In Ukraine, can humanity withstand Russian tanks?

The scenes from the war in Ukraine seem an assault against humanity. But lessons from the Cold War show humanity’s resilience and power.

Heinz Ducklau/AP/File
Thousands of protesters at Karl Marx Place in Leipzig, East Germany, demonstrated for freedom and free elections on Nov. 13, 1989.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has transported me back more than 30 years to my time as the Monitor’s Germany correspondent, when I reported on the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989.

Of course, the context of that time differs greatly from today – notably, Moscow then had a leader who grew to embrace a people’s right to decide their own government, rather than one intent on forcibly re-creating an iron curtain. But here’s a core commonality: a citizenry’s brave insistence on freedom. That’s an essential quality for victory over tyranny. It’s what’s emerged in Ukraine.

As with Ukraine, it was the East German people themselves who were the heroes of that historic time. East Germans did not fight off an unprovoked invasion. But their persistent, peaceful protests in the face of real risk to their lives liberated their country from 40 years as a communist police state.

In that story, the citizens of Leipzig shine especially bright. On a critical Monday evening in October 1989, a throng of 70,000 people resumed their weekly protest march – despite a reinforced police and military presence prepared to forcibly disperse crowds. Police in riot gear stood at intersections, supported by water cannons. Armored vehicles lined side streets, packed with police. Rumors circulated of hospitals stocking blood supplies. 

Specific warnings went out at workplaces not to march. Citizens knew what the communist leadership in Berlin was capable of. That August, the No. 2 leader, Egon Krenz, had traveled to China. He spoke approvingly of the military’s bloody put-down of student-led protests in Tiananmen Square that June, remarking that it had been necessary to “uphold order.” Indeed, East German leader Erich Honecker had ordered forces to be prepared to fire on demonstrators. 

But a group of local leaders appealed for calm and the marchers carried on, chanting “no violence” and “we are the people.” The expected massacre never transpired. Subsequently, the Leipzig marchers inspired a nationwide explosion of demonstrations that could not be stopped.

Twenty years later, I returned to Germany for anniversary celebrations at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. In pouring rain, I listened to world leaders laud the East German people’s unstoppable self-determination. Most notable was the speech by Poland’s Lech Wałęsa, the former anti-communist dissident leader of the Solidarity workers’ rights movement and first freely elected president of modern Poland.

As I remember it, he said Germany had the Polish people and Solidarity to thank – and then, after a pregnant pause, he went on to mention: as well as the Czechs in 1968, the Hungarians in 1956, and the East German workers in 1953.

All of those uprisings were tragically squashed by Soviet armed forces, until finally, Poland’s succeeded, then East Germany’s, then a cascade of democratic revolutions. We don’t know what will become of Ukraine. But this we do know: You can’t get or keep freedom unless you stand up for it. Ukrainians are doing just that.

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