The Fall of One Wall

Published November 9, 2009

Commentary Web Exclusive

It is an anniversary that should rank among the greatest we recognize: the fall of the Berlin Wall and, with it, the end of Soviet Communism and a successful conclusion to the Cold War. And yet it passes with very little attention, as almost an afterthought. It is an astonishing oversight on our part.

There are many things to take away from the meaning of what unfolded at the Berlin Wall two decades ago — one of which is that the West has many more inherent strengths many of us often forget. As a reference point, think back to the early-to-mid 1980s.One of the influential books of that time was How Democracies Perish by the distinguished French philosopher and journalist Jean-Francois Revel. The first sentence of Mr. Revel's book reads this way: “Perhaps in history democracy will have been an accident, a brief parenthesis which comes to a close before our very eyes.” The aim of the book, Revel wrote, “is to describe in detail the implacable democracy-killing machine this world of ours has become. There may be some satisfaction in understanding how it works, even if we are powerless to stop it.”

What is even more noteworthy is the theory underpinning Mr. Revel's conclusion. Structural weaknesses enervate democracies. Democratic societies, we were told, are inwardly oriented and self-hating. It was said that we were in denial about the threats we faced and the nature of totalitarian regimes. And there was the failure of Western nerve and courage. Faced with a ruthless, determined, patient enemy, democracies — including the United States — were acquiescing in their own defeat. Mr.Revel's bottom line was this: “Communism is a better machine for world conquest than democracy, and this is what will decide the final outcome of their struggle.”

Six years after Revel's influential book was published, Soviet Communism was dead and democracy has rarely been more dominant. What are we to make of this?

Perhaps the first thing to recognize is that it has long been said that America and the West face an inherent disadvantage when compared to the discipline, efficiency, and brutality of totalitarian regimes. Freedom leads to softness, decadence and the loss of moral courage. We had become too comfortable and cosseted to endure hardships and the burdens of war. But here is what Winston Churchill said in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, in response to those claims:

Silly people — and there were many, not only in enemy countries — might discount the force of the United States. Some said they were soft, others that they would never be united. They would fool around at a distance. They would never come to grips. They would never stand blood-letting. Their democracy and system of recurrent elections would paralyze their war effort. They would be just a vague blur on the horizon to friend and foe. Now we should see the weakness of this numerous but remote, wealthy and talkative people. But I had studied the American Civil War, fought out to the last desperate inch. American blood flowed in my veins. I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before — that the United States is like 'a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.'

It turns out that in the contest between freedom and totalitarianism, freedom does pretty well. Whittaker Chambers, without even knowing it, joined the winning side. There are a number of explanations for this, including the fact that Western democracies are usually technologically superior to, and richer than, their enemies. And democratic regimes are inherently self-correcting; fascist ones are not. But what is striking to me is less that leading Western thinkers (and non-Western thinkers; see Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1978 commencement address at Harvard University) did not recognize that Communism's intrinsic failures would lead to its demise. What is worth noting, rather, is that many defenders of democracy did not fully appreciate the inherent strengths of human liberty.

There are certain human realities that have led to the rise of the democratic idea. Because liberty conforms to human nature, it often leads to human excellence and human flourishing. Freedom leads to advancements not merely in science, art, and literature; it also encourages acts of compassion and valor, and deepens the bonds of loyalty to one's country and affection for one's countrymen. The joyless conformity of totalitarianism eats away at the human spirit; the iron discipline and fanaticism of closed societies masks a hollowness at the core.

This does not mean we are at the end of history, or that democracies are without flaws, or that the success of democratic self-government is foreordained. Liberty can slip into license. Progress that has been made can be lost — and it is worth remembering that democracies remain a rarity in history.

It's also important to bear in mind that the idea of freedom is alone insufficient; it needs to be backed up by the sword and the shield. “It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake,” John Stuart Mill, a great champion of liberty, wrote a century and a half ago. The same point holds true for freedom in its struggle against oppression. It is certainly not inevitable that freedom prevail; it requires will and courage — and sometimes it requires force of arms.

With those caveats in place, though,there is something about the nature of human beings and our relationship to freedom thatis vital and can help usbetter understand what occurred 20 years ago.

For all the challenges we face, we live in a relatively hopeful time in human history. And it is instructive to look back only a few decades ago, when it was thought by the intellectual class and even among some of our political leaders that the West was in decline and Spenglerian pessimism was in order. A few admirable and prescient leaders — including John Kennedy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and, above all, Ronald Reagan — would have none of it. They understood that, in Kennedy's words:

it is clear that the forces of diversity are at work inside the Communist camp, despite all the iron disciplines of regimentation and all the iron dogmatisms of ideology. Marx is proven wrong once again: for it is the closed Communist societies, not the free and open societies which carry within themselves the seeds of internal disintegration. The disarray of the Communist empire has been heightened by two other formidable forces. One is the historical force of nationalism — and the yearning of all men to be free. The other is the gross inefficiency of their economies. For a closed society is not open to ideas of progress — and a police state finds that it cannot command the grain to grow.

Twenty years ago the Wall came tumbling down. A sadistic, soul-killing police state came to an end. And the United States — in confronting Soviet Communism, in supporting the forces of liberty across the globe, and in refusing to grow weary in doing good — added another remarkable and estimable chapter to its record of achievement. That, I think, is in large part the meaning of this anniversary.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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