It’s been twenty-five years since the Berlin Wall fell—more precisely, it’s been twenty-five years since Guenter Schabowski, spokesman for the GDR Central Committee, mistakenly announced during a press conference that East German citizens were free to travel to West Germany, prompting a mad rush to the wall that eventually brought it down forever.
Asked by an Italian journalist about a new law that relaxed travel restrictions, Schabowski said the law took immediate effect—a remark that goaded thousands of East Germans to flood the wall (die Mauer in German) hoping to gain access to the free and prosperous western portion of Berlin. After a three-hour standoff with the border guards, they were allowed to cross into the West.
The phrase “fall of the Berlin Wall” is often mistakenly employed as shorthand for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism; the event is also sometimes assumed to be the first major episode of liberalization in Eastern Europe. But the Communist system had been showing stress cracks for years, and the other major ruptures of 1989 don’t get enough (or any) recognition.
In April 1989, Wojciech Jaruzelski,* the Polish general who had crushed dissenting trade unionists by declaring martial law nearly eight years earlier, agreed to legalize the Solidarity movement. A few months later, election candidates from Solidarity took control of the new upper house of the Polish parliament.
In May 1989, the Hungarian regime decided to open its country’s border with Austria. (“Not only do we need the world, but the world needs us,” Andras Kovari, spokesman for Hungary’s Interior Ministry, said at the time.) This angered other Eastern bloc governments, who feared their citizens would use Hungary as a conduit to free and neutral Austrian territory. And this is exactly what they did. By the middle of the summer, hundreds of GDR citizens had decided to travel to Hungary for “vacations,” during which they fled across the border.
In the months before Schabowski’s press conference, all sorts of protests and demonstrations had already broken out in Germany, specifically in Leipzig, where citizens demanded reforms from Erich Honecker, the hardliner who had been leader of East Germany since 1971.
Thankfully, these trends continued, and now Communism is nothing but a grotesque relic of human history.
The fall of totalitarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe was surprisingly peaceful. Romania was the only country to see its Communist system abolished violently, when Nicolae Ceausescu, attempting to flee Bucharest from mass demonstrations and army defections, was captured and executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day 1989.
History is like a crazed terrier, always nipping at your ankles. We are still dealing with the decision to incorporate a newly reunified Germany into NATO. Vladimir Putin and his supporters see this as the beginning of a new phase of Western imperialism, one in which NATO steadily expanded eastward, not only to Hungary and other post-Communist states, but to the traditional Imperial Russian sphere of influence in Poland and the Baltics.
Their narrative is simplistic and inaccurate: there was never any “guarantee” to stop NATO expansion with German reunification, despite the endless incantations of Putinists, and the old Warsaw Pact countries that eventually joined the North Atlantic Alliance did so out of a genuine fear of Russia, not out of pressure by the West.
Notwithstanding, it is a narrative devoutly believed by Putin and many in the West and is therefore one that we must take seriously. Mikhail Gorbachev himself recently said that the West had “succumbed to triumphalism,” leading to the beginnings of a new Cold War.
As the West celebrated the victory of democracy and free markets, Russia evolved from a corrupt Communist oligarchy into a corrupt crony-capitalist oligarchy. Many Russians see the Boris Yeltsin years, an era marked solely by decay and debauchery, as a specifically Western phenomenon. They also see the European Union and its “meddling” in Ukraine as the inevitable result of German reunification.
I have a feeling that, though we may see another Cold War of some sort, we will never see another Berlin Wall. Gott sei Dank.
*Jaruzelski actually died in Warsaw earlier this year.