BERLIN The righteous rage in the streets of Tehran is
familiar to Berliners. They recall their own demonstrations that doomed the
hated Berlin Wall two decades ago. Berliners, hopeful and sympathetic, see
lessons in their past for the demonstrators in the Iranian capital.
Films and photographs at exhibitions throughout the city
document how "power to the people" can sometimes beat extraordinary odds.
The exhibitions were planned long before the protests in Iran were a gleam
in the eye of candle-carrying Iranians. Nobody here discounts the odds
against the Iranian masses the turmoil can lead to the results of
November 1989 in Berlin or to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square.
History in the making lacks the clarity of history recalled, but
similarities of circumstance are nevertheless striking. Visitors to the Sony
Center in Potsdamer Platz, for example, watch with widened eyes at a
videotape of John F. Kennedy's speech on June 26, 1963, poignant in painful
remembrance, expressing solidarity with the residents of a divided city.
His dramatic assertion, "Ich bein ein Berliner" "I am a
Berliner" rings in the ears of Berliners today. So, too, Ronald Reagan's
exhortation at the celebration of the 750th anniversary of the founding of
Berlin: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Several of his closest advisers argued against making such a
dramatic declaration, for fear of antagonizing Mikhail Gorbachev. But the
Gipper knew that his words would tell people far beyond Berlin that America
stood with them, and would take heart.
President Obama heard similar appeals to timidity this week in
Washington he shouldn't risk antagonizing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the
mullahs in Tehran if he wants to parley with them. Like Reagan, the new
president showed a little spunk at last, finally asserting solidarity with
the demonstrators. There was none of the Kennedy bravado or Reagan
dramatics, but it was nevertheless welcome.
The debate now focuses on the nature of Barack Obama's
leadership as he faces his first crucial foreign policy crisis. Germans,
like Americans, argue over whether his measured approach will actually work,
or whether his caution will be taken in Tehran for weakness and
irresolution. They compare the Obama approach with Angela Merkel's mettle in
demanding from the first a recount of the votes.
For all of his admired rhetorical flourishes and reiterated
outrage, President Obama sounds more unassuming than assertive, more like a
well-meaning appeaser than a tough-minded analyst. Many Germans concede that
the president's Cairo speech probably inspired the demonstrators in Tehran,
but some of his remarks since have seemed to float like mere magic bubbles
blown from a wand, popping harmlessly when they come to earth.
Confronting tyranny requires courage. The sweep of history that
took Berliners to a triumphant dance on the wall at the Brandenburg Gate was
long in the making. The lesson for the Iranians is that dismantling a
corrupt and oppressive government requires not only courage, but patience
and above all persistence.
Germans in the east marched against rigged local elections in
May 1989, weary of the same hacks the government put up for "democratic"
validation of a popular election. It was those demonstrations, Merkel
observed not long ago in a ceremony commemorating the East German
demonstrations, that marked "the beginning of the end."
The end did not come quickly or easily. Young men and women
here, as in Tehran, risked their lives to confront the government, smuggling
out stories of government brutality. No one knew they were creating a
revolution. Like the Iranians, the German revolutionaries represented many
different points of view. Some craved personal rights, others broader
election choices. Others simply wanted the right to leave. But they were
unified against a common enemy.
If Reagan's description of the "evil empire" once sounded over
the top in the West, it was not so behind the Iron Curtain, where it was
appreciated as an accurate description of what they endured every day.
Gorbachev's glasnost, which led to the crumbling of both the wall and
eventually the Soviet Union, was to the evil empire what Twitter, Facebook
and YouTube may eventually become for the Iranian government. President
Obama was right to ask the administrators at Twitter to keep its
communication channels open in Iran during the marches, sustaining the
demonstrators just as smuggled videos bore witness to oppression here two
The longer the Iranian protests last, the more sweeping the
indictments will become. The demonstrators have already changed Iran the
men and women in the streets of Tehran threaten to change the Middle East.
That may be wishful thinking, but you can't say the Germans haven't been
there and done that.