20 Years On: Western liberty and Soviet tyranny

2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall – the moment which signalled the end of the short and brutal totalitarian 20th century.

The movement had actually begun much earlier. The disintegration of Communist rule in Hungary (which, during 1989, was bringing Hungarians freedom of the press and association, and by October, constitutional reform) meant that East and West Germans were reuniting for holidays in Hungary. Worse, from the perspective of East German officials however, low-level Hungarian border guards were letting many of those East Germans holiday makers slip in out of Hungary and into the West. Porous borders became Hungarian official policy when the liberal Communist regime in September explicitly annulled the migration restrictions formed as part of the East German-Hungarian treaty. Thousands of East Germans began pouring into Austria.

The events of November are well known. Czechoslovakia granted East Germans the same migration freedoms as Hungary had. And without the support traditionally expected from the leadership of the USSR, the East German government was forced to admit that its migration restrictions, which had supported its rule in the 28 years since the Berlin Wall had been erected, had effectively failed. On 9 November, an East German official mistakenly announced that travel to West German was permitted ‘immediately’, and confused, uninformed but thankfully restrained guards on the East allowed the massive stream of excited Germans into the West.

The story of November 1989 is a story of spontaneous and uncoordinated desire for liberty – depending on political confusion, the humanity of border guards in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and the bold excitement of a free future – but it would not have been possible without the world-historical leaders in Washington, Moscow and England. Mikhail Gorbachev declined to act to defend the solidarity of the Soviet Bloc at a very crucial moment. And the triumvirate of John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan redefined the essential questions of the Cold War-the stark dichotomy between Western liberty and Soviet tyranny.

In this IPA Review, John Roskam looks at just what made Reagan tick-his attitude to the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and how that attitude played a central role in winning the Cold War and liberating those behind the Iron Curtain. As Roskam points out, Reagan meant every word of what he said. His description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’ may have been ridiculed in the left-wing press, but it resonated with those who had actually experienced the Communist system, and those who still were. If it wasn’t for the moral clarity Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II brought to the Cold War stalemate, those migrants escaping across the Hungarian border, or those streams of East Germans flooding through Checkpoint Charlie would have had to stay at home.

In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine the Soviet Union lasting much into the 1990s. The liberating and democratising nature of the internet and the digital revolution might well have totally undermined the Soviet system if it had survived the events of 1989 – studies of Soviet computing show that the system was completely unable to handle the digital age, even before that era fully manifested itself with the internet.

We know now that the Soviet system was moribund and heading towards an inevitable collapse. But that it collapsed in 1989, not 1994, or 1998, is a testament to the leadership of these great figures.