Reassessing Gorbachev

The death yesterday of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has caused a lot of comment about his role in ushering in the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s worth a few moments to think about those events that occurred more than 30 years ago and how they are perceived now.

The Washington Post obituary presents Gorbachev as the agent of change; it states that he “embarked on a path of radical reform that brought about the end of the Cold War, reversed the direction of the nuclear arms race and relaxed Communist Party controls in hopes of rescuing the faltering Soviet state but instead propelled it toward collapse.” He was a “towering figure” who engaged in “improvised tactics,” took “increasingly bold risks,” and “pursued ever-larger ambitions for liberalization, battling inertia and a stubborn old guard.” The Post views Mr. Gorbachev as the indispensable figure in the end of the Cold War drama, stating flatly: “None of it could have happened but for Mr. Gorbachev.” That view is reflected in the fact that Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Others disagree with that assessment. They see Gorbachev as the reactor, not the actor; in their view, the true change agent was Ronald Reagan. This evaluation of the 1980s focuses on President Reagan’s decision to ratchet up the social, economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union and Gorbachev with events like his “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987. As a result, they contend, Gorbachev was left with few options and really didn’t have much choice as he took steps that responded to the Reagan initiatives and the outbreaks of resistance and freedom initiatives that began to appear in Eastern Europe. The Post obituary indirectly acknowledges this with its references to “improvised tactics” and “increasingly bold risks”: the person who sets the tone doesn’t need to improvise.

Which view of Gorbachev is right? I think the honest answer lies somewhere in between, recognizing that President Reagan’s approach helped to create and nourish the pro-freedom movement that narrowed the options and forced increasingly difficult decisions by the Soviet Union, but also that Gorbachev did always have a choice: he could have unleashed the Soviet army, applied the extreme and brutal repressive tactics that the U.S.S.R. had historically applied, or taken things to the brink of nuclear war–but he didn’t. We’ll probably never know precisely how essential Gorbachev was to those decisions, and how much support, or opposition, he had among members of the Politburo in refraining from calling out the troops or pushing the button, but it all happened on his watch. If a more bloodthirsty, reckless leader had been in charge of the Soviet Union at that time, things might have gone down very differently.

Mikhail Gorbachev may not deserve the over-the-top accolades he is receiving in some quarters, but he clearly was an important historical figure who played a key role. Mr. Gorbachev may not have torn down the wall, but he ultimately didn’t interfere with those freedom-loving Germans who did, and the world should remember him for that.

Eurotrip 2011: Berlin

A remnant of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin isn’t a very pretty city. Most of its buildings are of the glass-and-metal post-war style, put up quickly to replace ones that were destroyed in the war. Its center consists mostly of big, charmless monuments, museums, and government and office buildings. But it makes up for its lack of beauty with an abundance of history, resulting from its status as the capital of the Third Reich and as a red-hot collision point between the two sides of the Cold War.

On the first of my six full days in Berlin, I visited the Holocaust Memorial, an acre or so of cement blocks, some towering over your head, some no higher than your knee. It reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., in that it seemed to express something about the event in an impressionistic way. Underneath, there’s a free museum telling the story of a half-dozen people who perished in the Holocaust.

The Holocaust Memorial.

I hate to say it, but a large chunk, maybe most, of my sightseeing in Berlin was Holocaust-related. It’s simply the most fascinating thing about Germany’s history for me. It’s good that Germany has taken responsibility for the atrocities it committed against the Jewish people and supports tourists’ curiosity about it. In addition to the Holocaust Memorial, they’ve built a large, modern Jewish Museum, which tells the history of the Jewish people in Germany going all the way back to the diaspora. Parts of the museum are impressionistic in the same way the Holocaust Memorial is. One room has thousands of anguished-looking metal faces on the floor which make jarring sounds when you walk over them, representing victims of violence around the world.

The metal faces.

The main impression I got from the museum is how sad it is that the relationship between the Germans and the German-Jews, which showed hope of improving in the 19th and early 20th centuries, came to such a horrible end, and nothing can be done to fix it because the German-Jews don’t really exist anymore.

Later in the week I took a train to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the suburbs. Really in the suburbs – the camp borders the backyards of suburban houses. Whether the houses were there during the time of Nazi rule, I don’t know. Like the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sachsenhausen seems to be heavily subsidized by the German government, making admission free.

Part of the wall at Sachsenhausen.



Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps, built in 1936. It originally housed political prisoners, but in the last years of the war it mostly held Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from being inside a place designed to destroy the human spirit. Even while there, it’s hard to conceive that 30,000 people were murdered at the site, and many more lives were ruined.

A Jewish man staying at my hostel in Athens believed that Germans are sneaky, malicious people by nature, but the ones I’ve spent time with have been nice. It’s hard to believe that what is today a benevolent, reasonable society could have committed such acts within the lifetimes of people still living. I’ve tried to get inside the minds of the perpetrators of the crimes and justify the way they acted by their age (the average age of guards at Sachsenhausen was 20), by their getting brainwashed by propaganda and fear, but I can’t do it. They must have been really messed up people. I suppose that the majority of Germans living under the Nazis, even the majority of Nazi soldiers, knew that horrible things were being done to the Jews, and wouldn’t have done those things themselves, but didn’t protest out of fear of what would happen to them or their family. The people who committed the crimes were sociopaths, who exist in every society, but usually don’t reach positions of power.

Berlin suffered for its crimes by being split in two soon after the war. Berliners are still sensitive about this; I was reprimanded by the owner of my hostel for saying that something was in East Berlin. You can tell when you cross into former East Berlin because the post-war buildings look even shabbier.

Checkpoint Charlie today.

I went to two excellent museums that covered the Cold War era in Germany – the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and the DDR Museum. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum tells the story of the construction of the Berlin Wall (or the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, as the East German government called it), and the thousands of attempts by East Germans to cross it before it was torn down in 1989. Some of the attempts were wonderfully successful, using air balloons and clever hiding places in cars and suitcases, etc. Some were not, such as in the case of 18-year-old Peter Fechter, who was shot in his attempt to cross and took fifty minutes to bleed to death while East German and West German guards, police officers, and American soldiers refused to step into the no-man’s-land to help him.

The DDR Museum offers insight into the daily life of citizens of the German Democratic Republic, which you don’t hear much about when you learn about the Cold War in high school. There were displays covering clothing styles (surpringly similar to those of the capitalist world at the same time, although using cheaper fabrics), vacations (nude beaches were popular), and music (radio stations were required to play mostly music from Communist countries, but Western rock was still supreme). The museum displayed a Trabant, East Germany’s poorly running response to the Volkswagen Beetle.

The Trabant.

I also visited Berlin’s famous Pergamon Museum, home of the Ishtar Gate, the Miletus Market Gate, and the wonderful Pergamon Altar, with a wrap-around sculpture depicting a battle between the Greek Gods and giants. When the museum was built in the 1910s-20s, these ancient monuments were reconstructed on site from shattered ruins and some fabricated parts – something no museum would do today. However harmful the reconstructions were to the purity of the ruins, they let you see how magnificent the buildings originally were.

The Pergamon Altar.

The Babylonian Ishtar Gate.

I had a great experience at my hostel, John’s Cozy Little Backpacker Hostel. The hostel was like its name: a little weird and cluttered, but intimate and with a lot of character. It was on the outskirts of Berlin in a Turkish immigrant neighborhood, which meant there were lots of internet cafes and doner kebap restaurants around. The bathroom was dirty, and I could hear more of what was happening in there from my bed than I would have liked, but it had a great kitchen, which trumps all other considerations. It was also cheap, costing only eleven euros a night. Berlin is strangely cheap; I assumed Germany would be one of the most expensive countries in Europe, since it’s one of the most developed.

Berlin’s signature dish, Currywurst, costs less than two euros. It’s a sliced bratwurst covered in a spicy sauce that may or may not be related to curry, usually served with fries on top.


I formed a good group of friends with the other people in my room: a German couple, a Spanish teenager, an English guy from Manchester, and a Malaysian guy who just graduated from a college in Florida. About halfway through the week, we started going to breakfast together every day. One night we went to a club, but, as usual, the time spent getting there (two train transfers) and the price (five euros just to get in) wasn’t worth it for me.

Eurotrip 2011: Copenhagen

Eurotrip 2011: Bruges and Amsterdam

Eurotrip 2011: Lisbon and Porto

Eurotrip 2011: Madrid

Eurotrip 2011: Barcelona

Eurotrip 2011: Rouen, Le Havre and Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Paris

Eurotrip 2011: Nice and Marseille

Eurotrip 2011: Venice and Milan

Eurotrip 2011: Interlaken

Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011: Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011: Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Athens

Eurotrip 2011: Istanbul

Fall Of The Wall

Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — an event which marked the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain, the Cold War, and the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe.  Germany commemorated the day with a tremendous celebration attended by the heads of state of Germany, Russia, France, and Great Britain and thousands of German citizens.  The United States was represented at the event by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a videotaped address from President Obama.

The fall of the Berlin Wall is an extraordinarily memorable historical milestone.  Anyone who grew up during the Cold War, as I did, recognized the Wall as an iconic physical symbol of the fundamental differences between democracy and communism, freedom and repression.  The Wall was a ready, irrefutable response whenever the supposed accomplishments of the Soviet Union were touted.  There was no more powerful evidence of the grim reality of the failed Soviet system than a wall built by a government not to keep others out, but to keep its own citizens in.

Still, the barrier of ugly grey concrete, marred by graffiti, harshly lit by spotlights and patrolled by armed soldiers and dogs, seemed permanent — until the day it wasn’t.  The scenes of Germans East and West scrambling up the Wall and over it, dancing, shouting, weeping with joy, besotted with the heady taste of freedom after so many years of separation, are unforgettable to anyone who witnessed them.  It was a day that deserves to be remembered and celebrated — as the many attendees at today’s festivities in Berlin, including the head of the Russian government, clearly recognized.

pod_11-10-09_reading_PS-0175I also stand by what I wrote several weeks ago:  I think President Obama exercised poor judgment by not attending in person.  I found myself wondering what he is doing instead of joining in the ceremonies, and found his daily schedule for today here.  The White House website has a “photo of the day” that shows the President sitting alone, reading, in the Rose Garden.  (I’ve attached the photo to this posting.)  Was he really doing something so important that he could not leave Washington, D.C.?  Would it really have been so difficult for him to travel to Berlin on such an auspicious occasion, which was brought about in significant part by America’s steadfast support for freedom, and opposition to Soviet tyranny, over a period of four decades?

Not Another Brick In The Wall

November 9, 2009 will be the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That singular event — which led to the liberation of millions of people trapped in the communist dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain — is one of the most notable achievements of modern American foreign policy, ranking with the Marshall Plan and the enlightened governance of post-war Japan. For the long decades of the Cold War, American Presidents and politicians of both political parties steadfastly opposed communism and the expansionist efforts of the Soviet Union. That process culminated in the political and economic bankruptcy of the Soviet Union and, ultimately, in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

President Obama’s decision to change his plans, so that he will not attend the ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary, is extremely disappointing precisely because the fall of the Berlin Wall was a significant American foreign policy accomplishment that deserves to be celebrated by the American President. It also was an accomplishment that sent the kinds of messages that you would think President Obama would want to send — messages of resolution and commitment. In the wake of President Obama’s decision to retreat from the European missile defense system proposed by the Bush Administration and his decision to publicly revisit our Afghan policy, it would seem to be a wonderful time for a presidential visit to Berlin to commemorate a tremendous achievement that was the product of decades of concerted, bipartisan effort.

President Obama has often apologized for what he considers to be American excesses; why not celebrate what is unquestionably an American triumph? Why not let the American people bask for a moment in the grateful thanks of the peoples of eastern Europe? In an era where the President can jet off to Copenhagen to pitch the Olympics for his adopted hometown of Chicago, what could possibly keep the President from attending such a significant event?