Prior to arriving to Germany to live there for the first time, there was this stereotype that was spread around at my alma mater in Moorhead, MN which stated: If there is Germany, there are three things that go together: Beer, Bavaria and Hitler. Even my German wife, who was an exchange student at my college, received a not so pleasant stereotype when she was introduced at the student orientation: „Don’t Germans have brown hair and a mustache?“
Very nice huh? On the same level as if a person was to ask me „Don’t you Americans have long curly blond hair with a long mustache and love to slaughter dark-skinned people?“ At that point, I would have smacked that person for calling me Custer! After all, he would have been as big of a fool as George Custer’s fool-hardy attempts at wiping out the Natives at Big Horn in 1876, only to be met with his own death.
Enough with the analogy. Yes we were taught the German stereotype in high school which was over 30 years ago. That stereotype would most likely have been brought up today had it not been for the man who opened the door to the rest of the world- namely, Mikhail Gorbachev.
When I came to Germany in 1999, I had my insights on the events of 1989 and it was my top interest in knowing about the events that happened the same time as we were saying Good-bye to a very prosperous and innovative 1980s. We had Reagan and the Berlin Wall. And contrary to my Dad’s arguments when I was a kid, there was indeed a wall that cut Germany into half. There was no other news event that was as interesting to watch as the Berlin Wall and America’s creative attempts to „Open the Gate!“ as Reagan would say it bluntly during his speech in West Berlin. But it was Gorbachev that led the way to making this happen and it was my duty to find out why. So here’s my interpretation of why he did what was necessary.
Central and Eastern Europe before Gorbachev
We have to understand the state of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe when we want to talk about Gorbachev (or what many call as his nickname Gorbi). After World War II was over and Germany was divided, communism under Stalin spread rapidly across the continent engulfing every country in its path. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic States and Yugoslavia fell when the Communist regimes took over. Germany was divided up by the Allies and the Soviet zone became East Germany by 1949. The governments put in place were conditioned to rule using the idea of Marxism and Leninism. Businesses were confiscated and nationalized. Private property was seized. Resources were exploited. The education system was laden with the idea of Communism. The lives of many were negatively impacted by a new form of fascism but with a Stalinist face. While the line was drawn by the US by supporting the ideas of democracy and capitalism with financial and military resources to defend and protect the rest of Europe, the people living behind the Iron Curtain also fought to changes and protested against the Communist governments. These were crushed and new measures were put into place to ensure that no further protests would happen, as well as any escape attempts. Hence the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the closure of the East-West Border, cutting Germany in half and creating borders between Austria and Hungary, just to name two big examples.
The scars were obvious come time of Gorbachev when he took over as President of the Soviet Union in 1985. Poland had just had its revolution put down three years earlier- for them it was their second time. Czechoslovakia was still reeling from its Prague Spring of 1968, and East Germany already had a well-established State Security Police in place, infiltrating groups of protesters and those wanting to escape over the border. Life in the East was miserable, and so was the Soviet Union which had overexploited its resources and whose economic system was wearing itself down thanks to years of government-based economics combined with nationalized industries that were running short on materials for products. The Soviet Union, for the most part, was overextended and needed reforms. Hence the two most commonly words to describe Gorbachev’s Presidency: Perestroika and Glastnost- the former for reforming the Soviet economy, the latter is openness and freedom of information. The second aforementioned policy was the fuel, the spark came when Poland voted on a new government in 1989, thus starting the process of the Revolution.
“Die Wende” 1989 and Gorbachev
Let’s look at the title of my article, “Life Punishes Those Who Wait.” These were the comments that Gorbachev made to Erich Honecker, who was governing East Germany during the time of the revolution, during the ceremony commemorating the 40th anniversary of East Germany on October 7th. The Revolution of 1989 was like the Great Floods. When one country starts, others follow and not even the strongest dam can hold the rushing waters with such high pressure and intensity. Gorbachev’s Glastnost policy- the policy of openness- implied that it was time to admit that things were going badly and it was time for a change. When Poland succeeded with electing a new democratic government, it allowed for other Communist governments to consider alternatives instead of its business as usual approach. With Hungary and Austria opening its borders for the first time since 1949, it provided the best escape route for many in East Germany who wanted to flee the repressive government. Despite all attempts to stop the flow on Honecker’s part, the floodwaters were starting to undermine the dam. Protests within the country followed. Honecker’s removal from power on October 17th combined with the Fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989 was the dam that finally collapsed. Gorbachev’s policies allowed the countries to go their own way if they preferred to do so. It was like the door opening up for the first time in years and the people trapped inside saw the chance to leave right in front of them. No resistance unlike the previous Soviet regimes, but the green light to finally leave for a new life. Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania followed. Yet the process also marked the end of the Soviet Union, as many Soviet republics, including Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia also followed. In the eyes of many Russians and those who allied with Putin, Brezhnev and all, it was a big mistake which is trying to be corrected, but with no avail. But for many countries who had been conquered and reconquered, it was a sense of freedom and renewal of their own culture identities that greeted them when Gorbachev allowed them to leave. But his biggest achievement was yet to come and was the reason behind my change in German stereotype and interest in German history.
German reunification was perhaps Gorbachev’s biggest achievement as Soviet president. While it was justified that Germany was a divided country on the count of its defeat in World War II, being divided did not necessarily mean having two Germanys where families and friends were torn apart by two Walls- the one in Berlin and the one that cut Germany into two for 28 years. Gorbachev was a man of compromise when it came to Germany being reunited. He was lukewarm at the prospect of a rapid reunification, but he accepted it because of the interest among the population on both sides. He had many ideas, mainly based on the concern that a big Germany may be a threat to Europe. But he understood that the only way Germany can exist as a whole country would be if it was member of NATO and later the European Union, thus making the country one of the key contributors to the organization. Gorbachev was a man that worked with the US, Britain and France to ensure that a united Germany is something that was in the best interest of its people and the rest of Europe. He was a dealer with a plan but was also a man of compromise, keeping in mind the benefits and drawbacks to reuniting a country after 45 years of being separated. When we think of October 3rd, we not only think about a united Germany as a federal republic, we also think of it as the one in Gorbachev’s making because of his willingness to listen to the needs of the country’s residents as well as the allies. Many people in Germany have their thanks for his policies and for paving the way to a Germany that was united.
Germany Today Thanks to Gorbachev
When we now think of Germany today, we think of the following: Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and the Baltic Sea. This goes in addition to the earlier stereotypes I had mentioned. We also look at the other items that are typical for the country, like book fairs, Autobahn, high-speed trains, but also the mountain regions in the central and east, plus the green heart of Germany in Thuringia. All of these places would not have been mentioned had it been for the Berlin Wall and East Germany, which Honecker vowed to have standing for another century but whose life was cut short with the reunification of Germany on October 3rd, 1990. We still see a lot of relicts of the former Wall and its checkpoints and former East-West border when we travel through Germany; many of these places have been converted into museums, while a hiking trail along the former German border exists. All of them serve as a reminder of what Germany is like now compared to the time of two Germanys and two Berlins. The one variant I find bittersweet is family. Germany values family and friends as the most important trait. It was taken away from them during World War II and afterwards the Cold War. It was brought back together thanks to Gorbachev’s efforts in allowing East and West to reunite through Glastnost. He is still a key figure and the reason why Germany exists as it is today. So when we look at his statement “Life punishes those who wait,” we look at it as symbolic as the people who were held hostage behind the Iron Curtain were allowed to flee and create their own livelihood. We also look at it as a correction to the German stereotype as there is more to Germany now than it was before 1989. Many of us have come to recognize this and have looked at Germany from different eyes. I have as well, for there is more to the country than we think. My first interest was the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev and 1989. Since my arrival in 1999, there is a lot more to see and to write about.
Vielen Dank, Gorbi. Jetzt darfst du in deinen höchstverdienten Frieden ruhen. ❤