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Germany’s turn to give back

by Roy Ginsberg

The Wall before its fall   

Twenty years after its fall on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall still evokes a variety of painful images. Berliners and the world remember those killed trying to escape and loved ones kept apart after 1961 when the communists erected the wall to preserve their failing system. It pays to recall that no one ever tried to escape from freedom in West Berlin to tyranny in East Berlin.

The wall was another manifestation of the failure of the wartime allies to agree on what to do with a defeated and prostrate Germany. Twice brutalized by German armed forces in the 20th century, the Soviets wanted a neutral and weakened neighbor. The Americans wanted a democratic and free Germany as a bulwark against the spread of communism and to prevent the return of fascism.

Since the wartime allies retained occupation rights in Berlin after 1949, and East Germany became a Soviet satellite, the two German states remained independent, but not fully sovereign. Not until 1989–90, when the wall came down, the wartime allies relinquished their residual occupation rights, and the two were united, was World War II finally concluded. Germany was again a fully sovereign state.

The wall represented an artificially divided Ger­many and a dangerously bifurcated world. It was in that world that I visited East Berlin as a student in 1974. What I most remember as a citizen of a free country was the sense of foreboding I felt when entering and the sense of freedom I felt when leaving—and the sadness of knowing that others left behind could not follow.

Fifteen years later, I rushed into my classroom at Skidmore College to share my joy at the news that the Wall was being torn down. I could barely hold back the floodgate of emotions over such a tectonic change in world history. Though my students were intrigued, they were not exhilarated. I have thought about this over the years.

As the children and grandchildren of those who fought to defeat fascism, my generation has enormous respect for the wartime heroes and for the postwar leadership of the United States and its allies. From the Marshall Plan, Truman Doctrine, and Berlin Airlift of the late 1940s to the containment of communism in the 1950s and 1960s, the West stood down communism. Despite the mistakes, especially in Vietnam, one wonders what kind of world would exist today had it not been for American and allied leadership in safeguarding democracy in the last half of the 20th century.

Postwar West Germans are to be congratulated for constructing a democratic polity and a beacon of hope for the East. West Germany had two advantages over its doomed democratic predecessor, the Weimar Republic. It had economic security to prosper as a market economy—and to democratize—as part of the European Union. It also had physical security through NATO, so that Germany would no longer threaten or be threatened by anyone.

Today’s united Germany, a recipient of security from the EU and NATO, promotes democracy and stability in a world far more dangerous to civilian populations than the world of 1989, given the threats of transnational terrorism.

If Germany can assume leadership through the EU, NATO, and the United Nations to enhance stability and security in a world in need of its unique experience and values, it can give back to those who helped it to be secure and free.

Roy Ginsberg is Skidmore’s Palamountain Professor in Government. The second edition of his book Demystifying the European Union: The Enduring Logic of Regional Integration is slated for release in February. The essay above first appeared in the (Albany, N.Y.) Times-Union on November 9, 2009.