Berlin ‘89: When the Impossible Became Real

Sometimes change can happen much faster than people expect.  If we pass a domestic climate bill, as Sen. Baucus (D-MT) and other key swing Senators now believe is likely, and that enables an international climate deal, then I do think that will usher in a much more rapid decarbonization than most people expect.  Continuing the Veterans Day theme, I’m going to repost this Huffpost piece from my friend Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund, about a signature event in the end of the Cold War.

I was in Berlin 20 years ago this week. I saw the impossible first-hand: the people of Germany taking down the Wall.

I was then working on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee. We were on a staff tour of NATO military bases and arrived in Berlin during this critical week by pure coincidence. When our delegation took off from Andrews Air Force base outside of Washington the Warsaw Pact was alive and apparently formidable. By the time we landed in Europe, it was falling apart.

It is amazing how quickly structures, paradigms, and ideologies that experts believe unchangeable can change. Forces can build undetected for decades, then explode in rapid, transformational movement.

I arrived in Berlin a couple of days after November 9. I was one of the last people to walk through the famous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing. When I passed through in the morning, East German guards were still checking passports. When I strolled back down Unter den Linden, after having a scotch with some Cubans in an East Berlin bar, marveling at the Ishtar Gate from Babylon in the Pergamon Museum, examining World War II bullet holes still peppering some buildings, and joining a student protest over required courses in Marxism-Leninism, the guards were gone. The checkpoint was open for free passage in both directions. As far as I know it never re-opened. Today, it is a tourist attraction.

At a German NATO base we got the standard briefing on NATO military strategy. But when the map went up showing how NATO forces would react to an offensive lead by East German tank divisions, we just looked at each other. We asked the general briefing us what the strategy was now, that the Eastern European forces would not be part of a Soviet offensive. He couldn’t answer. We didn’t know.

It took years for the West to understand that the events of 1989 were not a fraud or a feint. David Hoffman describes in this new book, The Dead Hand, how President George H.W. Bush “lost” the year 1989.

The fall of the wall was a European earthquake, but in Washington and Moscow, miscommunication and suspicion meant the leaders were badly out of sync. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was eager to move on cutting nuclear arsenals, President George H.W. Bush was cautious and uncertain, and a promising moment slipped away.

We cannot let another policy moment slip away. Twenty years after, we are at another historic point, ripe with transformational possibility. Domestically, we see it in issues like health care. Internationally, we see it in potentially profound changes in nuclear forces and policies, and in the very structure of global relations.

The transformation will be resisted. The forces of reaction are strong, as they were in 1989, arguing against change, clinging to the tired policies and weapons of the past. They tell us now, as they did before November 9, that change is impossible, that we are na¯ve to question the Cold War weapons and strategies, that diplomacy is appeasement, that they are the realists and we, the idealists.

But I have seen the impossible happen. I have a chunk of the wall in my bookcase to prove it. I have seen what the determined action of millions of people can do. I have seen decades of history change in days. These moments are not flukes; they are more the norm than we acknowledge.

We are in such a moment now. We must, like the Berliners of 1989, make the most of it.

6 Responses to Berlin ’89: When the Impossible Became Real

  1. Leif says:

    Just perhaps we are on the verge..

    Give Peace a Chance

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I hope so the alternative is not good.

  3. paulm says:

    haven’t seen much on this…

    Too fearful to publicise peak oil reality
    The economic establishment accepts the world soon won’t be able to meet energy demands, but wants to keep quiet about it

    Now, this all seemed pretty gigantic news to me but guess where the World Energy Outlook chose to put this graph? Was it in the front, was it prominently discussed in the foreword? Did it cause headlines around the world. No, no, no. It was buried deep into the report and no reference was made to it in the press conference a year ago.

    The fear is that panicky markets can cause enormous damage – panic-buying that prompts fights over resources, which in turn could lead to power cuts in some places and other such mayhem. But so far in facing this huge challenge, our political/economic system seems unable to cope with reality.

  4. Stephan says:

    Change has always been a key driver. Making the impossible possible. Change is what will drive people for further innovation for all decades to come, and that is what we need now as well. Change to create a sustainable feature for our children and theirs. And the forecasts are getting more positive, we can do this.

    For more info on the environment, please have a look at this Green News.

  5. Leif says:

    Paulm, #3. Thank you for the link on peak oil. I would like to point out that a major effect about keeping a lid on this as well as other shortages is that it gives the people in the know that much more time to quietly position themselves to profit from that knowledge. The ultimate “insider trading” at the expense of the masses yet again.

  6. sikiş says:

    The fear is that panicky markets can cause enormous damage – panic-buying that prompts fights over resources, which in turn could lead to power cuts in some places and other such mayhem. But so far in facing this huge challenge, our political/economic system seems unable to cope with reality.