When young Germans danced through the final breach in the Berlin Wall 10 years ago Tuesday, American thinkers great and small tried to make sense of the Wall's fall. Many tried to forecast what would happen next. The predicting proved perilous.

Looking back at them now, those prognostications share a certain quaintness. They were nearly all rooted in the Cold War realities that had created the American frame of reference for nearly half a century. But the prognosticators could not grasp the fact that this frame of reference was as doomed as the Wall itself.

Many of the forecasters realized that a different world was coming, but none successfully escaped the constraints of the old reality to imagine a new one. A computer-assisted search of the archives--extensive but not exhaustive--discovered no analyst or statesman, no commentator or professor who understood then that the hole in the Wall would be quickly followed by the utter collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union, soon producing a weak and bumbling Russia half the size of the U.S.S.R., with a fraction of its importance.

Nor did any seer predict a united Germany of the kind we have today, mired in economic and political crises and unable to exert much influence outside its own borders. Much more common were predictions of a resurgent--and threatening--Germany. Many prophets foresaw the end of the Warsaw Pact, but usually in conjunction with the end of NATO, too; none predicted then a revived NATO with new members who had recently been Warsaw Pact members.

Reading what smart people said and wrote a decade ago is a stiff reminder that prognostication can be a fool's errand. This is not to say, though, that running the errand has no value; the prognosticator's art can be provocative, entertaining and even illuminating. Sometimes the effort is so bold as to evoke awe. Consider the predictions of William Safire, the New York Times columnist and proprietor of an oft-used crystal ball:

"The rest of the dominoes will fall," Safire wrote four days after the Wall did, in a column outlining "the realities that will flow" from the unexpected breach in the Cold War's most potent symbol. "Bulgarians and Czechoslovaks are next, and even the police state of Rumania awaits an uprising. . . ."

A good start, but then trouble: "Economic crisis will be transferred to Turkey as West Germany absorbs its eastern German unskilled workers and sends back the legions of Turkish workers. . . . Germany, already the world's largest exporter, will dominate the economies of Central Europe and invest heavily in the Soviet Union . . . The phase-out of U.S. troops stationed in Germany will begin soon. . . . Germany, tired of apologetics, will stare down its own Greens and become a nuclear power with Star Wars rocketry making it an Uberpower before the turn of the millennium. . . . Other Europeans will work together to 'stop the Germans,' less out of historic fears of militarism than from the competition of militant industriousness."

Well, not quite. Turkish workers were not expelled from Germany, Germany has not become a nuclear power, nor does it (yet) dominate the economies of Eastern Europe. Some U.S. troops left Germany, but nearly 70,000 remain. Rather than trying to stop Germany, the other Europeans sought comfort from the strength of Germany's deutsche mark by creating a common currency, the euro. The Germans' "militant industriousness" has produced an economy lately less successful than France's. Of Safire's six forthcoming "realities," roughly 1.5 proved to be real.

The problem with trying to see the future is the present. What we know usually overpowers our ability to see what might be coming. What is is; it has the advantage of tangible existence. This makes the present hard to shake, no matter how smart you are.

Such inertia explains the most common miscalculations in the prognoses of a decade ago. One was that Soviet communism and the Soviet Union would survive the dramas of the fall of 1989 (and of course they did--but only for two years). Another was to presume that even without a wall, two Germanys would have to exist--the Russians would demand it, or the French, or the Germans themselves. In both cases, it was just too difficult to imagine that what was would no longer be.

Yet some did rise above the present to see part of what was to come. Martin Malia, a University of California professor, published a self-consciously anonymous article (signed "Z") in the scholarly journal Daedalus that was excerpted on the New York Times op-ed page in January 1990. He wrote: "1989 will enter history as the beginning of communism's terminal crisis." Malia understood that there was no hope that the Soviet system could be successfully reformed: "There is no third way between Leninism and the market, between Bolshevism and constitutional government." Reform would inevitably lead to "the liquidation" of the party-dominated system. This was a shrewd insight.

But Malia did not think the liquidation would come quickly. "The revolutionary events of 1989 should not breed the illusion that the exit from communism these events presage will itself be rapid. . . ." It would be "a long time coming." Malia, a fervent and eloquent anti-communist, was unable to see that the object of his fervor was so weak already.

Rapidity of change also flummoxed George F. Kennan, whom history will record as a true prophet for his 1946 prediction that the Soviet system could fall over time. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow and author of the classic "Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin," testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the beginning of 1990.

The security of Europe, Kennan observed, was tied up in the complex realities inside the two Germanys, where NATO and the Warsaw Pact confronted one another with large military forces. The delicate arrangements in the Germanys, including nominal four-power control of Berlin, would be threatened by any consideration of German unification, Kennan said. He recommended that the major powers agree to a "binding moratorium of at least three years' duration" that would freeze European realities in place--no changes in NATO or the Warsaw Pact, no "alterations" of borders and states. In the meantime, statesmen could prepare, "in a careful and deliberate manner. . . a new European security structure."

This advice from a scholarly retired diplomat had a certain tidy logic, but it showed scant respect for the energies already loose in Central Europe. Even Kennan, whose original mind often took him to unexpected conclusions, could not escape the spell of accepted wisdom. He thought the situation was delicate, but the forces ripping down the Iron Curtain were anything but delicate.

Rapid German reunification was just too much for many to imagine. A smug Newsweek article in late November 1989 ridiculed President George Bush for saying that the United States would welcome early reunification: "His blithe announcement . . . was premature and unhelpful. He may well come to regret having made it."

Many German experts could not imagine East Germany choosing self-destruction. One was Ronald D. Asmus of the Rand Corp., who wrote in the Los Angeles Times days after the Wall fell: "Having rejected the Soviet model, East Germans do not simply want to blindly embrace the West German model." Asmus opposed unification: "It is in everyone's interest that East Germans be given the hope and the necessary incentives that will persuade them to remain and to rebuild their society."

Why would two Germanys be "in everyone's interest"? Well, this was more consistent with the way things had been for 45 years, and therefore more orderly, less threatening. But events quickly demonstrated that no conceivable incentives would persuade East Germans to maintain a separate identity and state.

Henry Kissinger, born in Germany, saw this at once. Three weeks after the Wall crumbled, the former U.S. secretary of state wrote in Newsweek: "German unification in some form has become inevitable, whatever the misgivings of Germany's neighbors and World War II victims." The driving force, Kissinger saw, would be German public opinion.

He was less clairvoyant, however, about the Soviet Union. From 1985 onward, when Mikhail Gorbachev had become the Soviet leader, Kissinger was skeptical about Gorbachev's intentions; he held to that skepticism even after Gorbachev gave up any pretense of control over Eastern Europe. In his Newsweek article, Kissinger entertained the possibility that the Russians might still try to use their nuclear superiority over Germany and Japan to coerce both into helping rebuild the Soviet economy.

The idea that even after the amazing changes of 1989, the Soviet Union remained determined to dominate world politics was also hard for Kissinger's old boss, Richard M. Nixon, to shake off. "The Soviet military is leaner but stronger today than when Gorbachev came to power five years ago," Nixon wrote in the Washington Times in January 1990. He enumerated countries from Afghanistan to Nicaragua where, he said, the Soviets continued to meddle against American interests. He accused Gorbachev of "disarming the West psychologically," and said the Western powers should not provide economic aid to the Soviet Union "unless Soviet foreign policy becomes less aggressive."

But Nixon also saw the possibility that Gorbachev might "lead his people away from aggression abroad." Other cold warriors rejected that notion. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said that Gorbachev's was "in fact more aggressive . . . than previous regimes," whose goal was "to turn the world into a socialist system dominated by the Soviet Union."

Predictions are doomed if they are based on a misunderstanding of underlying conditions. Some of the prognoses made a decade ago that look most foolish today started from flawed premises.

For example, Jerry Hough of Duke University, a Kremlinologist who prides himself on holding strong and unconventional opinions, argued in congressional testimony at the end of 1989 that Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were in a stronger position than most Americans realized. Quoting CIA estimates (which we now understand were wildly off the mark), Hough said the Soviet gross national product was $2.8 trillion, "bigger than that of Japan and the two Germanys combined," and predicted that Soviet multinational corporations would soon be exporting cheap manufactured goods all over the world. "Gorbachev is doing very well," Hough wrote in January 1990, "and 1990-91 will be years in which we will have to come to grips with that reality."

Walter Russell Mead of the World Policy Institute made another sort of economic miscalculation. In an article for Harper's magazine published early in 1990, Mead wrote that "the post-Cold War era is beginning," and the United States was headed for the sidelines. "It is Japan and Germany who stand to map the post-Cold War world economy; in this new world, the United States may well be the Argentina of the twenty-first century." Mead (and many others) misread Japan's and Germany's economic success in the '80s as permanent. Ten years later, the American economy is the envy of both those countries.

Another prognosis that got considerable attention in 1990 was written by John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. In a closely argued and utterly confident analysis that ran as a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, Mearsheimer said that NATO and the Warsaw Pact both would dissolve, that "Western European states will do what they did for centuries before the onset of the Cold War--look upon one another with abiding suspicion."

Projecting the likelihood of violent conflict in Europe, Mead urged the United States to help non-nuclear European powers acquire nuclear weapons, because nuclear deterrence would be the best hope for maintaining peace. The possibility of a growing European Union with a common currency and a willingness to wage a war against a defiant neighbor such as Serbia found no place in Mearsheimer's forecast.

Ten years is a short time, as the passage of the last decade reminds us. There's no magic in a 10th anniversary. We're only at a way station on the road to . . . whatever comes next.

It does seem safe, however, to predict that 10 or 20 years from now, Americans will look back at this end-of-millennium moment and note how many of our 1999 instincts still resembled Cold War reflexes. We talk a lot about post-Cold War realities, but we're still carrying a lot of Cold War baggage. The Senate debate on the nuclear test ban treaty was a reminder of that. So is the defense budget, which still includes exotic weapons systems imagined in the '80s as a hedge against aggressive Soviet procurement programs that collapsed years ago. A striking example is the Navy's proposed fleet of $2 billion New Attack Submarines that remains in the budget despite the absence of an enemy force worthy of it.

The events initiated in Berlin a decade ago have not yet fully played out. The Russian drama is certainly far from complete. And there are four communist regimes still in business: China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. Why should they survive when all the others collapsed? Will Martin Malia, so prescient in some respects 10 years ago, be proved right in his prediction that communism everywhere was dying--"not just in Russia but from the Baltic to the China sea, and from Berlin to Beijing"?

Prognostications, anyone?

Robert Kaiser is an associate editor of The Post.

Washington Post researcher Mary Lou White contributed to this article.

Said, and Sometimes Done

Plenty of pundits made lots of predictions after the Berlin Wall fell. Can you match the quotes with their authors? Answers on Page 5.

1. "We should stop referring to what's going on in the Soviet Bloc as 'reform'--as in, for example, 'Gorbachev's reforms.' It's revolution. By revolution, I mean the overthrow of the existing political, economic and social order. The fact that the revolution has so far been peaceful does not make it any less genuine. This is more than a semantic distinction. The labels we use to describe things often determine how we view and understand them."

2. "Will the Soviet Union survive this century? Until last week only hopelessly anti-Soviet critics raised such a question, basing their views more on hope than analysis. But the Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced his intention to end the political monopoly that the Communist Party has enjoyed in the Soviet Union since 1917. It was the political equivalent of an army abolishing its officer corps, for the unifying force within the Soviet Union, its central nervous system, has been the Communist Party, which has controlled every aspect of Soviet life through party structures operating behind the scenes."

3. "The political world familiar for over a generation is disintegrating before our eyes. The new realities are:

* NATO will have to be fundamentally altered to take into account the transformation of Germany and the perceived erosion of the Soviet threat.

* The Warsaw Pact will not survive in its present form very far into the next decade.

* Integration of the European Community will have to be accelerated to take account of new opportunities in Eastern Europe, most recently in Czechoslovakia.

* These trends will require a new look at East-West relations."

4. "Western Europe is on the threshold of nuclear disarmament and NATO military spending is in a freefall. Nevertheless, the U.S. is engaged in a series of arms control negotiations that, among other things, may well make it more vulnerable to a Soviet first-strike than it is today. What makes these trends especially alarming is the fact that the perception of a diminished Soviet threat that has precipitated them is, in important respects, simply wrong."

5."Communism is finished, and its empire dissolving."

Who and When

A. HENRY KISSINGER, Newsweek, Dec. 4, 1989

B. CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 1989

C. ROBERT SAMUELSON, The Washington Post, Nov. 15, 1989

D. FRANK J. GAFFNEY JR., director of the Center for Security Policy, the New York Times, Nov. 17, 1989

E. CHARLES WILLIAM MAYNES, editor of Foreign Policy magazine, Feb. 18, 1990