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Dispatch from Berlin: Forgetting Why the Wall Fell

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In the orgy of Reagan revisionism and capitalist triumphalism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, we have largely forgotten how and why the Cold War came to an end. It would be almost impossible to discern its real origins from today's Disney style celebration of the "Mauerfall" that began on Thursday evening with musical celebrities (e.g., Bono and Beyonce) and the European MTV awards in front of the Brandenburg Gate and ends this evening in the same place with a gala featuring political celebrities (e.g., Hillary Clinton) and sundry Nobel Prize winners (e.g., Gorbachev), a performance of Beethoven's Ode to Joy (the Ninth Symphony) and a symbolic wall happening. A thousand large painted domino blocks stretching from Pottsdammerplatz to the Reichstag (that have actually divided the two Berlins again this week since cars can't get through!) will topple domino style -- sort of the way the Eastern bloc countries and then the Soviet Union did after November 9, 1989.

Nowadays it is easier to accede to the received wisdom that the events that brought down the wall were the outcome of President Reagan out-producing the Russians in the arms race and then shouting "Tear down this wall!" Or the result of Gorbachev's Perestroika and Glasnost policies in the Soviet Union that brought both him and his empire to grief.

Truth is, however, that the wall came down because of a decade or more of grass roots democratic organization in Poland (Solidarity), Czechoslovakia (Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution) and, of particular consequence for Berlin, by Neues Forum, that informal bottom-up syndicate of students, workers and intellectuals whose meetings and broadsheets and courageous demonstrations in Leibzig, Dresden and Berlin softened up the East German regime and put enough holes in the German Democratic Republic's ideological architecture to make the collapse of its physical architecture inevitable.

But Neues Forum and its locally based associations and publications were quickly swallowed up once the wall was down by the West's quick and aggressive takeover of East Germany (remember the Treuerhand Trust that converted the "people's property" to private property?) and by the triumphalist notion that it was not so much democracy but capitalism that had won the Cold War.

The New European Man who emerged after the wall was not the new European citizen but the new European consumer. Shopping, not voting defined the new paradigm. To this day, Europeans talk with regret about a "democratic deficit" that has permitted the new Europe to flourish in ways determined by the Euro rather than the European.

Yet the standard paradigm continues to believe in liberation from the outside -- to imagine that some combination of Reagan's hard power politics and West German soft power television along with consumerism's endless seductions pulled, pushed and shoved the East into surrender and then freedom. Presto! Down came the wall.

Only that's not how it happened then, and it isn't how it happens now -- not in the German Democratic Republic and not in Iraq or Afghanistan either. Might as well bring the troops home, they will no more "liberate" Afghanistan than Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher liberated East Germany.

We still pursue the illusion that democracy can be imposed from without, that a people can be leveraged into liberty by suasion and force, that people can be seduced to embrace democracy. As it was in 1776 in the British colonies, and in 1989 in Berlin, democracy grows from the inside out, bottom up.

No people can become free unless they mount their own struggle for freedom. Liberty cannot be gifted from the outside, and certainly cannot be engendered by force or occupation or the threat of invasion.

East Germany -- and with it Eastern Europe and Russia too -- overcame tyranny from the inside out. West Berliners helped pull down the wall but East Berlin citizens unmoored it from its foundations.

The same will have to happen if Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran are to establish their own liberty. So we might as well bring the troops home. Because until a people commits fully to achieving its own freedom, foreign boots on the ground will only push them further into servitude.