The Fall of the Berlin Wall, by William F. Buckley, Jr.
(John Wiley & Sons, 212 pages, $19.95)
Right around the corner as you make your way through the front door of the Spectator‘s Arlington offices is a brown particleboard bookcase. Its function is to display the last year or so’s worth of magazines so that staff can quickly get at back issues. A few times a week, I find myself in front of this bookcase, thumbing through issues of this unwonted publication. I sometimes pause, mid-pageturn, to eyeball a curious artifact on the fourth shelf from the top. Inside a Plexiglas container rests a chunk of mortar mixed with brick about the size of a mandarin orange. A length of rusted over barbed wire runs from one end of the plastic case to the other — for effect, I think. A small typed notice advertises this as a piece of what used to be the Berlin Wall.
William F. Buckley’s new book is intended as a history of that wall, from its conception as a way for the Soviet Union to staunch the flow of East German refugees and East Europeans generally, who preferred freedom over purges and famines, to its audacious construction in the late summer of 1961 to its collapse, at the hands of thousands of ordinary Germans on both sides of the divide, in 1989. It was the last Great Moment in European history.
But of course some truly dark moments preceded its dismantling. On the evening of August 12, 1961, officers of the East German army sealed off what had been lenient, almost Canadian-like check points, and began stringing the barbed wire. Over the next several days, they finished the outline of what would be built into a wall 13 feet high with dogs, guard towers, and a “dead zone,” the space in which many a person was shot and left to bleed to death while making a break for it.
We know now that the East German forces were under strict orders from the Kremlin: (a) by all means, lay down the wire; but (b) if the Western forces advance, cease construction and fall back — under no circumstances were they to fire the first shot. But the three other Western nations in charge of Berlin after the Second World War (the U.S., England, and France) didn’t know of these orders, were caught entirely off guard by the closure, and, in the confusion, didn’t wish to risk a hot war with the cold-blooded, shoe-pounding Nikita Khrushchev.
As a consequence, the wall was bluffed into existence by madmen holding a pair of two’s. Buckley relates the story of the nightclubbers in West Berlin who filed out onto the streets to see “militiamen with jackhammers and crowbars [tearing] up the paving stones on major streets, making them impassable by ordinary vehicles,” while others unrolled the wires, guarded by officers with tommy guns. Wait till the Americans get here! taunted some of the braver bar hoppers, who were soon to be disappointed.
The U.S. did indeed dispatch Gen. Lucius Clay, the man who had engineered the Berlin airlift in 1948 and saved the city from being swallowed whole by the Soviet Union, and he began to live up to his reputation. Clay walked into East Germany himself and, on a few occasions, marched troops and civilians in and out of the border stations, in effect taunting the Soviets and the East German satellite government. This defiant spirit was not, alas, the decisive one. For reasons of expedience and geopolitics, the U.S. government soon accepted the wall as an unbreachable barrier, the Iron Curtain set in stone.
John F. Kennedy comes off particularly bad in this tale of woe. The youthful president might have cut a dashing figure and wowed the Europeans with his style and rhetoric, but he proved to be weak, distracted, and ultimately a poor decision maker. In foreign policy, his administration seems almost an inversion of what should have been. The hawks won the fights that they should’ve lost (send armed insurgents into Cuba, start feeling out Vietnam) and the doves had a habit of yanking defeat out of an easy victory’s jaws (don’t provide air support, accept a Soviet presence in Cuba so long as they don’t have nukes, don’t risk a confrontation over the partition of Berlin).
In the first few days of construction, tanks could have rolled over the barbed wire and reasserted international law, codified under the Four Powers Agreements, that England, France, and the U.S. were to have a say in all of Berlin, not just the West. But the U.S. government under JFK’s leadership made crystal clear that it “was not going to choose this time and place to pay any price, bear any burden.”
FOR A BOOK titled The Fall of the Berlin Wall, I expected more about, well, the actual physical fall of the Berlin Wall. The penultimate chapter “The Wall Came Tumbling Down” does give a rough sketch of how it happened. Riots and protests all over the Soviet satellite nations forced changes in the respective regimes, include a shuffling of the leadership deck, and the new leaders proved more liberal than their predecessors.
At a press conference on the night of November 9, 1989, East German party chief Günter Schabowski announced that freedom of movement had been reinstated. The Volk took to the streets in celebration. By midnight, hundreds of Germans were dancing atop the Brandenburg Gate. The next day “hundreds of Berliners, West and East, were there with real chisels and claw hammers and screwdrivers and sledgehammers to pry loose their own piece of the wall.” These being Germans, they made quick work of it.
The physical destruction of the wall is related in rapid fire fashion — less than three pages, all told — because it was almost anticlimactic, and because Buckley has bigger fish to harpoon. The inflexible ideology that built the wall and kept it in place began to tumble long before it did. Granted, the West gave Karl Marx’s legacy the decisive push, but it was already teetering and frail, straining under the weight of its own inhumanity.