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My role was to ask the last question — the only one that actually mentioned the Wall: “What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?” It reduced Schabowski to silence for a second or two, followed by a rambling, incoherent response, as if he had suddenly simultaneously grasped what he had done and was at stake: the end of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain. He had no answer to my question, because of the obvious absurdity of keeping a wall through the German capital if people could pass through it. The phrase “a moment of truth” is often misused, but in this case it is the mot juste: Schabowski was lost for words because the truth had just dawned on him — and on the multitudes watching on live television. He abruptly brought the press conference to an end, leaving many journalists confused about what had actually been announced. For my part, I was in no doubt that the Wall was opening and ran back to my hotel to report it to the disbelieving foreign desk of the Daily Telegraph. TV news reports soon reinforced this interpretation, but it took a couple of hours before people started gathering at the checkpoints and demanding to be let through. Even then, the opening was not inevitable — but there were no orders and the officer in charge was not prepared to open fire on his own compatriots.

The fall of the Berlin Wall — perhaps the single most historically significant event of my lifetime — brought to an end a long period during which the measures required to ensure survival of Western civilisation had held in check the more extravagant fantasies of the Left. During the Second World War, the need to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan forced liberals and conservatives alike to be pragmatists, making an ally even of Stalin. “Ideological purity was less important to FDR,” writes John Lewis Gaddis in his new book On Grand Strategy, “than geography, balances of power, and the requirements of navies.” Winston Churchill famously declared: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Liberals were often at least as hawkish as conservatives during the Cold War — a phrase we owe to an anti-communist socialist, George Orwell. A liberal abhorrence of war in the nuclear age went hand in hand with a military doctrine that implied a readiness to risk mutually assured destruction. There was a balance to be struck between containment and confrontation, between detente and deterrence, between recognition of the reality of what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire” and the necessity of co-existence: what Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself, called “doing business with Mr Gorbachev”. The limitation of righteousness was a self-denying ordinance for the democracies, because the ultimate consequences of Utopian ideologies were plain for the world to see in the poverty and despotism, not only of overtly communist countries, but of the “third world”, most of which suffered under some variation of these ideologies.

All this changed when the Berlin Wall fell. The limitation of righteousness was lifted, the checks and balances that had held back the votaries of an earthly paradise were removed, and with the proliferation of international organisations, the Kantian vision of perpetual peace and world government seemed close to realisation. Few voices in the 1990s dampened the euphoria of a liberalism liberated from the incubus of “actually existing socialism” and from any need to defer to more conservative voices, cautioning against hubristic notions of the end of history and the invulnerability of Western civilisation. In 1990 the great scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis analysed “the roots of Muslim rage”, warning that the impending conflict “is no less than a clash of civilisations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both”.  Soon afterwards, the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington adopted and developed this prediction of a “clash of civilisations” into a fully-fledged, systematic model that became highly influential around the turn of the century, especially after 9/11.
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