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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Why we celebrate the fall of the Wall Add to ...

In June of 1989, five months before the Berlin Wall collapsed, the West German chancellor's foreign policy adviser told a visiting journalist: No, there was no chance of East Germany imploding for a very long time.

True, signs of discontent were popping up in Hungary and Poland, but East Germany would remain faithful to the Soviet Union and to its own Stalinist-inspired system.

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The head of the East European section of the foreign ministry reported a similar take: Nothing would happen in East Germany. At lunch, a young member of the Bundestag from the liberal Free Democratic Party who had recently returned from a conference in East Berlin, said: No, nothing was on the horizon over there.

If the West Germans, with their intelligence agencies trained on East Germany in particular and Eastern Europe in general and with all their family and linguistic links, did not know what was coming, no wonder the collapse of the Wall, the East German regime and the Warsaw Pact caught everyone else by surprise.

Today, through the lens of historical hindsight, what happened seems preordained: a terrible system of government and a wrong-headed system of economics collapsing on themselves. But at the time, or at least just before the time, not many people believed or dared to hope that the landscape of Europe would or could change so rapidly - and peacefully.

A continent scarred by war and divided by barbed wire has now been unified for two decades. In a world of continuing turmoil, instability and terrorism, with its leading country beset by enormous problems of its own making, with shifts of economic and political power occurring, what a wonderful celebration we can allow ourselves on this 20th anniversary.

Those who had travelled in the old Eastern Europe, as students or as foreign correspondents, did not think it likely that Europe would be united in their time.

Those who had seen martial law in Poland or passed through Checkpoint Charlie into the dimly lit streets of central East Berlin or had witnessed the awful grimness of Bulgaria, the megalomania of the Romanian dictator and the terrible drabness of the Soviet Union (where the arrival of toothpaste or soap in a store would set off a stampede) blinked in amazement, as did those West German "experts" when the unthinkable unfolded.

In Paris, François Mitterrand fretted, for it had been another famous Frenchman who said he loved Germany so much that he wanted two of them. But the sage leader understood which way history would move, and went with the flow. In London, however, Margaret Thatcher stormed and raged and worried about the "Germans" and what their unification would mean.

By contrast, the North American leaders of the day - George H. W. Bush (the elder, wiser one) and Brian Mulroney - took advice, saw the future and applauded. Had the Americans said No - they were being urged to adopt that position by Mrs. Thatcher - events would not have unfolded as swiftly and smoothly as they did.

We on this comfortable continent, removed by an ocean from Europe, owe such a debt to the intellectual leaders and their brave followers in the dissident movements, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Those who saw first-hand the Polish Solidarity leaders - Lech Walesa, Bronislaw Geremek, Adam Michnik and their thousands of followers - remember how Poles dreamed through the veils of their country's many tragedies, of a Poland some day, somehow, being free to be itself, safe within a peaceful Europe, linked to allies in North America.

Of course, expectations are seldom completely met. Discontent still lingers in the eastern part of Germany, where equality has not fully arrived, although not for lack of trying. Germany has been spending about 4 per cent of its GNP on rebuilding its eastern länder since the early years of unification.

Disappointments are scattered: Bulgaria with its mafia, Lithuania and Latvia with their deficits, Hungary with its sluggish growth and political corruption. The Czechs and Slovaks are apart, although maybe they're happier as citizens of smaller states. Without the bullheadedness of Vladimir Meciar on the Slovak side and Vaclav Klaus on the Czech side, the country might have stayed together.

Germany, the continent's most important and consequential country, not only enjoys formal peace but excellent relations with all of its neighbours. A fine and decent country, it's very much a force for stability in Europe and constructive internationalism abroad.

Canadians, asked by pollsters which country plays the most positive role in the world, answer: Germany and Japan. Who among those Canadians on the beaches of Dieppe and in the doomed redoubt of Hong Kong would have imagined such a happy development?

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