This weekend it is 25 years since the Berlin Wall fell. It’s easy now to believe that it was always doomed to collapse but there was a time when many feared that the only thing that was inevitable was the triumph of communism.
Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm appeared ready to apologise for the death of millions of people if communism eventually produced economic success and equality. C P Snow, the scientist, novelist and Labour politician, celebrated the Russians’ “passionate belief in education”. Their “deeper insight into the scientific revolution than we have, or than the Americans have” gave, he speculated, the Soviet Union an edge over the West.
In the early years of the Soviet revolution the progress was certainly spectacular. Large parts of the Russian population were neglected and occupied in low productivity farm work during Tsarist rule. This largely continued until the Five Year Plans introduced by Stalin from 1928. Then within one decade coal output trebled. Oil production soared from 2 million to 29 million tones. Electricity generation increased seven fold to 36,000 million kilowatts. The nation was industrialising at a faster pace than Germany had in the 19th century or Japan had, over the previous few decades. Progress can be attributed to the low starting base; technical assistance from the likes of the Ford Motor Company; the provision of childcare so that women could work; the use of slave labour; and – according to Stalinist propaganda posters – the “Stakhanovite” work ethic of many enthusiastic communists of the time. It also owed much to a massive programme of immunisation. Medical services were extended across the country and workforces became more healthy and much more reliable.
As time passed many in the West watched with interest and alarm at huge infrastructure projects such as Moscow’s impressive and beautiful underground, the building of new cities in the mineral rich territories to the east of the Ural mountains, the Turkestan-Siberian Railroad, the Dneiper Dam and the Belomor Canal. And there was, of course, Russia’s triumphant space programme – and the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s 108 minute orbit around the world. Although we would later learn a lot more about the millions who died building Stalin’s great projects – and the poor quality of, for example, the new housing estates – many socialists in America and Europe saw what was happening as examples of what central planning could achieve.
Under Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev communist rhetoric became increasingly self-confident – even cocky. In 1960, one year before the Gagarin mission, Premier Khrushchev was reported as saying that the Soviet Union would bury the United States and that the next generation of American children would be communists. “We’ll keep feeding you small doses of Socialism,” the Soviet premier was reported as saying, “until you will finally wake up and find that you already have Communism. We won’t have to fight you; we’ll so weaken your economy, until you fall like overripe fruit into our hands.” It fitted with earlier remarks, attributed to Lenin: “First, we will take Eastern Europe, then the masses of Asia, then we will encircle the United States which will be the last bastion of capitalism. We will not have to attack. It will fall like an overripe fruit into our hands.” Khruschev’s remarks had been mistranslated. He had actually said – only slightly less menacingly – that communism would simply outlast America’s capitalist system. But there were plenty of people – both admirers of communism and its critics – who believed him.
As late as the 1980s, when I was a teenager studying at a British Forces school in Germany – on one of the Cold War’s frontlines – my A-Level economics textbook treated capitalist and planned economies as equivalents. Both systems, pupils were told, had their advantages and disadvantages. Yes, the bureaucrats running Soviet factories often only met central targets by sacrificing quality for quantity or by fiddling their reports to the central authorities. Yes, corruption was endemic. Yes, there wasn’t much consumerism in the East. But – alongside these faults – communist economies were good at managing rapid industrialisation, big science-based infrastructure projects and avoiding inequality. That’s what we were told, in the 1980s. In a British army school. Well into the decade of Thatcher and Reagan.
Fortunately Thatcher and Reagan’s impact on the rest of Britain and America – if not the statist educational “blob” – was much greater. In the discussion about who caused the Berlin Wall to fall a lot of credit is rightly given to Ronald Reagan’s decision to modernise America’s military, forcing the Soviet Union to try (and fail) to keep up. Margaret Thatcher was at his side throughout this time, fighting the forces of unilateral nuclear disarmament in the British Labour and Liberal parties and warning President Reagan not to disarm too quickly when Gorbachev was in full charm mode at the famous 1986 summit in Reykjavík.
But it wasn’t just the military and political strength of the western politicians of the 1980s that did for communism. Perhaps even more important was how Thatcher and Reagan gave the west its confidence back.
They had been elected to office when confidence in capitalism and democracy was hardly at its height. In his book on the Cold War – The Atlantic and its Enemies – Professor Norman Stone highlighted the decline of “the very capital of capitalism”, New York. Here was a city where the murder rate tripled between the 1960s and 1970s. ‘White flight’ meant racial segregation was becoming worse – with crime concentrated in minority boroughs, like the Bronx. Mentally ill people – released from institutions – roamed the streets, begging and picking through trash cans. During a two day power failure in July 1977 there was city-wide looting and arson. More than 100 Broadway shops were raided. Five hundred police officers were injured. On almost every front the western model seemed diseased. Twenty per cent of Americans lacked health care. Infant mortality rates were lower in Castro’s Cuba. Malthusian environmentalists were predicting famine, ice ages and wars over scarce natural resources. Against this backdrop, the American political establishment was losing credibility quickly. The 1970s moved from Richard Nixon being impeached to the hapless Jimmy Carter ending the decade mired in the Iranian hostages crisis and economic decline.
Things weren’t any better on the other side of the Atlantic. Britain was the sick man of Europe. The government sought to work with powerful unions and second-rate managers to “manage decline” but incomes were falling and unemployment was rising. James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister, felt close to complete emotional and intellectual defeat. In his memoirs he admitted to his feelings: “Our place in the world is shrinking; our economic comparisons grow worse… Sometimes when I go to bed at night I think that if I were a young man I would emigrate.”
Thatcher and Reagan changed that. On every front they put the free back into the free world. They confronted militant air traffic control workers and miners who thought they could out muscle democratically-elected politicians. They cut penal rates of taxation and privatised inefficient stare industries. Britain’s armed forces defeated General Galtieri and the transatlantic alliance stationed advanced nuclear weapons in the part of Europe where no wall was needed to keep the people submissive. By the late 1980s the West was back and booming.
I remember one dark night on a train from Dusseldorf to Bielefeld. It was 1987. I was 17 and I shared the railway carriage with a very elderly gentleman from eastern Germany. I was travelling back from a job interview in Britain. He’d been to visit his relatives in the west. He hadn’t seen them for many years and didn’t think he’d be allowed to see them again. But he was in no doubt about the superiority of the western model. “We are told by our rulers that communism is the future but you dress better, you eat better, you have better healthcare, you have better cars. When all experience is contrary to what we are told,” he continued, “you start doubting your leaders. Then you hate them. Then you wish for their end.” I don’t know if he lived for the fall of the Berlin Wall. I hope so. And thank God for the western leaders who did so much to both restore belief in capitalism and democracy as well as lead the attack on atheistic communism. Reagan. Thatcher. Kohl. And of course Pope John Paul II.
At some point communism’s internal contradictions would probably have killed it off but a great generation of western leaders did hasten its end. Hundreds of millions enjoyed freedom more quickly as a result. Reagan and Thatcher triumphed by rebuilding our own faltering faith in capitalism and democracy as much as by forcing Moscow into an arms race that it couldn’t afford. History mustn’t forget that.