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East German students sit atop the Berlin Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in front of border guards ;

Thirty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall: A Retrospective

Dr Geraint Hughes

Reader in Diplomatic and Military History

08 November 2019

On 9 November 1989 the so-called ‘anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’ separating East from West Berlin was demolished by crowds from both sides of the city, while border guards from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) stood passively by. For 28 years the Berlin Wall – like the frontier between the GDR and the Federal Republic of Germany – was a barrier blocking East Germans seeking to flee to the West.

Its destruction was one of a series of events during the revolutions that swept away Communism in Eastern and Central Europe in the latter half of 1989. The end results were the unification of Germany, the spread of democratisation in the region, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact military alliance and (in December 1991) the Soviet Union itself, and the enlargement of both NATO and the EU.

Protestors crushed 

At the beginning of the 1980s few in the West expected that the Communist regimes behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ would be overthrown by mass protests and ‘people power’. The experiences of the East Berlin protests in 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the suppression of the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968, and the imposition of Martial Law in Poland in 1981 showed that any popular demonstrations against the ‘people’s democracies’ would be crushed – if necessary, by the Soviet armed forces. However, by 1989 the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had essentially cut the USSR’s client regimes loose as liabilities, and with the (unsuccessful) exception of Nicolae Ceaucescu in Romania none of the Warsaw Pact dictators ultimately had the will or the means to resort to force, as the Chinese Communists had used to crush the protestors at Tiananmen Square that June.


It is not surprising that the fall of the wall and the revolutions in Eastern Europe were greeted with joy and relief in the West. Fans of 1980s pop will be surprised to know that Nena’s 1983 hit ’99 Red Balloons’ reflected widespread fears that the Cold War would end in a nuclear holocaust. Thirty five years ago British TV viewers were shocked by the documentary-drama Threads, which portrayed a devastating nuclear attack on the UK, and the effects on Sheffield in particular. The end of Communism in Eastern Europe meant not only peace, but the triumph of democracy. As Francis Fukuyama put it in what would now be seen as a piece of hubris, it marked ‘the end of history’.

‘The greatest geopolitical catastrophe’

This is not to say that there were no contemporary concerns. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was worried about a reunified Germany, and the administration of US President George H. W. Bush was alarmed by the prospect of the USSR’s collapse. The American political scientist John Mearsheimer predicted that the end of Communism would lead to a revival of the ultra-nationalist ideologies that had plagued Central Europe in the 1930s, a forecast apparently confirmed by the violent collapse of Yugoslavia (1991-1999). More tellingly, it is evident that the majority of the post-Soviet elite in Russia saw the fall of the wall as a disaster, concluding that their country had been humiliated by the West in the process.

The current Russian President (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin is on record as describing the disintegration of the USSR as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th Century, and Russian propaganda claims (falsely) that the expansion of NATO Eastwards represents a broken promise on the part of the Bush administration.

Thirty years on...

It is easy to forget what Europe looked like before the tumultuous events in Berlin on the night of the 9th November 1989. There are enduring legacies of the continent’s divisions, most notably the continuing economic divide between the former GDR and the Western half of Germany, and also a sense of Ostalgia which looks back at the certainties of the past, and which overlooks the grim realities of the police state. Both Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland are displaying disturbing signs of political illiberalism, undergoing what critics describe as gradual but insidious attacks on the liberties won in 1989 – a free press, an independent and impartial judiciary, and free and fair elections. Moreover, there is a debate as to whether Europe faces what could be described as a ‘new Cold War’ between NATO and Russia, particularly after the invasion and annexation of the Crimea and the current war in Eastern Ukraine.  

Nonetheless, the political and social-economic transition of the past three decades remains a remarkable and positive achievement for millions of people behind the old ‘Iron Curtain’. And as someone who grew up during the 1980s wondering if he’d see either adulthood or the end of civilisation, I can assure readers that the way in which the Cold War ended could have been a lot worse.


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