30 years later, many wonder what went wrong. And as time goes on, how will 1989 be remembered?

First published in November 2019.

No one who lived through it will ever forget the fall of the Berlin Wall. The impossible became possible overnight. An absolute division between irreconcilable enemies suddenly – and peacefully – dissolved.

I should know, as I was a Fulbright Fellow studying in Hamburg, Germany, at the time. On 9 November 1989, I woke up to a newspaper filled with photos that my friends and I could not fully comprehend. People were streaming from Communist East Germany into the capitalist West. In Berlin, a city that had been divided since the end of the Second World War, teenagers were sitting on the Wall and partying in places where only 24 hours earlier they would have been gunned down.

Shocked, I decided to hitchhike to West Berlin to investigate this new reality. The city was packed with both East Germans curiously ogling the merchandise in Western shops and Western tourists, curiously ogling their Communist neighbors. There I wandered with the crowds, slept in odd corners, drank from communal whiskey bottles, and fended off several concerned “Wessis” who, mistaking me for a particularly bedraggled “Ossi,” were eager to ply me with bananas and chocolate bars. As a young and silly American, I had no idea of the import of what I was seeing. But then again, everyone, even the Berlin Wall border guards themselves, seemed awash that first week in a state of affable confusion.

30 years later, this confusion is gone. In its place, at least in many western countries, is a sense of moral certitude. The Wall’s collapse is conventionally cast as a victory of light over darkness. “People’s power swept away the Iron Curtain,” goes a line in a BBC documentary made for the upcoming anniversary.

Some critics, however, are starting to question whether such language has lost its luster. Commemorations of the Wall have become “empty rituals” remarked German comedian-journalist Oliver Welke on his popular weekly late-night news show. Every year, the anniversary provides an opportunity for the finest in feel-good television, complete with inspirational soundbites, “pretty pictures,” and positive emotions. Such uplifting coverage may be deserved, Welke admits. The fall of the Wall was a genuinely wonderful experience. But over time it has also become a story full of comforting myths and unexamined clichés.

Above all, the coming together of East and West Berlin is meant to stand as a testament to the power and promise of democracy. 30 years ago, the East German people refused to be contained by a physical barrier and, in so doing, effectively toppled a repressive regime. Their actions – and, above all, the way their actions are remembered – suggest that ordinary citizens can fight against tyranny and win. As a result, the night of 8-9 November is currently being invoked by protesters locked in dangerous liberation struggles across the world, from Hong Kong to Kashmir.

But there is no getting around the fact that this triumphant democratic moment has failed to produce a stronger democratic world.

Change From the Bottom Up, or the Top Down?

The East German government built the Wall in 1961 to keep a tighter lock on its citizens, 3.5 million of whom had managed to defect to the West over the course of the post-WWII era. Most had escaped by travelling to East Berlin and then surreptitiously crossing the relatively porous city border.

What began with barbed-wire grew into a 12-foot high barricade some 27 miles long, with 302 guard towers erected along its perimeter. These were staffed around the clock by soldiers, under orders to shoot-to-kill in the event they encountered an attempt at escape.

By 1989, however, the East German state was once again losing control of its subjects, who were guaranteed automatic and immediate West German citizenship if they could but make it to the FRG. That summer, tens of thousands defected, this time by travelling legally to other Communist countries behind the Iron Curtain. In the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague, crowds of East Germans climbed the walls of the West German embassy and demanded asylum. In Hungary, they fled across newly demilitarized borders into Austria, whose government began running transit busses into West Germany from various points along its Hungarian frontier. Meanwhile, weekly protests engulfed cities inside East Germany, with demonstrators calling for political change.

But that change, when it came, was in large part an accident. In hopes of calming the growing unrest, members of the East German Politburo agreed to gradually relax restrictions on travel into capitalist countries. But the harried Communist Party bureaucrat tasked with explaining their decision misunderstood the new plan. Under questioning from reporters during a televised evening press conference, he stated that “as far as he knew,” all barriers to free travel were to be lifted immediately.

In East Berlin, viewers responded by racing to the Wall where, miraculously, confused guards held their fire – and, after several hours, agreed to let the restive crowds through.

Thus the actual Berlin Wall never literally “fell.” What collapsed was a symbol of oppression, division, and fear. Such was the power of the event that Soviet dissident, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, immediately flew to Berlin to play Bach’s “Sarabande” at Checkpoint Charlie, in honor of the human spirit and the striving of all individuals to make a better world.

Today, German authorities are anxious to enshrine this positive message – that democracy can topple dictatorship and people can, successfully, speak truth to power – in the younger generation. Politicians, educators and entrepreneurs have invested in different ways of communicating the enormity of the Berlin Wall story, ranging from virtual reality tours of the divided city of the past to animated children’s cartoons set in Communist times, featuring loveable dogs named “Sputnik” and daring family escapes into freedom. In honor of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, a giant art installation entitled “Visions in Motion” waves in the wind at the Brandenburg Gate. It features 30,000 ribbons, each about 500 feet long, inscribed with the “wishes, hopes, and ideas” of 30,000 Germans about the future of their country.

“Wir sind ein Volk!”

But many of the dreams that motivated Germany’s “peaceful revolution” have run into difficulties.

The greatest hope of 1989 was to heal divisions – between capitalism and Communism, East and West, Germany and Europe. And yet today these divisions persist.

After the fall of the Wall, the leaders of France and Britain, both of whom had lived through the Second World War, expressed deep reservations about allowing the two Germanies, FRG and GDR, to merge into a single, powerful, restored German nation. Ultimately, they made it clear they would only support the reunification of Germany if that Germany would then agree to be contained within a larger European Union. German Unity Day on 3 October 1990 was followed by Germany’s signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, establishing the EU, less than two years later.

These days, as Britain faces a December 12 general election in a last-ditch effort to figure out how best to leave the EU, a search for #BerlinWall on Twitter turns up a flood of anti-Brexit commentary by those who would remind readers of the original Maastricht aspiration.

“It’s such a massive paradox that as Europe gears up to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain is busying itself erecting a metaphorical diplomatic and trade wall,” noted one such user. (“Not to mention chucking away 7 billion pounds,” read one reply.)

Politics of Extremes

Meanwhile in Germany, enduring tensions between eastern and western sections of the country are fueling a move away from mainstream political parties and towards the extremes of “left” and “right.”

Today the economic productivity of the former East Germany is 75% of that of the Western states. This is far better than in 1990, when the figure was 43%. But only 1.7% of the country’s leading economic and administrative positions are occupied by Easterners. In September of this year, a poll commissioned by the German government concluded that 57% of eastern Germans feel like “second-class citizens” and only 38% regard reunification as a success.

Economic differences have grown into political ones. Easterners have objected more strenuously than Westerners to Germany’s support for Syrian refugees and shown greater enthusiasm for Germany’s alt-right populist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which endorses strict limits on immigration. Its leaders have also dismissed Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a monument of shame."

After coming in second in an October regional election and knocking Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling party into third place, AfD candidates emphasized the importance of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall to their campaign. Voters in eastern Germany, they said, were responding to AfD’s promise to finally complete the transformation (“Vollende die Wende”) from impoverished Communism to prosperous capitalism that, they claim, Merkel’s party failed to make good on after 1989.

Germany’s more established political parties have pledged never to rule in coalition with the AfD, but its electoral gains raise the question of what happens when a significant number of people – in a democratic process – choose to back a demagogue, or to support a platform of undemocratic ideals. While the fall of the Wall continues to be remembered, at least in the West, as an unequivocally positive triumph of democracy, the intervening years have cast “people’s power” in a decidedly more ambiguous light. Sometimes post-1989 populists strike a blow for social justice, other times they champion national strength and pride, and still other times they promulgate intolerance hatred, and fear.

By the same token, authoritarian political practice – condemned by most good Western European democrats – has on occasion been responsible for initiating visionary policies. Witness former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who admitted in a 2002 interview that he had had to act like a dictator in order to get his country to adopt the euro, a change he knew the majority of German people did not support. I knew I could never win a referendum in Germany,” he maintained.

Who Really Won?

Amid the series of so-called “Velvet Revolutions” against Communist rule that swept across Eastern Europe in 1989, most U.S. and Western European pundits did not lose much sleep questioning the merits of unchecked “people’s power.” Instead, they claimed an ideological victory, arguing that citizens around the world had recognized the inherent superiority of U.S.-style democracy, capitalism, and liberalism.

U.S. foreign policy expert Francis Fukuyama published a much-cited article in The National Interest, welcoming “the end of history” due to what he predicted would be the unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism and universal adoption of “Western liberal democracy.”

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in contrast, did not believe that democracy and capitalism were inextricably linked. Instead, he championed the possible fusion of Communism with democratic rule. At the same time, however, he acknowledged that to cling to the former without the latter was a recipe for failure. As the Berlin Wall fell, he refused to allow Soviet troops stationed in East Germany to take military action to restore the authority of the DDR dictatorship. His unwillingness to use violence was one reason Time Magazine named him Man of the Decade in December of 1989, lauding him for “making possible the end of one of [history’s] most disreputable episodes, the imposition of a cruel and unnatural order on hundreds of millions of people.”

China’s leader Deng Xiaoping saw things differently. In the early 1980s, Deng had embarked on a number of proto-capitalist economic reforms that U.S. analysts assumed must inevitably lead to democratization. But Deng had also, on 4 June 1989, ordered tanks to crush student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In the face of Eastern Europe’s transformation later that same year, most U.S. analysts came to view China’s crackdown as a regrettable anomaly. They argued that Deng had merely postponed the inevitable, and that citizen unrest would continue to grow.

Such analysis was wrong. Chinese leaders have continued to demonstrate a conviction that capitalism can thrive under Communist rule and to argue for the advantages of a strong state in stimulating unprecedented economic growth. Since the 1980s, more than 800 million Chinese have been raised out of poverty, and many citizens appear at peace with the idea of accepting limited personal freedoms in return for material gains.

For current Chinese President Xi Jinping, the lesson of the Berlin Wall has been to unite the Chinese Communist Party against ideas of “western constitutional democracy and to respond to protests like those currently engulfing Hong Kong with severity. Like Russia’s current president Vladimir Putin, Xi views Gorbachev’s tolerant approach to the fall of the Wall as a cautionary tale – an attempt to accommodate voices from below that led to the fatal weakening of Soviet power.

Today, Putin and Xi are the poster children for what western political scientists, to their chagrin, are having to acknowledge as a new and increasingly widespread form of populist authoritarian governance. The forces of liberal democracy look increasingly vulnerable, in the face of a deepening China-Russia alliance cemented by ostentatious displays of friendship between Putin and Xi. Meanwhile, the U.S., self-professed champion of democratic freedoms, is beginning to ever-more resemble its authoritarian rivals.

Back at the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall in 2014, Gorbachev used the event to deliver a somber message to Washington, accusing U.S. leaders of having acted selfishly and dishonestly in global politics after emerging unscathed from the collapse of Communism.

“Euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of western leaders,” he concluded. “Taking advantage of Russia’s increasing weakness... they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world.” This attitude, he argued, had led to a collapse of trust between the two former superpowers and sparked a second, post-Communist Cold War.

Seeing What One Wants to See

As the German satire magazine Titanic reminded its readers at the start of this year, 2019 is also the 130th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower. Why do Europeans not mark the triumphant construction of what was then considered to be a miracle of modern engineering – a tribute to industry, science, and technology – with the same fanfare they accord the collapse of a 12-foot high concrete barrier a century later?

Presumably because the Tower’s construction was followed by two world wars and the rise of both Nazism and Communism, while the fall of the Wall signifies the triumph of liberal democracy. Or at least so the liberal democrats of today hope.

But those who appreciate the vagaries of historical memory should wonder whether, as time goes on, the greatest political lesson of 1989 will lie in the story of Berlin or of Beijing. Will 1989 be most remembered for a victory of democracy against dictatorship or for one of dictatorship against democracy? Or will the analysts of the future even see these terms as opposites?🔷

Share this article now:

[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 7 November 2019. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

Creative Commons License
(Cover: Flickr/National Guard/University of Minnesota Institute of Advanced Studies. - In November, 1989, East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)