(This essay was originally published as “1989: A year of protests,” in the Newport Daily News on November 8, 2014.)
Twenty-five years ago on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, leading not only to the unification of East and West Germany but also to the toppling of communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union.
By coincidence 25 years ago this year, student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, were suppressed by the Chinese armed forces, an event which my Chinese students tell me does not appear in Chinese history books—a non-event. The death toll is disputed; the government figure is 241 while others place it in the thousands.
Reminiscent of Tiananmen, demonstrations mainly by students and disaffected people in their 20s and early 30s have occupied central Hong Kong, wearing “Freedom Now” T-shirts, demanding a truly free election process for the chief executive of Hong Kong in 2017. Understandably the Chinese Communist Party worries over the potential damage to its “Berlin Wall”—the wall of its inviolable supreme sovereignty—if concessions are given to the protestors.
The Berlin Wall, built during the Cold War in 1961, isolated free, democratic West Berlin geographically within communist East Germany. It was built not so much to keep foreign forces out but rather, as is characteristic of totalitarian regimes, to keep East Germans—fleeing in ever increasing numbers—within. During its 28 years of existence, 408 people died trying to flee from East Germany.
The immediate factors which led to its fall came from outside the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The most important factor was the set of reforms which Mikhail Gorbachev implemented in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. In 1988 he announced “freedom of choice” for socialist states within the Warsaw Pact, eliminating the requirement for ideological conformity. The Soviet Union followed by acquiescing in the first free elections in Poland. When Gorbachev visited Bonn in June of 1989, the possibility of genuine change was palpable when he agreed to a joint declaration that expressed “”respect for the right of peoples to self-determination.”
After these changes, Hungary decided in August 1989, not to honor the 1969 mutual assistance treaty that required the capture and return of individuals seeking to flee their own countries. On September 10, the border between Hungary and Austria was opened; the exodus to the west began.
Over the next months the initial trickle of refugees swelled into a river of refugees. During 1989 nearly 340,000 East Germans left for the west. The crowds in Leipzig, East Germany, grew from 70,000 on October 9 to 450,000 on November 6. The chants for the Wall to come down were soon joined by a new chant: “Germany, fatherland.”
General Secretary Egon Krenz and the reschuffled leadership decided to take a gamble and open the Wall on November 9. In the first week nine million Easterners visited the West. This was the breach which led ultimately to a national movement for German Unification on October 3, 1990.
It is not surprising that today’s protests in China are taking place in Hong Kong. Great Britain, with its history of constitutional monarchy, ruled it as a colony for 155 years. After a British-Chinese agreement in 1984, Hong Kong became in 1997 a “Special Administrative Region” of China under the principle of “one country, two systems.”
The Chinese leadership correctly fears a breach in its wall of supreme sovereignty. An essay in the Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, indicated that allowing multiple parties in the Hong Kong legislature would spell trouble: “…competitive elections with ‘one man, one vote’ would be sure to quickly lead to a state of turmoil, chaos, even civil war.” Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, in late October stated that full democracy would involve a “numbers game” that would allow the poor too much power. If the report about party officials studying the French Revolution is true, one wonders if they see the parallel with the deadlock over voting in the Estates General in 1789.
With all the many differences between Hong Kong today and Berlin in 1989, the statements by party officials referring to unspecified “foreign forces” and the veiled references to the United States and Great Britain remind me of what former East German officers told me in 1991 when I asked them about their failure to intervene militarily in the demonstrations. They were also told that American agents were inciting the crowds; however, when they looked at the people they realized that they were common East Germans. Second, there were so many. Lastly, they stated that the demonstrators were so peaceful.
It is clear that along with studying the French Revolution, party officials should also be studying the fall of the Berlin Wall.