Twenty Years Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Nicholas Dima l December 10, 2009

President Reagan speaks in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate – June 12, 1987


For several decades the Berlin Wall was the emblematic symbol of a world divided. On the one hand there was the communist camp with its imprisoned people and on the other the West with its own problems, but free and democratic. Hundreds of years ago, China had also built a wall but to keep the barbarian invaders out. The communists built the wall to keep in their own people. Indeed, if the Berlin Wall and the barbed wire that surrounded the entire communist world had not existed, a great many people would have fled their countries. In the heart of Europe the Berlin Wall kept communism in control, but it could not guarantee its survival. And the human toll caused by those regimes that relied on walls, barbed wire and force was enormous. Hundreds of people were killed during their attempts to escape to freedom; thousands were imprisoned; hundreds of thousands died behind the Iron Curtain. A few fortunate men survived the ordeal and managed to tell their stories. Among them is this author, who was caught at the Romanian-Yugoslav border in the 1950’s and who subsequently spent three and a half years in communist prisons and labor camps. However, questions remain. Why was the Berlin Wall built and why did it come down so suddenly almost three decades later? What lessons can we learn from the Wall now 20 years after its demise?

World War II was essentially caused by two fanatical ideologies – Nazism and Communism. The United States entered the war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, fought the Axis forces alongside the Western Allies, and won the war. Inadvertently, however, the war also helped the rise of the Soviet Union and its communist camp. Soon thereafter a cold war ensued between the two remaining superpowers; this war consumed an extraordinary number of human lives and a tremendous amount of material resources. Communism threatened the entire world with tyranny and nuclear destruction and only a strong American commitment to freedom and democracy saved the West.

For over four decades the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) confronted each other head-on in post-World War II Germany. Berlin became the capital of East Germany, but it was a city divided. Driven by ideology and controlled by Moscow, East Germany, misleadingly called the German Democratic Republic (DDR), could not offer its people either political freedom or economic prosperity. Hundreds of thousands of East Germans fled and left everything behind crossing into the West. East Germany risked losing its population and legitimacy and was faced with the specter of collapse. These reasons convinced Moscow and East Berlin that the only way to keep their people in was to imprison them at the point of a gun behind a highly guarded wall. As a result, the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and became a worldwide symbol of communist oppression.

While the Soviet Union was seeking global expansion, America resorted to containment. This policy worked in Western Europe for over four decades. However, Eastern Europe became a prison of nations that never accepted their fate. The Berlin Wall separated two vastly different worlds and became such a fixture that many people thought it would be there forever. Personally, I had a hard time convincing my student-officers at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that nothing lasts forever and that one day even the Berlin Wall would be obsolete. Indeed, economic, technological, ethno-demographic and socio-political forces conspired from within and from without to finally bring down the wall.

Facts and Figures

The Berlin Wall was a concrete barrier built to enclose the West Berlin enclave completely and to separate it from East Berlin. This wall ran 96 miles in length surrounding West Berlin. At the end of World War II, Berlin was divided among the Soviet zone and the three Western zones – American, British and French – which later unified as West Berlin. Shortly after the Cold War started, Berlin became one of the major Soviet-American flash points. Between June 1948 and May 1949, for example, the Soviets blockaded the city hoping to eventually bring it to its knees and ultimately under their control. Only America’s determination and the Berlin airlift it organized to provision the city saved it from Soviet domination. However, Berlin was the main portal for East Germans to flee their country. Before the Berlin Wall was constructed about 3.5 million East Germans escaped to the West and the majority of them escaped through West Berlin. The only way the communist authorities could keep people inside was to contain them within a wall. In addition to the infamous Berlin Wall, East Germany surrounded itself with a long and dreaded wall that extended through its entire border with West Germany.

The Berlin Wall included watch towers placed along large concrete walls, an inner forbidden and mined zone known as the “death strip,” anti-vehicle trenches, and other deadly defenses. Yet, against such odds, during its existence from 1961 to 1989 around 5,000 people attempted to escape over and under the Wall. Most of them were arrested, some managed to cross it, and between 100 and 200 were killed trying to escape to freedom. The Berlin Wall succeeded in making the German people prisoners in their own country, but it failed to imprison their spirit.

By the late 1980s, the Soviet bloc was economically and morally bankrupt and Moscow was confronted with a huge dilemma: Either attempt to again suppress the revolutionary movements that were sweeping Eastern Europe and risk the implosion of the system from within, or let communism go and adjust to a new era. International circumstances and dire internal conditions made the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991), opt for Glasnost (openness in government) and Perestroika (restructuring government), and a few years later, on December 31, 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.

In the end, Soviet communism was brought down by its own failures, by the masses who rejected their system of brutality and corruption, and by the American determination to oppose and defeat it. Many world leaders, from the West and the East, contributed to the USSR’s demise. No one can forget Poland’s Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa. Nobody could ignore the contribution of such dissidents as Vaclav Havel of the former Czechoslovakia. And no one can forget the paramount contributions of Pope John Paul II, himself from Poland, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. From a moral and political point of view, one great Western leader, the former American president, Ronald Reagan, stands out. It is difficult to imagine the defeat of Soviet communism without the crusading zeal and support of President Reagan.

Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall

The former conservative Republican President of the United States was a true believer of liberty and freedom and fully understood the communist system and disdained it unreservedly. Looking back, it appears that Reagan had set as a priority for his life to bring down the Soviet communist system. He demanded the dismantling of the Berlin Wall on several occasions prior to becoming president. Having visited Berlin in November 1978, he saw for himself the dreaded Berlin Wall and the ‘death strip’ on the communist side. He even visited East Berlin and convinced himself once more of the immorality and injustice of such a barrier to freedom. According to the American Spectator of December 2009, on that occasion he declared to his entourage: “We’ve got to find a way to knock this thing down.” Bringing down Soviet communism and the Berlin Wall truly became a crusade for the future president. Actually, author Paul Kengor dedicated many pages of his book, Crusader – Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, to Reagan’s tireless efforts to bring down the Wall. Reagan’s intent was clear, writes Kengor. He wanted “an end to totalitarianism and the liberation of the communist peoples.”

During the years of uncertainty before the collapse of communism, when Moscow still hoped to save the Soviet regime and keep Eastern Europe under its control, it was President Reagan who stood fast and vehemently condemned the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Standing within feet of the Wall by the Brandenburg Gate, while visiting West Berlin on June 12, 1987, Mr. Reagan declared with conviction: “There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace,” and then he addressed the Soviet leader personally: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The Soviet leader, however, did not rush to tear the Wall down, but he, the Soviet empire, and the entire world paid attention to President Reagan’s words. Gradually, with the domino-like collapse of the Soviet satellites and the increasing demonstrations for reform in East Germany, Moscow finally conceded and the fate of the dreaded Berlin Wall was sealed. The demolition of the Wall began to happen on November 9, 1989 just after weeks of civil unrest. Unable to control the people anymore and without Moscow’s support, the East German government announced that all its citizens could freely visit West Germany and West Berlin. Immediately, thousands of people crossed into the West and began to chip at the Wall and eventually to tear it down. Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, reunification took place and East Germany ceased to exist. Today only a few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall remain standing mostly as an art object and as a reminder of the very dark past.

Anniversary and Consequences

The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was celebrated in 2009 with special events and public rallies. The celebrations climaxed on the date of the anniversary, November 9th, with a grand party at the historic Brandenburg Gate. In 1989 the imposing gate that had been a symbol of separation for all those Cold War years became an emblem of union for a new nation in a new era. Among the participating leaders were the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, herself from the eastern part of the country, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and leaders of all 27 European Union countries. In her speech and as reported by the Associated Press, Chancellor Merkel declared: “Freedom is not self evident. Freedom must be fought for. Freedom must be defended time and again.” Indeed, freedom is both an end and a process that must be continuously nourished and defended. And what does the fall of the Berlin Wall mean 20 years later for the present and future generation of Europeans?

The tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet communism in Eastern Europe were days of euphoric joy and exuberant expectations. The passage of time, however, has tempered the enthusiasm and has brought about a degree of cynicism. Nevertheless, the balance sheet is positive. There is freedom now in most East European countries; freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of religion. There is also democracy, but a peculiar kind of democracy. Unfortunately, many of the former communists have robbed the wealth of their countries and used their new found freedom and democracy for the advancement of their own interests. The oligarchs of Russia are a good example. While a certain segment of the population enjoys the fruits of freedom, a larger segment of the population has been marginalized and continues to be stuck in poverty. Equal opportunity, the rule of law and free market principles elude them. In this regard, a disappointed Muscovite woman who has been through this entire change made a saddening statement: “The children of our former masters are now the masters of our children.” The East European societies are now more polarized than ever with another small but different elite in control of various state capitalist systems. These nouveau rich made up overwhelmingly of the former Communist Party nomenklatura and secret police officers are now multimillionaires and a few are even billionaires in control of vast natural resources. At the same time, their countries are indebted scores of billions of dollars, some of them owing more than their national GDPs.

Geopolitically, the paradigm shift has been dramatic, but some old interests have remained. Russia, for example, has renounced her old global aspirations, but is stubbornly clinging to new regional ambitions. Thus, Moscow aggressively seeks to carve out its sphere of influence in areas of the former Soviet Union such as the Caucasus, Ukraine, and in other regions as well. On the other hand, many former Soviet satellites have sought security under the NATO umbrella and within the European Union, which in turn has sought enlargement from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic and Black Seas. But these newly integrated countries look again more like satellites than equal partners. In addition, they are losing their sovereignty to a far away ideological bureaucracy in Brussels. Many new and old EU members are complaining about this situation. Recently, for example, the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus a Eurosceptic, only reluctantly endorsed the Lisbon Treaty stating: “I cannot agree with its contents because once the Lisbon Treaty will come into effect, the Czech Republic will cease to be a sovereign state.” The Lisbon Treaty amended the previous EU founding treaties, the two Treaties of Rome (1957) and the Maastricht Treaty (1993), to complete the economic and political integration of Europe.

On the other hand, it appears that while Moscow renounced communism, the European Union has embraced socialism. In fact, the very man who reigned over the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev, described the EU as “the new European Soviet.” And the renowned Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky took the idea one step further and observed that “the EU is the old Soviet model, presented in Western guise.” In what direction is the European Union now marching? Unfortunately, America itself seems to be drifting these days and instead of being an active player in European affairs it seems to be more and more a spectator. The Berlin Wall and the old Iron Curtain are gone, but democracy, freedom, and prosperity must indeed be nurtured and “defended time and again.”

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.