Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2008

A personal journey back in time is sometimes useful in finding meaning to current major world events. My experiences in Berlin, Germany, over a period of six decades provides lessons that may apply to today's debate on the war in Iraq.

My first exposure to Berlin came in 1946-47 when I worked in the U.S. Office of Military Government. At the time, Russian, British, French, and American troops occupied Germany; an Allied Control Council in Berlin was tasked with administering that defeated country. In 1948 the United States, Britain, and France decided to unify their occupation zones, but Moscow refused to integrate its Zone in eastern Germany. Stalin instead launched the Berlin Blockade, an action that marked the start of the forty-year Cold War.

When I first saw Berlin in June 1946, its central area was so completely destroyed by allied bombing and Russian artillery that I thought the city might not recover. As my military transport descended into Tempelhof Airport, not a single roof was visible on buildings for nearly two miles. At that time one could travel anywhere in Berlin, including the Russian sector.

A second visit came in 1973 at the height of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, built by Moscow in 1961 to prevent East Germans from fleeing to the West, dramatized the reality that Berlin was at the center of the struggle for control of Germany, and of Europe. Walking through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin provided a stark contrast between life in West Berlin, now largely rebuilt through massive aid from the West, and the depressing Soviet sector where rebuilding was largely ignored.

A third journey to Berlin occurred in May 1991 after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Communist east was merged with West Germany. Unlike West Berlin, however, the eastern half of the city was a depressing place. Rebuilding had barely started and Potsdammer Platz, previously divided by the Wall, showed some new construction. But most of East Berlin remained in a decrepit condition.

Residents in the east were bewildered at seeing first-hand the prosperity in West Berlin. Many people over forty living in the east were unable to adjust to challenges presented by a dynamic, free society in the West.

My fourth visit occurred last month, and this time the eastern part of the Berlin resembled the prosperous west. Some rebuilding continues, especially at the hideous headquarters of the former East German government. This edifice of Communist rule had long marred the view on Unter den Linden adjacent to Berlin's cathedral. It will be converted into a new structure that restores the classical view of pre-war Berlin.

Another restored building, the Reichstag (parliament) with its new glass dome, was now completed and symbolized that Berlin was again the capital of unified Germany.

One highlight of the recent visit was a performance at Berlin's Staatsoper of Verdi's La Traviata, performed before a full house.

My mind raced back to December 1946 to another performance in this theater, located in the heart of Berlin. It was severely damaged by war but was still offered occasional operatic performances. At the time no German theaters and few houses were heated, so the audience sat huddled in shabby overcoats and hats as the temperature outside dropped below zero. Now it was packed with elegantly dressed Germans.

Dresden was destroyed by a massive allied fire-bombing in February 1945. Until its overthrow in 1990, the East German government had done nothing to restore the classical central section overlooking the Elbe, except the Semper opera that was rebuilt to attract tourists. When I first viewed the city in 1991, the famed Frauenkirke still lay in ruins. The Communists had no interest in restoring churches. By 2007 this magnificent example of Dresden's classical period was completed, with many of the original stones. Today, Dresden's cultural face is fully restored.

What conclusions may be drawn from the remarkable transformation that Berlin and Germany underwent after 1948, lessons that might apply to Iraq today?

First, a prosperous, democratic German state would not have emerged after World War II without the political determination of Washington to create a new Germany and provide the massive economic assistance it required. The Marshall Plan was part of this great effort. But a bipartisan approach in Washington was even more important.

A second reason for success was the determination of the Germans themselves to make a supreme effort to put the disastrous Nazi period behind them and build a new state along democratic, free-market lines. American and British leaders were determined not to repeat the mistakes in Germany they had made after World War I.

Could a similar favorable outcome be achieved in Iraq, as President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predict? This depends on how determined the Iraqis are to put aside internal quarrels and build a new, democratic nation. It also depends on whether the next U.S. president and Congress support a continuing U.S. role in Iraq.

The answer will not be apparent for some years. But we do know that George Bush wants to be remembered as the president who tried to create in Iraq a similar friendly, democratic country that his predecessors had built in postwar Germany.

File last modified on Saturday, 19-JUN-2008 4:52 PM EST

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