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Western Press Review: Commentators Then And Now Ponder The Wall

Prague, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It was so powerful a symbol that now -- ten years after jeering crowds dismantled it rubble piece by rubble piece -- editorial writers need only two words to identify it immediately in the minds of readers. Those two words are: The Wall.

WASHINGTON POST: The predicting proved perilous

Washington Post Associate Editor Robert Kaiser did a study of what commentators said about The Wall in November 1989, when it fell. He reported on his findings in Sunday's newspaper. The wise men and current affairs scholars weren't any smarter than the people on the streets, he found.

Kaiser wrote this: "When young Germans danced through the final breach in the Berlin Wall 10 years ago Tuesday, American thinkers great and small tried to make sense of the Wall's fall. Many tried to forecast what would happen next. The predicting proved perilous. Looking back at them now, those prognostications share a certain quaintness. They were nearly all rooted in the Cold War realities that had created the American frame of reference for nearly half a century. But the prognosticators could not grasp the fact that this frame of reference was as doomed as the Wall itself."

Kaiser found that many commentators realized the world was changing, but none imagined accurately what it would be like. He found, as he put it: "No analyst or statesman, no commentator or professor who understood then that the hole in the Wall would be quickly followed by the utter collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union, soon producing a weak and bumbling Russia half the size of the USSR, with a fraction of its importance."

Kaiser writes that nobody predicted a united Germany of the kind that developed, either. Former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, born in Germany, foresaw reunification, but he though Russia might use nuclear blackmail to extract German aid, Kaiser found.

HARARE'S MAGAZINE: Predictions were based on false premises

Former Associated Press writer Walter Russell Mead wrote in Harare's magazine early in 1990 that the post-Cold War era was beginning, and the United States was headed for the sidelines. Mead predicted that Japan and Germany would map the post-Cold War world economy. It was a prediction based on, in Kaiser's words, "a false premise."

Kaiser reproduces the following quotations of about ten years ago, and then identifies the authors:

"We should stop referring to what's going on in the Soviet Bloc as reform -- as in, for example, Gorbachev's reforms. It's revolution. By revolution, I mean the overthrow of the existing political, economic and social order."

--Henry Kissinger in Newsweek.

"What makes these trends especially alarming is the fact that the perception of a diminished Soviet threat that has precipitated them is, in important respects, simply wrong."

--D. Frank J. Gaffney Jr., director of the Center for Security Policy, in The New York Times, Nov. 17, 1989.

"Communism is finished, and its empire dissolving."

--Charles William Maynes, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

FINANCIAL TIMES: The collapse of totalitarian regimes has released evil as well as good

The British newspaper Financial Times said in an editorial yesterday that, despite the fall, Europe remains a risky place. The newspaper says, in the words of the editorial: "The collapse of totalitarian regimes has released evil as well as good, and Europe's response has been woefully inadequate." The editorial goes on with this: "It is too easy to forget that we used to live in a world where the main framework for peace was a nuclear standoff based on the threat of mutually assured destruction."

But, concludes The Financial Times: "Let us celebrate the fact the Europe, and the world, is a far better place as a result of the events which took place ten years ago this week."

GERMAN PRESS AGENCY: We are the people

German newspapers yesterday published a commentary by German Press Agency writer Leon Mangasarian, who says he was there when the wall came down. Mangasarian is critical of the elitism of the ten-year-after celebration. He writes: "Eastern Germany's peaceful, mass protests of 1989 and the bloodless storming of the hated Berlin Wall are among the finest moments in this nation's often troubled history during the current century. 'Wir sind das Volk! (We are the people)' was the rallying cry of thousands of ordinary citizens who courageously took to the streets to challenge the communist bosses."

Mangasarian says that one would expect the 10th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse Tuesday, as he puts it, "to be dominated by dissidents and ordinary citizens who played the star roles and not by a bunch of politicians. Think again."

He says that only one of the five people originally invited to speak at the main ceremony in the German parliament was from former East Germany. And he, German parliamentary president Wolfgang Thierse, had to speak for reasons of protocol. The others are to be German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, former U.S. President George Bush and Gorbachev.

In the commentator's words: "Of these leaders only Gorbachev was even passively involved in bringing down the Wall 10 years ago through his rejection of using Russian force to keep East Germany in the Soviet orbit. Kohl had the misfortune to not even to be in the country when the Berlin Wall was opened.