P.J. O’Rourke on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

 

One of the best essays I have ever read is P.J. O’Rourke’s “The Death of Communism:  Berlin, November 1989” from his essay collection Give War a Chance. O’Rourke was the foreign correspondent for Rolling Stone in the late 1980s and early 90s and reported from many Cold War hotspots. In this essay, O’Rourke writes poignantly and humorously about the collapse of the Berlin Wall. First, he contrasts the free Germans of West Berlin with their communist brethren on the other side of the wall:

West Germans are tall, pink, pert and orthodontically corrected. With hands, teeth and hair as clean as their clothes and clothes as sharp as their looks. Except for the fact that they all speak English pretty well, they’re indistinguishable from Americans. East Germans seem to have been hunching over cave fires a lot. They’re short and thick with sallow, lardy fat, and they have Khrushchev warts. There’s something about Marxism that brings out warts–the only kind of growth this economic system encourages.

Upon seeing an East German border guard ask for a piece of the wall that was being torn down, O’Rourke writes:

I looked at that and I began to cry.

I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then–we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism–which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century–was over.

And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it–not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.

I am beginning to wonder if the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was America’s peak. Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defending and advancing. There was near-universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort. Freedom beat totalitarianism and all Americans were justly proud of this victory.

I fear that too many of us have lost self-confidence and belief in the great American value of liberty.  We have very short historical memories, and many in our society who should know better are now willing to champion totalitarian ideologies which have proven so destructive in the past. Our media and many elites indulge and promote the historically illiterate who think that capitalism and microaggressions constitute real oppression. Many of our political elites openly despise American values and the American people. These same arrogant fools think that increased centralization of political power and a command economy can somehow bring about the utopia that communism failed to create.

The Berlin Wall has fallen, but the totalitarian temptation remains more tempting than ever.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    American Abroad: There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort.

    I was in college at the time.  There was a lot of eye rolling.  

    Many people thought that the fall of the Soviet Union was a good thing.  But the smart people didn’t see communism as evil, and mostly thought that this was just another example of American imperialism forcing people around the world to abandon their way of life.

    The joy that O’Rourke felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall was common, but not nearly universal, in my experience.

    American Abroad: The Berlin Wall has fallen, but the totalitarian temptation remains more tempting than ever. 

    This is an endless source of fascination to me.  Absolutely remarkable.

    • #1
  2. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    American Abroad: There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort.

    I was in college at the time. There was a lot of eye rolling.

    Many people thought that the fall of the Soviet Union was a good thing. But the smart people didn’t see communism as evil, and mostly thought that this was just another example of American imperialism forcing people around the world to abandon their way of life.

    The joy that O’Rourke felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall was common, but not nearly universal, in my experience.

    American Abroad: The Berlin Wall has fallen, but the totalitarian temptation remains more tempting than ever.

    This is an endless source of fascination to me. Absolutely remarkable.

    We were driving past Kremlin West (as Rush used to call it) on I-94 when the news about the fall of the Soviet Union was coming in. A student was calling in to the radio station. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was the typical university student male voice, and he was quite opposed to the loss of communism.  

    • #2
  3. Franz Drumlin Member
    Franz Drumlin
    @FranzDrumlin

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    remains more tempting than ever. 

    This is an endless source of fascination to me.  Absolutely remarkable.

     

    Never will history see the end of the totalitarian temptation, for it is rooted, not in some socio-historical determinism, but in human nature: Marx can provide us no explanation for Marxism.

    –  Jean-François Revel

    • #3
  4. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Except for the fact that they all speak English pretty well, they’re indistinguishable from Americans. 

    (giggle)

    • #4
  5. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I have always delighted in that Bulgarian-shoe quip. It explains so much.

    It might even explain why communism won’t ever really go away. There really are a lot of people who think communism’s idea is basically good. It just screwed up on some details, like footwear. But fix that, and the freedom-hating world is good to go!

    • #5
  6. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    I still keep a small piece of the Berlin wall on my desk at home.

    At least the entrepreneur who sold it via mail guaranteed it was a genuine piece of the wall…..

    Either way it was worth it.

    • #6
  7. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    American Abroad: There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort.

    I was in college at the time. There was a lot of eye rolling.

    Many people thought that the fall of the Soviet Union was a good thing. But the smart people didn’t see communism as evil, and mostly thought that this was just another example of American imperialism forcing people around the world to abandon their way of life.

    I think I was in middle school at the time, so I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of the broader public’s response at the time.  (Not surprisingly, my Boy Scout troop was pretty sure it was a good thing!)  But I do remember this being, even if only in my small circle, a moment of relative unity in America.  Check out these opinion polls from 1989: 

    https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/12/2014/10/FT_14.10.15_berlinWall.png

    • #7
  8. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Richard O'Shea (View Comment):

    I still keep a small piece of the Berlin wall on my desk at home.

    At least the entrepreneur who sold it via mail guaranteed it was a genuine piece of the wall…..

    Either way it was worth it.

    His essay mentions by name Heiko Lemke, Neville Finnis, and Daniel Sheire as three people who took apart the wall and planned to sell it.  So if you bought it from any of these guys, it is probably legit!

    • #8
  9. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    My wife was there when the wall fell.  She was studying in France, and got on a train as soon as she heard the news.  She borrowed a sledgehammer from somebody and got a piece of the wall.  We still have it somewhere.

    She said it was an incredible scene.

    • #9
  10. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    American Abroad: I am beginning to wonder if the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was America’s peak. Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defensing and advancing. There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil.

    Thats not how I remember it.

    Plenty of Democrats and other Leftys were fine with communism.  From Kennedy subverting Reagan on Star Wars by colluding with the Soviets, the Nuclear Freeze Movement that tried to disarm the US,  to the gaggle of Democrats who idolized Fidel and Daniel Ortega and made opposing communism in Central America a “crime”.  At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union they just understood that average Americans were not going to tolerate their BS and kept their mouths shut and put on the mask.  Lately they have seen they don’t need that filter anymore.  But nothing has really changed in their attitudes or goals.

    • #10
  11. American Abroad Thatcher
    American Abroad
    @AmericanAbroad

    Kozak (View Comment):

    American Abroad: I am beginning to wonder if the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was America’s peak. Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defensing and advancing. There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil.

    Thats not how I remember it.

    Plenty of Democrats and other Leftys were fine with communism. From Kennedy subverting Reagan on Star Wars by colluding with the Soviets, the Nuclear Freeze Movement that tried to disarm the US, to the gaggle of Democrats who idolized Fidel and Daniel Ortega and made opposing communism in Central America a “crime”. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union they just understood that average Americans were not going to tolerate their BS and kept their mouths shut and put on the mask. Lately they have seen they don’t need that filter anymore. But nothing has really changed in their attitudes or goals.

    Everything you say here is true, but I think the fall of the wall was one ephemeral moment of unity.  Democratic Senators Levin, Simon, and Wirth even co-sponsored withe Sens Dole and Helms a Senate Resolution congratulating Germany on the fall of the wall and calling for its complete destruction.

    • #11
  12. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Franz Drumlin (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    remains more tempting than ever.

    This is an endless source of fascination to me. Absolutely remarkable.

    Never will history see the end of the totalitarian temptation, for it is rooted, not in some socio-historical determinism, but in human nature: Marx can provide us no explanation for Marxism.

    – Jean-François Revel

    It took some hunting, but I found the source of that quote:

    “The totalitarian phenomenon is not to be understood without making allowance for the thesis that some important part of every society consists of people who actively want tyranny: either to exercise it themselves or–much more mysteriously–to submit to it. Democracy will therefore always remain at risk. Never will history see the end of the totalitarian temptation, for it is rooted, not in some socio-historical determinism, but in human nature: Marx can provide us no explanation for Marxism.”
    –Democracy: If You Can Keep It, Jean-Francois Revel, Jan 24, 2000, National Review

    EDIT: Revel did, however, write a book titled The Totalitarian Temptation which presumably explores this exact issue. (It has been a very long time since I read it, however, and I cannot find my copy.) That book is long out of print, but a number of Revel’s other books are still in print.

    • #12
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Kozak (View Comment):
    At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union they just understood that average Americans were not going to tolerate their BS and kept their mouths shut and put on the mask.

    Yup. Except at a few places like Kremlin West.

    It was much the same after 9/11.  If you hung out with any hard-core leftists, you knew that they hadn’t changed and were just laying low.  Sometimes they couldn’t help themselves, though.

    • #13
  14. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Kozak (View Comment):
    At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union they just understood that average Americans were not going to tolerate their BS and kept their mouths shut and put on the mask.

    Yup. Except at a few places like Kremlin West.

    It was much the same after 9/11. If you hung out with any hard-core leftists, you knew that they hadn’t changed and were just laying low. Sometimes they couldn’t help themselves, though.

    Indeed. The left has always, and will always, tend to embrace all sorts of fascistic movements. From Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent podcast with David Rubin:

    “But then the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened, and I was on air with the Young Turks, and several of my co-hosts, they didn’t flat out say that they deserved it, but they basically were saying ‘you shouldn’t post these cartoons, you shouldn’t poke the bear, these are oppressed people, and you’re being mean to them’ and all those things, and it became so obvious, it was one of the final moments of crystallization for me, of how devoid of comprehensive thought the left had become on so many fronts… These were the Young Turks, these were my co-hosts, and pretty much everyone that worked there, that was really the driving point, that, they never flat out, you would never go so far as to say they deserved to be killed, but the implication was somehow that the cartoonists the satirists in some way created their own fate”

     

     

    • #14
  15. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    The problem was most people thought the fall of the wall was an endpoint rather than the beginning of a whole new set of problems. 

    • #15
  16. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    American Abroad: Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defensing and advancing. There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort. Freedom beat totalitarianism and all Americans were justly proud of this victory.    

    Most of the WWII generation was still around then.

     

    • #16
  17. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    And Bill Clinton was waiting in the wings to blow through the “peace dividend” that was supposedly to be gained after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact.

    As I recall, after Clinton’s election, there was a cover story either in Newsweek or Time about the end of the WWII generation.  They seemed to be rather giddy about it.  

    • #17
  18. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    American Abroad: Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defensing and advancing. There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort. Freedom beat totalitarianism and all Americans were justly proud of this victory.

    Most of the WWII generation was still around then.

     I don’t think all Americans of the WWII generation were glad that freedom beat totalitarianism.  I was 12 years old when the Adolf Eichman trial was in the news, and was somewhat shocked when one boy of my age got into a heated argument with the rest of us in our largely German Lutheran community. He defended Hitler, claimed he was alive in Argentina, and said he could come back and show us.  I made a mental note to myself that I now knew what kind of conversations they had at his house.

    I’m finishing up the book, Hitler’s Secret Army: A Hidden History of Spies, Saboteurs, and Traitors by Tim Tate (2019). (I’ve been reading it for a long time–it’s my bathroom reading book, and I don’t do much reading in the bathroom any more. But this book is suited to reading a paragraph or two at a time.) The point is, though, that at all levels of society, Britain wasn’t quite as united against the Nazis as the documentaries would have us believe. 

    • #18
  19. Kozak Member
    Kozak
    @Kozak

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    American Abroad: Nearly all Americans, left and right alike, could agree in 1989 that the American experiment was a righteous project worth defensing and advancing. There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort. Freedom beat totalitarianism and all Americans were justly proud of this victory.

    Most of the WWII generation was still around then.

    I don’t think all Americans of the WWII generation were glad that freedom beat totalitarianism. I was 12 years old when the Adolf Eichman trial was in the news, and was somewhat shocked when one boy of my age got into a heated argument with the rest of us in our largely German Lutheran community. He defended Hitler, claimed he was alive in Argentina, and said he could come back and show us. I made a mental note to myself that I now knew what kind of conversations they had at his house.

    I’m finishing up the book, Hitler’s Secret Army: A Hidden History of Spies, Saboteurs, and Traitors by Tim Tate (2019). (I’ve been reading it for a long time–it’s my bathroom reading book, and I don’t do much reading in the bathroom any more. But this book is suited to reading a paragraph or two at a time.) The point is, though, that at all levels of society, Britain wasn’t quite as united against the Nazis as the documentaries would have us believe.

    There were way way way more American admirers of Stalin and the Communists in the WW 2 generation then Nazi sympathizers.  Many of them in Washington in positions of power.

    • #19
  20. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I don’t think all Americans of the WWII generation were glad that freedom beat totalitarianism.  I was 12 years old when the Adolf Eichman trial was in the news, and was somewhat shocked when one boy of my age got into a heated argument with the rest of us in our largely German Lutheran community. He defended Hitler, claimed he was alive in Argentina, and said he could come back and show us.  I made a mental note to myself that I now knew what kind of conversations they had at his house.

    And there were (and still are) Americans who admired Stalin and Stalinism.

    • #20
  21. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Kozak (View Comment):
    There were way way way more American admirers of Stalin and the Communists in the WW 2 generation then Nazi sympathizers.  Many of them in Washington in positions of power.

    Just finished Sean McMeekin’s new book Stalin’s War this morning. Excellent. Shows the role of the spies in leading to decisions helpful to Stalin by both Churchill and Roosevelt. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt comes off very well. Roosevelt would never use Lend Lease as leverage with Stalin. Even to the point of insisting that downed American pilots be repatriated rather than put in the hands of the NKVD.

    • #21
  22. Django Member
    Django
    @Django

    CACrabtree (View Comment):

    And Bill Clinton was waiting in the wings to blow through the “peace dividend” that was supposedly to be gained after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact.

    As I recall, after Clinton’s election, there was a cover story either in Newsweek or Time about the end of the WWII generation. They seemed to be rather giddy about it.

    The fall caused a lot of changes and instability in the defense industry, small companies going out of business, mergers among the larger companies. The defense department forced/suggested some of the mergers. There were some amusing items such as the custom-printed t-shirt that appeared around 1991 and said “The New KGB-CIA: Now we’re everywhere“. 

    • #22
  23. Larry3435 Member
    Larry3435
    @Larry3435

    Richard O'Shea (View Comment):

    I still keep a small piece of the Berlin wall on my desk at home.

    At least the entrepreneur who sold it via mail guaranteed it was a genuine piece of the wall…..

    Either way it was worth it.

    My wife and I were in Berlin on the day of reunification.  (Not the fall of the wall, but the day that East and West Germany became a single nation about a year later.)  By that time there were so many street vendors peddling so many supposed pieces of the wall that you would have thought it had been the Great Wall of China.  Some folks, though, had brought pickaxes.  I borrowed one and chopped off a small piece of the wall for myself.  It wasn’t as big as the ones for sale, and didn’t have pretty graffiti painted onto it, but I know it was real.  It is sitting on a shelf in my office – right over there.

    The main thing I will remember from that trip was the vast number of East Germans who were carting all kinds of electronics across the former border to resell in the East.  They had picked up this capitalism thing pretty quickly.  There were thousands of them, using wheelbarrows, push carts, or just arms and backs.  It was like Black Friday for the entire communist world.

    • #23
  24. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Larry3435 (View Comment):
    They had picked up this capitalism thing pretty quickly. 

    It comes naturally to humans…

    • #24
  25. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I don’t think all Americans of the WWII generation were glad that freedom beat totalitarianism. I was 12 years old when the Adolf Eichman trial was in the news, and was somewhat shocked when one boy of my age got into a heated argument with the rest of us in our largely German Lutheran community. He defended Hitler, claimed he was alive in Argentina, and said he could come back and show us. I made a mental note to myself that I now knew what kind of conversations they had at his house.

    And there were (and still are) Americans who admired Stalin and Stalinism.

    I was specifically referring to the Americans (and Brits) of the WWII generation and their alleged unity against totalitarianism.  

    • #25
  26. Richard O'Shea Coolidge
    Richard O'Shea
    @RichardOShea

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    Richard O’Shea (View Comment):

    I still keep a small piece of the Berlin wall on my desk at home.

    At least the entrepreneur who sold it via mail guaranteed it was a genuine piece of the wall…..

    Either way it was worth it.

    My wife and I were in Berlin on the day of reunification. (Not the fall of the wall, but the day that East and West Germany became a single nation about a year later.) By that time there were so many street vendors peddling so many supposed pieces of the wall that you would have thought it had been the Great Wall of China. Some folks, though, had brought pickaxes. I borrowed one and chopped off a small piece of the wall for myself. It wasn’t as big as the ones for sale, and didn’t have pretty graffiti painted onto it, but I know it was real. It is sitting on a shelf in my office – right over there.

    The main thing I will remember from that trip was the vast number of East Germans who were carting all kinds of electronics across the former border to resell in the East. They had picked up this capitalism thing pretty quickly. There were thousands of them, using wheelbarrows, push carts, or just arms and backs. It was like Black Friday for the entire communist world.

    I wish I could have seen that.  I’m glad Reagan lived long enough to know it happened.

    • #26
  27. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):
    I don’t think all Americans of the WWII generation were glad that freedom beat totalitarianism. I was 12 years old when the Adolf Eichman trial was in the news, and was somewhat shocked when one boy of my age got into a heated argument with the rest of us in our largely German Lutheran community. He defended Hitler, claimed he was alive in Argentina, and said he could come back and show us. I made a mental note to myself that I now knew what kind of conversations they had at his house.

    And there were (and still are) Americans who admired Stalin and Stalinism.

    I was specifically referring to the Americans (and Brits) of the WWII generation and their alleged unity against totalitarianism.

    Understood. And you make an important point. I was merely amplifying it with those of the WWII generation who were sympathetic to Stalinism. I believe that Isaac Asimov never forgave George Orwell for writing so much that was critical of the Soviet Union.

    • #27
  28. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Richard O'Shea (View Comment):
    I wish I could have seen that.  I’m glad Reagan lived long enough to know it happened.

    Yes. Think of all those who fought a tyranny but did not live to see victory.

    • #28
  29. Tonguetied Fred Member
    Tonguetied Fred
    @TonguetiedFred

    American Abroad: There was near universal agreement that communism was not only an abject failure but also a great moral evil. The whole world knew that the good guys won the Cold War and that the United States led this global effort.

    I see that others have mentioned  how disappointed many were about the fall of the wall.  One other thing that I heard over and over again was that it wasn’t the USA (and Ronald Reagan) that brought about the fall of communism but rather it was brought to an end by Mikhail Gorbachev and his courage and foresight…

    • #29
  30. navyjag Lincoln
    navyjag
    @navyjag

    My wife and daughter went to Berlin on a HS trip in June, 1990.  Got a piece of the wall. Amazed at the run down E. European cities they saw although they liked Prague. Saw the weird E. German cars on the freeways when we joined them in Frankfurt to drive to Italy.  The other side couldn’t make much of value. 

    • #30