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Beyond Berlin

A Cold War anniversary reminds us not to take history for granted

Seth Lipsky
November 04, 2009
Germans celebrating on the Berlin Wall, 1989.(Wikimedia Commons)
Germans celebrating on the Berlin Wall, 1989.(Wikimedia Commons)

Next week the world will mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, which took place 20 years ago. It happens that I was there at the time. I think of it as one of the most memorable events I’ve covered in a long newspaper life, though it is not unalloyed. It instructs that in our great struggles we should never take history for granted and always seek to look beneath the ice.

That is a phrase I first read in Anne Applebaum’s book Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, which was published five years after the Wall came down. She likened Central Europe during communism to a lake frozen over by ice, and wrote of peering through the ice to see the countries and cultures that existed beneath the Soviet empire.

The person who taught me to see through the ice—or at least to try—was my wife and guide, Amity Shlaes. We had met on the foreign desk of the Wall Street Journal, where Amity’s assignment was to read the transcripts of broadcasts from behind the Iron Curtain issued daily by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, and to pick out from them newsworthy items for a weekly column.

In 1983, she spotted an item from Yugoslavia. It reported that something of a riot had occurred at a soccer game in Kosovo. The disturbance erupted after rowdies in the crowd began shouting “E-Ho, E-Ho.” They were rooting for the Maoist madman Enver Hoxa, the dictator of Albania. Amity told me that some analysts saw portents. “Yugoslavia can’t survive,” she said.

I suggested she write it up for the next day’s paper. She thought it was an awfully long reach to make on the basis of some football fans in Kosovo. When I pressed, she remonstrated, “You right-wingers are all the same.” But it was newspaper work, and she wrote the column. The clipping that resulted became, once Yugoslavia disintegrated, a memorable item in her scrapbook.

By the late 1980s, we were married and living in Brussels, on assignment to cover the climactic years of the Cold War. One day Amity came into my office and closed the door, looked at me, and announced, “It’s over.” I thought, “What have I done?” Before I could actually say anything, she said, “The division of Europe, it’s over.” This was in July of 1988. The Russians and our side still had intermediate-range nuclear missiles pointed at each other all over the place. The ice looked frozen solid.

It turns out that she’d just read a piece in one of the provincial German newspapers saying that the Soviet party boss, Mikhail Gorbachev, was going to permit the Volga Germans, who had been living in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great, to leave. Not only was Gorbachev prepared to let them leave, Amity told me, but they were going to go not to Communist East Germany but to West Germany. A receiving center was being set up for them at Friedland. She told me it was an astounding development, one that meant that the Kremlin had concluded the division of Europe could not be sustained.

“It’s over,” she repeated several times. “It’s over.”

Amity left immediately for Friedland, from which she cabled a dispatch about the refugees and what she called the “provocative way their arrival posed the question of reunification.”

Then things entered a quiescent phase, and by November 1989, I was back in the United States, working on the agreement to bring out the Forward in English.

On November 9, I boarded a plane to visit Amity in Brussels. When I got there, I found my secretary had left on my desk a message Amity had dictated by phone. “Remaining Berlin, Hotel Kempinski.” I rushed back to the airport and caught a flight to Dusseldorf, thence another into Berlin’s Tegel Airport, reaching the Kempinski’s lobby just in time to find Amity dashing for a bus for Checkpoint Charlie, a transit point between the free and the Communist side.

The evening before, at a live press conference, an East Berlin party functionary, Günter Schabowski, had been trying to explain some changes in the rules for exit visas. One description of it is contained in a piece last month by the Wall Street Journal. It describes how questioning by a German tabloid reporter and an Italian foreign correspondent got the hapless Schabowski flustered. My own viewing of the press conference suggests the key moment came when Daniel Johnson, then of the London Daily Telegraph and now the editor of Standpoint, asked what I have called the most consequential question ever asked at a press conference.

It was ten words: “Herr Schabowski, was wird mit der Berliner Mauer jetzt geschehen?” [“Mr. Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?”] Johnson’s account of the “Seven Minutes That Shook the World” is here. Poor Schabowski waffled. And because his waffling was being broadcast live, East Germans by the thousands and thousands began pouring out of their homes and heading for freedom. By the end of the evening, the division of Europe had, in the practical sense, ended.

When I found Amity at the Kempinski, it was 9 p.m. on November 10. We crossed over to the East side and spent the evening with dissident, pro-democracy East Germans. The enormity of what was happening hadn’t sunk in, and they were still pleading for photocopying machines and other tools of the democratic struggle. It was after midnight when we crossed back into Free Berlin, only to discover the crowds had swelled. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands were now in the streets, many holding tools and streaming toward the Wall. Someone gave us a rock-climbing hammer, and we spent the small hours of the morning chipping away at it like everyone else.

When we left Berlin that Sunday, we held hands in the taxi and talked of how it was the right moment to leave Europe to the Europeans and return to America. A piece that we’d chipped from the Berlin Wall is now embedded in the stone retaining wall of our garden in New York. Within a few years, the Soviet Union itself would be gone and Germany united—a reunification the prospect of which a resurgent Forward greeted with what it called “mixed emotions.”

Not that there was any lack of joy at the liberation of Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet empire. But the Zheleznovodsk summit, where the German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the Soviet party boss, Gorbachev, cut the deal that would lead to formal unification, proved to be an uneasy moment. Kohl was too bland, and Gorbachev lacked a democratic mandate to speak for Russia. When we think of what happened to the Jews of Europe, the Forward concluded, “the labors of our leaders will always look small.”

When the final papers were drawn up, there was one eloquent cri de coeur reflecting what so many of us were thinking. It came from Heinz Galinski, who after the war rebuilt the Jewish center in Fasanenstrasse and embedded within its walls parts of the famed synagogue. He protested the wording of the unification treaty. He wanted the documentation to contain, as it was characterized in the Forward, a “clearer expression of historical responsibility for Nazi war crimes.” He got nowhere, and when he went public at a press conference, Reuters described him as “visibly angry,” saying the chancellor had not even given him the dignity of an answer. Galinski died in 1992.

A few years ago, Amity and I took our children to Berlin, and one afternoon, we visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. It includes—aside from the typewriter on which Charter 77 was written—several exhibits of the methods East Germans used to try to escape Communism by going over, under, or through the Wall. One is a flying contraption. Another is a car in which visitors are challenged to find a full-sized mannequin that has been secreted therein. A white booth that stood on our side of Checkpoint Charlie is now perched a few yards from the museum, in the middle of a street that bustles with commerce. I walked one of the boys over to show him the hut where GIs on duty kept warm as they guarded the entrance to the American sector and the plaza where, under the muzzles the guns of the Warsaw Pact, I had courted his mother. I tried to reassure him that in his time there would be new struggles in which he no doubt would throw himself. It happened to be an unforgettably cold day, and I pulled his collar up around his ears when I got to the part about the importance of not taking history for granted and remembering to look beneath the ice.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.

Seth Lipsky, formerly editor of the English-language edition of the Forward, is founding editor of The New York Sun.