On August 17, 1962—exactly one year after barbed-wire barricades began to be reinforced with the concrete that would become the Berlin Wall—Peter Fechter made an impetuous, and ultimately tragic, decision. The 18-year-old East Berliner had left school four years earlier to begin an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, an occupation to which he brought considerable talent and energy. “Colleague F. is a willing and hardworking craftsman,” his work appraisal stated. “Loafing and absenteeism are not a problem with him.” This was a far cry from the slurs German Democratic Republic officials would later utter.
Finding an unblocked window in a building next to the border, Fechter and a friend jumped into the “death strip” that ran between the wall’s parallel fences. East German border guards, instructed to fire upon any of their fellow citizens attempting to scale the partition, shot Fechter in the pelvis as he rushed towards the wall on Zimmerstrasse, not far from the Checkpoint Charlie crossing. Noise from the gunfire attracted a crowd of West Germans, who watched in horror as the young man screamed for help. East German guards did nothing as he writhed in agony for nearly an hour, while West German guards remained at their posts, under orders not to do anything that might jeopardize the modus vivendi. Only when Fechter’s cries ceased did East German border guards emerge to cart away his corpse.
Of all the events of the Berlin Wall’s 28-year history, few illustrated the inhumanity of the GDR better than the murder of Peter Fechter. His legacy was one of many commemorated last week on the 25th anniversary of the wall’s fall. A magnificent public art display memorialized its presence and destruction, with thousands of lighted white balloons lining part of the route of the 87-mile structure that had divided the once and future capital. The balloons were released into the night sky on November 9 at the precise moment East Germans began freely crossing a quarter-century ago. The city’s promotional materials referred to the events of that night in 1989, which ushered in the reunification of Germany and the breakup of the Soviet Union, as “the only Peaceful Revolution in world history”—a claim to which the neighboring Czechs and Slovaks, whose Velvet Revolution soon followed, might take umbrage.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Stasi state were “peaceful” in the sense that no overt acts of violence brought them about. But this understanding of events, central to Germany’s conception of itself as a country that has learned all the appropriate lessons from its destructive past, leaves out several critical factors. First is the East German leadership’s knowledge that a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown on peaceful protesters—which we now know they were prepared to execute—would not have received the crucial backing of the Soviet Union, whose leader had renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine the year before. A major reason Mikhail Gorbachev retreated from this pledge, which codified armed Soviet imperialism, was the full-frontal foreign policy of the Reagan administration, which was arming anti-Soviet insurgencies as far afield as Central America and Afghanistan and had deployed nuclear-tipped missiles on West German soil.
Revelers at last week’s ceremonies in Berlin, however, might not know that anyone besides the Germans themselves had played a part in the wall’s fall. Even more telling was the lack of attention given to the Soviet Union dividing Germany and the continent in half and occupying it for over four decades. A British friend living in Berlin called the commemoration a “Grimm Brothers fairy tale without the witch.” Gorbachev himself—affectionately known as “Gorbi” to his many German admirers—appeared near the Brandenburg Gate, delivering a speech that mixed the greatest hits of Pat Buchanan and Stephen F. Cohen: “[T]he West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War. Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia’s weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.”
Gorbachev’s remarks should have surprised no one. Previously a critic of Vladimir Putin, he now defends the Russian president’s expansionist adventure in Ukraine. And it was the ongoing crisis in Europe’s east that hovered over the commemoration like one of the dark clouds that hang over Berlin most of the year. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the city whose reunification a quarter-century ago embodied the hopes of Europe’s postwar integrationists, while the very power responsible for the division again attempts to divide the continent by force. The cruel irony was lost on nearly everyone. German chancellor Angela Merkel, dedicating a new memorial to the 138 people who died trying to cross the wall, was an anomaly. “We can change things for the better—that is the message of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” she said, a lesson that applies “especially for the people in Ukraine, in Syria, and in Iraq, and in many other regions of the world where freedom and human rights are threatened or even trampled.” These were the only remarks over the weekend hinting that there was anything ominous about the whole occasion, otherwise a spectacle of self-praise and overconfidence.
With the understandable exception of leaders in Poland and the Baltic states, Merkel has been the most vocal European critic of Putin’s actions, which, she memorably said, hew to no legal or moral code but “the laws of the jungle.” That this is the case speaks more to Europe’s weakness than Merkel’s strength. Germans I speak with routinely emphasize that Merkel, raised in East Germany and a committed transatlanticist, is the toughest leader Americans can hope for, and that it’s fruitless to lament German reluctance to respond to Putin’s aggression. German public opinion seems to bear this out. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 45 percent want Germany to support a unified Western stance on Russia, while 49 percent back a “middle position.” This latter view is precisely what Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, articulated in their 2013 election manifesto, which called on Germany to play the role of “mediator” between Washington and Moscow. Worryingly, this idea is popular among younger Germans, a majority of whom, according to the Wall Street Journal, “believe their country should play a neutral role between Russia and the West rather than stick firmly within the Western alliance.” Such feelings are shared by most educated Germans and those from the former East, where years of anti-Western inculcation and lingering nostalgia for the GDR translate into sympathy for the Russian position.
Granted, that poll took place before the July downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane by Russian-backed rebels. But the initial, shrugging response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year—which a majority of Germans considered justified, even as their political elites thundered on about how wrong it was—indicates that some basic lessons of 1989 have failed to sink in. A recent poll commissioned by the German foreign ministry found that 51 percent of Germans consider the maintenance of “world peace” to be their country’s most important goal. Yet few of them appear interested in defending it. Only 13 percent believe the Bundeswehr should carry out more military missions; the same paltry 13 percent think the country should send more arms to allies.
Aside from the gradual imposition of financial sanctions on Russia, Berlin’s stance has continued to be marked by feebleness, which, given Germany’s role as the continent’s preeminent economic and political power, basically dictates the European Union’s position. Merkel, whose stewardship of the economy through the financial crisis and careful reading of public opinion polls have ensured high approval ratings for nearly a decade, has been hesitant to confront Putin. She has repeatedly stated there is “no military solution” to the conflict, attempting to coax the Ukrainians into signing a ceasefire in early July, when Kiev was making headway in its effort to regain rebel-held territory. She argues the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act prevents the alliance from permanently basing soldiers on the territory of former members of the Warsaw Pact, a questionable reading of the document—whose provisions on troop movements have been rendered null and void by Russia’s actions—that has kept the West from sending a strong message to Moscow. When her finance minister compared Putin’s actions in Ukraine to those of Hitler in the Sudetenland—a reasonable evaluation in view of the principle of ethnic comradeship that Putin used to justify the 21st century’s first Anschluss—she reprimanded him. Two days after the Berlin Wall commemoration, she came out against harsher sanctions on Russia, even as Moscow sent more men and matériel into Ukraine.
How much does Germany’s position on Ukraine owe to its economic relationship with Russia, which could be remade, and how much can be attributed to deeper, harder-to-change ideological or cultural attitudes? There’s now a breed of journalists, regional experts, business leaders, and former politicians derided as Russlandverstehers, literally, “Russia understanders.” Historian Heinrich Winkler speaks of an “irritating desire for equidistance” that many Germans feel vis-à-vis America and Russia. In the numerous apologias offered by influential German figures for Putin’s behavior in Ukraine, one also senses a combination of the old Teutonic admiration for authority and a paternalistic view of Slavs: Putin is not the sort of leader under whose rule any German would want to live, but he’s precisely the sort of man capable of governing a “wild” place like Russia.
Like most Westerners, Germans were shocked at the Putin regime’s actions in Ukraine, says former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum, but a particular German stubbornness stops them from taking a strong-er stand. The German foreign policy elite has focused for decades on the economic relationship with Russia, hoping that improved trade ties would lead to greater democracy. That approach, championed by foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now lies in tatters. But the Germans’ innate “fear of instability,” Kornblum says, leads them “to stick to their ideas.” Their preference for soft over hard power, while understandable, has led them astray. Kornblum compares the Germans, with their aversion to the use of force, to “a recovered alcoholic who berates other people for drinking a second martini. Not everybody goes on that road.”
Another significant factor is anti-Americanism. That’s nothing new in Germany, but it has become more salient since the Russians’ masterful collaboration with Edward Snowden to disclose secrets about American intelligence practices, embarrassing the United States and driving a wedge between Berlin and Washington. “It is hardly credible to threaten Putin with consequences for breaking international law while ignoring Obama’s own violation,” Der Spiegel editorialized earlier this year, likening a little spying between friends to the first annexation of territory on the European continent since the aftermath of World War II. Snowden is widely admired in Germany, and not just by the usual suspects on the left. The German government, I hear, is preparing for a scenario in which Russia, having exhausted Snowden’s usefulness, puts the fugitive leaker on a plane to Berlin. Would the Germans extradite him to the United States? It’s an open question.
Most Germans seem to want their country to become a giant Switzerland, rich and peaceful at home and neutral abroad. But Kornblum, who spent decades working on European affairs as a career Foreign Service officer, dismisses the idea of Germany as a nonaligned power in the center of Europe, as many feared it might become during the years of Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which sought to decrease tensions between East and West by formally recognizing the legitimacy of the Soviet sphere of influence. If Kornblum is right, Germany will, at worst, be a weak partner rather than a neutral observer. The popular appraisal of Brandt’s legacy hints at the country’s future. As the commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall showed, many Germans subscribe to an interpretation of history that credits Brandt with ending the Cold War. According to this theory, it was Brandt’s policy of nonconfrontation that led to the reunification of Europe. HisOstpolitik was the first real independent foreign policy initiative of the postwar Federal Republic, which had until that point essentially been an obedient charge of the victorious Allied powers. Many Germans today apply this misguided narrative to the Ukraine crisis, thinking that a new Ostpolitik between Berlin and Moscow (one that, once again, looks over the heads of the people caught in between) will bring peace back to Europe.
In the early years of his political career, Brandt could hardly be described as an accommodationist. Quite the opposite: As a Social Democrat, he was well acquainted with the depredations of the Communist regime. He made his peace with the division of Berlin and Germany, however, soon after the wall’s creation, when the Western powers did nothing in response to this cardinal violation of the postwar Four Power Agreement. Like many European democrats of the time, he resigned himself to the reality of the Iron Curtain.
Germany’s apparent spinelessness now can’t be blamed, tempting as it is, solely on an immovable pacifism or other cultural factors; it is also a result of American restraint. The muddled Western response to Russian aggression in Europe, the starkest challenge the continent has faced in a generation, is the consequence of “leading from behind.” When a great power adopts that as its foreign policy, it doesn’t end up guiding a coalition committed to defending freedom; it ends up submitting to European pacifists and appeasers.
Peter Fechter died 52 years ago because he wanted freedom. Many in Ukraine are paying a similar price for acting upon the same desire. They are crying out for help in Europe’s new death strip. This time, will somebody listen?