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Opinion: The day after the Wall fell

The fears of Germany and its neighbors in 1989 have largely been resolved by 2009.

Other European Communist Countries:

1989: Communists in Central and Eastern Europe — still known as the Warsaw Pact at the time — hoped to use the specter of a united German state to rebuild support for the notion of Soviet troops on their soil. But the pro-democracy unrest in Leipzig and other East German cities that preceded the toppling of the wall was a bell tolling for all the communist parties of the region. While true poll numbers don’t exist, events suggest that large majorities of the citizens of all the Warsaw Pact countries felt much more empowered than threatened by the toppling of the East German communist establishment. Most moved quickly thereafter to topple their own. (See GlobalPost's chronology of communism in Europe.)

Czechoslovakia’s government had special concerns: the Sudeten Germans expelled from their native region after World War II. This displaced group had formed a powerful force in West German politics and began immediately agitating for a return to their homeland. The issue, with its echoes of 1938, was overdone in the press, but a real concern in Prague.

The Polish government, already in the hands of Solidarity at the time, saw events in Germany as a culmination of pro-democracy agitation they had started in the early 1980s in the shipyards of Gdansk. As with the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, Polish communists, and many Polish right-wing nationalists, trumpeted paranoid fears about Germany reclaiming the region called Silesia and what used to be called Eastern Prussia (the northern Polish Baltic coastline), all of which were once part of the Reich. Kohl’s government played a savvy diplomatic game, and did its best to quiet noisy nationalists inside its own borders on the question of the “lost territories,” too.

2009: The Czechs, Poles and other eastern European neighbors of the united Germany gained new factories and trade, and many work within Germany. Yet their governments are increasingly concerned about the chummy ties that the united Germany has forged with Moscow. While the new Merkel coalition will be a bit more skeptical of Moscow, and alleviate Central and Eastern European concerns a bit in the process, the specter of Yalta and Munich — i.e., that the independence of eastern European countries isn’t worth the blood of westerners — hangs over the region. The more Germany appears to prioritize ties with Russia, the less secure its eastern neighbors will feel from Russian mischief, especially with the U.S. seemingly in relative decline.

Russia, with its natural gas leverage on the EU, has achieved what Soviet leaders never could with the Red Army: a Germany openly worried about angering Moscow.

The USSR/Russia

1989: The Soviet Union, obviously in disarray, had mixed feelings about the fall of the wall. The East Germany regime, as dictatorial as any in its sphere of influence, had become an embarrassment and a huge economic drain. However, Soviet military planners also feared that reunification was the beginning of the end of their eastern “buffer zone” — a strategic imperative in Russian military thinking since Napoleon. As it happened, the USSR had bigger problems. Mikhail Gorbachev, meanwhile, deserves a lot of credit for setting in motion the events which led to the Wall falling, and he seems to have applauded the decision in Berlin to let East Germans pass through. But he certainly never expected that the last act in the drama would be the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

2009: Today’s Russians, evidenced by their high opinion of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, share their leaders’ opinion that the collapse of the USSR was a national tragedy. Few pine for the Cold War per se, but Russians still regard the zone of countries between Germany’s border and their own as a “buffer zone” or bulwark against (from their view) an aggressive western NATO alliance.

Stoking that slightly twisted view of reality is a Putin specialty. Just this month, Russia held military exercises based on a ridiculous scenario: a “rising” of ethnic Poles in western Belarus (territory which had been part of pre-1939 Poland) followed by invasions of Russia by Lithuanian and Polish elite troops. If Gorbachev suffered from fantasy by thinking the Wall could fall without his own house tumbling down, these recent exercises and many other actions suggest the Kremlin’s addiction to fantasy remains firmly in place 20 years later.