Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For almost thirty years it blighted the landscape of Berlin, serving as a stark reminder to millions of East Germans in particular, and hundreds of millions throughout the Communist world in a more general sense, that their lives and destinies were not their own: that ultimately their governments were in charge of their lives. Its fall represented a substantial triumph for the cause of freedom and self-determination peoples, something to be celebrated and commemorated for a long time to come.

The story of the fall of the wall should also remind us just how fragile is any form of power that it based solely or primarily on the exercise of force. At the most fundamental level, the reason that East Germans could not cross into the West was because they would be shot if they attempted to do so – over one hundred people were killed in this way over the years of the wall’s existence.

But on that evening of the 9th of November 1989, Gunter Schabowski’s bungled announcement of a new policy to allow East Germans to visit the West – but only after obtaining a proper exit visa – led to crowds of thousands gathering at border crossings throughout Berlin, demanding to be let through. The border guards were unsure what to do, not having been given any clear instructions on the matter.

At that crucial moment, the power of the state was put to the test. Had the resolve of the Communist leadership held, had they issued unambigious orders to refuse passage to anyone without the proper visa, and for the guards to fire upon any who tried to cross otherwise, the wall would have stood. But their bluff was called, the underlying weakness of the power structure revealed. No one in the leadership was willing to take responsibility for issuing such orders. They lost their nerve. And so eventually the guards bowed to the pressure of the crowds, and opened the border crossings.

Less than one year later, East and West Germany were reunited, the wall was almost completely demolished, and communist rule which had lasted for forty-five years came to an abrupt end – not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Why did the Berlin Wall fall? There were many political, social, and economic factors at work at the time which led events to take the course they did. Nothing happens in a vacuum. But, at least in the most direct and straightforward sense, the wall fell because thousands of ordinary people demanded it, and no one in a position of power was willing to do go to the lengths necessary to oppose them. Is this, perhaps, a lesson that may still be of relevance in fighting against injustices and abusive power in the present? Situations are complex and variable, but nonetheless I still think this is a case worthy of remembering.

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