- The Washington Times - Monday, March 29, 2004

THE FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL

William F. Buckley Jr.

University Press of Kansas $35, 256 pages

Editor,novelist, polemicistand columnist William F. Buckley can now add anotherplumetohis knightly helmet: popular historian. He has just produced a superb short history of the Cold War. Written in mellifluous prose, “The Fall of the Berlin Wall” ought to be made available to the present generation of college students who, I can attest personally, have never heard of Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness At Noon,” let alone the Cold War that raged from 1945 to 1989.

Mr. Buckley has taken the suspenseful history of the Berlin Wall (“die Schandemauer,” or the Wall of Shame, as Berliners called it) from its construction in September 1961 until its destruction in 1989 as emblematic of the struggle waged (unwillingly in some cases,asbyHarold Macmillan’sBritain) against Soviet imperialism, which was driven for a decade by that devious master of revolutionary brinksmanship, the cunning, semi-literateboorNikita Khrushchev.

There were crises galore instigated by East Germany during and after the wall’s construction, but the failure of the Allies to stop it from being built had an unanticipated beneficial side.

This ugly monstrosity was solid documentation of the horrors of Communist totalitarianism. For after all, this was the first time in history that a wall was built by a government to keep the enemy in — the people of East Germany — rather than keep the enemy out.

The Berlin Wall was an involuntary admission of defeat by the Soviets, an acknowledgment that the only way they could keep control of their part of Germany was by building a 12-foot-high, 68-mile-long concrete barrier, about the distance from Washington, D.C. to Hagerstown, Md. More than 260 people died trying to cross the wall, most of them killed by East German sharpshooters. Many more were captured and imprisoned.

All Communist countries had symbolic barbed-wire walls to prevent their citizens from fleeing the native lands. In the seven decades of Soviet existence, there was never a mass exodus from any democracy to a Communist country. Mass emigration, legal and illegal, traveled in one direction only.

Mr. Buckley places blame for the wall on President Kennedy’s waffling, but that’s only part of the story. Khrushchev dared to violate the Four Power occupation agreement, which barred such a drastic alteration of the Berlin boundary, because he was certain that the United States would do nothing if he did and therefore neither would Britain or France.

What gave the Soviet dictator such confidence was that President Eisenhower, elected on a platform of “rollback,” not containment, of the Soviet Union, did little if anything in his eight years in office to challenge Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe.

From the East German workers’ uprising in June 1953, three months after Joseph Stalin’s death, to the summer 1956 Polish worker demonstrations in Poznan to the Hungarian uprising in October 1956, the Eisenhower administration not only did nothing but actively discouraged the United Nations from taking action. And, of course, Khrushchev had before him the sorry spectacle of the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy’s failure in Cuba.

The wall also had its effect on a future president, Mr. Buckley reveals. Visiting Berlin in 1978, Ronald Reagan saw it and said: “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.”

And he did. In June 1987, he returned to Berlin to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the city’s founding. Standing across from the wall at the Brandenburg Gate, he uttered his unforgettable apostrophe: “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Mr. Buckley tells a dramatic story about how suddenly East Berlin began to hemorrhage refugees fleeing to West Berlin — 12,600 per month in 1960. At that rate, Walter Ulbricht, the goateed East German commissar, would have been the last man to turn out the lights. It took another three decades for the end of the wall.

I want to end by quoting the last paragraph of Mr. Buckley’s great narrative of democratic survival and democratic victory:

“But the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall were great moments. It stood more than twice as many years as Hitler ruled Germany, yet, finally, it yielded, to a human spirit that took a half century but, finally, effected the liberation of the whole of that part of Germany that made its way from the Democratic Republic of Germany, to the democratic republic of Germany.”

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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