It’s the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today, and it’s got me to thinking. Everyone knows that’s one of the most momentous events in history, but how did it happen? And did how it happened give us any guidance as to the complex situation we Americans find ourselves in today? Thinking about the Wall crumbling made me think about how we got another Wall builder, and how we might knock down his Wall too.
Every day seems momentous now. This week we saw the governorship of reliably Republican Kentucky change hands over about 5,100 votes between Democratic challenger Andy Beshear and incumbent Matt Bevin, less than a half a percent. That’s a margin similar to the razor-thin victories Donald Trump gained in Michigan (10,704 votes), Pennsylvania (46,765), and Wisconsin (22,177). There have been lots of explanations for these victories: weak candidates, election irregularities, job loss, Trump’s personality, and so forth. But these are awfully small numbers, less than a percent in all cases. What if there’s another reason?
What if it’s just random?
That sounds impossible to fathom. Trump is president and Beshear is (likely) governor because of mere randomness? Clearly turnout among voting blocs is the real factor, right? Well, right, but think for a minute about when you last voted. Maybe it was Tuesday. It’s not a federal holiday, so you likely had all sorts of things going on that day. I know I gave my ballot to a coworker really late in the day. What if she got a flat tire and didn’t get to the dropoff site in time? That would have been two votes uncounted. Surely there must be all sorts of dumb reasons people don’t make it to the polls. When someone wins by 5 percent, you can just discount those errors. When they win by 0.4 percent? Maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s just random.
An event is random if and only if it happens by chance. We usually mean it when we know of two or more meaningfully distinct and pivotal outcomes, such as whether you roll doubles to get out of jail in Monopoly. Unless you are monkeying with the dice, your multiple turns in jail aren’t your fault; it’s just the luck of the dice. Now, the world isn’t totally random, because after your third turn in jail, you’re sprung regardless. Humans tend not to like environments that are limitlessly random, but we’ll play with some chance because gambling is fun for a while.
In games, of which electioneering is surely one, randomness is an element often introduced to balance out skill. We can know that one team in a basketball game is better statistically, but if a sequence of shots fails to fall in the right span, a no. 16 seed will someday beat an overall no. 1 seed. That this has now happened in both the men’s and women’s tournaments says that superior coaching and talent matter a ton, but they are not invincible. Sometimes chance just takes you down. We all believe that.
But we also believe in the big picture. Surely the big stuff must be invulnerable to chance, right? Of all the straw man questions I’ve teed up over the last few paragraphs, this seems the most important. If it really matters, it must be the result of intention. How could it not be? Who could live in a world where it wasn’t?
Let’s look at the Wall. You may think of the Berlin Wall’s demolition as a decision by Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War after a speech by Ronald Reagan demanding he “tear down this wall.” It was not. It was in fact a bumbling comedy of foolishness and misunderstandings that changed the world forever.
The border that the new East German government intended to address was the border with Czechoslovakia, which East Germans were crossing in droves. East Germans were turning up at the West German embassy in Prague and seeking asylum in numbers too great for West Germany to handle. So the West Germans wanted the Czech border closed. New East German leader Egon Krenz issued a set of vague and unsettling regulations which the West Berlin mayor called “complete trash.” West Germany wanted the tide of fleeing East Germans stopped, and Krenz’s fumbling approach caused ⅔ of the Politburo and the prime minister to resign.
Krenz asked his travel ministers to prepare a new policy. They added one new crossing to allow permanent emigration of refugees, but that seemed unfeasible to those administering it, so they allowed people who were already approved to emigrate to do so at any exit. Later the ministers tacked on that temporary travel—not emigration—could also be requested at those border crossings. They allowed the Council of Ministers to determine when it took effect. Satisfied that they had stemmed the tide, they passed this on to the party boss in East Berlin to hold a live news conference about it.
That boss, Günter Schabowski, had not been briefed on the regulations, and Krenz gave him no instructions on how to handle it. After uttering a long list of confusing administrative changes, he announced that West Berlin had exhausted its capacity for refugees, so new rules were being issued to allow permanent emigration at any crossing, and seemed surprised when reporters asked him when they would take effect. He did not know, so he guessed.
“As far as I know, it takes effect immediately, without delay.”
When asked if that applied to Checkpoint Charlie and the other five Berlin crossings, he read a bit further down and concluded it did as well. Satisfied at a job well done, Schabowski left the room.
Within minutes, around 8 pm, a West German news agency announced that East Germans could cross the border right then. An anchor proclaimed, “The GDR has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The gates in the Wall stand open wide.” Now, television waves don’t stop at border walls. Everyone inside East Berlin heard that. So they all showed up at the Wall with bags packed, ready to leave.
No one had told the guards.
Faced with the largest mass of people ever to attempt to storm the gates of Berlin, the guards tried to get clarity on what to do. At first they were told to give the most aggressive people permanent revocation of their citizenship and send them to West Berlin. Okay, but there were still many thousands of people angrily demanding the passage they’d been promised. The likely response was machine gun fire. Among all of the East German high command, no one wanted to be the one history recorded as calling for a massacre. So the troops stood down, and the gates all opened.
Wessis greeted their Eastern brethren with flowers, and started jumping on the wall. They began taking it apart with devices called “wall woodpeckers.” Now, if the East German guards did not have permission to murder East Germans trying to get out, they sure didn’t have permission to murder West Germans dismantling the wall. So throughout the night, the Wall became so compromised that there was nothing that could be done. East German officials hurriedly announced ten new border crossings, and bulldozers showed up. Germany was reunified without a shot being fired.
Nobody planned this. A cavalcade of fools opened the door to a massive revolution. Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand tried to stop Mikhail Gorbachev from ratifying the mistaken East German policy, but he threw up his hands. This was the way the world was going. Big change happens when little people make big errors.
Krenz and Schabowski are not among history’s greatest leaders. They are consigned to the ashbin of history, part of the laboratory ant farm of incompetence that was the last-stage East German government. But as underwhelming as they were, it’s easy to imagine a world where the two take thirty minutes to talk through the intended policy and its expected gradual rollout. Thirty minutes where Krenz says, “Now, under no circumstances should you say we’re opening the border.” Thirty minutes where Schabowski considers how poorly history will remember him, if at all, if he bungles this very important press conference.
But they didn’t take that time, and that single fact seems completely random. The Wall fell, and so in quick succession did the Communist governments of Bulgaria and Hungary and Russia, because two men could not meet for coffee when it counted. Whatever skill they had at ruling their country, it was overwhelmed by a single failure to launch. If that’s not randomness, I don’t know what is.
Yet, none of that matters if the people aren’t ready to seize the opening created by this random event. On November 9, 1989, they were. They were so ready to end the divided state that in one night they tore it down. They were primed by Reagan’s speech and Gorbachev’s perestroika and decades of just plain exhaustion. That’s why history isn’t random. It is a series of intended events punctuated by randomness, not the other way around. History marches, not stumbles.
And so the lesson for wall-building dictators: When the people demand change, and you don’t want it, you better be on your game. Because you make one slip, just one, and your wall’s coming down.
This is the 47th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, and Rudy Giuliani. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos, which you can order by clicking the link.