for the events of November 1989, at the very least helpful and prescient.
Neither of these readings is accurate, argues journalist James Mann in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War. While the Gipper loathed Soviet totalitarianism—his aide Ken Adelman commented that it was the “only thing he actually hated”—Reagan was, Mann argues, a pragmatist who rejected the more belligerent figures in the Republican foreign policy establishment and helped enable Gorbachev’s reforms through engagement, not confrontation.
That Reagan was more dovish than his contemporary critics would allow isn’t a particularly radical argument, having been made previously by historians Paul Lettow and John Patrick Diggins and by former Reagan official Jack Matlock. And it is no longer controversial to claim, as Mann does, that Reagan was driven to the bargaining table by a combination of a deeply held revulsion for nuclear weapons and a gut instinct that Gorbachev was a different type of Soviet leader, a man Thatcher believed the West “could do business with.”