The U.S. president and his famous speech, commemorated yesterday by the Berlin government, surely played a role, but Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and East German protesters were far more important.
On Wednesday, Berlin unveiled a plaque in honor of the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's speech demanding that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall," delivered June 12, 1987. It was an exquisite, powerful, and truly historic moment worthy of commemoration. But Reagan's sometimes-overeager boosters are making some bold claims about the role that both this speech and its deliverer played in the course of world history, another example of the ways that the politics of today are distorting our memory of one of the most complicated conflicts of the 20th century.
It's not surprising that Reagan-boosters are getting a little carried away with his legacy, but the extent of their adoration is getting a little extreme. John Heubusch, Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, wrote for Fox News that the states of Eastern Europe "fell to freedom like dominoes" after Reagan's words "pushed the first one over. One cannot ignore how his powerful conviction ended the Cold War by firing a verbal salvo, an oratorical demand to let freedom prevail."
It is certainly true that the Reagan presidency helped usher along the opening of the inner German frontier and later the demise of the Soviet Union. After all, his changes to U.S. foreign policy toward Moscow challenged, among other things, the status quo that assumed the Berlin Wall's existence as inevitable. And Reagan reasserted the idea that simple coexistence with the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was neither desirable nor acceptable.
But did Reagan's 1987 address have much bearing on the actual fall of wall? That's a newer idea, one that happens to put Reagan at the center of a wider narrative of communism's descent in Europe. In fact, not only was Reagan out of office by the time the wall collapsed in the summer of 1989, but his speech had received very little coverage in the media, according to Time and to historian Michael Meyer, who wrote in his history of 1989's revolutions, "Major U.S. newspapers with correspondents in Europe, such as the New York Times, carried stories that ran in the back pages." Reagan also delivered the speech to an audience of about 45,000, one tenth the crowd estimated to have attended John F. Kennedy's 1963 speech. When Reagan declared "Tear down this Wall," it's easy for us to forget now, he was the visibly aged leader of a lame duck administration clouded by scandal and corruption, Iran-Contra in particular.
Historians still dispute, and likely will for many years, the extent to which the Soviet Union collapsed due to pressures from the U.S. or from within. But the Berlin Wall's fall was a moment when Gorbachev's actions, not Reagan's, played a particularly prominent role. The revolts Eastern Europe began in large part because of the Soviet leader's 1985 decision to launch the reforms of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Gorbachev also reneged on the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had asserted that problems within any Warsaw Pact nation were considered "a common problem and concern of all socialist countries" -- in other words, Moscow would intervene in Soviet bloc countries to keep them in line.
In eliminating this mandate, Gorbachev created a climate in places like East Germany much friendlier to revolution. "What we have now is the Sinatra Doctrine," his chief spokesman, Gennady Gerasimov, told the world on Good Morning America. "He has a song: 'I Did it My Way.'" Gorbachev also made clear repeatedly that he wished to see the reform of socialism in Eastern Europe and warned of the consequences of stagnation. Even as hundreds gathered outside East Berlin's Palast der Republik shouting "Gorbi, hilf uns" -- "Gorbi, help us" -- on the 40th anniversary of East Germany in August 1989, East German leader Erich Honecker proclaimed, "Den Sozialismus in seinem Lauf hält weder Ochs noch Esel auf," -- "Neither an ox nor a donkey is able to stop the progress of socialism". But, as Gorbachev put it around the same time, "Life punishes those who come too late."
Believing they had Gorbachev's tacit acquiescence, reform movements that sprung up in Eastern Europe increased pressure on the East German government to open the wall. In May 1989, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh led an effort to remove the border fence between his country and Austria, which encouraged East Germans to flee through Czechslovakia to Hungary. By September, 60,000 East Germans were camped out by the border crossing, at which time Németh allowed for the total opening of the frontier for these refugees.
By the end of September, East Germany's Honecker had successfully pressured the Czechoslovak government, then commanded by fellow hardliner Miloš Jakeš, into shutting their border with Hungary. Hundreds of East Germans, now stuck in a Czechoslovakia, camped out on the lawn of the West German embassy in Prague. Honecker relented, allowing these would-be émigrés safe passage to the West in so-called "freedom trains" that were to be sealed during their passage through East Germany to the West. But, at Dresden, demonstrators greeted the trains, climbing on top of the carriages and hurling rocks and insults at the police. Dresdeners, it should be noted, were unlikely to have seen Reagan's 1987 address unfiltered, since their city was out of range of Western broadcasting systems.
On October 9, one month before the wall fell, 100,000 people marched peacefully through Leipzig. Armed police were on standby to put the protest down, by violence if necessary, but then-Politburo member Egon Krenz commanded the police to stand down, Gorbachev's warnings likely on his mind.
These and other mass demonstrations within East Germany played a far more significant role than did Reagan's speech in the fall of the wall on November 9, 1989. In the wake of sustained pressure from the East German people -- including a demonstration 500,000 strong on the Alexanderplatz public square in Berlin on November 4 -- Politburo member Günter Schabowski announced on November 9 the relaxation of visa restrictions at the border. "We have decided today to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave the GDR through any of the border crossings ... immediately, without delay." His proclamation set off a clamor to get to the wall as large numbers of East Germans sought to enter the other side, to rejoin Germany and Europe, forcing the police to open the border crossings for the first time since 1961. The flags flying that night as people danced on top of the wall were not American, but German.