COLD WAR: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
The year the Berlin Wall fell
, November 28, 2009
The collapse of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago astonished the world. It was one of a sequence of remarkable events in 1989 which saw the rapid collapse of Soviet-backed communist dictatorships across much of central and eastern Europe.
At the beginning of that pivotal year, 10 central and eastern European nations were still forcibly incorporated in the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact. By the end of the year, six of them were freed from Soviet domination. Within another two years, the Soviet Union itself would break up, and numerous republics of the former USSR would at last be free from Moscow's rule.
Berlin's divided status - the western sector free, and the eastern sector under communist control - was emblematic of the Cold War stand-off between the free world and the Soviet communist empire.
One of the first East-West confrontations of the Cold War was the Soviet-backed Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. The Soviets blockaded Western road and rail access to Berlin. The governments of the US, Britain and the Commonwealth nations responded valiantly by organising the famous Berlin Airlift to fly in consignments of food to feed the people.
In June 1950, in a show of solidarity with the besieged city, a group of prominent Western social democrat intellectuals (many of them ex-communist) hosted the inaugural Congress for Cultural Freedom. Arthur Koestler formulated a famous Freedom Manifesto which rejected the notion of neutrality in the face of the communist threat to the free world. Koestler took to a podium and dramatically proclaimed, "Freedom has taken the offensive!"
The next major Soviet confrontations with the West over Berlin occurred in June 1961 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, judging US President John F. Kennedy to be a political lightweight, threatened to impose East German control over West Berlin. Kennedy promptly called up 250,000 US reservists.
Meanwhile, more and more skilled East German workers were escaping to the West through Berlin. On Saturday evening, August 12, 1961, East German troops, police and workers closed the border and swiftly constructed, in a single night, a forbidding wall, complete with barbed wire entanglements, around West Berlin.
The Western powers could have resisted this affront, but on this occasion refrained from doing so. Many Western leaders were on holiday and in no hurry to solve the crisis.
The West's failure of will on this occasion, far from mollifying the Kremlin, only emboldened it to be more provocative. The following year it started stationing nuclear missiles in Cuba. The ensuing crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
During the 1970s, misguided Western policy-makers increasingly convinced themselves that somehow Western democracies could appease Moscow by accommodating its wishes. Under the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the Western powers officially recognised the inviolability of the Soviet empire's illegal territorial gains in central and eastern Europe at the end of World War II.
As a further gesture of goodwill, the West offered the USSR lavish amounts of low-interest loans and technological aid in return for empty Soviet promises to improve human rights.Tactical ploy
This era of East-West relations was misnamed détente. For while the West relaxed its guard, Warsaw Pact espionage in the West increased, and the Soviet empire continued to expand its power and influence in Indo-China, Africa, the oil-bearing regions of the Middle East and other strategic chokepoints around the world. Soviet rhetoric about détente and peaceful co-existence was, in reality, a clever tactical ploy to bring about the psychological disarmament of the West.
This era of Western weakness and retreat ended in 1980 with the swearing in of the hawkish Republican US President Ronald Reagan. He championed human rights behind the Iron Curtain and was vilified by fashionable Western opinion for daring to describe the Soviet Union as an "evil empire".
The new US Administration brought a new mood of realism to East-West relations, but the eventual liberation of central and eastern Europe from Soviet control was chiefly the work of the people of those countries.
In August 1980, Polish workers under Lech Walesa formed an independent, non-communist union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) and organised a nationwide strike to demand both bread and freedom. In December the following year, under direction from Moscow, Poland's quisling dictator General Jaruzelski imposed martial law, suppressing Solidarity and ending Poland's brief interlude of freedom. The Communist Party, now violently oppressing the very workers it claimed to represent, lost any shred of legitimacy.
In 1986, the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader and allowed an increasing measure of freedom in the Iron Curtain countries.
In June 1989, the Polish Communist Party came to a power-sharing arrangement with Solidarity. In August, Hungary's foreign minister Gyula Horn opened his country's border with Austria. Thereupon thousands of East German "tourists" entered Hungary to escape through this breach in the Iron Curtain to the West.
In October, Gorbachev came to East Berlin and warned his faithful ally Erich Honecker not to be left behind by history. On the night of November 9, the Berlin Wall itself came down.
Events flowed with an unstoppable momentum. Within days, Czechoslovakia was in ferment with its famous Velvet Revolution, which brought to power the legendary figures, Vaclav Havel and Alexander Dubcek. On Christmas Eve, Romania's hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena tried to flee angry crowds of people but were captured and, on Christmas Day, executed by firing squad.
Within two years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed and its constituent republics finally achieved their independence.John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly. During the late 1980s he was coordinator of the Captive Nations Council of South Australia.