Mary Elise Sarotte’s "The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall"

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Mary Elise Sarotte (a professor at USC) has written an outstanding, page-turning account of the fall of the Berlin Wall (The Collapse) that is of obvious relevance to those with an interest in North Korea.

For some time, strategists have pondered—and fantasized—about how a “hole in the fence” strategy or other tactics focused on expanding exit from the country might lead to a similar unraveling of the North Korean regime. This book does not necessarily give comfort on that score, and Sarotte makes no claims, nor really sustained mention, of possible parallels. But some of the analogies and differences are sobering.

The book begins with an interesting disquisition on historical causation, and what Sarotte calls the the question of “how” as well as the question of “why.” In retrospect, it appears that large historical forces were at work and that the opening of the Berlin Wall was inevitable. Other stories that have gained traction suggest that some combination of outside actors—Gorbachev, Kohl, Reagan and Bush—were responsible or even that “reformers” like Egon Krenz, who ultimately led the ouster of the ailing Honneker, should get credit. Sarotte shows that all of these stories are wrong and that the outcome hinged on a series of highly contingent actions by brave—and in some cases simply bewildered or confused—individuals acting in rapidly changing and highly uncertain circumstances.

Among the core dramatis personae are East German dissidents, the Communist Party leadership, outside news agencies and personalities (including Tom Brokaw) and border guards, ultimately under control of the Stasi. Moving through Sarotte’s story, however, is strong undercurrent of the significance of travel to the emerging middle-class and elite in East Germany (see our recent post on new academic work on travel restrictions). Even if the regime was still killing people attempting to go over the wall in the spring of 1989, it also had to accommodate the desire of the public for some movement, at least within the Eastern bloc. The variable-speed changes taking place in Eastern Europe made the Hungarian-Austrian “hole in the fence” a crucial weak point in state control. Sarotte tells the remarkable story of the hole in the fence, the flood of East Germans to the West German embassy in Prague, the movement of those people in sealed trains to the West, and ultimately how a botched reform liberalizing passage through the Wall in Berlin led border guards to open the fence.

The refugee issue remains one of the most pressing humanitarian issues with respect to North Korea, and the outside world should do everything it can to facilitate exit of those who want to leave their own country; it is one of the most basic of human rights. But no such similar “hole in the fence” is likely to emerge on any of North Korea’s three borders--the DMZ with the South, the Chinese border, or the speck of connection in the far northeast with Russia. Nor is China likely to allow itself to become a transit point for mass emigration to third countries.

But the story of the wall is not just about travel restrictions; it is also about wider currents of political reform that were sweeping Eastern Europe and that ultimately led to a changing of the guard in East Germany. Sarotte notes that Egon Krenz was hardly a reformer, and the Stasi continued to exercise significant power within the regime after Honneker’s ouster. But the peaceful and snowballing protests in Leipzig, and later in Berlin itself, also constitute a crucial backdrop to the story. The regime faced classic dilemmas on how to deal with a fundamentally Gandhian movement that joined dissidents with the organization—however fragile—of allies in the churches. Albeit limited, information from East Germany leaked out through channels that the dissidents had fostered, including directly and indirectly with Western news agencies. If the regime repressed the protests—particularly given their peaceful nature—it would be costly for a regime increasingly on Western life support. Yet if it did not respond forcefully, it only reduced the cost of joining the marches on the Leipzig ring road, which ultimately swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

In the political science community, the Leipzig protests are the subject of a classic piece by Suzanne Lohmann (.pdf here) on how “informational cascades” operated in the fashion just described to expand protest. But this model is not altogether complete. In the absence of the churches—a key organizational focal point—and at least some space for the protestors bought by dint of sheer determination and the increasing exposure of the regime, the protests would have never gained traction. Sarotte’s story is thus not just one of the hole in the fence, but of complementary domestic resistance, and in major cities. Needless to say, the North Korean regime has done its utmost to avoid the errors of even partial liberalization, making sure that organizations such as the church are nothing but pure shells, Potemkin operations that don’t even pretend to function.

Finally, it is worth underlining that the key to the collapse of East Germany was a West Germany that was ready, willing and able to absorb the East. Sarotte details how intermediate solutions—and even a role for the East German dissidents—were swept away in Kohl’s promise of rapid unification; the CDU’s sister party walked to triumph in the 1990 transitional elections, the first and last free elections held in East Germany. President Park has certainly hinted at that possibility in her effort to combine unification fever with Trustpolitik, a difficult dance that Sarotte traces in the German case as well. And thinking in the South about unification has gotten more serious (see Marc Noland’s post on unification planning).  But doubts about the magnitude of the task are clearly higher in South Korea, and for good reason.

Analogies are not only imperfect but potentially dangerous, and Sarotte’s story could and might be read as a tale of how the hole in the fence ultimately worked. But one cautionary note that Sarotte hammers again and again: it was not outsiders that ultimately led the revolution, but an uncoordinated collection of dissidents, pastors, news agencies, and lower-level officials. Regimes of this sort do not collapse of their own accord; they are ultimately brought down from combinations of pressure from below and within.

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