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Anniversary sparks debate on legacy -

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Anniversary sparks debate on legacy

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Monday, November 9, 2009 12:14:00

ELEANOR HALL: The tearing down of the Berlin Wall was the most arresting moment of that
extraordinary year in Europe but in 1989 people across the Eastern bloc - both before and very
quickly after the fall of the Wall - were pushing communism to collapse.

So to what extent was the destruction of the Berlin Wall a surprise to world leaders? Who should
claim credit for the end of the Cold War? And just how much has changed since?

Joining us now to discuss this is Russian archives specialist, Jonathan Brent, who went to the USSR
in the early '90s to gain access to the previously secret Soviet documents on the Cold War and
founded Yale University's distinguished Annals of Communism series. Professor Brent joins us in

In New York we're joined by Michael Meyer who was in Berlin on this day 20 years ago as Newsweek's
bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe. He covered the fall of the wall and the revolutions in
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. He is now the chief speechwriter for the head of the United
Nations but he has just written a book called "The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story of
the Fall of the Berlin Wall". It is due for release here tomorrow.

And in the World Today's Sydney studio is John Lee. He is a foreign policy fellow at the Centre for
Independent Studies and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. The second edition of his book
"Will China Fail?" was released earlier this year.

Thanks to you all for coming onto the program.

If I can start with you Michael Meyer, you were there in Berlin 20 years ago. Can you just give us
a sense of the emotion of that night as people poured across this barrier that had divided the city
for so many decades?

MICHAEL MEYER: Well, it was an extraordinary evening. It's summed up in a scrawled notation on the
page of my notebook at 11.17pm, "the day the wall came down - exclamation point".

I had been standing in the east side of the famous Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin since about 7
o'clock that evening when the party press spokesman made the mistake that would change the world -
announcing that East Germans would be free to leave immediately that night when in fact it was
supposed to take effect, new travel laws, the next day.

People flooded the walls, first 10, 20, 50, hundreds, thousands and maybe 10,000 and they had
pressed so close to the guards at Checkpoint Charlie that on that frosty night you could see their
breath mingling with that of the guards.

Receiving no instructions about what to do, guards took matters into their own hands. I watched a
captain of the guard inside his glass command booth calling for instructions and getting none.
Calling for hours as the crowds pushed closer and closer and multiplied getting angrier and
angrier. Finally he walked out of his booth, stood stock still, raised his hands about his
shoulders and said (German phrase), "open them up" and they opened up the gates and the crowds
flowed out like dirty water out of bathtub.

ELEANOR HALL: It clearly took the guards there by surprise but you have written that the former
leader of East Germany wouldn't have guessed that he was presiding over his last May Day parade
just a few months earlier. To what extent did this take political leaders by surprise?

MICHAEL MEYER: It took almost everyone by surprise except for a very few who were plotting the
demise of this man Erich Honecker. The Hungarians among other, among others took aim on him very
specifically earlier in the year.

They knew that East Germans would come vacationing in Hungary that summer as they did every year
and they decided to use them as pawns in a geopolitical game that is almost unknown in the West and
they started cutting holes, starting that May in their Iron Curtain and they did it in front of the
international television cameras hoping that East Germans would escape.

And when in May they did it for the first time and no one tried to escape, they did a second time
in late June. Then in August they even staged a picnic on the border and let people wander across
the fence and quote, unquote "escape" and the people, the East Germans who fled from Hungary to
Vienna that day took buses all the way to Berlin by that evening and it started an exodus called
The Great Escape which precipitated tens of thousands of people leaving in September and by October
East Germans were marching in the streets of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden first by the tens of
thousands then by the hundreds of thousands and then by the millions and they were just

The interesting thing is that the East German regime of the time was going to give them passports,
let them give them the right to travel which is all they wanted but then by human accident, the
planning of it was blown by that botched announcement and so the wall came down.

ELEANOR HALL: Now Jonathan Brent, you've got inside sort of access to the Soviet thinking at the
time. Soviet leaders did appear, to some extent, to be blindsided by the events of November the
9th. I understand that East Germany wasn't even discussed at a politburo meeting on this very day
when the wall would come down.

Were Soviet leaders surprised by the pace of events in East Germany?

JONATHAN BRENT: I think that they were completely surprised by it. They had no understanding of
what the implications of this historic event were going to be.

Gorbachev was calling in his councillors and each one was giving him a different assessment. There
was, they had nothing to fall back on any longer. They had no longer belief in their own system.
They had no longer a desire to use force. They had no longer the sort of messianic belief that had
impelled the communist system up to that point so that it was something they absolutely did not
know how to deal with.

It was an amazing event in world history.

ELEANOR HALL: John Lee, the events of this period certainly led to a lot of triumphalism in the
West. To what extent should credit for the end of the Cold War go to the former US president Ronald

JOHN LEE: I think a lot of credit should go to President Reagan. President Reagan went against his
own establishment and the intellectual trend of the day. President Reagan in his early writings has
actually spoken about the weaknesses of communists systems and even though it was quite obvious
economically communism wasn't working, the overwhelming assumption was that these governments,
these communist governments were resilient. That they had somehow found a way to survive and
peaceful coexistence rather than working towards the actual fall of these governments was the way
to go.

Now Reagan's various policies were actually aimed at putting pressures at the economic weak points
of these communists governments so I think a lot of credit should go to Reagan.

ELEANOR HALL: Michael Meyer, you don't think the US can claim as much credit for the revolutions of
this period as many would like to, do you?

MICHAEL MEYER: Yes and no. I think Ronald Reagan deserves a lot of credit. Liberals especially in
America ridicule him for calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire". In those old days Manichean
description, but if you lived in Poland that is what it was, for example you saw it as an evil

But I was having this conversation just the other night with James Baker, Ronald Reagan's chief of
staff and George Bush I secretary of state and he said you would be amazed how many Americans think
that it was Ronald Reagan who brought down the Berlin Wall, "Mr Gorbachev tear down this wall". A
terribly memorable line uttered two years before the wall came down. It was actually more Reagan's
engagement with Gorbachev that had the greatest effect in the later years of his administration
rather than the somewhat confrontational rhetoric.

ELEANOR HALL: Jonathan Brent, what do the Soviet archives tell us about the role of the last Soviet
President, Mikhail Gorbachev, in these events? I mean was it as much what he didn't do as what he

JONATHAN BRENT: Well, let me put it this way. First of all since 1956 the Soviets had been aware of
the fact that their system had to undergo what was called in 1957 by a member of the politburo a
deep perestroika. Gorbachev did not invent this idea at all. He simply perpetuated an understanding
that had taken root in the Soviet leadership 30 years before.

And this is something that has really gone completely unnoticed which is that the Soviets
themselves understood that they had to restructure their government and it could not be by force
any longer and so every government after Khrushchev tried to find a way of performing this
restructuring in a very important memo that was written in 1957 - a member of the central committee
wrote, this country must undergo a deep, a profound perestroika.

It will not be fast and it will not be easy and we comrades, Polikarpov (phonetic) wrote in this
memo, it is our job to manage this process and every government afterwards tried to find a way of
managing this process. But the process became unmanageable. They could no longer manage it at the
end and frankly Gorbachev, Jakovlev, all of them basically threw up their hands and they allowed
events to run by themselves.

ELEANOR HALL: So Jonathan Brent, just let me clarity. Are you, I mean, how important do you think
Gorbachev was personally in all this. Are you saying that if he wasn't there in 1989, some other
member of the politburo have made similar decisions or non-decisions as the case may be?

JONATHAN BRENT: I am saying that Gorbachev was the only leader who could have been there in 1989
because by 1989 the Soviet Government realised deeply that it had to have a leader like Gorbachev.

Now there was opposition to him of course, but nevertheless, he was the leader that had been
prepared by all of the events going back 30 years, since the death of Stalin, who was necessary for
trying to effectuate what the Soviets themselves understood as a necessary transformation.

So yes, of course, had there been a Stalinist at the helm it would have been different but a
Stalinist could not have been at the helm because he was morally and philosophically unacceptable
to the rest of the leadership of the country.

There are so many indications that show us that this process was two sided. On the one hand, yes,
Reagan provided the impetus but the process had already been long prepared for by a kind of
evolutionary development within Soviet society itself.

ELEANOR HALL: So what can we now say with two decades of distance? How significant was the fall of
the Berlin Wall? Michael Meyer.

MICHAEL MEYER: Well, it was hugely significant. I mean in 1989 the world was still divided into
East and West. The cliche of free and unfree, north and south... (inaudible)

ELEANOR HALL: Michael Meyer I am just going to stop you there briefly. We are having a little bit
of trouble with you line. I'll come to you John Lee. It really was unimaginable 20 years ago that
so many countries formerly in the Soviet bloc would now be part of the European Union and NATO,
wasn't it? But it was also being closely watched by China.

JOHN LEE: Yes, it was. It might surprise you to know that since 1991 more research or official
research has been done in China about the reasons for the fall of the Berline Wall than across
Europe or America combined.

ELEANOR HALL: Of course China had Tiananmen Square, the protests there just a few months before the
fall of the Berlin Wall?

JOHN LEE: Yes, that was the lead up and obviously what happened in Europe created a lot of fear for
Beijing's leaders but I think one of the real lessons for the Chinese was that it changed the way
they viewed revolutions.

There was always this assumption that if there was rapid political change in communist countries,
it would be violent. There would be pitched battles in the streets. It could involve outside powers
and it could even involve regional or once again a European war. That was always the assumption.
Now you had the fall of governments without hardly a shot being fired.

That shocked Beijing to its very core and it actually caused Beijing to fundamentally assess the
role of the Chinese Communist Party in Chinese society.

ELEANOR HALL: Jonathan Brent, there was a moment there in the collapsing Soviet Union where it
looked as though things would change radically there as well but there was even talk of
Nuremberg-style trials of communist party leaders but to what extent have things in the end changed
in Russia?

JONATHAN BRENT: Well, this is the unfortunate and disappointing aftermath of the war, of the fall
of the wall, which is that despite the, the ethos of the Soviet government to find a way of
restructuring itself, its ethos was not shared by the entirety of the population at all.

It is a very interesting situation because in the way the government was functioning at a certain
point in time in 1989, in opposition to the will of large segments of the population which is why
Gorbachev was much more popular in the West than he ever was in his own country.

Nevertheless, what has happened since the fall of the wall has shown that the impetus toward a
liberal democracy, the impetus toward the sort of democratic future that we had hoped for, it has
run into all kinds of cultural, political, social and economic problems that have caused, I think a
real reversal in the process and what we are seeing now with Putin and with the rehabilitation of
Stalin in the Soviet Union, in Russia, demonstrates a very, very strong impulse towards revengism
(phonetic) throughout Russian society.

ELEANOR HALL: Gentlemen, we'll have to leave it there but thanks very much for joining us.

That is Jonathan Brent from Yale University, John Lee from the Centre for Independent Studies and
we did just lose Michael Meyer there. Michael Meyer who was the Newsweek's bureau chief in Berlin
20 years ago.

Thanks to you all.