Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Fall of the Wall

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

November 17, 2014


The Berlin Wall fell twenty-five years ago this month. In November 1989, I was the chief of the East German branch at the CIA and was privileged to be in Berlin when the wall came down. Like thousands of others, I took a hammer and pounded on the wall much of the night. I still use a piece of the wall as a paper weight today.

Celebrations of this anniversary were capped last week with huge crowds swirling through the city, singing, drinking, and dancing. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—treated as a hero in Germany and a traitor in Russia--attended the ceremonies. 

The wall was built in 1961 to keep East Germans from fleeing to the west. Upon completion, it was ninety-seven miles long, with twenty-seven miles of the wall constructed in the city itself, and seventy miles of the wall zigzagging through the surrounding countryside. Its existence was more than a symbol of the depths of the Cold War; it was the dividing line between two starkly contrasting political, economic, and social systems. Its collapse in 1989 was the single most visible and poignant manifestation of the end of the Communist experiment in Europe and ultimately the Soviet Union.

Communism’s demise was already under way when the wall fell. Soviet and East European Communist leaders were scrambling to figure out what to do, and everyone expected a widespread military crackdown, but that did not come to pass. East German leader Erich Honecker advocated force, but Gorbachev ordered Honecker to back off and allow history to take its course. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the end of communism in Eastern Europe was that it was accomplished with remarkably little violence—Romania and Yugoslavia are the only two countries that experienced major conflict. Although the Soviet Union itself would survive another two years, by 1989 it was obvious that there too communism would fail. 

But the wall—and its fall—must also be understood as part of the difficult history of Berlin and Germany and the impact that history has had on the rest of Europe and the world. Berlin is a city of cycles and contrasts. It became Germany’s capital in 1871 when most of the German-speaking principalities were united under Prussian dominance in establishment of a modern German empire. At that time, Berlin was a staid conservative city defined by class distinction and iron rule. After the German defeat in World War I and throughout the 1920s and 30s, Berlin became a wide-open city dominated by cabarets, avant-garde artists, wild parties, social and sexual  experimentation, and unruly politics characterized by conflict among democratic, Marxist, and Fascist parties. 

With the ascent of the Nazis, Berlin cycled back to being a more conservative city, dominated again by the iron fist. After the German defeat in World War II, Berlin once again began moving toward that open city of the 1920s and 30s. But that was short-lived, especially in the eastern part where rule by the Soviets and the German Communist  government—particularly the Stasi, the East German secret police—ensured that life was destitute and miserable. West Berlin thrived while East Berlin suffered, and although the western part of the city was much freer, it never really attained the openness and freedom it experienced before the war.

The fall of the wall ushered in a new era of openness reminiscent of the 1920s and 30s. The difference, of course, was that Germany had been a stable democracy since 1949 with no pretentions to militarism. Today, Berlin is the second most populous city in the EU and is a mecca for large numbers of young people, mostly foreigners, who are attracted by the city’s openness, propensity for experimentation, and excess. Some observers argue that Berlin is the “most un-German” city in the country.

Despite the amount of time that has passed since the wall has fallen, its scar lingers as a dividing line for Berlin as well as Germany, with a huge chasm between east and west. Although a united Germany is the economic engine of the EU, Berlin is the country’s poorest large city—mostly because of the economic drag of the east. The former East Berlin and East Germany lag behind the west economically with higher levels of unemployment and welfare, more poverty, poorer housing, and lower life expectancy. But perhaps the most important manifestation of the past is the psychological gulf between the two parts of the city and country—the sense of second class citizenship and the weight of discrimination felt in the east.

The collapse of the wall signaled not only the end of something, but the beginning of a new global reality that has evolved with as much dislocation and violence as it has with promise.  Leaders in the United States and much of the West were giddy with victory. They saw great promise for democracy, freedom, free enterprise and social justice—all under American leadership. But it has not turned out the way hoped or thought. The United States has lost considerable influence and power in the world and the democracy project has, at best, stalled. We are facing the challenges of globalization, terrorism, political and military realignment, environmental issues, and disease unimagined just twenty-five years ago. All of this needs to remind us that this is not our world. When we assume that we are owners rather than stewards, our best laid plans can fold before our eyes. 


- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”