Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Granieri on the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Power of Individuals, and the Unpredictability of History

Ronald J. Granieri

Professor Ronald J. Granieri, a historian of modern Germany, has written a timely article for those of us living in South Korea during these unstable, unsettling times, "The Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Power of Individuals, and the Unpredictability of History" (E-Notes, FPRI, March 2013). Here's how he opens his paper:
German unification was one of the most dramatic developments in contemporary history, as well as one of the most unexpected. After decades during which the press and public measured political wisdom according to how well leaders managed the apparently permanent realities of German and European division, leaders in 1989 had to improvise responses to the literal collapse of the most concrete of those realities in Berlin. As much as German politicians had claimed for years to be hoping for this day, none had actual plans ready. Into this potentially dangerous vacuum stepped a most unlikely improviser. Helmut Kohl was a reasonably successful party leader of enormous bulk and moderate political gifts, generally underestimated even by his political allies and known neither for creativity nor dynamism. To the surprise of all, he proved remarkably adept at managing the international and domestic complications of 1989. Within thirteen months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he rode successful reunification negotiations to a landslide victory in the first all-German democratic elections since 1932. Even if many of his decisions during those months can be (and have been) questioned, his place in history is assured.
And here's Granieri's main point:
Kohl's story provides but one of many crucial insights into how the story of German reunification displays both the limits of realism and the unpredictability of history. That unpredictability reminds us of the role that individuals can still play in the modern world, even in the face of enormous complexity. For it was the combined actions of individuals, neither beginning nor ending with Kohl, who changed the world in 1989, and all students of international affairs can profit from reexamining that dramatic story.
The combined actions, yes, but Granieri makes clear in the paragraphs that follow these opening ones that a leader other than Kohl might have made a misstep. I remember those days, for I was living in Germany at the time. Kohl read the timepiece of history correctly, unlike many German politicians, and took bold steps that were possible for two reasons: 1) people trusted him because 2) they thought he wasn't smart enough to be crafty. But like Reagan, Kohl was smarter than people gave him credit for, though he was fairly honest for a politician, so people were half right, but for the wrong reason.

Why is this article timely? Because it chastens us from making bold predictions about what might happen up North, or about who might step into the breach of history here in the South during a time of crisis . . .

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